When Reason Does Not Suffice: Why Our Culture Still Accepts Abortion

Anthony Esolen
April 3, 2019
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

It is indeed "Important to Study Pro-Abortion Argument," as a newspaper headline recently put it. It is even more important to consider why studying those arguments and refuting them has not worked.

For we have studied them and refuted them. We have all the arguments and the evidence on our side. We have known for well over a century that the conceptus is human in kind, alive, self-organizing, and human. We have known that it is not a part of the mother, but an independent life, relying on the mother for shelter and nourishment. We have known that it is not a parasite, like a tapeworm. We have known that it is not an invader, like Judith Jarvis Thomson's absurd violinist with the kidney trouble, who takes you by force and compels your own kidneys to flush out his system. We have known that "viability" is a feature not of the fetus but of the accidents of technology and the state of medical care.

We have known that it is never medically indicated to kill a late-term child rather than to deliver it alive by Caesarean section. We have made the moral arguments to distinguish abortion from medically necessary procedures that save a mother's life but that have as an unintended side effect the death of the fetus. We have met the objection that we care only for the life of the newborn and not for the mother and the growing child, by establishing and funding all kinds of crisis pregnancy centers (which the pro-abortion people have tried very hard to shut down), homes for unwed mothers, and adoption agencies (which the pro-gay-marriage people have threatened with destruction, unless we subordinate our faith and our reason to their passions sexual and political).

Some people are moved by the force of logic and science. Some others are moved by the obvious charity that Christians show, despite the calumny of our opponents. But most people are not moved. And it behooves us to ask why not.

It cannot be that they are bad logicians. It cannot be that they are simply unaware of the charities. It is something else.

"The average Christian worships money," says Jacques Leclerq, in Christianity and Money (1957). "He wants as much as he can get, and would prefer to keep what he has and to part with as little as possible." For Christian, substitute "man" and "woman." But Leclerq is not simply talking about that form of avarice that concentrates on monetary things, strictly speaking. Wherever you have a hierarchical society - which means, practically, wherever people live as more than nomadic hunters of small game and gatherers of roots and berries - you will have wealth as a social phenomenon. You will have "the governing class, made up of landowners, industrialists, tradespeople, and government officials." You therefore have people who define their worth to the extent that they have or appear to have the latitude of action and the social rank of that governing class. You will have avarice in education, avarice in careerism, avarice in celebrity, and avarice in political influence or power.

"Our problem is to achieve detachment," says Leclerq, because "worldly goods are a tyrant," especially when, as in the modern west, "the whole existing civilization centers on productive labor." But "love of money is a mortal sin, because it alienates the mind from God." We are terrified of the freedom that real poverty holds forth to us. We fear even the freedom that detachment offers. It feels better to be a slave with good meals every day, a job with a fancy title, and a cavernous home not smudged by the fingers of many playful children than to be free and in the hands of God.

Here Leclerq connects the high voltage with the steel pole: "We must note the connection between poverty and humility . . . that virtue by which man acknowledges his dependence as a creature on his creator." That acknowledgment is easy so long as we keep it theoretical. When it makes demands on us, to renounce our attachment to things, then do we behave like the rich man in Jesus' parable, who builds his barns as big as he can. "The rich and powerful trust in themselves," says Leclerq, "and feel no need to turn to God for help."

Think now of the poor bleeding and half-mangled child who survives an abortive attempt on his life. He is breathing on the table nearby. He poses not the most suppositious threat to the life or the health of his mother. But he does pose a threat: an existential threat. His mere existence poses a threat to the mother's and everyone else's imagined mode of existence, which is autonomy.

As long as that child exists or has existed, whether the mother relents and takes him to herself, or gives him up for adoption, or even whether he is given medical care and lives for a few weeks before he dies, he stands as an exemplar of how we exist, utterly dependent on our Creator, and, in a human sense, an exemplar of why we exist, for the sake of others, for and by means of love, which by its nature does not count the cost. Not that love is improvident. But for what and for whom do we provide, if not for those we love, and for their true welfare, not for their avarice?

The child in the womb or on the operating table touches us all. It is the probe that strikes the exposed nerve. Why do opponents of the death penalty not march by the hundreds of thousands every year in the capitals of those states where murderers may be executed? The opposition is to a distant thing. If no one murders, no one will be on murderers' row. I express here no opinion on the death penalty, for or against. I do not imply that it is unimportant. It is simply distant and impersonal. Perhaps it should not be so, but it does require a real effort of the moral imagination to make the condemned men present to us, regardless of our position on their punishment.

That is not the case with abortion. Every time a man and woman go to bed together to do the child-making thing, the question is present, because they may make a child. To say, "You may not kill the child you make," is to imply, "You have no business doing this thing in bed, if you are in no position to care for a child." To imply that is to imply that we are not the lords of our bodies. The earth heaves from beneath us.

For then the entire "culture" of sexual autonomy is to be rejected. Feminism, which is based on a separation of woman's interest from man's interest, and of either interest from that of the child, is to be rejected. Man's use of woman for sexual release, without reference to the family, is to be rejected. The nightmare world of pharmaceutical and surgical mutilation, to try to squeeze the body into the phantasmagorical molds of the imagination, is to be rejected. Sodom and Gomorrah are to be rejected, Seattle and Portland, Hollywood and Wall Street, Yale and Princeton, insofar as they build upon sexual autonomy as allowing for, and lubricating the quest for, avarice in all its forms, are to be rejected. Man is for woman, and woman for man, and both together for the child.

Then let the pro-life movement be advised. We are really asking for a moral revolution. If the child lives, the mother's life will not be the same, because if we accept the principles that allow the child to live, none of our lives can be the same. There is no way to guarantee, as some pro-life people seem to want us to do, a world safe for the unborn child that is also a world of total sexual and economic autonomy. In any world in which autonomy is the highest ideal, the child - that incarnate sign of our dependence and existential poverty - must go.

The serpent says we shall be as gods. That is the argument we must defeat.

In any world in which autonomy is the highest ideal, the child - that incarnate sign of our dependence and existential poverty - must go.