Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Abortion Debate: When Passion Overrides Reason

I’ve been thinking about abortion lately. I should say, I’ve been halfway thinking about abortion, because my real thinking about abortion has long since been done. While I remain open to revision of my positions in any area whatsoever, I’ve pretty much amassed the evidence that satisfies me regarding most positions, and pretty much drawn my conclusions. Unless something startlingly new comes along to unsettle those conclusions, I’ve come to see them as bedrock parts of my reality, as I go about my daily business.

It’s impossible to avoid abortion right now. It’s impossible to avoid it as a game-changing issue thrust into your face from several sides of the political and religious spheres right now, an issue always thrust in your face to imply that every political, religious, and moral game possible needs to be changed, and that you have an obligation to change your life radically in those areas because of abortion. I’m pretty sure the abortion debate is designed to be that way at this particular moment in American political life, and that this is why the New York Times published a conspicuously shoddy piece of journalism by Damien Cave today, which does all but stand on its head to convince us that being passionately anti-abortion is synonymous with being Christian.

I say that I think the issue of abortion is designed to be in our faces right now, because I believe it’s being used by various groups as the final, stop-the-presses maneuver to halt health care reform—or, at least, any version of health care reform except the sole version palatable to that particular group. The U.S. Catholic bishops have just released a statement that they will be bitterly and overtly opposed to any health care reform bill that translates into financial support of any sort for abortion—not a surprising statement, but nonetheless surprising in that it is perhaps their single most unambiguous and outspoken statement during the entire health care reform process.

This renewed pushing, shoving, shouting, and threatening on the part of anti-abortion activists is having the effect of making me step back and re-think not my fundamental positions about abortion, but more precisely, why and how I arrived at those positions. For the first time in a long time, as the shoving becomes stronger and the shouting louder, I’m seeing in a comprehensive way, rather than a point-by-point way, what it is that makes me very skeptical of the claims of the religious right—and of my own Catholic church—about abortion.

I’m predisposed to be convinced. I find it intuitively obvious that the life of another human being makes a moral claim on me, and that the defenseless deserve my engagement more than anyone else does.

But I’m unpersuaded by the anti-abortion arguments put forth by my brothers and sisters of the right, for all kinds of reasons. I’m unpersuaded that many—the majority, really—of those promoting these arguments are really serious about an ethic of life, and that, if given the free rein they are demanding to shape our culture, they’d produce a culture conspicuous for its respect for life.

Most of all, I’m unpersuaded because I don't really hear anti-abortion activists trying to persuade me. Not through reason, that is. Not through the same kind of reason that all other groups, religious or otherwise, seek to use in the public square, when they want to get the rest of us to buy into the legitimacy of a moral or political argument.

I feel bullied, threatened, shouted at. I don't feel engaged in a reasonable discussion. I haven’t found any of the anti-abortion activists I know or observe in the media or at public gatherings focusing on reason at all. I find them doing something else, and that is the starting point for my fundamental concerns about the anti-abortion movement, and what it intends.

What I see has everything to do with the classic interplay of reason and passion in political, religious, and moral issues. At its best, the Catholic approach to the moral life has always held that moral issues should somehow be based in reason. Not entirely based. Not absolutely reasonable.

But somehow based in, connected to, related to reason. Accessible to reason, so that thinking people anywhere should be able to appreciate these moral arguments as persuasive, decent, and worth taking seriously.

None of this is what I find going on with the anti-abortion crusade. I haven’t found it going on with the anti-abortion crusade for some time now.

I have the distinct impression that those who are appealing to me from various quarters to buy into their belief that abortion is the premier moral issue of our time, that the practice of abortion undermines the moral foundations of a society and all claims that society makes to human decency, that a conceptus one-day old has the same moral status as a fetus at nine months, are not appealing to my reason. I have the distinct impression that those promoting these positions aren’t, on the whole, motivated by reason at all.

And that disturbs me. If people are trying to push me to a position about an issue that is not accessible to reason at all, if they want me to buy their moral argument while completely ignoring my reason and while completely forgetting that moral reasoning is about reason first and foremost, something has to be wrong.

If people’s most fundamental instinct about a moral issue is to resort to coercion, manipulation of facts, and attempts to legislate the implementation of a position held by a minority of the population to impose it on everyone else, I begin to wonder why they are promoting their particular moral position, and what they mean by that position.

As I understand it, truly persuasive moral positions have about them a certain air of self-evidency, once one has done one’s intellectual and philosophical homework. Truly persuasive moral positions grab one's attention because they're cogent, they handle the evidence at our disposal well, and they convince one of their claim on one’s heart and mind.

I should be clear what I mean by these statements, particularly by the insistence that truly persuasive moral positions have about them a certain air of self-evidency. I don’t mean to say that persuasive moral positions are self-evident.

What I do mean to say is that they have the ring of authenticity for those who have thought seriously about a particular topic, and who have remained open to the best knowledge and information about that topic as they have thought it through. They have the effect of appearing to place a capstone on reasonable reflection about the issue in question. Their appeal is quasi-aesthetic: they “fit,” they make sense of the data in front of us. They persuade because they are clear and beautiful, as much as because they are rational.

The arguments set forth against abortion by much of the pro-life movement in the U.S. right now don’t have that ring of truth for me. They don’t have that cogency. They don’t have that intellectual force behind them. They seem not aesthetically appealing but the opposite. They seem based more in passion—and often in prejudice—than in reason.

And that concerns me. I am far from being a classic Enlightenment ideologue when it comes to issues of reason and passion. I am far from being persuaded that reason alone is a sufficient guide to anything at all, including questions of right and wrong.

But I do see why the thinkers of the Enlightenment ended up where they did on questions of reason and passion. They were reacting in a completely understandable way to the ugly, bloody wars of religion that had decimated entire areas of Europe in the preceding century.

Enlightenment philosophers called for reason as a check on passion because they did not want to continue and to replicate the bloodshed of the previous century, in European political and cultural life. The founding figures of the United States rejected the domination of religion in public life because they were heavily indebted to the Enlightenment, with its central insight that unbridled passion, passion fed by prejudice and/or religious presuppositions alone, has the potential to be a singularly disruptive force in human life.

I fear that if we permit those crusading against abortion at this moment in human history to carry the day, while they prescind from respectful rational arguments to convince the rest of us of the legitimacy of their crusade, we could be in for another dark and bloody period of human history. One darker and bloodier by far than those crusading against abortion claim we are living through right now, while abortion is legal . . . .

The graphic is François Dubois's "La Saint-Barthélemy," depicting the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.