Each issue of The Pilgrims Review features two perspectives on a selected issue that relates to Christian faith and life. Participants in “The Forum” sometimes may defend viewpoints that are radically different, and at other times may agree more than they disagree. But the conversations are always in-depth and respectful.
This Forum’s issue offers two perspectives on the thorny question of abortion. Our Forum contributors are Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers and Rev. Robin Jarrell.
(Alfred Kentigern Siewers)
This fall a twenty-something woman from Glasgow, Leyla Josephine, gained brief notoriety for a piece of video slam poetry entitled “I Think She Was a She.”
She celebrated how she had her unborn (apparently late-term) daughter killed, and was not ashamed. “I would’ve supported her right to choose,” she said proudly in her performance poem. “To choose a life for herself, a path for herself. I would’ve died for that right like she died for mine. I’m sorry, but you came at the wrong time.”
Of course the problem here was that her daughter never had a choice.
Now comes billionaire political sugar daddy David Koch, bragging to Barbara Walters about how he’s not such a bad guy. That’s because he’s not just an economic conservative who funds right-wing campaigns, but a social liberal who supports abortion rights.
Koch is a libertarian notorious among liberals for flooding money into political causes that advance what they perceive as an elitist right-wing agenda.
What’s the common denominator between the seemingly totally different political personas of Josephine and Koch?
A disposable libertarian approach to life that cuts across various wings of the political spectrum to support the sacrifice of life by the least powerless.
It’s why it’s hard for traditional Christians to find a niche in American politics.
My Orthodox Christian friend Rod Dreher recently wrote a column in The American Conservative which he all but endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president after her recent stand against corporate socialism. Although traditional in faith and socially conservative in politics, Dreher is fed up with the corruption of the Republican and Democratic establishments. He laments how our wealth gap today is aided and abetted by our technocracy, enabled by clouds of both libertarian rhetoric and often nihilistic cries for social justice.
But while many on the left like Warren perceive corporate abuse of power clearly, they often paradoxically celebrate the acute abuse of power that is abortion, in the name of individual rights clothed as social justice.
Many abortion advocates like Josephine, in America as well as in Europe, now seek not only a “safe space” for abortion rights, but a “brave space” in which to assert it as a positive good.
American versions of the Glasweegian Josephine’s flippant attitude toward life, embracing violence in the cause of ideology may foreshadow day of reckoning in the next generation or two, as the grandchildren of libertarian amoralists like Josephine and Koch come of age. We may yet see the American equivalent of the Russian Revolution’s bloodshed and totalitarianism, as foretold by Dostoevsky, the Mexican Revolution’s secularist violence as chronicled by Graham Greene, or the dissolution of the Reichstag.
If so, the folly of the Right in abetting oppression will bear much of the blame. But so will the insouciance of the Left toward the rights of the most powerless.
Libertarian utilitarianism, alas, is to be found on both sides of the political aisle in Western technocracy today. There’s really not much difference between the libertarianism of Josephine and of Koch. The official ideology behind it is a kind of disembodied gnostic consumerism, but with a zeal for individual rights that is a twisted atheistic version of the Social Gospel.
There have been alternatives in American history to such cultural libertarianism.
The rhetorician Richard M. Weaver found one such alternative in Abraham Lincoln. Weaver, a key figure in the post-World War II Right, went deeper than many American conservatives in critiquing Edmund Burke’s reactionary Whig advocacy of common sense and embracing Lincoln’s moral vision. In his book The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver placed Burke in only the second tier of rhetoric, in the category of “argument from circumstance.” The latter means in effect, “This is the way things are, so let’s keep them going that way.”
By contrast, Weaver reserved highest praise for the founding father of the Republican Party.
He saw Lincoln’s greatness stemming from what the rhetorician called “argument from definition.” To Weaver, Lincoln argued from a deep moral sense of the wrongness and rightness of certain things, ultimately including the wrongness of slavery.
As Richard Brookhiser notes in his recent book about Lincoln, Founders’ Son, amid the terrible toll of the Civil War Lincoln increasingly turned from the Founding Fathers to God the Father for inspiration. His statement in the Gettysburg Address that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” completed the Declaration of Independence’s statement that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, under laws of Nature and of “Nature’s God.”
Lincoln’s vision in effect made God, not our individual desires, the authority for what our constitutional republic should be. The republic was not to be a libertarian sandbox for the likes of Josephine and Koch. It was to offer the inalienable right of life, among others, to all human beings made in the image of God. This was the same magic as J.R.R. Tolkien’s symbolical “anarcho-monarchism.” It was in effect a “soft establishment” of Judaeo-Christian values, albeit one overturned by the courts after World War II as the new national security state became a de facto state god of its own..
For while the U.S. Constitution borrowed mechanics of a federal system, balance of power, and checks and balances, from the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, it didn’t borrow the Haudenosaunee dedication to a context of spiritual life in their Seventh Generation ethos.
Lincoln helped add that larger context for a time.
But today’s secular libertarianism makes it difficult to preserve and renew any larger context of the public realm. On much of the Left and Right it fosters a career mindset set in the struggle for survival and the survival of the fittest, grounded in a consumerist Social Darwinism, to the detriment of family life and civil society. The rights of individuals, and the rights of for-profit corporations and of the state as Hobbesian persons, all gain equal footing in the struggle.
Against this trend seemingly simple weapons can be powerful in counter-cultural resistance to abortion, nonetheless. For example, (1) the emergence of ultrasound pictures showing the unborn, and (2) crafting of a more poetic “pro-life” rhetoric, such as the March for Life’s slogan from Dr. Seuss, “A person is a person no matter how small.”
I prefer an older Glasweegian slam poem to Josephine’s. It is a traditional rhyme celebrating the sixth-century saint whose name I received at baptism, Kentigern Mungo of Glasgow:
Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam
Against this we have Josephine’s poetry: “here is the girl who was never born.”
The old verse commemorates miraculous works by the saint, reminding us of larger contexts of life than our own desires.
The mystery of the hagiography celebrates the mystery of Nature as both that which is and that which is not—extending to those born and those not yet visible, in the tradition of the Seventh Generation ethos of the Iroquois, in which the needs of seven generations to come must be taken into account.
Here in the central Susquehanna Valley, a sculpture on the campus of Bucknell University illustrates both the trans-generational Native Seventh Generation ethos and the secular-libertarian fall from it in our own society.
The modern sculpture bears the name “Seven Generations,” but figures of only six generations survive in today’s outdoor campus version of the 1991 installation by the Dutch-born sculptor Frederick Franck.
That’s because pro-abortion activists years ago removed the seventh-generation piece from the work. It looked too much like a fetus.
The mostly un-noticed missing piece in the sculpture, contrasting with the proclamation of seven generations on its sign across decades, is no mere optical illusion on this liberal arts campus.
It symbolizes the myopia of a secularist libertarian culture that affects all sides of the Western political spectrum today, and seeks to squelch opposition from a privileged “brave space”—even when that involves stealing a piece of an art work and pretending it was never there; or a child’s life.
My learned colleague focuses on the moral status of the “brave new abortion” activism found in secular ideology. Citing Josephine’s poetic stance on abortion, he underscores many of the ideas that can be found in Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (Picador, 2014). In this self-styled “Abortion Manifesto,” Pollitt argues for abortion as a moral right and a social good. She reasons that abortion has been a part of women’s (non) reproductive lives for the whole of civilization and that “re-framing” it as a moral good will remove the hostility and stigma that haunt women who choose to terminate a pregnancy.
Even from a secular standpoint, however, Pollitt’s claim that abortion is a moral right obscures an uncomfortable issue that many feminists who argue for women’s right to “choose” fail to consider. Yes, women have been having abortions since the dawn of civilization. And I leave aside the hopeful work of such scholars such as Marija Gimbutas (The Civilization of the Goddess) and Riane Eisler (The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future) who postulate the existence of a more egalitarian civilization pre-Mesopotamia. But all written and historical civilization has been nurtured under the umbrella of Patriarchy in one form or another. To argue for the moral right of women to have an abortion is to ignore the fact that abortion is a symptom of a deeper and more complex problem.
In my perfect feminist world, abortions would not be necessary because women and men would have access to completely effective contraception, rape would not exist, and no child would be conceived who was not wanted. Once women are given abortion as a “choice,” society has failed on so many levels.
Not surprisingly, Pollitt aims much of her invective against “pro-rights” activists concerning the role of religion and women’s reproductive rights, weakly arguing that since neither the Old nor New testaments say anything about abortion, it is not “forbidden.” She decries the way in which “religion” (broadly defined) subjugates women without questioning the complex notion of cultural interpretations that sanction religious views in order to oppress women in the name of “religion.” This brings me back to my original critique, for, as feminist theologian Mary Daly opined, “Patriarchy is the prevailing religion of the planet.” There is still much theological work to be done to disentangle women’s spiritual lives from oppressive religious views which, unfortunately, also informs much American public policy. But I do not believe that “re-framing” a symptom of Patriarchy solves the issue.
I do agree with Pollitt on one point, however: that the issue of women’s spiritual lives as well as their reproductive rights hinge on the issue of control.
Pollitt believes, I think, that by taking an offensive stance on abortion, by calling it a moral right, she can erase the question of taking life. Her argument that the fetus is “not a person,” still does not answer for me the status of a fetus as “a potential person,” nor does it remove the real fact of ending a life, person or no. But her boldness ignores much of the unsaid part of what women fear in the abortion debate. From the moment women anticipate becoming women, and at every stage of our lives, women are in great danger of losing control of their bodies. We wait with the anxiety that our wombs will spill blood and we will not be ready to catch it. We live in danger of being raped, either by a stranger, but more often, by someone we have been told to trust. We lose control when we are summoned to the clinic by doctors, who determine the status of our breasts (cancerous?) and our ovaries and uterus (sexually transmitted diseases? More cancer?) on a yearly basis once we have started our menstrual cycle. And then there is the contraception conundrum. Nothing is absolutely effective, we are told, so we lose control of our reproductive process in order to gain control over our sexual lives.
Since Patriarchy is not going away anytime soon, the debate on abortion, both theological and secular, will continue. One thing that Pollitt rightly observes is that the “abortion debate” is really a two-sided issue, with motherhood being on the other end of the coin. Really valuing the work of parenting, by giving parental paid leave, providing better systems of care and support of parents and children is one way to staunch the wasteful symptom of Patriarchy known as “abortion.”