Last week I delivered a guest lecture at a Christian liberal arts college entitled “Each Day Dies With Sleep: Literary and Theological Reflections upon Mortality.” As I thought through the topic over the previous weeks, two superficially disparate questions puzzled me. Why is it that the people most vocally committed to causes connected to death (abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia) are often the same who are committed to progressive sexual causes? And why do abortion advocates frequently see it not as a necessary evil but as a positive good?
As to the first question, that the same people often, though not always, hold this cluster of views would suggest that there is something which connects them at a deep level, despite the fact the areas of sexual politics and the ethics of death might not appear to be necessarily related. As to the second, I am pro-life and see abortion as heinous and a source of national shame, but I can understand the internal logic of the pro-abortion case, even while having no sympathy for it. What I cannot understand, however, is the way so many see abortion as a badge of honor and a source of pride and joy. To argue that abortion is a tragic but necessary evil is one thing; it is quite another to smile for the camera while wearing a tee-shirt which proudly boasts that you have had one.
The theory I tentatively proposed during my lecture was really an extension of insights I have learned from reading Augustine, Pascal and, to make up an odd triplet, Sigmund Freud: Death is the one insurmountable reminder of the power, or the tyranny, of our bodies over our personal being and humanity. Our bodies are testimony to the fact that we are not ultimately in control. We are not sovereign. We are not gods. We hate that and we energetically seek to deny it. Thus, the attempt to defy the limitations of our bodies and the desire to control life and death are really two aspects of the same thing.
How do we distract ourselves from our bodily mortality? How do we pretend we are in control even of death itself, when our bodies remind us otherwise? Well, there are numerous ways of pretending bodies do not count. You can now have surgery that allows you to look younger than you really are. If you are born a man, you can have your body modified so that you can pretend to be a woman, or vice versa. Perhaps most obviously you can indulge in free-wheeling amorality which ignores both the bodily context and the consequences of sexual activity.
The ultimate distracting buzz, however, is to pretend that we can take control of death itself. We kill children in the womb, we kill the old and the infirm, and if we cannot deny our own mortality by living forever, we can at least determine for ourselves the time and circumstances of our own deaths. Make no mistake: The giddy, grinning delight which the Gloria Steinems of this world display concerning abortion is driven by more than just the desire to stop rape victims having unwanted children. It is powered by the grotesque thrill which holding power over life and death brings with it.
Of course, this is all highly speculative. But it seems to me that the passion and enthusiasm involved in being pro-choice on life issues cannot simply be explained by talking about unwanted pregnancies or the prevention of unnecessary end-of-life suffering. And why does modern liberalism on matters of abortion and suicide so often go along with advocating the annihilation of the significance of bodily difference in the realm of sexuality? Some people seem to take a pride in such things which cannot be explained by merely pragmatic criteria such as convenience and choice. Something deeper, something more spiritual, something more sinister, is at work here.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.