An Acute Appreciation of the “Fragility of Life”

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. Back in February NRL News Today carried an analysis of a fascinating column written by Ross Douthat of the New York Times. He built his analysis around a critique of the powerfully influential 1985 work of Kristin Luker, “Abortion & the Politics of Abortion.”

We received a LOT of response to our analysis (“Pursuing Justice—today, tomorrow, and always”) which prompted me to re-read a piece I first wrote in 1985. It was a lengthy editorial, which commented on the Luker book, in the context of reader response to the question I had asked them to answer: what differentiates pro-lifers and pro-choicers?

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Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte

When we first asked for reader response to the question, “Who is Pro-Life, Who is ‘Pro-Choice’: What Explains the Difference?” I confess I was not sure what direction our faithful readers would take this discussion. I shouldn’t have been but I was mildly surprised by how thoroughly many pro-lifers had thought through this intriguing question.

What fascinates me is how close is the fit in many respects between the primary source identified by our readers for their convictions (and the sources they perceive for their opposite numbers) and the explanations found in the recent book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Authored by University of California at San Diego sociologist Kristin Luker, it is based on interviews Luker conducted with some 200 pro-life and “pro-choice” activists in California over a five-year period.

Our readers, as one would expect, give every evidence of having a shrewd and perceptive understanding, not only of the issues at stake, but of the ideas each side carries into the debate about human life: how genuine parental responsibility is discharged; what, if any, obligations are due preborn babies; and the validity – and significance of –what amounts to the “slippery slope” argument.

While Professor Luker is a very intelligent observer of the abortion culture, she also has her own ideological axe to grind. Her conclusions about both the nature of the abortion debate and the women who are the principal ground troops on both sides are flawed by her misreading of the history of the nineteenth century anti-abortion movement, her inflated estimates of the incidence of abortion in the century between the first “Physicians’ Crusade” of the 1860s and the “Abortion Reform” movement of the 1960s, and her determination to convert the human weakness to fail to live up to one’s ideals into evidence that those ideals are merely a smokescreen for self-interest or honored only in the breach.

Yet having said this, I would say that while Professor Luke misinterprets the findings of her study, there is still considerable truth in her assertion that an overwhelming proportion of the activists in the abortion controversy are women. However, it is not so much a difference between women of different classes (a word she studiously avoids but a conclusion that fairly jumps out at the reader) as Luker suggests, as it is between women with fundamentally opposite views on what it means to be truly human and to act truly human.

Based on our readers’ letters, I would suggest there are two qualities that pro-lifers possess and which pro-choicers, by and large, lack that go a long way toward explaining why each group reacts the way it does to abortion.

The first is the pro-lifer’s attitude toward the weak, the imperfect, and the helpless. Pro-lifers typically are deeply moved by the dependency of children and others who, for whatever reason, are unable to compete in the societal rat race. Luker sees this. Her difficulty is that she just can’t understand how pro-lifers extend this value to “potential persons” (except as a way of justifying the decision to put primary emphasis on mothering).

The second quality, which complements the first, is the pro-lifer’s highly developed ability to empathize with others, to feel what they feel, indeed, to feel for them. We really do believe that if we are not our unborn brother’s keeper, we are at least not our children’s assassin.

This sense of kinship with the vulnerable is, in part, an outgrowth of personal experience. Many pro-life women have had miscarriages; many have lost children to tragic illnesses. Others have themselves been discriminated against because of a handicap, survived circumstances which at the time seemed unavoidably fatal, or learned later in life that they, themselves, had almost been aborted.

What this conveys, in the words of one of Luker’s interviewees, is the awareness of the “fragility of life in general.” Armed with this view of the human condition, as one pro-life woman put it to Luker, “…every baby’s life is a valuable thing to me.”

Because Luker says she is interested not in judging the validity of each side’s views and values but in probing how people come to differ in their feelings about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, her book is unavoidably dissatisfying. Luker, instead, is content to argue that the best explanation is self-interest. Pro-lifers take their position to protect their status as mothers; pro-choicers defend theirs to protect their career aspirations which make motherhood, at best, an additional option.

I find the argument entirely unpersuasive. But even if it were true, it begs a critically important distinction. Which self-serving position, if that it be, does more justice to our finer qualities as human beings, such as generosity, compassion, self-sacrifice, and devotion? Which is less deadly to others?

When she does take a half-hearted stab at such judgments, Professor Luker suggests that pro-choicers are misunderstood and are receiving a bum rap. They, too, love children. Indeed, one of Luker’s pro-choice interviewees suggests they are the real defenders of children’s rights—the right not to be born unless planned, perfect, blessed with superior parents, and the beneficiary of a standard of material well being at least as great as his or her parents.

Luker rightly emphasizes the stress placed by pro-choicers on planning. Planning helps one avoid glitches; life is decidedly not supposed to be painful or even surprising. Moreover, to pro-choicers, planning demonstrates that single quality which elevates man above his fellow animals: reason.

Luker, interestingly, believes that pro-choicers are fundamentally optimistic because of their faith in the perfectibility of mankind and its ability to eventually overcome all obstacles. Yet their optimism does not appear very durable. An unplanned pregnancy is tantamount to a catastrophe.

That this child might bring joy, might stroke feelings of love and commitment, or might even draw from resources they never knew they had would undoubtedly be viewed as rank sentimentality. How strange that such an anemic faith in the capacity of human beings to overcome obstacles and setbacks should be interpreted as “optimism.”

Where pro-choice “optimism” is not insipid, it is extremely naïve. Luker strongly implies that one reason pro-life women are so relentless (actually, she comes close to suggesting they are uncivil) is that they are not worldly enough to understand that times have changed, to appreciate that not everyone believes [because of religious doctrines learned “by syllogism”] that the unborn child is a baby.

But which, I wonder, is the more “sophisticated” view? The pro-life view that readily understands that almost every pregnant woman is going to have some doubts about her pregnancy, especially in the early going, or the pro-choice view that it is a loving decision to abort an unwanted…whatever it is that is growing inside a woman… but an irresponsible action (referring to adoption) to “transform an embryo into a baby and then send that baby out into a world where the parents can have no assurance that it will be well cared for…”

Pro-choice advocates subscribe to a view of life that in the words of Libertarians for Life member John Walker excludes whole chunks of the lives of pro-lifers. Theirs is, to put it mildly, obsessively achievement-oriented. Almost uniformly secular, they scoff at mere “genetic” humanity; in Luker’s paraphrase, they have trouble understanding why the possession of 46 human chromosomes should function as the “entry card” to the rights of personhood.

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Thus it is not the least bit surprising that “viability” is such an attractive concept for them. On the one hand, it is elastic enough to allow them to condone all but the latest abortion (which they wouldn’t outlaw, anyway). On the other hand, viability connotes self-reliance, the ability to function independently of others—never mind that a one-year-old child or a seventy-year-old stroke victim is no more capable of independent living than is a 26-week-old unborn child.

One of John Paul Sartre’s fictional characters defines hell as “other people.” One suspects that to most pro-choice activists, hell is dependency on other people.

In the final analysis, pro-lifers—activists or sympathetic onlookers, male or female—are far better students both of the human heart in general, and specifically, the twentieth century. They understand the incredible capacity of the human heart for cruelty and self-deception. They retain their capacity for indignation in the face of endless brutality precisely because they do not believe human beings are merely highly developed animals but are unique and wholly irreplaceable with transcendent value.

Those values fly in the face of the triage mentality of our times, the eagerness of many to use the excuse that “resources are not infinite” to re-categorize some human beings as less human than others. As the battle over infanticide heated up, could anything have been more predictable than the support for the rights of handicapped newborns by pro-lifers and the silence—when not the active complicity to deny treatment—of pro-choicers?

There are many pro-choice activists whose life stories, but not views, we may admire. Our goal is not to convert our opponents into devils. It is, rather, both to try to explain why they come to a position where they work actively to promote the destruction of tens of millions of defenseless pre-born children and to suggest the long-term dangers of their ideas.

Pro-lifers, are hard-headed about people’s unending capacity to rationalize what they want to do, but tender-hearted when it comes to accepting the call the little ones make on our mercy and compassion. I thank God every night for the people who make up the pro-life movement.

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