Some years ago, then-UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflected on the roiling conflict in America over abortion. When the conflict is understood as a struggle over rights, he said, it cannot be resolved. One cannot compromise on a right, or it is no longer a right. Right to life and right to choice are contradictory: the victory of one spells categorical defeat for the other.
But what alternative do we have to understanding this as a fight to extinction? Is there some wider framework in which sides so far apart can find common ground enough to avoid the ripping apart of the already ragged fabric of our national life?
Rabbi Sacks proposed that we try to begin a conversation on this political issue — and other political issues as well — framed around responsibilities instead of rights.
How would that allow the sides to join together?
The rabbi argued that we are used to dealing with competing and overlapping responsibilities in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Every day, we work to fulfill responsibilities to our workplace, to our family, to our friends, to our community. We know these responsibilities often overlap and conflict. We know that solutions for such conflicts may not be easy or comfortable. We know the constant evaluation and prioritization that this requires every day, and we do it often without too much agonizing. We are well practiced at having to make these decisions. They are the stuff of our lives.
We know that if we reject responsibility, our lives start to fall apart, usually quite quickly. We try not to be distracted from our responsibilities by alluring promises of comfort and ease. Responsibilities are real and concrete, and we know how necessary they are for having a life we feel is good and honorable and even beautiful.
On the other hand, rights are abstract things, and people are not abstractions. The complexities of real life do not fit into the neatness of abstract formulae, however well-conceived. Abstractions work in setting up a clear framework of law and government, not so much to solve the political controversies inevitable in any nation, and, in particular, those in which one side’s claims about rights completely discount the rights claimed by the other side.
Such an argument also can’t be settled by simply positing a new right never before mentioned or agreed on by the people, either in convention as in our founding, or as the Constitution allows, or through their elected representatives. The failure of that strategy to solve the political problem of abortion is obvious. (READ MORE: It Is Casey, Not Roe, on Trial Before the Supreme Court)
To claim a right is to assert what others must do or not do, absent of reciprocity. But since reciprocity is the key to a real conversation, a rights claim shuts down conversation and identifies the opposing party as a denier of rights, that is, of things that are self-evidently true and unalienable by nature.
Who can think of carrying on a conversation with such a person? Certainly not the Founders when they signed the Declaration of Independence. When people start talking about rights in a family discussion, give and take is over and you know things are not going well. If the discussion stays on rights, it may be on the road to court. It isn’t the way a group of people make a decision that all will feel a part of. Reciprocity, the key to living together, is ruled out the moment the argument becomes focused on rights.
Since asserting rights is a last resort, can we somehow turn to a conversation based on responsibility? But for both those on the left, who prioritize the public realm over the private, and for those on the right who prioritize the private over the public, talk of responsibility has not been a prominent part of the discussion.
Ideologues of all stripes tout abstract solutions that are sold as magical algorithms that will do all the work for us. Responsibility is a hard sell compare to a Right to Be Comfortable, which devotees of the late Warren Court’s approach to constitutional law may yet be prepared to advocate. And on the other side, there sometimes intrudes the Right to be Smug, equally an enemy of real conversation and equally an excuse to not speak of responsibility.
A discussion based on responsibility makes no bones about the fact that everyone will need to do some work. We will need first of all to see everyone affected by abortion without first putting on blinders. We cannot discount the woman carrying the child, nor can we dismiss the fetus as a non-entity.
This discussion will not be easy, and it will be supremely difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution for all the states, consisting of nearly 400 million people. But we can trust the federal system’s allowance for the states to work as “laboratories of democracy,” to use Justice Brandeis’ phrase. We could see what works and what doesn’t, and perhaps a larger consensus may arise after seeing the results of the various approaches.
But the legal outcome is not the first concern. First we must learn how to talk to each other again so that we might have a nation that will endure. To be able to pull together, we need real talk, back and forth. We need to know we have been heard and listened to. We need to know that goal of the discussion has not been the impossible quest for absolute comfort and an absence of worry. We need to know that all have accepted responsibility as a condition of having a say. Only taking on responsibility can confer meaning on our lives and on our conversation.
For implicit in responsibility is morality. And implicit in morality is that there are more important considerations than the narrow view of the self that is the bane of communities and is at the core of poor and dangerous politics. Let us converse about the great issues of morality, which are not reducible to political programs.
Morality should be guiding, not following, our politics. Let us discuss directly our responsibilities to the woman and to the unborn child. There just may be a way in which we find ourselves closer than we think to mutual understanding and respect. We who stand for the sanctity of life should not resign ourselves to believing that we cannot persuade our fellow citizens of this most fundamental point.
Rabbinic literature recalls an ancient debate that pitted two schools of thought against each other in fierce debate that stretched over decades. It tells how the debate was in the end remembered for posterity with words attributed to a heavenly voice that declared, “Both these and these are the words of the Living God.”
Accepting responsibility is the key to recovering a truly national conversation. Accepting responsibility gives hope for healing the festering sore on our body politic that the abortion crisis has been for decades. Accepting responsibility is the key to overcoming the moral despair that has allowed us to think we cannot persuade our country that human life deserves the protection of law.