Part 2 – The Politics of Sexuality – Abortion

In response to the first part of this essay, a baby-boomer friend of mine responded “WTF?!” I imagine that it is entirely unusual to think of sexuality as political. Both he and I grew up in a time when our sexual practices and orientations, as well as the processes of “coming into being” (conception and birth) and “going out of being” (death and dying) were sheltered from public view. For those who were structured by that understanding, speaking of a politics of sexuality is indeed unusual. The changes that have happened in North American Society include this erosion of the boundaries between what is private and the public and has indeed captured widespread attention in America. Morality has become an object of study and has indeed come out of the dark wood of the private and is now subject to public opinion. That it is now being legislated shows how eroded the boundaries are.  

In part 1 of Mass Society and “Public” Sexuality, I expressed a distaste for ”big government” if that meant the reach of the rule of law and government in areas that the government is not suited for, and doesn’t belong. Some of these areas are best understood as personal, which means our private individual lives and the social engagements we voluntarily undertake. I also argued that Mass Society, which is an oligarchic power structure that uses instrumental reason to control citizens, has alienated individuals from themselves. We have difficulty undertaking voluntary social relationships, and we have allowed corporations into the deepest, most private areas of our lives. The divide between a citizen and her authentic identity is in fact much wider than the more obvious symptomatic split between “liberal” and “conservative”.  Sexuality, not so much a concept as it is a real structure of experience, offers us a remarkable wedge to understand this alienating chasm between our reality and our appearance. 

My hope is to clearly articulate real structures that restore the reader’s agency: both the power to make meaningful choices and to make ones that have actual, significant impacts on the world. Such an agency needs to be not only clearly articulated but to be intentionally clear to the agent herself. In other words, a person needs to know what she is doing, why she is doing it, and whom or what her action affects. Clarity may be attained, but the necessary complexity can’t be ignored. Moral truth can be clearly articulated and acted upon, but it isn’t simple.  

The politics of sexuality concerns public disagreements about legal rights that, however moral, are newly proclaimed, obscure in origin, extremely controversial, and productive of conflicts that probably are not politically resolvable; the most obvious example is the apparently intractable conflict over abortion.

Not so long ago abortion was illegal in the United States. It was illegal, one must suppose, because of an innate aversion to a woman’s destruction of her own child. And then the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade (1973) that abortion, within certain limits, was legal. The ruling is based on the right to privacy under the 14th Amendment and, more remarkably and controversially, on the proposition that a human fetus is not legally a person and therefore is not eligible for the protections guaranteed by that amendment. This distinction between a fetus and a person is, to common sense, arbitrary and therefore inevitably a source of trouble. Fetus, to begin with, is a technical term that once was rarely used by pregnant women, who had conventionally and naturally referred to the creature forming in their wombs as a baby, which is to say a human being, a person. The abortion debate involves disagreements about issues such as when a fetus becomes a human or a person, when life begins, when or whether abortion should be legal, and whether we should call it “killing” or “termination.” Some enlightened people hold in derision the idea that life begins at conception. But if life does not begin at conception, then we are at the beginning of a kind of sophistry: an argument about when life may be said to begin.

The right to have an abortion has been popularly justified as a woman’s right to control her own body. Such a right seems to be implied by several other rights, but only recently has it been stated in this way. So stated, it is somewhat confusing, for many of our laws, legal and moral, require one to control one’s body—to restrain it, for instance, from killing the body of another person, except of course when ordered to do so by the government. To say when and why a requirement may become a right, and when and why the requirement or the right should be suspended or opposed, needs a lot of spelling out—if such a spelling out is possible.

The facts remain, on one side, that abortions are still forbidden by some religious traditions and the ingrained aversion is still felt by many people. On the other side, the legalization of abortion answers a need desperately felt for real and pressing reasons by many women, and legal abortion should at least put an end to illegal abortions badly performed in bad circumstances by incompetent and disreputable people.

Also involved are questions of ultimate seriousness and importance: mysterious questions of life and death that have remained unanswered, that is to say, they have remained as questions, that have housed and occupied our existence as persons. The trains of causation of life and death run quickly out of sight. In making any choice, we choose for the future, and so all our choices involve individuals in both mystery and in a kind of tragedy. To choose to have a baby, to abort a fetus, to save a life, to destroy a life is to make a complete change based on a particular perspective and partial knowledge. One chooses in light of what one knows now about the past and thus changes the future inevitably and forever. What would have been, had the choice been different, will never be known. One may suggest that life either begins at birth or at conception, but neither option treats life very seriously. A more accurate yet more mysterious option might be “life continues through conception”. 

To reduce this complexity and mystery to a public contest between two absolutes (pro-choice and pro-life) seems to not only wrong everything involved, but to do so profanely. Some equivocation seems natural and appropriate because one is attending to two possibilities, both unknown. Saints, heroes, and great artists began as fetuses. So did tyrants, torturers, and mass murderers. Choices do not invariably cut cleanly between good and evil. Sometimes we poor humans must choose between two competing goods, sometimes between two evils. Responsibility or circumstances will require us to choose. But we cannot choose to be unbewildered or not grieve.

The theologian William E. Hull, worrying over the destructive animosities that divide religious organizations, asked, “How can we avoid the wrangling that breeds hostility?” And he answered: “By seeking clarity rather than victory” (Beyond the Barriers). This sounds exactly right to me, and I find little clarity in the reified public arguments about abortion. Both sides are made up of individual humans whose thoughts, intuitions, and feelings may differ in significant ways from the public positions of their sides. But the problem with those positions as they are generalized and vented into the political atmosphere is that they substitute simplicity and caricature for clarity and understanding. By separating the statistical facts of abortion from the lived experience—from the mystery, bewilderment, and suffering that attend it—the simplicity becomes obscure and heartless. And this is a key sign of a political decision and not one with requisite moral seriousness, that the decision has ceased to be held together by persons, and is instead held together by abstract ideas and reified facts. To the pro-choice side, abortion is simply a right, the creature to be aborted is a fetus, and the act itself is the termination of a pregnancy by a forthright medical procedure. To the pro-life side, abortion is simply a wrong to be refused or opposed in obedience to a moral or religious law that ought to be the law of the land. Both sides have failed to get at either the truth of human suffering or the possibility of human compassion.

Clarity comes from imagining a woman to whom an abortion is one of two heartbreaking alternatives. Whichever one she chooses, she must choose alone. However she chooses, she will remain emotionally divided perhaps for the rest of her life. This woman, troubling as she is to the political atmosphere of opposed absolutes, cannot be admitted by either side into the public argument. But her example is starkly clarifying. Her absence from the argument stupefies both sides.

As a matter of legal dispute, I do not know the answer to abortion. Yet I, with perhaps a good many others, am somewhere in the middle, where if abortion must be legislated, will survive as an issue without public reconciliation. We must acknowledge that within the experience and history of abortion there must be many shades and mixtures of right and wrong. As in the human condition generally, we are not dealing with a choice between a shadowless light and utter darkness.

While I am reticent to publicly opine on abortion, I admit opposition to abortion except when it is necessary to save the mother’s life. I stick to that, for I still feel strongly the old Christian aversion to not taking life. Unlike the pro-choice side, I think that abortion is killing. What else could it be? And I think that the creature killed is a human being, for it can be a being of no other kind, and it is not a nonbeing. But I feel an equally strong aversion to our death-seeking economy and way of life which continually increases our need to cherish life in all its forms. I oppose the official killings that bear the names of justice and defense and also the killing that is a cost or by-product of certain industrial enterprises. Cruelty is a part of life, and the only moral response is compassion.

While I am opposed to abortion, I can imagine circumstances in which I would willingly aid and comfort a girl or a woman getting an abortion. And here I arrive at what is for me the moral difficulty, even the moral obscurity, of this problem: though I can say that, in some circumstances, I would willingly help somebody get an abortion, I cannot say that I would willingly aid in a murder.

Whatever one may think of a woman’s right to control her own body, the inexpressibly intimate involvement of her own body in a woman’s decision to have an abortion is a real and urgent consideration, and for a man, it is a special one. That it does not involve, and could never have involved, my body does not invalidate my belief that abortion is wrong, but it does require me to be carefully aware of the bodily difference. Whereas a person’s demonstrated willingness to kill another person already born requires us to look upon that killer as a public menace, a woman’s decision to kill the baby in her womb does not require us to look upon her as a menace to anybody else. In fact, we don’t look upon her in that way.

There are four possible legislative solutions to the abortion controversy:

1. Abortion could be forbidden absolutely, with no exceptions.

2. It could be forbidden, with specified exceptions.

3. It could be permitted, with specified exceptions.

4. We could permit it without exception, which to me means that we would have no law related specifically to abortion.

The first of these would outrage the pro-choice side, i.e., it would settle the controversy merely by ignoring it, it is immitigably harsh, and it makes little sense. Absolute forbidding would choose the life of the unborn child over any and all other considerations, including that of the life of the mother. The government thus would abandon any obligation to protect the mother’s life to protect the life of the child. If, for want of an abortion, mother and child both should die then the state would accomplish no good at all except for the pacification of fanatics. And as I have intimated above, this would politically intervene in an area not suited to governance and destroy human agency at its root, which is a kind of totalitarianism we ought rightly to fear.

Any law forbidding abortion would be ineffective, and it could easily do harm. To forbid an established practice for which the demand is widespread and the supply dispersed and readily available would be virtually to license an illicit and lucrative economy that would reward the greed and enterprise of the worst people. Such a situation undermines government authority and brings law enforcement into disrespect.

The two middle solutions, as opposed to an outright ban, would require niggling official regulation of the conduct of individual persons, conduct at least semiprivate. This would require an increase in police power that would be expensive and also a danger to everybody’s freedom. We could, for example, make a law forbidding abortion except to save the mother’s life, but what would we mean by “the mother’s life”? Would it be denoted only by her vital signs or, more reasonably, by her ability to live and thrive in the world—in which case the definition of her life would include her economic life, the life of her family (if she has one), even the life of her community (if she has one)? For another example, we could make a law permitting abortion except during the third trimester. But this would require a lot of official watching. And who is to say exactly when the third trimester begins? Such legislating can only strand everybody, including the government, in permanently painful and dangerous confusion.

The problem in forbidding or permitting with exceptions is that the exceptions apparently cannot be decided upon by precise determinants, but rather by “approximate” or “appropriate” judgments by experts. The language of Roe v. Wade, as the ruling implicitly acknowledges, is vague and uneasy. What exactly is meant, concerning abortion, by life, conception, viability, privacy, and person? Roe v. Wade does not, to my mind, settle the meaning of any of those words. The legal definition of a person evaporated when the Supreme Court defined a corporation as a person. If a corporation is a person, contrary to all previous usage and to common sense, then personhood can be conferred upon virtually anything merely by decree. Issues are thus quickly carried not just into vagueness but beyond the bounds of language. The totalitarian elements in this should be obvious.

I am going to take the risk, therefore, of saying that there should be no law either for or against abortion. Like certain other wrongs—various addictions, let us say—this one is more personal than public and would be best dealt with by the persons immediately involved.

This is my attempt to make a statement on abortion that is reasonably complete—and that, in the end, might be necessarily incomplete. I should add that I may find further reasons that will require me to revise. To have a mind, I think, depends upon one’s willingness to change it. And to think properly, one must be able to think from someone else’s perspective.

To be continued…

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