Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pro-Life? I Don't Think So: Trying to Put Lipstick on the Pig

Okay, I want to talk about the pro-life issue.

I have refrained from doing so up to now for two reasons. The first is that the term “pro-life” has been so sloganized and stretched in every direction possible that it is, for all intents and purposes, practically meaningless.

The second is that I try to choose my battles carefully. Years back, an African-American friend I admire, someone who lived through the Civil Rights struggle in New Orleans, told me something I have never forgotten.

She said that African Americans have had to learn when to fight, and when to let a fight go. She pointed out that fighting every fight that came along could either 1) get a body killed pretty quickly, or 2) burn you out so much that you had no reservoir of energy left when the really important fight came along.

As someone openly gay—as an openly gay theologian—I’m already fighting a big fight in refusing to shut up about my insistence that churches stop viewing gay human beings through the lens of stigmatizing otherness, and begin talking to us and treating us as persons and not things. I do not want to undercut that battle, to which I’m called existentially by the fact of having been made as God has made me, by engaging in equally monumental battles that make something less of an existential claim on me, no matter how important they are otherwise.

And there’s also the unavoidable fact that one of the basest and most persistent ways in which structures bent on demeaning and expelling gay human beings accomplish that task is by attributing to every single gay person on the planet an anti-life ethic. Much of the anti-gay rhetoric that arises out of the dark places in our society and churches trades on the insinuation that gay people are incapable of reproducing, and must therefore be intent on destroying life, and are thus pro-abortion baby-killers.

Be openly gay—be an openly gay theologian—and suggest that the debate about abortion is considerably more complex than those who have reduced it to a slogan-slinging punching match are willing to admit, and you’re liable to find yourself pounced on by any number of malicious lunatics who have just been waiting for you to prove that pro-gay = anti-life = baby-killer.

There’s no way around the abortion debate, however. There is no escape because 1) significant controverted moral issues make a claim on all of us, insofar as being human and a member of human society is to make value judgments; 2) the religious right refuses to stop using the debate as a tool to silence all moral discourse that is not directly controlled by the religious right; 3) I am a Catholic theologian, and this debate directly engages my co-religionists and me, as a political challenge. It is designed by the religious right to do that. There is no way to avoid engaging not only the issue of abortion, but the maleficent intent of many who use abortion (and the pro-life slogan) as the ultimate end-all-discussion weapon.

The preceding paragraph is central to my argument. It’s impossible to argue the pros and cons of abortion—the morality of abortion—in isolation from the political use that the religious right (and its political fellow travelers) have made of this issue in our culture for several decades now. What might have been a sane, academic, careful ethical discussion is now a heated political discussion—and entirely because the religious right and its political allies have driven the discussion in this direction.

They have worked hard to frame the discussion, to control the conversation, such that anyone suggesting the issues are more complex than the simplistic slogans of we-kill-babies or we-refuse-to-kill-babies permit us to see. This framing of the conversation is deliberate: the pro-life card is the ultimate trump card in the religious right’s hand, in some key respects the only card it has left to play, to stop various progressive movements it resists even more fundamentally, while it claims to oppose abortion.

For this reason, because the deck is stacked, the conversation framed, it’s perilous to step into the arena of discussion with sane suggestions and a belief in rationality as the best guide for civil discussion of controversial issues in a pluralistic society. The religious and political right do not want this issue to be discussed rationally. They do not intend to permit it to be discussed rationally. Call for rational discussion, and they will wave pictures of dead babies in your face and tell you are slime to think that this issue warrants discussion.

So that’s where the conversation begins and ends: dead babies. And, as plain truth (the rationality the religious right wants to exclude from the arena) recognizes, no one wants dead babies! This is why the slogan “pro-life” is ultimately meaningless: despite the stark (and false) dichotomies of killing babies or not killing babies that the religious right wishes to impose on the abortion conversation, no one is anti-life!

Do you know anyone who goes around proclaiming that his or her social ethic is in favor of abolishing and attacking life, of creating a culture of death? I don’t. Of course, I know that some people have pathological attractions to death, and that they sometimes act on those attractions.

But those folks aren’t in my circle of acquaintances. I read about them in the newspaper occasionally, and I pity them—I hope they find healing and treatment for their pathology.

We are all pro-life, insofar as we go on choosing to live and refraining from murdering the people around us. Calling oneself pro-life is meaningless in a social context in which the vast majority of one’s fellow human beings are every bit as much committed to the maintenance and betterment of life as you are.

Those who see more nuance in the abortion debate than pro-lifers do are not anti-life. It is decidedly unhelpful to this public conversation to seek to frame these folks as anti-life. It is possible, in fact, that in key respects, those who see more nuance in the abortion debate than pro-lifers are significantly more pro-life than are many pro-lifers. Framing the discussion to prevent the contribution of those who call for nuanced and rational discussion prevents the contribution of people who have a strong pro-life ethic—in key respects, stronger than that of most pro-lifers—from entering the public square.

And that impairs us all. That contributes to the proliferation of places in our society in which hate—anti-life impulses—thrive, and out of which they rise. Religious leaders who have allowed, and even worked for, the narrowing of the pro-life perspective and debate to a single option centered on abortion are contributing to the destruction of our society and the ethic of cthe ommon good that serves it. In how they have handled the abortion issue, they have encouraged (and they continue to encourage) the manifestation of fascist impulses in our culture that target those who seek to build a better society in many areas other than the area of pre-natal care.

News flash: these are not new insights! The abortion issue has been very carefully examined by theologians, ethicists, pastoral leaders for decades now, and both its complexity and its capability to act as a center for the coalescence of either progressive or regressive social tendencies has been talked to death.

With the ultimate outcome being a hardening of lines on the part of the religious right, including the top leaders of the Catholic church, who simply shut the conversation down, insofar as they could not control it. When you hear Catholic bishops today claiming that the Catholic church has always taught that life begins at the moment of conception, and that deliberate procured abortion from the moment of conception is always heinously wrong, please keep in mind that these same bishops shut down a conversation which long ago recognized that 1) the conclusion that a human person is present from the moment of conception is a very recent development in Catholic teaching, and 2) key Catholic thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas, have held that the fetus is not ensouled until the period of its implantation in the uterine wall.

Keep in mind, in other words, that the bishops know that they are misrepresenting the complexity of the tradition they cite, when they claim that the Catholic church has always taught that life begins at conception and that direct procured abortion from the moment of conception is always gravely wrong. One is hard put not to conclude that they are deliberately misrepresenting the Catholic tradition, in order to underscore their own ownership of this complex issue, and their right to teach, as the sole and final arbiter of the discussion.

As anyone who thinks carefully about this issue for a moment realizes, there is a huge difference between saying, “Life begins at conception,” and saying, “A human person is present from the moment of conception.” It is undeniable that “life” is present from the moment a sperm fertilizes an ovum. For that matter, “life” is present in the sperm and the ovum apart from their union.

The question at stake is whether the fertilized ovum has the status of a human person. And that question is far, far from being as resolved as the final-word approach of the bishops wants us to believe it is. If a human person is present from the moment sperm encounters ovum, why are the vast majority of fertilized ova spontaneously aborted before the ovum implants? Is God, then, an abortionist?

If a human person is present from the moment sperm encounters ovum, what are we to make of the phenomenon of twinning, which occurs down the road from conception, a phenomenon in which one fertilized ovum splits to form twins—two persons, and not one person? To ask these questions—and the religious right (and the Catholic bishops) do not want us to ask them—is to underscore how fatuous it is to call oneself pro-life, and to mean by that that anyone who sees more complexity to the abortion issue than almost all pro-lifers do is anti-life.

I am deliberately not wading into the theological and philosophical depths of the abortion discussion. I am not doing so because this is a discussion that has already taken place, with people far more capable than I am making significant contributions to the discussion, and then finding themselves silenced and censured—and branded as anti-life—by the Catholic bishops and their religious right allies. People far more capable than I am have also noted that, regarding other moral issues, the Catholic tradition has often avoided trying to force society to toe its moral line, in pluralistic democratic societies. To revisit the discussion is to give power to those who continue to want to hedge the discussion about with taboos.

Instead, we need to shift our analysis today to the ongoing effects—negative effects, destructive effects—on our society of those who continue to use the pro-life slogan as the ultimate rallying cry of a movement that is really all about standing athwart history and shouting stop. The pro-life movement, as it has come to be embodied in our culture by the religious right, is about much more than preventing abortion from the moment of conception.

It is also about prohibiting sex education in our schools; it is about making it well-nigh impossible for anyone to attain access to contraception, if the pro-life theocracy can finally be established; it is about requiring women to submit to men in the name of God; it is about keeping women from exercising power in corporate, political, and ecclesial power structures; it is about defending ruthless capitalism against proposals to curb ruthless capitalism in the name of the common good; it is about allowing the destruction of the environment by uncurbed capitalism; it is about keeping the death penalty and declaring unjust wars. It is about bashing gay persons, preventing us from having civil rights including protection from discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare, and so on. It is about resisting hate-crime laws that would protect us and other minorities from continued susceptibility to violence in this "pro-life" and "Christian" nation.

It is about trying to put lipstick on the pig that is our society, a society far from the pro-life ethic in many significant respects, and, sadly, particularly far from the pro-life ethic in its churches . . . .

It is not, in the final analysis, about life at all—not in the most significant ways in which we all encounter the ethic to continue and preserve life in our everyday lives. And insofar as my own bishops continue to buy into simplistic pro-life sloganizing and try to silence everyone who asks for something more in both the abortion debate and the debate about a consistent ethic of life, my own bishops are doing something sinful and destructive. To the common good. And to the church they pastor.

And I have an obligation as a Catholic to say that, outright.