Last month I posted here some thoughts about abortion rights and the right to die. At Mirror of Justice, Rick Garnett offered a few tough-minded comments and has persuaded me that the equation between abortion and suicide may be too involved for anyone to depict it, as I tried to do, in broad strokes on a small canvas. For it to be intelligible, it has to be situated against its textured background, where the action is not primarily political or juridical but psychological.
Most people who support abortion rights want to be morally serious partisans in the world-historical contest between good and evil, or if they object to what they regard as the theological provenance of the terms good and evil , they may prefer to say justice and injustice . The important thing is that they subscribe to the Golden Rule. If you ask them, they will tell you, because the logic of their position requires them to say this, that they affirm their parents right to have aborted them. They may swallow that point and pass over it hastily or try to make light of it, because its awkward, but it is a necessary implication of their belief, and if you press them on it they will, to their credit, duly acknowledge it. Its like a gene that is present from the moment of conception but not fully expressed until decades later. It was introduced into the deepest recesses of their minds at the moment of their decision to be pro-choice. And it is likely to have remained hidden away there until someone engaged them in a bit of Socratic dialogue and exposed to them the suicidal aspect of their moral reasoning.
Our right to abort entails the duty to accept that others have the right to have aborted us. Now, maybe the train of thought leading to that conclusion strikes you as abstract and remote from the way most of us think about this issue in real life. People are not that logical! So wrote J. Budziszewski in The Revenge of Conscience , an essay published in First Things . Ah, he continued, but they are more logical than they know; they are only logical slowly. The implication they do not grasp today they may grasp in thirty years; if they do not grasp it even then, their children will. It is happening already. Look around.
We know what abortion does to the aborted. To the aborting it does the psychological equivalent. Do unto others . . . is a principle that moves along a straight and narrow path and, please note, in both directions. As I would have others do unto me, I ought to do unto them. And so if I have already done unto them, I am now committed to wishing the same for myself. If I abort my unborn child, well, thats nothing I would deny my parents had the right to do to me.
Self-hatred is what I end up with when I carry to its logical conclusion the proposition that abortion rights are morally necessary, that justice demands them. I repress that thought because self-hatred hurts. I sequester it in a mental sac, as the body will sometimes form an abscess to contain an infection. If you puncture it in the course of one of those uncomfortable exchanges people are always having about abortion, the toxins will spill into my bloodstream, whereupon I will instinctively spin my wheels to try to convert them into something anodyne. I will say I choose abortion because I esteem myself enough to choose not to suffer and, moreover, because I love my child and choose to spare him too. I choose to spare him the peculiar set of hardships he would suffer by being born into the unique set of complex circumstances that would define his difficult life.
In the history of abortion rights, the argument that abortion is in the interest of the aborted is not the primary argument. Neither is it the ultimate argument, which is that we all have a right to have been aborted, but it is a step on the way to that argument and is latent in the whole project from the beginning. Anyone who has much experience on the antiabortion side of the debate has probably come to anticipate either the playing of this card¯the its-best-for-the-child card¯or just the insinuation that the card exists and is available to be played.
In the early days, antiabortion advocates tended to assume that to win the debate all they had to do was establish that abortion is not only something some of us do but also something others of us have done to us. Now, you too may have got that far in your exposition. Notice, however, that your interlocutor is not much impressed. He cedes to you, at least implicitly, the humanity of the unborn child. You know the drill: Who are you to say the child should be born? Dont you think that in this matter the judgment of the woman who bears him might weigh more heavily than your own? He has a right to be aborted. He has a right to shuffle off this mortal coil . . . no less than do I.
And that is the Golden Rule. People are more logical than they know. They are only logical slowly. The last two sentences of the preceding paragraph, the part about the child having a right to be aborted and about his right and my right to be dead¯in the heat of the standard abortion argument so familiar to many of us by now, that much is seldom plainly articulated, but it is typically implied. By implied I dont mean suggested or hinted . I mean implied in the sense in which that word is used in formal logic. I mean that, to make sense of what the defender of abortion is saying at a certain juncture, the listener has to supply the premise that the right to die is a self-evident good.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem , Hannah Arendt concludes the chapter Killing: The Final Solution with the speculation that the attitude toward a painless death through gassing very likely changed during the course of the Second World War. She offers two extracts from wartime diaries to illustrate the view that Nazi propaganda about mercy killing was internalized by the German population to the extent that ordinary citizens, facing imminent defeat, came to console themselves with the hope that there would be enough Zyklon B for them too. Bavarian peasants in the summer of 1944 are reassured that the Führer in his great goodness had prepared for the whole German people a mild death through gassing in case the war should have an unhappy end. And in January 1945 a physician in East Prussia urges a peasant woman to flee the Red Army, but shes not worried. The Russians will never get us, she tells him. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us. The physician adds, I look around furtively, but no one seems to find this statement out of the ordinary.
I hesitate to repeat these anecdotes, because the shape of the analogy I aim to describe here is liable to be obscured by the bad reputation this effort has acquired at the hands of pro-lifers who have adduced the analogy blithely, without consideration for the uniqueness of the Holocaust or for the dignity of those who died in it. The legalization of abortion does not lead inexorably to concentration camps and attempted genocide.
Nor does that appear to be the direction our society is clearly headed in these several decades since abortion was made legal. Rather, the rise of the idea of abortion rights has coincided with the rise of the idea of human rights. History, at least in the popular imagination, is now the story of moral progress. Slaves are emancipated. Women win the right to vote. Child-labor laws deliver working-class youth from their Dickensian nightmare. On the list of progressive causes, a womans right to have an abortion ranks high and keeps company with clean water and poverty relief. To cut abortion rights from that catalog and paste them into the catalog of crimes prosecuted at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem will strike the fair-minded observer as unwarranted, even offensive.
Still, I do point to Arendts suggestive coda to Killing: The Final Solution, because it illustrates so starkly what happens to the instinct for self-preservation when the taking of human life has been softened and joined to the virtue of compassion. To see the progression Arendt sketches here, you have to bracket for a moment the Dionysiac side of the Nazi spectacle, the wild sadism and anti-Semitic virulence demonstrated on Kristallnacht and vented in the popular press. Ponder instead the stylistic counterpoint to all that.
I mean the official insistence on delicate language rules. Killing became evacuation, special treatment, the radical solution, the final solution . The gassing of the mentally ill was construed as benevolence, while the gassing of Jews was felt to indicate the regimes capacity for moral adjustment and refinement¯the prevailing method in earlier years had been to round people up and shoot them in the head. Now the stress was on the putatively humane nature of the new and improved method, gassing, a modern medical advance issuing from the scientific progress that distinguished northern Europe.
In the Nazi era, as Arendt sees it, the drive to make killing beneficent as well as efficient began to turn inward only when Germans began to lose hope they would win the war. They had ready at hand the inculcated assumption that to kill without inflicting pain is an achievement, the thoughtfully designed antidote to a distasteful life. Would it not be a simple matter, they reasoned, for them to take this good that the German nation had been administering to the world at large and now finally partake of it themselves? The prospect of defeat had diminished their will to live, and by now their willingness to take human life was well developed. The thought of redirecting that willingness from others to self came as no great sudden epiphany but was rather the natural outcome of a gradual process. If you devote a large portion of your mental life to the rationalization of killing others, you will erode your natural resistance to killing yourself when you have experienced some misfortune and are suffering discouragement and depression.
That is the hypothesis, which may not be unassailable, but its plausible. Applied to our own day, it gains cogency by virtue of its power to explain the ease with which the legal and political case for my right to abort others has been shading into the legal and political case first for my right to euthanasia, for myself as well for loved ones, and then for my right to have others carry out my wish for unvarnished suicide. It is against that backdrop of increasing pressure for the individuals right to die that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger observed the same tendency writ large, on the scale of the entire culture: A peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological expresses itself in many forms, including the failure of wealthy nations to reproduce themselves at replacement level. Europe, he wrote, is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. George Weigel has called it demographic suicide. Ratzinger elaborated, warning against the whole movement whereby the Wests capacity for self-criticism and self-correction has been twisted so as to seem to require that we abandon all capacity for self-love, that we spiral downward into a Jansenist sort of pessimism until all that the West sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.
The West finds itself divided between two strong impulses that correspond, in the main, to the political right and left or to what in the United States we have come to refer to as red and blue, after the election maps. At every turn, our collective resolve to confront those who provoke us encounters fierce internal opposition, which cannot always be distinguished from the spiteful and, in effect, suicidal wish that the enemy of my enemy prevail so as to show up the neocons, the Republicans, the religious right, and the bogeyman, with whom the bien-pensants might go down in flames as well, but then self-sacrifice in the pursuit of world peace is no vice.
And so the right feels itself to be fighting a war on two fronts. These days, its against the Jihadist from without and the antiwar militant from within, as during the Cold War it was against the communist in Moscow and Beijing and the anti-anticommunist in New York and Paris. Insofar as the antiwar left emerges from the constellation of political sympathies that include abortion rights and, more broadly, the right to die (go to an antiwar rally and poll the demonstrators there on which side they took in the Terri Schiavo case), a disturbingly reciprocal relationship between fundamentalist Jihadism and liberal antiwar sentiment begins to come into focus.
Nicholas Frankovich is managing editor of Fordham University Press.