16 May 2019

Abortion and the cost of rhetoric

Sources: baby bassinet; execution gurney
Last night on television, I heard another panel discussion on abortion. Rick Santorum defended Alabama's just-signed law practically banning abortion altogether -- his main point was that even pregnancies resulting from incest and rape represent innocent lives, however horrific the circumstances of their conception. His opponents on the panel objected to his imposition of his own religiously-based standards on others.

For much of my adult life, I've been in the perverse position of opposing abortion while at the same time opposing most anti-abortion rhetoric. Right now, as the controversy swirls around the Alabama law and similar attempts elsewhere, there are three reckless inconsistencies that gnaw at me:

First: the new "heartbeat laws" are far more extreme than most anti-abortion advocates have advanced in the past. The new laws seem to represent a calculated tactic: their dramatic clash with the relatively moderate U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision would (they hope) inevitably lead to a chance to reverse it. According to polls, even Americans who oppose abortion still wish to reserve that option for rape and incest cases, but in Alabama's case, the law could punish abortion providers more severely than rapists. (It's logical, says Santorum; rapists rape while abortion providers kill.)

In any case, tactical extremism just adds to the impression that brass-knuckle politics will, once again, make dialogue all but impossible. It makes me see double: are the bill's supporters being truly idealistic in their maximalist stance, or are they cynically exaggerating their true positions for a political gain?

Second: while both pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates count many women among their participants, a large percentage of anti-abortion legislators are men. For example, every Alabama state senator who voted for their new law was male; the state's four women senators opposed the bill. It seems beyond strange that so much veto power over women's health decisions is still exercised by men -- and those men seem, as a group, to be unembarrassed by this discrepancy and unenthusiastic about working for a more representative politics.

Third: both sides exploit the Bible. This is also an old story -- abortion opponents have one way of looking at Scripture; pro-choice advocates have another. The cost of this proof-texting approach: the secular observer concludes, in the words of the ancient cliche, "You can make the Bible say whatever you want." The "orthodox" and "progressives" of James Davison Hunter, or George Lakoff's "strict fathers" and "nurturant parents" -- all can find what they pragmatically need in the Bible to bash opponents and thereby gratify their main audiences.

The actual Bible is achingly ambiguous about the "sanctity" of life. My serious summary: life is precious, except when it isn't. Babies are precious, except when they're not. My opposition to abortion is not based on any specific Bible verse, but on the whole tradition of interpretation that is summed up by the "consistent life ethic" -- which opposes abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, militarism, social and economic injustice, violence in all its devious and addictive forms. Are there other traditions of biblical interpretation? Yes, of course. Can I prove that the "consistent life" interpretation is more correct? No! Does it even command the respect of most Christians? I doubt it.

However, for me there's a persuasive consistency of this "seamless garment" approach to following the Prince of Peace. It's internally consistent: the unborn life is important, but its survival is no more guaranteed than that of the life that has emerged into the world. Just as we ask for sacrifices and communal responses in situations where conception was unanticipated, we ask for sacrificial and communal responses to injustice. We ought to be just as diligent in caring for the born as for the unborn, knowing that all our outward fortunes are uncertain, all of us require care and mercy. It's consistent with the loving kindness and mercy of the God of the Bible. And, just as Jesus and Paul demand, it rejects the hypocrisy of forms for the countercultural reality of the Good News.

This persuasive consistency, I think, would go a long way toward subverting the rigid categories of anti-abortion and pro-choice campaign mentalities. As a first practical step of mercy, we could gain the capacity to describe those we disagree with in terms that they themselves would recognize. (See Katelyn Beaty's "The Abortion Conversation Needs New Language.") And while we slowly build friendships around the complex shared challenge of reducing abortions, we may also find new allies for those other consistent life challenges: injustice, militarism, and all other threats to life.

Part two: Does your morality measure up?

Elesha Coffman on the legacy of Rachel Held Evans.

The silent significance of British Quaker meeting houses.

Cathedrals "should unite, not divide people": the case of Yekaterinburg.

Victory Day, and again Stalin looms over the scene, not necessarily to Putin's advantage.

Russia without Putin: Sean Guillory interviews Tony Wood.
"...[T]he more Putin becomes indispensable to any description of Russia, the more every successive description of Russia has to have him in there. Otherwise people won’t understand what you’re talking about because you imagine every news report about Russia, even if it’s about reindeer herders in Yakutia, has to have some reference to how this relates to Putin and his power system. Is he in control of this remote outpost or not? And I think that’s really counterproductive. It just narrows the horizon within which people are framing what’s happening in Russia."
Project Artemis: crash program or modest proposal?

Ray Manzarek describes the creation of "Riders On the Storm."


Bill Samuel said...

It was sad that the Alabama governor is following up a claim to respect all life with overseeing her 6th execution as Governor. We need to oppose all executions, whether of the born or the unborn.

While the Alabama Senate vote was by all white men, that is often not the case. In a number of states, minority and women Democrats have made the difference for protecting unborn lives. See The (national) fall and (local) rise of pro-life Democrats.

In the first 300 years of Christianity, every major figure in the Church believed that the consistent life ethic was a part of the Gospel. A friend of mine read everything extant written by early Christian leaders, and none of them supported humans committing any violence. They opposed war, abortion, the death penalty, infanticide, etc. Perhaps the early followers of Jesus understood his message better than many who claim to follow Jesus today.

Anonymous said...

Re: your concern about the "reckless inconsistency" of white males casting the deciding votes in the abortion issue--why, really does this matter? I am sure of course that it somehow does, but am stymied as I try to discern the why of it. As a post menopausal woman unaffected by the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy, do I now count as a "man", my opinion thereby discounted? Does the perspective of a sixteen year old sexually active teenaged girl somehow bear great weight than my own perspective? Do the opinions of those of us who are not parents of young children bear lesser weight with respect to concerns about public education? During the era of the draft, were male opinions about compulsory conscription somehow weightier than female opinions? As I grow older, I somehow feel a bit marginalized with respect to my opinions about anything other than the plight of the elderly. Of course politics is all about allegiances to vested interests; is that going to change in any appreciable way when and if the demographics of a legislature change and a different set of self-interested proposals arise? Shorn of its "religious" roots or, increasingly, any sense of allegiance to common values, our society seems to have descended into something that resembles a lunch room food fight. Is there any point in attempting to discern a just resolution in such a situation? Perhaps the best we can hope for is that we can and must apply relentless pressure--we may call it "political assistance"--upon the politicians we are stuck with to "do the right thing" according to their own consciences. But that proposal generally elicits the wildest of cynical cackles. First we must imagine that actual, mortal, fallible, flesh and blood persons other than ourselves actually have consciences to which we may speak, and we seem to believe we have moved beyond the capacity for such an imagining.

Johan Maurer said...

Concerning reckless inconsistency of men regulating women's health: I think you have a point. A conscience is a conscience, whoever might be exercising it. I hope I haven't become so cynical that I've lost the capacity to hope this is true.

On the other hand, I cannot help drawing a correlation between ancient patterns of men monopolizing decision-making on all aspects of public policy (a monopoly that has started eroding only recently) and the system's inability to make nuanced provisions for such agonizing situations as unwanted pregnancies. If the men in power were able to be more humble and self-reflective about these dilemmas, recognizing that they don't know all there is to know about women's realities, that would go a long way toward my trusting that a male-majority legislature could truly operate by shared values. It's not impossible, I know, but we're not there yet.

Tyla said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. You, Friend speak my mind. Thank you for not resisting the urge to write it.


Bill Samuel said...

It should be noted that the Alabama law was introduced by a woman State Representative, and signed into law by a woman governor. There's been some cherry-picking to make it sound like it was exclusively a male idea. That doesn't negate negative aspects of the law, but it does show some of the rhetoric against it is simply false.