Five Thoughts On Abortion: 4. The Culture of Death

One of the things that understandably infuriates people about pro-life campaigners is their tactics of publicly displaying terrifying and gruesome posters of aborted corpses/material. A brilliant young Catholic moral theologian, Beth Haile, wrote against this practice just this week. She said:

Respecting the life and dignity of the pre-born should not be opposed to respecting the life and dignity of the women who carry the pre-born.

At no point this week am I planning to defend the kind of pro-life position which spreads spurious World Weekly News style fantasy about Lebanese men using babies to get new testicles, shock images or violence towards medical professionals who administer abortion. All you have from me are the pro-life thoughts of a man who simply wants to deconstruct some of the nonsense that gets thrown at people who hold the position quietly, humbly and gently.

One of the things that pro-choice folk seem to suspect is that Christian pro-lifers are dreadful exagerrators. This view is well represented by the Irish Times columnist and all round wrinkly national treasure, Vincent Browne. In a recent editorial he was refreshingly breezy in his assertion that the position I hold is ludicrous. The piece is entitled “Equal right to life of the unborn is a nonsense“. It is full of the stuff we have come to expect from newspaper editorials, which are after all, just blog posts you get paid for!

The reason Browne is refreshing is because if all we are talking about is a clump of cells then it is indeed a ridiculous position that I hold. It is rare people are so straightforward. They usually just package that message implicitly in less confrontational language. Even my dear friend Geoff Lillis has gotten in on that act, referring to the “pre-born”, to use Beth Haile’s diplomatic phrase, as a “clump of cells”.

In the Western world, what faster insight is there into a person’s grounding philosophy than what they call the entity in a womb?

Of course, in normal pregnancy, our idiomatic speech is firmly on the side of “baby”. When my sisters were pregnant, no one ever said, “When is the foetus due?” because by the time it is born, it is a baby, not a foetus. But hidden in that simple exchange is an interesting shared belief – that the normal course of pregnancy is personhood. As Peter Singer has clearly demonstrated, if personhood isn’t extended at the point of conception, then it is hard to justify granting personhood at birth. After all, the newborn remains utterly dependent for a long while after. Through infancy, into early childhood, the thing we insist on naming isn’t able to fend for itself for years.

This is all viscerally real for me because less than two months ago my wife had a miscarriage. What passed out, unfinished, was certainly a clump of cells. My child was the size of a poppy when they died. I suspect I will always remember how two days after, while trying to distract myself with a stupid movie with Steve Carrell in it, the thin veneer of rational processing that I was trying to sustain was painfully punctured by a realisation that arose out of me and utterly gripped me: life is precious. This sounds utterly trite, but it is a fact that gets lost in all the angry fighting. I am a clump of cells, so utterly unlikely as to be worthy of being marveled at by every single intelligence that comprehends me. The generation of the life within my wife’s womb was the tangible expression of the love we have nurtured between each other for almost fifteen years.

It was a clump of cells. It was pre-born. It was utterly dependent. It was a parasite. These are all defensible ways of describing that phenomenon. We don’t need to turn the conversation into a competition, but how I view that life is rich and worthy of respect. It rests on a metaphysical commitment – but that commitment is misplaced if you think that it is generally “religious” or that it is “dogma” or even if you think it is “a belief in personhood at conception”. All those things play their part but undergirding my pro-life position is the claim, to quote Wendell Berry (you know I am feeling generous when I quote the old Kentucky poser), that “life is a miracle”.

When the Pope talks about a culture of death, he is taking up a major emphasis of his predecessor (I mean his chronological predecessor because ecclesially, every Pope succeeds Peter, dontchyaknow). This phrase might seem like a ridiculous, stake-raising exaggeration but not if you try to think like a Pope does. Now I have never hung out with a Pope so this is my imaginative projection but as I understand it, back when JPII was Karol, he went off to work one day and did the manual labour of a Pole in a Poland occupied by the NAZIs. He came home and his family were murdered. He was forged as a priest by the experience of doubt, grief and trauma that followed. He came of age as a philosopher as the world tried to make sense of the Shoah. He served as a bishop by opposing the Soviet Union. He became Pope in the ascendancy of the US and he passed away at the start of the War on Terror. He lived through three Empires, each brutal and dehumanising, careless with human life and brilliant at distracting their loyal subjects from the truth.

When he started speaking of a culture of death, he may not have been cynically trying to scare the pensioners of Roscommon into voting against Labour. Rather, he was identifying and diagnosing a trend in Western culture that satisfies itself with material advance at great human and environmental cost. If there is a part of you that is partially convinced by the line of thinking I am proposing and then you find yourself wanting to smash that empathy down because you recall how he responded to sex abuse by clergy, then you have the same response as me. But all I can say is that men are flawed and their failures tend to be in proportion to their potential to fail. A Pope’s failings will have far more negative ramifications than mine will have. That isn’t to excuse the last Pope, but equally his failings don’t obscure the fact that he might have a point.

As we scan our eyes across the world, leaving aside the question of abortion, we live in cultures that increasingly legislate for euthanasia, which is a legal normalising of self-death. We live in a wider culture that is sustained by slave labour. We live in local cultures marred by the sexual commodification of human beings down certain side streets in every sizable town or city and we live in a global culture where airborne robots are killing anonymous people on the other side of the planet. They are ordered into their remote flight by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, even as we laud him in his second inauguration.

Again, my refrain: you can disagree with the Catholic church about its “culture of death” language, but don’t pretend it makes no sense.

And we can’t leave the question of abortion aside. My friend Declan reminded me yesterday that the primary Biblical text in support of a pro-life position might well be the word Moses carried down from Sinai: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Whenever I hear a pro-choice proponent argue that pro-life folk have nothing to get worried about because no one is going to make them have an abortion, I want to bang my head against a desk, or some more productive version of that like going for a long walk along the coast in Valetta with a contour bottle of whiskey in one hand, stuffing a clawfull of tiramasu into my mouth with the other. Anything to help me escape the stupidity.

Please never say, “Why should you oppose abortion? No one is going to make you get one! It’s a private decision!” When you express this kind of opinion, it is grounded on a human anthropology of autonomy, expressing itself as politics. You are conceiving of the human being as a radically individual proposition, a true “I”, standing alone. (No wonder this worldview has such difficulties with pregnancy, but that is another conversation entirely…)

This conception might be defensible, but it is not self-evident. It is patently a historical construction, viable in this time and in this place in a way that is inconceivable elsewhere. It is not the product of cold, hard reason working itself out to inevitable conclusions. It is a view of the human that utterly disintegrates the possibility of the polis. It is identity politics taking the place of ethical conversation. It is the actualisation of Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society, just individuals.

I personally think it is harmful bunk. If you hold that view, you have to be able to defend it.

But more basically again, if you hold that view, you have to resist the delusion that you have heard anyone who disagrees with you.

Because you either don’t understand what pro-life people mean when they say abortion means the wrongful death of a human being or you don’t believe them. So you are either ignorant of their position or dismissive of their character.

Regardless of which side you come down on, nothing ends the conversation and starts the war as rapidly as declaring that it is just a private opinion. It patently isn’t. If you thought that people we being wrongfully killed in your society and you did nothing, you would be morally bankrupt. It is incumbent on people who are pro-life to follow through on their convictions with actual public, political commitment. What that should look like, I’ll write more about tomorrow.

But until then, let’s agree to a truce on the ways of speaking that render the other person mute. Pro-life people are serious when they talk in their stark, dark terms about a culture of death. If you disagree, you can reason and love them into a different position. But such serious claims deserve to be taken seriously. So stop pretending it is jut a private decision.

Your Correspondent, Has to go now because someone is staring at him through binoculars.

One Reply to “Five Thoughts On Abortion: 4. The Culture of Death”

  1. Kevin, I’m so sorry about your miscarriage! I greatly appreciate this series of reflections. I’m a pro-life Democrat here in the States, which supposedly is rare. But I honestly have no idea what pro-life has to do with supporting capital gains tax cuts and opposing gun control. It’s so weird how the pro-life cause is conflated with Republican politics.

    Regardless, abortion is mostly just a check box for politicians—either for or against. And every politician “personally” opposes abortion, regardless how they vote on the matter. Most abortion opponents are happy to wait for the Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. What they seem to forget is that all that will mean is that states get to legislate the matter. So the states where most people live will continue to permit abortions. Nothing much will change.

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