Facebook And The Intellectual High-Ground

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If you have never stopped by the Culture of Life Foundation’s Facebook Page you really should – and not just because we think social media is an important way to reach readers.

What you will see is that the briefs posted there (the same briefs posted on our website, by the way) have lately been the source of much discussion.  Specifically, those dealing with abortion have received many reader comments, perhaps a majority of which have been negative, some virulently so.  You will also see that these negative comments are, for the most part, surprisingly shallow and simplistic.  Indeed, many aren’t comments at all, but mere spasms of emotion, strings of angry words hurled about almost randomly with no thought or logic behind them.

I mention this today not to belittle our commenters or to suggest that all criticism of our work is invalid.  A handful of the negative comments are both insightful and helpful, even if most are not.  Rather, I bring this up because it is, I think, emblematic of the broader societal debate over abortion and thus indicative of the enormous challenge facing those of us who are Pro-Life.

For the better part of the last few decades, the rhetorical fight over abortion has been won clearly and decisively by the Pro-Life side.  Pro-Lifers have used science (see, for example, Dr. Pilar’s most-recent article), Natural Law, philosophy, sociology, demographics and countless other fields of serious inquiry to legitimate their arguments against abortion and to expand the nature of their opposition beyond mere religious doctrine.  By contrast, the Pro-Choice argument has largely remained unchanged since the 1970s:  it’s our right, and anyone who tries to stop us is a religious nut/misogynist/reactionary/jerk.  Or, as Kevin Williamson put it a recent piece for National Review Online:

The [Pro-Choice] feminists have been reduced to positional magic (it’s a meaningless blob of cells over here, but if it’s a foot away it’s a premature baby), foot-stamping (Hello, Mrs. Clinton), landlordism (a very young fetus cannot survive without maternal sponsorship; true, and also true of newborns, and toddlers), nihilism, and naked authoritarianism — “Because I said so!” which is, ironically enough, the classic maternal justification.

Now, the reason that the Pro-Choice arguments are so shabby by comparison to those on the Pro-Life side is, by and large, the nature of the debate.  In brief, Pro-Choice arguments are so poor, and so poorly developed, for two reasons.  First, there’s not much by way of logic or metaphysics that lends itself to the case for a civilization killing its young wholesale.  Second, and more to the point in this case, Pro-Choice arguments are so weak simply because they can be.

We in this country are constantly discussing the “politics’ of abortion or the “political” fight over the practice.  But this is a misnomer.  In absolute terms, there is no political fight over abortion.  That fight is over – or, more accurately, was preempted by the Supreme Court of the United States, first in Roe v. Wade and then in Casey v. Planned Parenthood.  Otto von Bismarck famously said that “politics is the art of the possible.”  And under American Constitutional law as it is currently understood, stopping abortion is simply NOT possible, as the late, great Father Richard John Neuhaus noted almost two decades ago:

Politics, Aristotle teaches, is free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together?  Democratic politics means that “the people” deliberate and decide that question.  In the American constitutional order the people do that through debate, elections, and representative political institutions.  But is that true today?  Has it been true for, say, the last fifty years?  Is it not in fact the judiciary that deliberates and answers the really important questions entailed in the question, How ought we to order our life together?  Again and again, questions that are properly political are legalized, and even speciously constitutionalized.

All of this, in turn, provides the Pro-Life movement with both a serious challenge and a tremendous opportunity.

The challenge, of course, is daunting and should not be taken lightly.  If, as it appears, there is no real, operative political debate in this country over abortion, then the debate we’ve come to think of as political is, in truth, cultural.  It is a clash over the very nature of the United States and who we wish to be as a people.  And that means that in order to win this clash, Pro-Lifers will have to change the culture and thus alter the very dynamic of society.

To this end, many on the Pro-Life side have compared the current abortion culture in this country with the pre-Civil War culture, which is to say an ethos that permits a grave and heinous evil, despite the fact that many in the country oppose it and almost all think it morally suspect.  Sadly, this comparison is not especially heartening.  As with abortion, slavery was an institution that defied political recourse, a seemingly intractable problem exacerbated by the Supreme Court, which, in its infamous Dred Scott decision, placed the status of black Americans outside of the democratic process.

In order to end slavery, then, the American culture had to be changed.  And while that culture was eventually changed and slavery was eventually ended in this country, none of that happened easily.  It took a bloody Civil War and, even then, a constitutional amendment (the 14th) to reverse the savagery and inhumanity officially sanctioned by Dred Scott.

Obviously, no one wants the changing of the culture this time around to be as difficult or in any way as violent.  The question is: how do we change the culture without resorting to dramatic and traumatic society-altering events?

Well, this brings us to the opportunity part.  The idea of peacefully changing the culture in this country is daunting enough.  Trying to change the culture by imbuing it with moral perspective, in an era that rejects moral absolutes, is even more difficult, almost impossibly so.  The good news is that all of the substantive arguments in this debate favor support for life.  More to the point, all of the well-rehearsed arguments favor support for life as well.

It is worth noting here, I think, that the above quote from Fr. Neuhaus is taken from his introduction to a 1996 First Things symposium on the “usurpation” of American democracy by the judicial branch of the federal government.  In the nearly two decades since, the federal judiciary has unquestionably stepped up and expanded its usurpation of the will of the people.  At the same time, though, attitudes about abortion are, slowly but surely, moving in a positive direction.  Most Americans – an absolute majority – believe that abortion in the second trimester (or beyond) should be illegal.  Most believe that common-sense restrictions should be applied to abortion.  And the percentage of the population that believes that abortion should be “legal in all circumstances” has fallen by roughly 15%.  That’s not exactly enough movement to change the culture, but it’s a start.

It is also worth noting that culture cannot be expected to change overnight, no matter how forcefully and effectively a case is made.  It took this country nearly six decades to get from Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal,”) to Brown v. the Board of Education.  Long story short (if that’s possible any more): culture wars can be won, even if the cultural matter in question is locked out of the political process.  And in this case, especially because the matter is locked out of the political process.

At some point – and I suspect that this point will be after the Baby Boomers have passed from the political scene – the arguments currently being practiced, polished, and employed by Pro-Lifers will have more of a cultural impact.  “Because we said so,” or “women’s health!” are not arguments.  Certainly they are not arguments that have much of a chance of persuading anyone that abortion is a societal good.  Granted, working our way through the cultural institutions is an arduous and slow process; and as we make our way, too many lives are lost.  But, ending abortion cannot be accomplished by politics and policy alone.  Even if we elect enough Pro-Life presidents to pack the court with like-minded individuals apt to overturn Roe, that would not stop abortion in most of the country.

Protecting all lives will prove a long and protracted battle.  But as our Facebook comments show, that battle is half-won, given that our opponents have ceded the intellectual high-ground.

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Steve Soukup