At the March for Life this past January, I saw a teenage girl holding a sign that read, “She could be the next Beyoncé!” the “she” referring, of course, to the baby inside the womb. Her sign reminded me of the quirky movie, Juno, in which the protagonist, a young teenager, decides not to abort her child after hearing that it has fingernails. The Beyoncé sign and the mention of an unborn child’s fingernails make strong emotive appeals against abortion.
For those who oppose both abortion and same-sex marriage, however, the difficulty of this emotive, intuitional response looms large. The same appeal that saved Juno’s child is at the root of what has caused one of the most rapid changes of opinion on a social issue that most can remember.
Proponents of same-sex marriage have an powerful arsenal on their side. They can show two nice-looking, kind people expressing love for one another and ask, “How could that be wrong?” The argument implicitly goes, “You love someone, don’t you? How could you deny that love to a fellow human being.” In effect, the argument is similar to the one in Juno, essentially saying, “We all have fingernails.” What seemed right in the first instance, either being pro-abortion or thinking there should only be male–female marriages, shifts for literally no “reason,” but instead a feeling, a new intuition.
This intuitional philosophy—often called emotivism or sentimentalism—has become the dominant philosophy in America today. As a consequence of this more emotive approach, a growing number of Americans have decided abortion is not the best option, especially as the pregnancy progresses. Abortion rates have fallen 12 percent since 2010 according to a recent survey, and 49 percent of Americans think abortion is morally wrong, much higher than on other life-issues. Technological progress has helped people to see what—or more accurately—who it is that is being aborted. The closer something appears to be like me, the intuition seems to say, the more I think it should be protected.
The emotive philosophy that undergirds opposition to abortion, however, also undergirds support for same-sex marriage. Between 2001 and 2015, Gallup has tracked Americans’ stance on the morality of same-sex issues and abortion. The percentage of those who think same-sex relations are morally acceptable rose from from 40 percent to 63 percent. During that same time period, those who think abortion is immoral stayed steady at 45 percent, with some years even rising above 50 percent. The general trend of Americans becoming more socially liberal has not translated to the abortion issue in the same way, and a major cause of that, it seems, is the emotivist objection to abortion.
One should use all true and appealing methods to advance the cause of truth and justice. But when an intuition-based philosophy is the only basis of making moral determinations, it can be correct in one case but fail in another. The integrity of the intellect should not be sacrificed for short-term successes in the culture wars.
The individual teachings on abortion and same-sex relations fit in a larger, coherent system, and Judeo-Christian teaching emphasizes the authorship of God in nature. God endows each human person with dignity, and it is not up to man to remove this dignity by killing the unborn. God also designed the human person with a purpose. This purpose extends to the union of man and woman in marriage, for the sake of their union and the propagation of the human race, in a stable and loving union. Despite the emotional appeal of two people of the same sex who love each other in a way that imitates a married couple, their union cannot effect the true purposes of marriage and family, and this can be demonstrated abstractly with reason and concretely through nature, even to non-believers. So too can abortion be shown through rational explanation to be a violent attack on a defenseless, innocent person.
Rational discourse can never be forgotten. People who believe in both revealed and natural truth must strive continuously to elevate the public conversation to consider theories, logical conclusions, and coherent first principles. Settling for emotional or intuitive arguments is building one’s case on a foundation of sand. Even if someone fights for truth, he must be careful not to use faulty philosophy and sacrifice true rationality.
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.