Every philosopher knows, at last, that not all ethical systems are equally good. We demand that a general ethics conform, as philosophers put it, to both truth and logic—which is to say, we demand that it not contradict the facts we hold about the universe and that it not contradict itself. And to these difficult demands not all ethical systems respond equally well. Relativist claims such as It's wrong to say anything is wrong are simply incoherent; no grand talk of “embracing contradiction” or “containing multitudes” (a la Walt Whitman) is going to make a workable ethics out of them. The number of possible ethical systems is actually quite small.
For over twenty years in America, the legality of abortion has primarily been defended with an ethical system that most Americans now recognize as philosophically incoherent—a system based on taking the constitutionally acknowledged right to possess private property and translating it into rights of personal privacy and possession of the body. The system may originally have been forced upon abortion supporters by the Supreme Court's use of it in Roe v. Wade, but it has proved false in both the ways ethical systems prove false: as being both externally and internally inconsistent, as both contradicting what we know about human reproduction and contradicting itself.
And for these same twenty years, defenders of unborn children have battled abortion primarily by pointing out the inconsistencies of the ethical system on which abortion defenders rely: the notion of the body as a possession is meaningless; the fact that a fetus is a human life is medically demonstrable; the language of rights, extended to the taking of life, simply contradicts itself.
As the American public's faith in the “rights talk” of radical, Me-Generation individualism decreases, the pro-life movement has steadily advanced. Many Americans may still inhabit “the mushy middle,” as it was recently called by Norma McCorvey (the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade, who defected last year to a pro-life position). But that middle has substantially shifted toward the limiting of abortions, and some abortion proponents have begun to change their ground, seeking a new ethical system with which to defend unlimited abortion.
What's frightening, and what the pro-life movement must face, is that they may find what they're looking for. Though it is true that there are not many possible ethical systems, the history of philosophy reveals that there is more than one. And in the stern philosophies of the ancient world—a world that accepted slavery, infanticide, and gradations of human life—the pro-abortion movement may find the coherent general ethics it currently lacks.
Since the 1970s, abortion rhetoric has been dominated by euphemisms whose dishonesty and disingenuousness increase with each new medical technique for saving prematurely born children. By displaying sonograms, heart—beat monitors, and even the corpses of aborted children, pro-life activists have been able to employ the simple strategy of exposing the truth beneath “pro-choice” euphemisms. And though this relentless exposure is called pornography by pro-abortion activists and strikes many in “the mushy middle” as distasteful, it has had its intended effect of revealing the willfulness of such terms as “potential life,” “product of conception,” and even “fetus”—and it leaves abortion rhetoric sounding increasingly heartless in response to America's million and a half abortions a year. After she was reported as saying “abortion is a bad thing,” Kate Michelman, the director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, denied it utterly: “I would never, never, never, never, never mean to say such a thing.” In a high-water mark of moral and political inattention, the Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders declared, “We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus.” The refusal to admit any moral gravity to the act of abortion—a logical consequence of abortion taken as a right of privacy—has put pro-abortion activists outside the actual discussion of abortion in America.
Some liberal writers and analysts have begun at last to recognize this. The historian George McKenna claimed last fall in the Atlantic Monthly that a truly liberal position would agree that abortion is guaranteed by the Constitution, but nonetheless see it as a wrong that ought gradually to be eliminated—much as Lincoln before the Civil War acknowledged the constitutionality of slavery but sought through education, legal limitation, and moral suasion its eventual elimination. In an essay last October in the New Republic, the well-known feminist Naomi Wolf asserted that abortion activists, by sticking to the old rhetorical lines, condemn their followers to “three destructive consequences—two ethical, one strategic: hardness of heart, lying, and political failure.” Only a month earlier, Peter Singer (the radical British activist for animal rights) suggested in the London Spectator that we acknowledge “the fetus is a living human being.”
Such suggestions are not entirely new. In the late sixties and early seventies, several future neoconservatives argued that true liberalism requires the rejection of abortion: “The pro-abortion flag,” wrote the then-liberal Richard John Neuhaus in 1967, “is planted on the wrong side of the liberal/conservative divide.”
There were few on the left willing to listen to such an argument in 1967, and there are fewer now, when support for abortion has became the test for liberal credentials. Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania found himself barred from the dais of the 1992 Democratic Convention simply because of his pro-life position. The recently organized “Feminists for Life” was founded by a group of otherwise orthodox feminists who argued that true feminism ought to reject abortion and found themselves summarily ejected from the National Organization of Women. The various 1960s projects for radical liberation were perhaps correct, in terms of immediate results, to place sexual liberation at the center of their rhetoric: nothing was more likely to lure young converts or more pleasurably to satisfy the adolescent impulse to rebellion. But since the sixties, during the years in which radicalism hijacked liberalism, the task of maintaining the centrality of sexual freedom has condemned liberals to the uncompromising defense of unlimited abortion—in order to eradicate the costs of what used to be called “free love.”
And if the tatters of the left have inescapably tied themselves to the abortion license, general American culture may have as well. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, though denounced by pro-life activists for her part in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, was at least right when she observed that in the years since Roe v. Wade an entire generation has grown up expecting to be able to rely upon abortion to terminate not merely pregnancies resulting from rape or incest and pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother, but also pregnancies resulting from inattention or contraceptive failure and pregnancies that threaten a deformed child, an unwanted child, or even a child of the wrong gender. Any medical procedure performed a million and a half times a year—at a rate far outstripping any other developed nation—argues a cultural investment of enormous proportions.
Perhaps even the Republican plans for social renewal rely in some way upon the continuing reality of abortion. A conservative writer, Jerry Z. Muller, recently announced his defection from mainstream conservatism by publishing “The Conservative Case for Abortion” as a cover story last summer in the New Republic. His utilitarian argument that “the right—to—life position undermines [the] fundamentally conservative effort to strengthen families” is unlikely to persuade many on the right. It may be true, as Muller writes, that “conservatives have long assumed that government should promote those social norms that encourage the creation of decent men and women,” but conservatives have long assumed as well that decent men and women don't slaughter their young.
Muller's “Conservative Case for Abortion” harkens back, in a perverse way, to the old liberals' claim that the abortion flag properly belongs with the heartless Republicans. And yet, his point that “unsocialized children are at the heart of our social deterioration” deserves some notice. The disrespect for life engendered by an abortion culture probably deserves larger notice. But abortion (particularly when subsidized for the poor and unmarried) is in fact likely to decrease somewhat the risk to society, and the kind of quick social reform that the American public seems to demand from the Republican Congress may rely in part on plenty of abortions to decrease the number of unwed mothers and unsocialized children. Some rifts have already begun to appear between the economic and law-and-order conservatives, on the one hand, and the pro-life conservatives, on the other; not as many rifts or as important as the liberal press delights to claim, but real rifts nonetheless.
The current entanglement with abortion—by political liberals, the general culture, and perhaps even by political conservatives—is finally what distinguishes the recent essays by George McKenna, Naomi Wolf, and Peter Singer from attempts in the late sixties and early seventies to speak honestly about abortion. Unlimited abortion is now the reality, and honesty about abortion's murderousness no longer necessarily means its rejection. Some supporters of abortion, having rejected the old, incoherent ethical system of privacy rights, are now willing to acknowledge that abortion kills babies. But they are willing to claim the necessity for allowing abortion anyway.
The traditional pro-life strategy of exposing pro-abortion euphemism relies on the tacit assumption that under any Jewish, Christian, or even post-Christian ethical system, the knowledge that it kills a living baby would suffice to end the practice of abortion. That assumption may no longer be true. Certainly McKenna's use of Lincoln's pre-Civil War position on slavery suggests the assumption is no longer obvious, for Lincoln harbored some hopes of rescuing the generation then enslaved—and the living slave has some small chance of manumission, while the aborted baby has no more chances. Wolf tells the story of arguing, while she was pregnant, against an opponent of abortion and snapping at last in frustration, “Of course it's a baby. . . . And if I found myself in circumstances in which I had to make the terrible decision to end this life, then that would be between myself and God.” Her opponent, as she tells the story, was silenced because she had at last said something that made sense to him. But the truth is more likely that she had at last said what penetrates to so fundamental a clash between ethical systems that any sort of argument becomes impossible.
In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche denounced the Victorians and “little moralistic females a la [George] Eliot” as “English flatheads” for thinking that they could preserve Christian morality without God. Nietzsche was no proponent of a Christian ethics, but he saw clearly that such ethics relies on the publicly held proposition of God's existence. Neither Jews nor Christians have always lived up to their ethical systems, but the notion of reverence for individual lives is born (in the West at least) solely from a Judeo-Christian impulse. In his Spectator article entitled “Killing Babies Isn't Always Wrong,” Peter Singer writes, “Pope John Paul II proclaims that the widespread acceptance of abortion is a mortal threat to the traditional moral order. . . . I sometimes think that he and I at least share the virtue of seeing clearly what is at stake in the debate.”
If we are so entangled with the practice that legal and probably common abortion is now inescapable, and if we acknowledge that abortion kills, then we live in the tragic, redemptionless sort of world imagined by the Ancients from the Greek tragedians to the Roman Stoics—a world which had at various times, we must admit, an ethical system consistent both externally and internally, consistent with the commonly accepted facts of the universe and with itself. In moves that ought to have been predictable, Wolf and Singer both begin to seek a way to accept infanticide by recreating, consciously or unconsciously, the stern philosophies of the ancient, pre-Christian world.
Wolf argues that pro-abortion rhetoric, by denying life to the unborn child and gravity to the act of killing it, has deprived women of a “moral framework” with which to understand abortion—and thus has driven middle America to embrace the pro-life movement that has monopolized all moral discourse. Feminists need to admit, she asserts, many of the perfectly true points they are foolishly committed to disputing: that the fetus is a child, that the current abortion rate is a terrible social evil, that “pregnancy confounds Western philosophy's idea of the autonomous self, [for] the pregnant woman is in fact both a person in her body and a vessel.” The blind adherence to privacy rights and “the refusal to use a darker and sterner and more honest moral rhetoric” have robbed women of a “sense of sin,” and consequently of the possibility of grief, atonement, and healing.
Some philosophical and theological naivete seems inevitable even in otherwise well-educated writers nowadays—Wolf herself bemoans contemporary “religious illiteracy”—and it is perhaps unfair to complain about skewed uses of terms like “soul,” “sin,” “guilt,” and “atonement” in what is admittedly a popular essay. And yet, all the elements are present in Wolf's analysis for a full-blown philosophical Stoicism and a Stoic acceptance of infanticide: not just the ethical elements of self-possession, resignation to a tragic world, and stern moral rhetoric, but all the metaphysical elements as well. When Wolf writes first of “what can only be called our souls,” but then later in her essay calls it “‘God' or ‘soul'—or if you are secular and prefer it, ‘conscience,'“ she is not simply confounding philosophical terms, but aiming in an untrained way at the metaphysical equations that stand behind the Stoic worldview.
Peter Singer similarly aims toward Stoicism. In the latter part of his essay, with his sketch of the history of infanticide, he indulges the jejune sort of cultural relativism which argues that if any culture anywhere once performed a practice, then the practice must be morally permissible. But he is a philosopher by training (and the author of the article on ethics in the Encyclopedia Britannica), and for the most part he sees clearly what sort of ethical system is necessary to defend abortion coherently. It is an ethical system admitting gradations in the worthiness and usefulness of life, and he argues that we have already adopted such an ethics in fact if not yet in rhetoric.
The recognition that there are “living human beings whose lives may intentionally be terminated” means abortion activists can “at last properly engage with the arguments of those opposed to abortion,” he observes. The real question proponents of abortion should ask is this: “Why—in the absence of religious beliefs about being made in the image of God, or having an immortal soul—should mere membership of the species Homo sapiens be crucial to whether the life of a being may or may not be taken?”
The sleight-of-hand in such a question is one that Americans have encountered so often it almost doesn't bear mentioning: by fiat, religious belief—alone among beliefs—is prohibited from public discourse; by fiat, religious believers—alone among believers—are prohibited from employing in rational discourse the facts they hold about the universe. In Singer's question, however, is also something Americans haven't often encountered, for he sees clearly (as Nietzsche did before him) that the Judeo-Christian prohibition against baby-killing is a tattered, incoherent, and indefensible ethical remnant when divorced from Judeo-Christian religious belief. We must stoically resign ourselves, Singer argues, to an unredeemed and overpopulated world in which we have to kill useless and unwanted human beings.
The strategy of refusing euphemism has, in one sense, won the day. The facts about abortion are now acknowledged even by solidly liberal and feminist writers, and the incoherence and social disaster of a general ethics based on the right of privacy are now taken for granted by thoughtful analysts. The pro-life movement must not imagine, however, that it has thereby won the abortion debate. There exist philosophically coherent ethical systems that grant no sanctity to all grades of human life, ethical systems to which ancient history repeatedly testifies.
Worse, beyond external and internal coherence, there are no rational, philosophical grounds—no “meta-ethics,” as philosophers call it—for judging between ethical systems. The proponents of abortion seeking a new, coherent general ethics seem to imagine that admitting the facts will allow a real discussion to begin between the pro-abortion and pro-life movements. Without such honesty, Singer concludes his essay, “people on both sides of the debate will continue to argue past each other.” But the truth is rather that an agreement that we share no fundamental ethical positions—that we are utterly divided, that belief in a root American ethics is a sentimental delusion—would mean the end of discourse.
It may even mean the end of the culture. Philosophical discourse is not the only way, or even the primary way, in which people are persuaded to change their ethical systems. There is social pressure and (many Americans still believe) conversion by the grace of God. And there is war. The pro-life movement is undoubtedly still correct that most Americans consider infanticide something worse than a stern necessity: no sane politician is on the verge of saying publicly, “Yes, they are babies, and we have to kill them anyway.” But the longer we live with abortion, the closer the day comes when all the supporters of abortion emerge from their fog of euphemism and incoherence to announce a fundamental rupture between ethical systems in America. The urgency to ban abortion is, of course, an urgency to save the four thousand babies it kills every day. But it is also an urgency to preserve—without civil war—an ethics that holds infanticide to be wrong.
Joseph Bottum is Associate Editor of First Things.