“Come now, and let us reason together,” saith the Lord. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedience, ye shall eat the good of the land.”
Hello, and welcome back to Faith and Philosophy. This week’s topic is: The Naked Public Square, Part Three: The Right to Life Movement. If you’ve been following these podcasts for any time, you will have anticipated that my remarks about the right to life movement will not be very complimentary. Before presenting my bill of particulars against the right to life movement, however, I would like to say at the outset that there can be no questionable debate about the Orthodox view of abortion. It is and has always been considered the moral equivalent to murder. There can be no question of the Church liberalizing her views in this regard. Anyone who even suggests such a thing is the enemy of Christ and his Church.
The question we are addressing in these podcasts, however, is precisely the relationship between the Church’s moral teachings and practice and that of the wider civil society, in other words, the Church’s role in the public square. This is where we run into some major problems. Now, I will be the first to admit that liberalized abortion laws and certainly legalized abortion on demand are signs of a degenerate society. I will further allow that I am not happy that any of my tax dollars should go to provide or in any way facilitate the practice of abortion. Then again, I disapprove of about 99% of what the federal government does with my tax money, so that is not my primary concern.
What does concern me is that these neo-puritanical moral crusades, such as the pro-life movement, miss the boat entirely as to the real nature of our moral and social decay and have wrapped themselves in the borrowed finery of previous social reform movements and, as a result, accomplish little besides inflating the moral self-worth of those who participate. At the end of my little diatribe, I will offer what I hope are some more concrete and practical suggestions for Orthodox Christians who oppose—and oppose we must—the practice of abortion.
Let’s begin with the myriad of ways in which the contemporary pro-life movement misinterprets what is really at stake here. Now I could spend hours on this topic alone, but I’m only going to give a brief outline. I’ve said in a previous podcast that there is a very real distinction between the existential and political aspects of this problem, or, to put it in less highfalutin language, people have abortions for one reason, but the reasoning behind the liberalization of abortion laws and the public debate—if you can call it a debate—surrounding these laws is of a wholly different cloth.
In short, people have abortions because a woman became pregnant and she, or perhaps her boyfriend, doesn’t want to have a baby. It really is that simple. Abortion is a way to get rid of a very expensive and time-consuming problem. A problem, that is, from the perspective of the would-be parents. In the South, we sometimes refer to an unplanned pregnancy as “an unexpected blessing.” Of course, the crux of the moral issue is precisely the difference between seeing the pregnancy as a problem and seeing it as a blessing.
The point here is that abortion is a moral problem for real live flesh-and-blood people. Moreover, it is a problem that is directly related to sexual license within society. We cannot sever the issue from the breakdown of the traditional family structure in the West, nor can we sever the issue from those of family planning and artificial birth control. While the Pill may have played a significant role in changing sexual mores in the West, I am convinced that abortion on demand is the consequence of these changes, not the cause. All of which means that it is pointless to rail about abortion if we are not prepared to do something about the sexual climate that makes abortion attractive.
Now when you look at the loss of our young people, the number of Orthodox Christians not leading chaste lives—and let’s be honest, it’s not easy to live chastely nowadays—the number of co-habiting couples who want a Church wedding, the relative ease by which Orthodox Christians in North America can get a divorce and can get remarried, often without any penance whatsoever—it is clear that we should get our own house in order before preaching to anyone else. But, you say, we can still influence society and the laws while we are busy tidying our own house. Well, here again the right to life movement misdiagnoses the problem.
People have abortions for the sake of convenience. It is a personal moral issue. But at the level of public policy, abortion is a non-negotiable element of the pseudo-moral crusade to make all persons equal. Note that I said “persons” rather than “men,” because that is the point. Family planning in general, and abortion in particular, are essential elements in the feminist agenda. Women can never be truly equal with men as long as they are the ones who have the babies. Abortion levels the playing field. As long as Americans are wedded to Lincoln’s bastardization of Jefferson’s words, that is, as long as we see ourselves as a nation founded on the proposition of human equality, the abortion debate will be an unwinnable debate as a matter of public policy.
The left will never give one inch on abortion. Feminists were prepared to forgive Bill Clinton anything, even sexual harassment, because he was staunchly pro-abortion. Now, here’s what you will not hear on O’Reilly. The so-called right is not interested in outlawing abortion either. Had it not been for capitalism and evangelicalism, feminism would not be so firmly entrenched socially and politically. Capitalism by its very nature erodes traditional family relations and gender roles, and evangelical[ism] has been from the very beginning a largely feminized and feminizing movement, one that has morphed quite easily into women-led moral crusades.
I realize that we have all been trained by the media to think of capitalism and evangelicalism as conservative, if not reactionary, social forces. But the historical truth is just the opposite. It is simply not possible to have a real left-right debate in this country, because the so-called right is just the right wing of the left. Real conservatives are immediately labeled as extremists. This explains why the right to life movement has come to see itself as a latter-day social reform movement, the contemporary version of abolitionism. Daniel Larison, an Orthodox Christian who does political commentary for The American Conservative, recently wrote:
Pro-life activists don’t liken themselves to abolitionists and civil rights activists just to be cute. To a large degree, many of them see themselves as advocates for a righteous cause that cannot be impeded or limited by questions of jurisdiction, and they see pro-life federalist arguments as unacceptable compromises on a moral issue where there ultimately should not be any meaningful compromise.
Part of the problem here, as Larison points out, is that taking a morally absolutist view of these issues prevents one from taking more practical steps for fear of “compromising” one’s values. As a matter of fact, the only way to restrict abortion legally in this country is to do it on the local and state levels. But this does not satisfy our anti-abortion crusaders, for abortion is a moral evil that must be eradicated everywhere, not just in Pennsylvania or Tennessee.
There is, however, a more fundamental problem here. Historically, abolitionism was a disaster. Rather than freeing slaves, it made life much more difficult for them. Initially, there were far more emancipation societies in the South than in the North, but from the time William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator, around 1830-31, this new movement became so self-righteously bellicose, it made it all but impossible for emancipationists to continue to work in the South. David Goldfield, in his new book, America Aflame, cites such evangelical moral bellicosity as one of the prime reasons Americans could not find a peaceful solution to their differences. Therefore, the self-righteous and self-anointed abolitionists of the 19th century are hardly a fit model for Orthodox Christians seeking to influence public policy today.
People who see public policy issues in terms of historic moral black-and-white choice will inevitably choose violence over conversation and compromise. Moreover, by adopting the language of rights, and by imbuing that doctrine with absolute moral weight, the right to life movement has unwittingly anchored itself to the very forces that made abortion on demand a non-negotiable element of our political fabric. Instead of a society held together by shared bloodlines, language, customs, and religion, we have a continent-wide nation-state, made up of autonomous individuals and their individual rights. One does not have to be clairvoyant to see who will come out on top every time when the battle is framed as a competition between the rights of the unborn and the rights of a woman to do as she pleases with her own body.
No, abortion can only be dealt with as a public policy issue when we understand ourselves to be part of a shared moral community, based upon a shared culture. And that, as I have said many times, is only possible at the local level.
As far as I can see, the only thing the right to life movement has accomplished, apart from getting Republicans elected to office—Republicans who have done virtually nothing to get rid of abortion on demand—is to create a smug, self-righteous attitude on the part of its supporters. Let me clear about this. If someone you do not know, someone on the other side of town or the other side of the country from you has an abortion, it is not your moral concern. God has not made you or me moral guardian of the universe. Now, whether your teenagers are having premarital sex is your concern, and you’d better get a handle on that, or else you might be facing an abortion crisis yourself. The idea that we can be salt and light in the world without first getting our own house in order is the very essence of moral and spiritual delusion. And let me tell you, the world sees this for exactly what it is.
So, what can we as Orthodox Christians do about abortion? Well, first of all, don’t have one. Secondly, if someone in your family or your parish or even your neighborhood, someone with whom you have a real social connection, finds herself with an unplanned blessing, then step up to the plate. Go the extra mile in making sure that keeping the baby is a viable option. You can also donate time and money to local crisis pregnancy centers and adoption services. Abortion is, first and foremost, a moral crisis for the family involved, and our efforts should be directed toward making the right choice as easy as possible.
Only when we have succeeded in creating strong local communities, communities in which we take care of one another, can we begin to address abortion effectively as a public policy issue. Of course, none of this will affect what happens in Washington, but by building strong local communities, we make Washington less and less important in our daily lives. The fact is the evil empire’s days are numbered. The question is whether or not we will have strong local communities capable of withstanding the coming crisis.
Now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, of the Blessed Sophrony Sakharov, and of all the saints, have mercy upon us and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.