Profiles in self-deception
Abortion requires obfuscation, cannot survive the Truth
Ten days after Remembrance Day (November 21, 2010), the Toronto Star, Canada’s highest-circulation newspaper, ran a massive four-page “Insight” feature explaining how an abortionist can reconcile his strong support for “women’s rights” with his personal life. One might imagine a future Remembrance Day when the unborn are remembered and memorialized. Major John McCrae’s celebrated poem could equally apply to the unborn as to the World War I soldiers who lie in Flanders Field:
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep.
The “foe” in today’s situation, according to the Star, would be pro-life people. The essence of Remembrance Day – that those whose lives were prematurely terminated shall not have died in vain – has been missed. Somehow, in the abortion war, the victimizers have become the heroes, while the victims are not to be remembered.
The Star’s feature, “A Young Abortion Doctor’s Dilemma,” focuses on a personal problem of a somewhat unusual nature. The pseudonymous Dr. Evan James has been married to another man for two years. The couple has begun the adoption process. They “desperately” want a child. But how could James explain to his prospective adopted child what he does for a living? After all, his son or daughter would have been born only because his mother chose not to abort. Moreover, every abortion removes another baby from the adoption pool. Is there something inconsistent, perhaps even hypocritical, about doing away with adoptable babies, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, wanting one for yourself? Hence, the dilemma.
Immanuel Kant’s well-known “categorical imperative” comes into play in such a scenario: “act always so that you can will the maxim as the determining principle of your action to become universal law.” If every unborn child is aborted, there are no babies for adoption. If no unborn children are aborted, there are no abortionists. We must find a way, added Albert Camus, in which “we are neither victims nor executioners.”
A lothario may want to marry a woman of unsullied virtue, but if being a lothario is universalized, the supply of virtuous women begins to disappear. The Golden Rule bids us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This principle overlies the principle of equality. In the context of the “young doctor’s dilemma,” he should do unto his prospective children as he would want others to treat them. He cannot be indifferent about others killing the child he hopes to raise.
How does the young doctor resolve this formidable dilemma? He resolves it in his own mind on the basis of not being “pro-abortion” but of being “pro-choice.” Therefore, he can have, as he says, “one foot in an abortion clinic and the other in an adoption agency.” He adds: “I don’t think I’ll ever have trouble being honest with my children about telling them what I do. To me, it will allow me to say to my child: your mother had a choice, and she decided that you should be here and wanted somebody to care for you.” Of course, he may never know the whole truth. His adopted child’s mother might have been dissuaded from aborting by pro-life people. This would be a debt to “anti-choice” people that he would be reluctant to enter.
Unfortunately, the doctor has not resolved his dilemma, but created a deeper one. If every child is abortable, and his only hope for continued life hangs on the slender thread of his mother’s will, it is only because he possesses no value in himself, and consequently no right to go on living. In thus evacuating value from the unborn, the doctor creates a new dilemma: how can one love a child if that child has neither value nor rights? Does the will create a child’s lovableness? Is the child a mere cipher and its only hope of surviving depends on another’s ego-gratification? One cannot love the vacuous. In fact, love is a response to the inherent value of the other. It is not a power play. But will the young doctor, in the interest of being “honest,” say to his future child: “when you were an unborn child, I did not care one way or the other whether you lived or died, because I am pro-choice. Nevertheless, and for whatever reason, your mother did not abort you and here you are.” The child has every good reason to worry about his adoptive father changing his choice again. Choice without commitment is caprice.
The abortionist in the Toronto Star story also greatly underestimates the common sense realism of a child. In her book, The Ambivalence of Abortion, Linda Bird Francke records a conversation she had with her 12-year-old son, Andrew. Not wanting to reveal that she aborted his sibling, she broached the problem hypothetically: “Suppose I had an abortion?” She was not prepared for the vehemence of his response: “How could you kill something – no matter how little it is – that’s going to grow and have legs and wiggle its fingers? I would be furious with you if you had an abortion. I’d lose all respect for you for being so selfish. I’d make you suffer and remind you of it all the time.” Andrew is the bratty kid who has the nerve to point out that the emperor is naked.
On a deeper level, Andrew is defending his own intrinsic worth. Unborn babies should not be appraised solely from the outside, as if they possessed no inherent dignity of their own. He was also insisting that mothers should be mothers and have an unswerving devotion to all their offspring. All this was lost on his mother who dismissed the legitimacy of her son’s response by categorizing him as being “deeply moralistic, as many children are at that age.” Andrew, however, has no reason to separate consequence from choice and treat choice as an end in itself. He is not, on the matter of abortion, a candidate for self-deception.
Being pro-choice can justify any iniquity. But there is just enough ambiguity about being pro-choice to deceive people into thinking that it is not something open to recklessness, but something eminently positive. It is one thing to affirm the God-given capacity for choice. Virtually everyone is pro-choice in this sense. No one wants people to be walking zombies, devoid of the capacity to choose. Then there is what one chooses, something that could be either commendable or reprehensible. This is not a difficult distinction for people to grasp, even when they are not in a philosophical mood.
Enter Ron White, a popular stand-up comic who has a series of sketches that fall under the banner of “Stupid is Forever.” White’s unpretentious image – a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other – is further embellished by his engaging Texas drawl. His stage presence is telling his audience, “Look, I’m just an ordinary, carnal kind of guy, but even I can recognize stupidity when I see it.” He is far more clever, however, than what his stylized image projects.
In one of his sketches, he refers to a Florida resident who, at 53 years-of age, believes he is in good enough physical condition to withstand the wind, rain, and hail from a Force-5 hurricane. White has some sound advice for this over-confident health enthusiast: “Now, lemme explain somethin’ to ya: it isn’t that the wind is blowin’. It’s what the wind is blowin’. If you get hit by a ‘Volvo’ it don’t matter how many situps you did that mornin’!” His audience laughs uproariously. No self-deception here.
The flying Volvo is a masterpiece of content that takes philosophical discourse out of its abstract mode and gives it vitality and force. Even Ron White (as well as everyone else on the planet) knows the difference between “that” and “what,” between “choice” and “consequence,” between the “right way” and the “wrong way” to get into the driver’s seat of a Volvo.
Self-deception replicates itself in many directions. How good is abortion for women? Well, as the Star feature states, it gives women “ultimate control over their bodies.” Apart from the radical mind-body dualism that this notion represents, this is, of course, a monumental fiction. There is no bulwark in this life against disease, disability, and death. The best control anyone can have is the self-control that allows him to choose what is good. And this is not achieved simply by accepting abortion. Access to abortion does not open the world to a Utopia on earth.
How does a woman justify her abortion? The Star’s abortionist Evan James explains that it is by being “maternal,” that is, by “deciding for that child (abortion) is the best option,” and by “preventing suffering.” This is a strange notion of the “maternal,” surely one that wise Solomon would not accept. Is it not the essence of the maternal to want the child to live? James appears to confuse the maternal with the attitude of a tribunal.
The prevention of suffering may appear to be a noble aim, but it is completely unrealistic. Abortion, as many women who have undergone the procedure freely attest, brings about a great deal of suffering in its wake. Moreover, suffering is an inseparable part of life. In fact, life in its most resplendent form is, as Edna St. Vincent Millay has stated so eloquently, “the tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.” The only way to prevent suffering is to prevent life. To abort in order to prevent suffering casts a dark shadow on any reason not to abort, since no life is exempt from suffering. Abortion not only strikes against life, it also strikes against hope.
It is a dangerous indulgence in sentimentality to kill so that the completely unrealistic goals of gaining “control over one’s body” and “preventing suffering” might be achieved. Nonetheless, it helps to clarify Flannery O’Connor’s trenchant remark that sentimentality leads to the gas chamber. It is a sentimentality that is wrapped in theory to prevent contact with the living. Real love is anything but sentimental and draws on courage, faith, and hope.
The Star’s lengthy article has value, if for no other reason, than as an excellent example of verbal dishonesty. There is the hyperbole about how abortion is “maternal” and how it prevents suffering and how it is “caring” and “good medicine.” Abortionists are “providers” when what they actually do is not provide but take away. Then there is the truncation. Being pro-choice is identified in such a way that it is emptied of any notion of love, goodness, enlightenment or consequence. Being “honest” has nothing to do with truth.
At the opposite pole from hyperbole is devaluation. The unborn child is a “product of conception” or a “fetus.” The former devaluation is the consequence of reducing procreation (in which the child is begotten) to reproduction (in which the child is made). In the latter case, Professor John Finnis, in an October 2010 conference on abortion entitled, “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words,” states that it is, in a non-medical context, “offensive, dehumanizing, prejudicial, manipulative.” He also points out that using the word “fetus” in this pejorative manner symbolizes a “subjection to the prejudices and preferences of the more powerful.” A quarter century prior to the conference, the late Joseph Sobran expressed the matter more imaginatively, but no less accurately, when he said that “to call a child a ‘fetus’ is to pickle it in a kind of rhetorical formaldehyde, and to accept the burden of proving what cannot be proved by empirical methodology: that the pickled thing had a right to live.” On the other hand, and at the same conference, another participant complained that Finnis used the term “abortionist” rather than “doctors who perform abortion.” No one complains, however, about identifying a person as a biologist, an empiricist, a naturalist, or a dramatist.
Megan Ogilvie, the health reported who organized the Toronto Star exposé, included a number of abortionists who are all, not surprisingly, of the same mindset. None of her choices extended to anyone who had a pro-life posture. Yet, how pro-choice can a person be who prevents an unborn child from ever making a choice? Abortion is a choice that prevents choice.
In addition, everyone cited in the article is madly in love with “compassion,” though none of them knows exactly what it means. Compassion is feeling another’s pain. Its meaning does not include any justification for killing. Naturally, one cannot feel another’s pain if that other is no longer alive. The virtue of compassion, rooted in love, means the willingness to continue to suffer with another because companionship mitigates suffering and brings hope. Compassion as a virtue (and not as an excuse to kill) is always on the side of life. But this proper meaning of compassion is not one that is an object of choice for abortionists. They choose within the narrow spectrum of a pro-abortion ideology. In other words, their choice is pre-determined for them.
It is interesting to note that the one philosopher who is most closely identified with compassion, Arthur Schopenhauer, is also, and incontestably, the most pessimistic of all philosophers. The reason is that he regarded life as so utterly miserable that compassion is the only response that makes any sense (certainly not hope). The misery of “life,” he asserts, “is an expiation for the crime of being born.” He found the essence of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy to lie in these stark terms, in The World as Will and Idea: “Our state is so wretched that absolute annihilation would be decidedly preferable.”
It is also worth drawing attention to the historical influence that Schopenhauer has had on the “pro-choice” philosophy. For Schopenhauer, reality is at root a merciless Will that is irrational in its essence. This Will operates alone and is thus not tempered by reason. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” is the most reprinted and widely circulated argument in behalf of abortion. It is, however, a striking example of Schopenhauerean thinking in which nature is in revolt against human beings. She writes about “people seeds” drifting into our home, like pollen, which can take root in your living room carpet and flower as real people. She imagines being trapped in a tiny house with a growing child. The child, due to its extraordinary rate of growth, soon crushes you to death. According to psychiatrist Karl Stern, “one can trace a direct descent from Schopenhauer’s irredeemable ‘Will’ to that incomprehensible phase of madness in this century (the 20th century) that nearly succeeded in destroying the world.” It is impossible to dialogue with people who believe that Will is absolute. For Will without Reason is madness.
According to Confucius, “if language is incorrect, then what is said is not meant. If what is said is not meant, what ought to be done remains undone.” The distinguished journalist Malcolm Muggeridge recalls, in his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, how he was prone to write “drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. I am more penitent for my false words,” he confesses, “than for false deeds.”
Peter Kreeft, in his imaginative dialogue, The Unaborted Socrates, resurrects the gadfly of Athens and places him in an abortion clinic where he converses with a trendy pop psychologist. The psychologist uses a loveless compassion as a moral principle to justify abortion. Socrates tells him that, “Mere compassion would be suspicious of birth itself, for birth is the door to suffering. But love would open the door.” The psychologist is confused by this remark. Socrates then tries to explain that although human life begins, grows, and ends in suffering, love and truth are far more important than an ideological form of compassion.
It is a most lamentable feature of the modern world that the major media use words not to illuminate truth, but to serve their own ends. The important work, especially with regard to abortion, remains undone. But the Star and other such outlets will not have the final word. In the meantime, we can remember the unborn, carry their torch, and let it shine before the eyes of the world. Let it serve to transform deception into determination, making courage more appealing than comfort, and life more commendable than death.
Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University (Waterloo, Ont) and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary (Cromwell, Conn.).