Abortion and Such Yet Again
(January 2016, re-posted 5 September 2021)
Once or twice a year I write on the abortion controversy, usually in a small-city newspaper or a blog post. Sometimes, I'm just pedantically correcting the question, "When does life begin?" That formulation is forgivable since common, but pretty useless: one thing the Bible and biology since the late 19th century agree on is that life doesn't begin, but began and has been transmitted ever since. So eggs and sperm are alive, as are zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. "There is always a death in an abortion" — and death with each menstruation and miscarriage and millions of deaths (over 100 million in humans) with each ejaculation. The relevant and crucial question is "What dies?" and following from that, "Is that what to be a human person under the law?"
My most serious agenda (which I'll follow here in a short form) is to demonstrate that the set of issues surrounding abortion is unresolvable in any philosophically respectable way and recommend a messy, intellectually incoherent, vulgarly pragmatic political compromise. E.g., we may be able to get what looked like might follow from Roe v. Wade. Building upon the feeling of many ordinary Americans that early abortions are okay while late ones are not, and that contraception is a good idea, what we could get are strict restrictions on late-term abortions while contraceptive use by women — and fertile girls and men and boys — is encouraged, along with "Plan B's" of various sorts, plus readily available, safe and legal early abortion as needed, with the goal of making the need for any abortions increasingly rare.
Meanwhile we'll engage in cycles of unresolvable arguments stemming from radically different premises and competing but complexly-related histories. On the one side, are the history of patriarchal oppression and the control of women's bodies, and the resistance to patriarchy and control. On the other side, this:
If "People are the riches of a nation" and a large and growing population the source of a nation's strength and prosperity, then policies of "pronatalism" (also just called "natalism") are essential,and society and State must act aggressively to encourage live births, with the kids raised to where they can be militarily and economically useful, and ready to produce another generation. One obvious wayto this goal: harness sex to reproduction by striving to prevent all sex outside of the reproductive and reproductive in a stable social unit (long-term families) in which the kids can get raised. Under this approach, the sexual "abominations in Leviticus" etc. make sense as do secular-based prohibitions on contraception.
(Whether pronatalism is a good idea in a world of over 7 billion people facing another and particularly serious period of climate change and resource depletion — that's something we need to discuss.)
If the goal (finis, telos) of sex is reproduction, it is unnatural to engage in sex that is nonreproductive. If Nature is part of God's plan, such unnaturalness is sinful. If the State should get involved in prohibiting unnatural acts and/or various kinds of sin, then laws against contraception make sense (and condoms when and where I was a kid were quite properly legally "SOLD FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE ONLY").
If a human being is essentially a soul, and if that soul is of infinite value; if that soul enters a zygote at the moment of conception, then anything that destroys a zygote or embryo or fetus is a variety of murder. Worse — maybe infinitely worse — if/since the victims are unbaptized they will join the other unbaptized infants and miscarriages in damnation: perhaps in a Limbo, if that theology comes back into fashion, or in "the easiest room in hell," as in Michael Wigglesworth's teaching-poem, "The Day of Doom" (the Year of the Lord 1662 [the date for the poem, not the Apocalypse]).
Given the US First Amendment and at least a fair amount of de facto separation of Church and State, we're not going to have much honest debate on the theology of contraception and abortion and the politics that debate implies. Nor are we going to have an open and vigorous debate on population policy and its implications for and involvement in climate change, resource allocation, immigration, who pays for old people, and tax breaks for families. (Some Americans who are all for population control in theory still want tax deductions for their children, even third and fourth and fifth kids.)
There has been some social progress on these issues, certainly with gay rights and, maybe more relevantly here, condoms: which are now advertised, required in LA-produced up-scale professional pornography, and apparently encouraged in some areas of amateur porn upload sites — uh, or so I have heard. On the other hand, there is the logic of abortion = murder, hence large-scale abortion = mass murder, hence … well, hence bombing an abortion clinic or shooting abortion providers can be admitted as an act of terrorism but then defended as a "lesser evil." On the other side, if one just rejects the whole idea of souls and ensoulment and follows a rigorous materialism, then it becomes fairly easy to justify even a late-term abortion but more difficult to condemn killing older human organisms, especially before or after they can talk rationally or after you've been forced to admit that there may be little justification in nature to put so much value on speech or reason or consciousness that "mind" become a kind of stand-in for "soul."
I hope Americans will say on the abortion debate and other sex issues, "Screw ideology and intellectual rigor folks! Let's cut a political deal on abortion and sex stuff and move on." As much as Americans are generally anti-intellectual, though, I expect the opposing logics of the abortion debate to continue robust and dangerous — and we'll be cycling back to the topic for the rest of my life.
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