By Dave Andrusko
Editor’s note. It was eight years ago this week that Christopher Hitchens died. I’d written about Hitchens’ passing at the time of his pass and the issues that came up in that piece, I believe, are worth revisiting. I hope you agree.
Over the years I have often read Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant public intellectual, who died last week.
I agreed with Hitchens occasionally—and with great passion.
But I disagreed with him—with even greater passion—on many more occasions, particularly when the cruelty which seemed always just beneath the surface erupted. This was especially true when he went after people whose religious values he despised. (In an enormous waste of talent Hitchens threw away portions of his last years in a jihad against religion, particularly Christianity.) But having said that…
His death caused me to look around for essays of particularly relevance to us. One turned out to be a piece he’d written years before (and about which I had forgotten entirely). A second one proved to be an essay I had missed altogether.
Hitchens’ mother, we learn, aborted two of his siblings (“I was in my early teens when my mother told me that a predecessor fetus and a successor fetus had been surgically removed, thus making me an older brother rather than a forgotten whoosh,” he wrote in a 2003 Vanity Fair piece).
Hitchens also tells us he was the father to two aborted babies: “I’ve since become the father of several fetuses, three of which, or perhaps I had better say three of whom, became reasonably delightful children.”
But if some might say the breeziness and seemingly cavalier indifference was the price of admission for reading Hitchens, I would suggest there could well have been much more at work in his conscience than the often-flip commentary would suggest.
For example, in a 2008 profile that Lisa Miller wrote for Newsweek, she described Hitchens as “the bombastic and verbally double-jointed atheist intellectual.” That verbal double-jointedness was on full display.
She asks Hitchens if he was a “pro-lifer,” and he “answers in the affirmative. He has repeatedly defended the use of the term ‘unborn child’ against those on the left who say that an aborted fetus is nothing more than a growth, an appendix, a polyp.”
Hitchens told Miller, “Unborn child’ seems to me to be a real concept. It’s not a growth or an appendix.”
To be sure in the next breath, Hitchens says, “I don’t think a woman should be forced to choose, or even can be.” Hitchens “does not recommend the overturning of Roe v. Wade.”
That notwithstanding, I found particularly helpful a paraphrase of Hitchens that Miller offers. Why? Because it says a great deal about a certain kind of ambivalence that seeks help in places where help cannot be found.
“What he wants is for both moral callousness and religion to be excised from the abortion debate and for science to come up with solutions to unwanted pregnancies, like the abortifacient mifepristone (RU-486),” Miller observes.
Hitchens tinkers with rejecting an obvious truth—that aborting what is now over 60 million unborn babies in the United States alone coarsens us—but is unpersuasive. Even as he is forever arguing “on the one hand… on the other hand,” the dominant facts come down on the pro-life side.
For instance he makes light of the “The fundamentalist pro-lifers” who “earnestly maintain that by holding the line on abortion they are fending off euthanasia, reproductive cloning, and other hellish assaults on human dignity and the human essence.”
We’re supposed to understand that this is to be dismissed as gibberish from the mouths of extremists. However nothing in what follows rebuts what he has just written, only caricatures of one of his favorite targets: the Catholic Church.
This resort to bogus equivalency and absurd stereotypes was no accident. My read is it was the way Hitchens evaded the conclusions that followed from his own strongest premises.
Instead Hitchens punts—give him a biochemical fix (RU-486) which, to his eyes, is more like “a contraceptive procedure than a surgical one,” as Miller describes his thinking.
Indeed, Miller’s final paragraph includes the following conclusion about Hitchens: “Though he vehemently rejects religious arguments, one senses something very much like a rabbinical inner struggle in the development of his position.”
Knowing many people who have struggled (and/or continue to struggle) with abortion, I have genuine sympathy for those who grapple honestly. The same Hitchens who refuses to “impose his morality” (or whatever word he would use in place of morality) is, after all, the man who wrote in Vanity Fair
And there was no longer much dispute about whether the unborn subject was alive. It certainly couldn’t be dead, since the whole battle consisted in how or whether to stop its growing and developing (not metastasizing). Now and then there would be a tussle over whether it was a fully “human” life, but this was casuistry. What other species of life could it be?
In the end, Hitchens represents a very erudite version of a position held (often unknowingly) by an awful lot of people.
“I know the unborn is alive; I know the unborn is one of us; I know (in my heart) that we collectively pay a frightful price for cavalierly disposing of over 56 million unborn babies in the U.S. along. But I sowed a lot of wild oats when I was young, so who am I to say….”
But that evasion merely compounds the error. Better to express remorse for past failures and lapses that are common to the human condition than to fail to extend love and future legal protection to the most vulnerable among us, the unborn child.