Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Abortion and God

Reading lots of abortion commentary from Catholic authors writing about the Democratic platform, Biden, Pelosi, Obama-at-Saddleback, etc.

I disagree with many Catholic authors who say "it's just patently obvious from science that there's a human person from conception." I don't think personhood is determined by DNA. Dead bodies have human DNA, but that doesn't give them the same rights as live ones. At least some reference needs to be made to the soul -- and then you either have a disembodied soul, in which case even the DNA would be irrelevant, or you have a soul that is the form of a body, in which case not just DNA, but the body itself has some pertinence. I think abortion is grievously wrong at any stage, but I don't think it's obvious why.

But I also think that the category of rights is more religious than people want to think it is. Thou shalt not kill is not entirely obvious.

I recently read Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Civilization." (I don't recommend it -- tedious.) He defines decadence as when a society likes what it has but no longer knows why it has it. In the time of the decline, the Romans still loved their Empire, but they'd forgotten the virtues that built it. And I think he'd say that "Western Culture," including the arts, but even more including things like individual liberty, is just . . . well, Chesterton said it's like a corpse, where the outside is still the same, but the animating principle is gone, so it looks like the same person . . . until all of the sudden the face caves in. Ick.

I think there's a little of that, where we (liberals and conservatives, Catholics and atheists and agnostics, etc.) all believe that things like "all men are created equal and endowed with rights" are just "self-evident," but they really aren't. The notion that you should do unto others, that you shouldn't murder, etc. -- I don't think we really know where these things come from, or why we believe them. And I think that's evidenced a bit in the abortion debate. Why shouldn't we kill our children again? Well, mostly because we don't like that. But we don't know why, and so when it comes to the really tricky cases, like where the child is seriously impeding the liberties of the mother (and pregnancy is a huge impediment!), we get a bit squishy.

In the end, I think there are only two ways of resolving debates on civil law. (Three, if you count the simple power principle: I have power, so the law serves me.) One conception of law is by reference to contract: I agree not to kill you, so you agree not to kill me. But on this basis, lines can be drawn arbitrarily. If we all promise not to kill people under the age of thirty, I'm fine. I think this contract mentality is operative, and fully coherent, in the pro-choice argument: you can't kill unless someone is seriously trampling on your individual liberty; the fetus tramples on the liberty of the mother; therefore . . . . This is a perfectly rational argument, and social conservatives make themselves look dumb when they pretend it isn't.

(Incidentally, even Obama's "extreme" support of infanticide for children born by botched abortions works fine in this logic. The mother has a right to kill her unborn child. And it's fair enough to say that the mother has a right not to suffer unduly from that child surviving. Since it would be horribly traumatic to see the child you tried to kill accorded full human dignity, I think it's perfectly reasonable, in a contract view of law, to say that you have the right to have the job finished, the born-alive infant allowed to die.)

The other argument against killing is based on natural law. But we -- many good Catholics included -- need to realize that natural law does not mean "plain obvious moral sense," and it does not mean contract. Natural law, as it comes to us from the Catholic tradition, means that nature is normative, that we live in accord with how God made things. We respect, for example, the divine creation of motherhood, by which a mother is inseparably bound to her child. This isn't imposed from the outside: mother's are happier when they live according to their nature, and mothers who abort their children are always torn apart by it. So in a sense, it is common sense: it doesn't take a genius to see that killing your children is not good for mothers.

But nonetheless, ultimately natural law hinges on more than judgments of expedience. The reason we don't kill babies is because it is wrong. It is wrong because it violates our natures -- but it violates our natures because we have natures, and we have natures because we are a product, not of random evolution, but of the wise providence of God. You don't need to think of God every time you evoke natural law, but without God, natural law falls apart. It is not a coincidence that the people pushing for the rights of the weakest are the people who believe in a provident God, and the opposite side keeps God at a distance. Nor is it a coincidence that our culture of individual rights grew up out of Christianity. Individual rights is not obvious. It's nice; it feels good; but in the end, without the animating principle of divine faith, individual rights begins to give way to me first.

When Catholics talk about abortion, they shouldn't say, "it's just blatantly obvious from the DNA that this is a person deserving respect." They should say, "you're damned right that my respect for the person comes from my faith. Here's why I believe in human dignity. Why do you? Can you give a better account? Can you explain why you have any rights at all? Until you do, don't tell me to keep my faith out of politics. I care for you because of my faith."