I have been following the controversy over the firing of Kevin Williamson from The Atlantic for his views on the legal consequences for women who undergo abortions. I want to reinforce a point about Williamson that perhaps has not been fully appreciated. To be clear, I do not know Kevin Williamson; it is to my own experience that I appeal here.
Williamson is an adopted child, born of an unplanned pregnancy a few months prior to the January 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade. I identify with his situation. As an adopted child born into similar circumstances in 1970, I can relate to the anguish and anger Williamson has at times expressed in print. I cannot reflect objectively on abortion, as I can on other issues. For me, abortion is deeply personal, because I see myself in every lost life. More, I see myself, my children, and every genealogy that might stem from my having existed in this world. I see an entire familial line snuffed out as though it had no right to share this planet with other humans.
Maybe this is not the case for all adopted children. I can speak only for myself. As a child of the 1970s, however, I have wrestled with the “what if” question: What if I had been born post-Roe? Would my birth mother have chosen to extinguish my life? How would she have settled the question of my presence in her womb? Would she have considered my innocence in relationship to whatever action(s) had led to her condition? Would she have felt the moral weight of such a decision? None of these questions—and there are others—can be answered. They hang in the air, like survivor’s remorse from a tragic set of circumstances. Yet they press in upon me at times, and they can lead to darker thoughts. I had a right to exist, as does every unborn child.
Like others who wrestle with the contingencies of their existence, I have to resist the darkness when I consider what might have been. Nevertheless, I can understand how a person might utter less temperate thoughts—as when Williamson tweeted that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide,” imposing similar penalties. Our cultural moment encourages us to move immediately to embrace our dark thoughts, so that we can “tell it like it is.” This is not always wrong. It entails listening to our emotions, which have cognitive weight. Love’s knowledge does tell us something about what is important, and why it is important. We ought to take seriously what our emotions tell us even if, at the end of the process, we reject certain paths.
It is for these reasons that I love writers like James Baldwin. Baldwin rarely spares his readers the thoughts that plague him. He has no time for polite conversation. His writing is not even primarily about protest. It is about survival, his own survival and the survival of African-Americans in general. This is why he favors clear pronouncements over subtlety. He tells his nephew in The Fire Next Time, “you were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” I know a lot of conservatives who bristle at Baldwin’s rhetoric, thinking it extreme. I find it to be the opposite, precisely because of my situation as an adopted child. I see why Baldwin unleashes his fury in his prose. He faces a society that calls into question his existence. He feels keenly the weight of his blackness in America, and he fights for its legitimacy with all the rhetoric he can muster.
I feel the weight of a society that calls into question the right of an unborn and innocent child to exist. Moreover, I cannot escape the problem of moral luck, my own luck at being born before Roe. And so, yes, I get pretty passionate about my pro-life position, and I want to call down judgment in order to right the scales of justice. The general principle that life is a good takes on urgency when your life is under threat. The obvious retort that my life is not under threat matters not. Yes, I escaped the judgment Roe unleashed by just over two years. But millions have not. I shout that unborn lives matter because my life matters. Yet, that pronouncement has also led me to say that Jewish lives matter in the face of the Holocaust or that black lives matter in the face of the history of racism in this country.
Writers work out their moral judgments in the public sphere. Williamson is no different from any other writer in that respect. I find it both comical and tragic that some think Williamson’s presence in an office down the hall would put at risk his female colleagues at The Atlantic, just as I think it comic and tragic when some think the presence of a gay man somehow calls into question their heterosexuality. Baldwin was right in his analysis: There is a deep fear in these kinds of claims, and we are not going to overcome that fear by exiling such offenders from our communities.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.