I spent entirely too much time yesterday afternoon following and participating in a debate about abortion, infanticide, and Canadian law at the Ethics Alarms blog. Though I might better have spent that time doing something more significant to my survival, it was a highly stimulating bit of discussion. I took on the task of trying to convince the blog’s author, Jack Marshall, that in the case of a 19 year-old Canadian girl who gave birth to her child in secret and then strangled it, the judge probably didn’t let her off with a three year suspended sentence because she simply considers infants to be a lower form of life.
Beyond the intellectual challenge of trying to dismantle the flawed logic and straw men involved in Marshall’s slander of Judge Joanne Veit, I found the dialogue to be worthwhile because it truly helped me to see the disparate sides of the abortion debate with greater clarity. I have often found that there is a certain middle ground in that debate, which is almost never explored. Broadly speaking, I am a pro-choice individual. But there appears to be a segment of the pro-choice crowd which believes that abortions are okay, full stop. That is not my perspective at all. Rather, I feel that abortions are sometimes the least of several evils. That is a perspective that anti-abortion individuals don’t seem to understand, and it is apparently one that is not widely represented. That makes it easy for people like Jack Marshall to characterize abortion-defenders as baby-killers who attach no value to the lives of innocents.
What I learned from today’s debate is that Marshall really, honestly believes in that characterization. He is truly of the opinion that Canadian society in general, and increasingly America as well, judges fetuses and infants as being less important than the mere convenience and whim of adult women. And it’s actually kind of comforting to know that. You see, I was afraid that the subject of abortion was peopled with activists who maintain wholly inconsistent worldviews. And while that still may be true to a certain extent, the fervor and ill-will surrounding so much of the discussion is probably derived from a tendency of virtually every party involved to mischaracterize one another’s views.
What I also learned about Marshall is that he genuinely believes he is defending the unborn against the onslaught of a society that is succumbing to the sort of utter degradation that leads it to consider newborns to be disposable, valueless, and devoid of rights. He allows for no nuance in the views of his opponents. That deepens my confidence that he is wrong, but it also aids in my understanding of why he’s wrong. It’s not, as some might suppose, that he simply thinks his moral outrage trumps a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body. Rather, he thinks he is defending children against women and social trends who have no moral compass whatsoever and are content to enter into abortion lightly, without reflection. I know that there are some women of whom that is true, but it is far from the norm, and what I recognize is that it is wrong to assume the authority to pronounce on what is right or wrong without having any awareness of the context surrounding specific decisions.
Ascribing highly extreme points of view to one’s political opponents makes one appear more extreme by contrast. I presume that this is happening on both sides of the debate. Pro-lifers think of pro-choice people as advocating abortion wherever there is the slightest motive for it, and that makes resistance to abortion not a personal point of view, but a moral imperative. It’s probably easy for anti-abortion activists to convince themselves that they’re fighting a group of people who, if not for the resistance, would go door to door performing abortions, even on women who aren’t sure they want them. Their own positions are probably ramped up in response. After all, if your opponent’s position has no nuance, why would yours? Meanwhile, pro-choice people think of their opponents as tyrants jockeying for control over all women’s reproductive systems. If that’s their goal, then evidently it’s not enough to defend abortion; activists believe they have to insist upon it.
I’m tired of seeing this debate framed as a contest between people who hate children and people who hate women. It’s portrayed that way because each side insists on the most evocative, rhetorical descriptions of the other. Not content to portray rivals as rivals, we feel the need to portray them as villains. We need more nuance in our understanding of the political motivations of others, but in order to achieve it, we first need more nuance in our approach to debate and political engagement. As it is, we only go on sustaining the possibly illusory perception that the two camps in any contest have wildly inconsistent views, that the definitions of “good” and “evil” are reversed on the other side.
Call me naïve, but despite all the partisanship and political rancor I’ve witnessed in my young life, I think we generally share a basic concept of right and wrong. Where we differ is in the application of it. It’s a matter of degree. By and large, conservatives don’t hate women any more than liberals hate children. We just put greater emphasis on one or the other depending upon our perception of the challenges at hand, the tendencies of the dominant society, the social position of our opponents’ views. Conservatives are categorically wrong when they paint abortion as an instance of the devaluing of nascent life, but liberals are similarly in error if they do not acknowledge the sincere good intentions of their reasonable conservative opponents.
We must take care to point out that sympathy for the emotional strain and desperation of mothers who lack support does not come at the expense of an overall respect for life. There’s room for defense of both children and child-bearers. The existing dialogue doesn’t give much hope for this, but when it comes right down to it, isn’t that what we all want? Despite how differently we rank our priorities, don’t most of us ultimately want to do right by every kind of person? We must. That's simply got to be the way it is.