Just when you think that the hard left has gone soft, that they’re all either multi-culti sentimentalists or “fact”-obsessed technocrats, an essay like this one over at Salon comes along. As her title (“So what if abortion ends life?”) makes clear, Mary Elizabeth Williams is impatient with her coevals on the left, who blather and equivocate whenever they’re forced to talk about abortion.
The essay itself is, alas, far from the model of clarity that Williams seems to have intended it to be. In fact, it’s a bit of a mess. In one paragraph Williams praises the efforts of Planned Parenthood to move the abortion debate beyond the rhetoric of “choice” and “life,” while in the next she mentions “the dirty tricks of the anti-choice lobby” and refers to “[us] on the pro-choice” side. So I’m wondering: does Williams think that “choice” is a fudge or not? If so, why does she continue to use it as a label? For my part, I tend to agree with her that “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are both wanting in descriptive power, and suggest replacing them with “pro-life-under-any-circumstances” and “pro-death-at-the-whim-of-the-mother-though-never-that-of-the-father” respectively.
A bit later Williams gloats over the fact that “seven in 10 Americans [are] in favor of letting Roe v. Wade stand.” Well, to borrow from her title, “So what?” Let the figure be eight or nine out of ten Americans: only 2.88839328 × 10-6 percent of us are Supreme Court justices. How many Americans can explain to me the legal reasoning behind the Court’s decision in 1973? (Here’s the text of the Fourteenth Amendment: find me what it says about a “right to privacy.”)
Her essay really, err, takes off in her fourth paragraph:
Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always. [bold mine, MW]
“All life is not equal”: This is the language of slave owners and totalitarians. It is also, in its way, a legitimate metaphysical and ethical stance, albeit one that, as a Christian, I find emetic. (After all, one can observe that person x and person y are unequal in the sense that they exhibit marked differences in natural ability, attainment, etc., due to hereditary and other factors, without believing that x or y is lacking in metaphysical dignity or any less beloved of God.) It’s hard for me to see, though, how the entire project of egalitarianism, which is itself the result of a kind of weak misreading of the ancient Christian belief that we are created in God’s image, does not collapse once one admits “all life is not equal.”
“[N]on-autonomous”: Is a newborn infant “autonomous”? A toddler? An eight-year-old? At what point do young homo sapiens become “autonomous”? The inordinate amount of time upon which a young human is completely dependant upon its mother (i.e., “non-autonomous”) is one of the most distinctive characteristics of our species. Really I guess I’m wondering why, if a person’s not being “autonomous” makes it okay to kill him or her, a mother shouldn’t be able to chuck her crying, expensive three-year-old into a river if the fancy strikes her? “She’s the boss,” right?
Still, I can’t help but feel that, despite her attempt at plain speaking in the above paragraph, Williams remains a bit squeamish, at least rhetorically speaking, about the actual implications of her position. Recall her title: “So what if abortion ends life?” Well, when “life” ends, we call that “death”; and when “death” comes as the result of someone delibarately ending the life of another, we call that “killing.” So why not write “So what if abortion is killing?”
(Thanks to Rod Dreher over at the American Conservative for bringing this essay to my attention.)