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Liberalism and Abortion
Roe's demise kicks abortion rights to the halls of state legislatures. Voter attitudes about abortion are now vital. But it's hard to win over hearts and minds with half-truths
“Lukewarmenesse is loathsome to the stomacke, therefore appeare in your colours what you are, that you may be known either a Saint or Divell” — Thomas Hooker
I have never been and never will be pregnant, because I do not have a uterus. As a man, I am free to enjoy the pleasures of sex without worrying about life being conceived in my womb. I will never suffer the pains of gestation and childbirth. I will not feel little feet kicking me from within, I will not have to endure the trauma of miscarriage or be blamed for it by a partner who can’t endure mere grief, and I will not shoulder the burden of post-partum depression. Only women are charged with risking death to bring new life into our world, and only women are faced with the impossible question: Can I bear the burden of this birth?
And yet, as an abortion-defending small-l liberal1 living in a post-Roe America, I have a duty to defend the right of women to answer the question I will never have to ask. As I see it, a successful defense requires dispensing with the dishonestly euphemistic language of “pro-choice” advocacy. If we don’t start speaking bluntly about abortion, we don’t stand a chance.
Lamenting the decline of self-respect in our culture, Joan Didion wrote that people who have it “know the price of things” and exhibit “a willingness to accept responsibility” for the consequences of their actions. It’s long past time that participants in the abortion debate began acknowledging and accepting responsibility for the price of their positions. Neither defenders nor opponents of abortion have clean hands. Defenders have the blood of the unborn on their hands — opponents, the blood of mothers for whom birth was too much to bear. But these — defenders and opponents of abortion — are our proper titles. Damn the phrases “pro-choice” and “pro-life” straight to hell. No one with even the slightest amount of self-respect ought to use either phrase.
The same is true of the phrases “abortion is healthcare” and “abortion is murder.” An honest abortion provider cannot comfort herself with the words “clump of cells,” cannot think only of the most tragic cases to the exclusion of the countless irresponsible clients she serves, cannot help being haunted in her sleep by “fetus dreams.” An honest conservative cannot deny that, were his own daughter faced with early teenage, high-risk, or rape-induced pregnancy, he just might drive her reluctantly to the abortion clinic in his truck — now donning its pro-life bumper sticker a little less proudly than before — and drive away grateful for the service.
Neither of these honest people — having personally performed or condoned an abortion — can walk around with a perfectly guilt-free conscience. And yet neither of them is as tortured as, say, a certain Russian anti-hero who slaughtered two innocent women with an axe. Because abortion — while sometimes performed to save the life of the mother, and always involving the purposeful termination of a human life — is neither murder nor mere healthcare.
When a woman consents to an abortion, she is making the grave decision to bring the life of the unborn person growing inside her womb to a sudden, violent end. Lies and evasion are the only paths around this grim reality. If we cannot accept the reality, we should not defend the freedom. Those who can accept the reality should defend the freedom forthrightly. Only the truth has the power to move.
An honest anti-abortion argument might flow as follows: Human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a human being. All human beings are made in the image of God, Who imparts each with a soul. To take a human life — whether by murder or abortion — is an afront against the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth. On Judgment Day, it won’t matter much to Him whether you shed a tear for the unborn life you took, or whether you dismissed it as a clump of cells. Abortion may not be murder, but it’s still a grave sin for which your soul will pay the price — and you’ll pay that price no matter your motivations, because there are no circumstances under which God condones abortion. Any law condoning such a grave sin is an unjust law, and unjust laws aren’t laws but acts of violence. People of goodwill are therefore obliged to labor at overturning such laws.
The fallen version of this argument simply equates abortion with murder. For those who accept its religious priors, that equation is not an egregious distortion of reality — slight hyperbole, at most. And here’s where things get real for abortion-defending liberals living in a post-Roe world: Radical Christian intellectuals, like the authors of The Postliberal Order, smell rising discontent with the liberal status quo like blood in the water. The discontent is bubbling up from deep beneath the surface of our political and socioeconomic disfunction. It’s coming from the spirit level, and they know it, and they’re working ceaselessly to capitalize on it by sparking a resurgence of traditional religious faith. Every new person persuaded to fill spiritual void with Christian faith is another who accepts the religious priors that render even fallen anti-abortion arguments appealing.
The Postliberal Order, comprised of political philosophers at powerful institutions like Harvard (Adrian Vermeule) and Notre Dame (Patrick Deneen), has won the admiration of powerful New Right activists like Chris Rufo, who in turn has the ear of a growing legion of politicians — like Florida’s Ron Desantis — all across the United States. This movement may be a tiny minority for now, but they’ve been gaining momentum with victories in the fight against anti-racism in public schools, and now they’re feeling freshly emboldened by Roe’s looming demise — a demise accomplished in accordance with this now-haunting blueprint, published proudly by the Postliberal Order several months ago:
“The public’s seemingly fixed views are weakly held… susceptible to elite influence… quick to acquiesce to changes in law or political practice put into place by tiny minorities with access to the crucial levers of power.” Indeed, “committed minorities have often been able to set the terms of political life for large, relatively apathetic majorities, especially in a system like our own that offers many points of access for minority influence, such as the courts.”
They’re comfortable with such deeply undemocratic language because their sense of justice transcends earthly concerns. For them, a just society is one organized in accordance with a conception of the common good derived from Christian doctrine. They’re tired of watching modern liberal societies stray from that doctrine, and they’re resolved to reshape society in accordance with their faith. Barring a dramatic turn of events, they’ll be thrilled to see Roe v. Wade overturned as the first meaningful step in that direction. But that’s far from the only step they want to take, and they’re currently laying the intellectual/theological foundations for future rollbacks of marriage equality, free speech, free markets, and more.
If we liberals fail to meet them on their playing field — i.e., the spirit level, to which only unadulterated truth can appeal — then we don’t stand a chance. It’s time we begin the hard work of defending abortion not as healthcare, but as a necessary evil: an act of “merciful violence” that walks the “narrowest edge between kindness and cruelty,” often leaning further to one side than the other, but always within the boundaries of tolerable conduct set by a liberal society.
The abortion plotline from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” offers us a perfect foundation from which to build an honest defense of abortion. The main characters involved are Héloïse, an aristocrat of the late 18th century, Marianne, who’s been commissioned to paint Héloïse’s portrait, and Sophie, the estate’s young housemaid. The movie’s central plotline is the romance between Marianne and Héloïse, but as the romance intensifies, an abortion subplot emerges:
Sophie learns she’s pregnant after telling Marianne that she hasn’t had her period; Marianne coolly asks if she wants to have a baby; Sophie says no. End of discussion. There’s no backstory, and no mention of the father.
We know nothing of the circumstances under which Sophie became pregnant, nor of her inner motivations for seeking an abortion. All we know is that she wants one, and that despite abortion being both illegal and dangerous, she is determined to get one. Sophie’s is the case that defenders of abortion must contend with. Yes, there are the fringe cases involving rape, incest, and serious risk of death-by-childbirth that tend to simplify things. But not all cases are so extreme, and not all substantive motivations can be fact-checked:
Maybe she’d had terrible pregnancies and traumatic births and she couldn’t go through another one. Maybe she had suffered terribly from postpartum depression, and she’d just gotten past it. Maybe her husband was an angry or violent man; maybe he had a tendency to blame her when she got pregnant... And maybe—just maybe—she was a woman who knew her own mind and her own life, and who knew very well when something was too much for her to bear.
Ultimately, defenders of abortion must accept that, though we may want a woman to resort to abortion only when she deems it necessary, her sexual history and inner motivations are shrouded in darkness. Putting aside the question of whether she should have to justify her decision to anyone, the fact is that, even if she chose to try, we’d often have simply to trust the reasons she gave. Only she knows her mind and her life, and we’re left to take her at her word when she says that something is too much for her to bear. The implication here is that when we defend abortion, we’re defending Sophie, of whom we know only that she’s pregnant, and does not want to be.
After trying to induce abortion with a regimen of wind sprints, herbal potions, and hanging by her arms from the rafters, Sophie goes to see a midwife from the nearby village, who tells her that she’s still pregnant. Two days later, accompanied by Marianne and Héloïse, Sophie returns to the midwife to get an abortion:
This scene is almost perfect. The infant on the table makes a cheery baby-sound and rolls over so that its little foot rests upon Sophie’s womb right as the midwife prepares to end the slightly younger life inside. The infant plays with Sophie’s fingers as she grimaces, the procedure underway. Sophie gazes lovingly at him and begins to cry, only for him to seemingly wipe away her tears. The scene brings into sharp relief the chasm between love felt for newborn and that felt for unborn. Were the infant not present, Sophie may only have shed tears of pain. Instead, Sophie shed tears of grief rooted in a deeper maternal love — a love unlocked only when she came literally face to face with an infant that showed in vivid detail what her unborn child might have become.
It’s not that mothers-to-be feel no love for the baby growing in their womb — of course not. Writers better suited to the task than I have tried to articulate the complicated emotional relationship between pregnant mother and unborn child:
When you’re pregnant, you are desperate to make contact. You know he’s real because of the changes in your own body; eventually you start to feel his. The first kicks are startling and exciting, but even once they progress so far that you can see an actual foot glancing across your belly and then disappearing again, he’s still a mystery, still engaged in his private work, floating in the aquatic chamber within you, more in touch with the forces that brought him here than with life as it is lived on the other side.
That the unborn are shrouded in mystery, their entire being enveloped in the womb, still so delicately close to nonexistence — this is the fundamental basis for an honest defense of abortion. When the needs of a barely existing person come into conflict with those of a person whose existence is firmly established, the needs of the latter take precedence. By “barely existing person,” I mean an unborn person who has not yet crossed the threshold of viability — a person who, plucked from the womb, would inevitably cease to exist. A mother who decides she cannot bear to carry her as-yet-unviable fetus through to birth has an inalienable right to end the life of that fetus.
To explain why she has this right, allow to me first to elaborate on why the abortion scene from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is only almost perfect. The procedure is too smooth, too clean. We see nothing of the life that the midwife ended, and we see nothing of the toll that the procedure takes on she who performs it. A real midwife understands the scene’s shortcomings all too well, because she is haunted by the realities it glosses over:
I have fetus dreams, we all do here: dreams of abortions one after the other; of buckets of blood splashed on the walls; trees full of crawling fetuses. I dreamed that two men grabbed me and began to drag me away. "Let's do an abortion," they said with a sickening leer, and I began to scream, plunged into a vision of sucking, scraping pain, of being spread and torn by impartial instruments that do only what they are bidden. I woke from this dream barely able to breathe and thought of kitchen tables and coat hangers, knitting needles striped with blood, and women all alone clutching a pillow in their teeth to keep the screams from piercing the apartment-house walls. Abortion is the narrowest edge between kindness and cruelty. Done as well as it can be, it is still violence—merciful violence, like putting a suffering animal to death.
And yet, women who understand in intimate detail all the cruel realities of abortion have been performing and receiving them for centuries. Knowing they would be breaking the law, women have performed and solicited them. Knowing they would be ending the life of a nascent being they already felt an emotional attachment to, women have solicited them. Knowing even that their own life would be at risk, women have solicited them:
No matter what the law says, women will continue to get abortions. How do I know? Because in the relatively recent past, women would allow strangers to brutalize them, to poke knitting needles and wire hangers into their wombs, to thread catheters through their cervices and fill them with Lysol, or scalding-hot water, or lye. Women have been willing to risk death to get an abortion.
How is it possible that, over centuries, millions of women have voluntarily performed and received a painful and cruel procedure — overcoming an incomplete but very real form of maternal love, as well as the fear of death, to do so? It is possible because women have had very good reasons for doing so, and because those reasons have triumphed in their hearts and minds over the myriad reasons not to do so. Countless pregnant women, midwives, doctors, nurses, husbands, boyfriends, and parents have, after weighing reasons for and against consenting to or condoning an abortion, given the nod to the reasons for.
These women and men have been of sound mind and decent heart. Few, if any, of them would have entertained for a second — under any circumstances — the thought that it might be okay to take the life of the infant that bore witness to Sophie’s abortion. That’s because the moment a child is born, everything changes. There’s nothing arbitrary about the distinction between unborn and born. Every person of sound mind and decent heart recognizes the distinction, willingly or not. Even the most adamant opponents of abortion cannot possibly see in the abortionist the same degree of moral rot that they see in the murderer. Shout “abortion is murder” from the rooftops until you lose your voice, if you please — performing an abortion is a far cry from murdering a newborn baby. Everyone understands the difference, and the difference is everything.
People who consent to or carry out abortions are not menaces to society. They’ve made heart-wrenching decisions — inherently violent, unthinkable to some — but no one fears for their safety when in the vicinity of a person who’s had or performed an abortion. This is because of the chasm between love felt for newborn and that felt for unborn. A newborn’s being is no longer shrouded in mystery. We are confronted with the flesh and blood reality of another human person, and we are flooded with the full force of the emotional attachments we feel to our kind. A person capable of silencing those emotional attachments, of killing a newborn baby, is rightly considered deranged — a danger to society.
Before birth, those emotional attachments are felt primarily by the mother, and even then, are a far cry from what they become after birth. This difference, in the limits of love that can be felt for a person before and after birth, is the basis for our simultaneous tolerance of abortion and intolerance of murder. A liberal society can tolerate a mother’s decision to choose her life over that of her unborn child, because that choice can be made by a person of sound mind and decent heart. After birth, the nature of the choice changes — from abortion to murder — and so crosses the line separating the tolerable from the intolerable.
To ask whether an action should be considered a crime is to ask whether the actor is so morally blameworthy as to warrant sanction by the state. Plenty of acts are blameworthy and yet not so much so as to warrant state sanction. When deciding whether a given immoral action rises to the level of a crime, we must weigh its severity against that of being subject to the blunt force of the criminal law. Some actions render the blunt force of law appropriate, and some do not.
A useful test here is to consider whether you would personally be comfortable looking the actor in the eyes, slamming your gavel, sentencing them to a prison term, escorting them to their jail cell, and locking them inside. The question, then, is whether abortion — understood as a mother choosing to let someone take the life of an unborn child she cannot bear to birth — is an act for which you'd be comfortable forcing the parties responsible into a prison cell. Put differently, the question is whether Sophie belongs in prison, or whether she’s worthy of freedom.
Understanding the full weight of her actions, defenders of abortion assert that Sophie is worthy of freedom. In a post-Roe and increasingly post-liberal America, the fate of abortion — among other rights foundational to modern liberal society — rests upon our ability to persuade others of the same. Only those for whom Sophie’s worthiness is a fierce conviction — with roots reaching deep down to the spirit level — will have a fighting chance against the forces of illiberalism.
By liberal I mean someone who believes in the merits of a political system founded on natural rights, the rule of law, a vertical and horizontal separation of powers, and some version of representative democracy. I do not, however, mean liberal in the sense that a Fox News talking head might mean it, as in the sentence “make no mistake, these Goddamn liberals want to take away your guns so that you’re powerless when they indoctrinate your first-grader with CRT.”