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Thoughts on Outlawing Abortion in the U.S.

May 23, 2007

In one of his typically thought-provoking and soul-stretching posts, Nathan rightly notes the (im)moral and social conditions that fuel the culture of death. To simply reduce abortion to its political and legal aspects as if a solution based sheerly on platform or law could extinguish the evil that gives rise to the systematic destruction–murder–of the smallest and weakest of persons is to gravely neglect the real issue at stake. As Nathan brilliantly and beautifully puts it, Christians must commit to “sowing joy in sterile hearts.”

My firm agreement and solidarity with Nathan on the problem of conversion and the roots of the evil of abortion extends to these pre-legal, pre-political dimensions. However, I do not find myself embracing Nathan’s point that the outlawing of abortion in the U.S. would not constitute some degree of victory over evil. In fairness to him, I believe Nathan was referring to the overall moral and cultural disposition of the U.S., if I may be permitted to paint so broadly. In this sense, I concur. But I do contend that some triumph over evil might occur in the legal sphere in the event that abortion were outlawed.

Without embarking on a needlessly long analysis of the nature of law in the U.S., I desire to simply submit that the outlawing of abortion would constitute a shift in the idea of the foundation of law. Ideally, the laws of states ought to be based upon natural law, and by extension of course, upon divine law. But we can only hope so far in practical legal matters before we draw accusations of divine intoxication and fanaticism. One of the most incisive and profound insights of Pope Benedict XVI on legalized abortion occurs in his remarkable (and accessible!) Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. I quote the Holy Father at length:

This is how the right to abortion is invoked as a constitutive element in the right to liberty on the part of the woman, the man, and society itself. The woman has the right to continue her professional work, to safeguard her reputation, to maintain a certain standard of life. The man has the right to decide about his life-style, to pursue a career, to enjoy the fruits of his work. Society has the right to control the numerical level of the population, in order to guarantee its citizens a widespread prosperity through a balanced management of resources, of work, and so on. All these rights are real and well founded. No one denies that the concrete existential situation in which the decision is reached to have an abortion can sometimes be dramatic. Nevertheless, it is a fact that this claim to exercise real rights is demanded to the detriment of the life of an innocent human being whose rights are not even taken into consideration. In this way, one becomes blind to the right to life of another, the smallest and weakest person involved, one without a voice. The rights of some individuals are affirmed at the cost of the fundamental right to life of another individual. This is why every legalization of abortion implies the idea that law is based on power. (pp. 62-63)

This notion that law itself and/or individual laws can be, and have been, based on power, that is, on the manufactured rights of a privileged powerful that trump, marginalize or altogether dissolve the rights of the less powerful or the powerless, is state-sanctioned de-personalization of persons and groups. Such a legal system or such laws stem not from the pre-legal, pre-political moral foundations that bless and herald the value and dignity of the person. Rather, they are based upon a lack of moral consciousness, a lack of recognition of the inherent good that is the human person. Substituting itself for this moral foundation is blind, unbridled power, which ultimately declares that a certain person or group of persons is not good; the laws which base themselves on this declaration legislate evil, that is, they strive to objectively declare by means of the state the fundamental absence of good.

If the Holy Father is correct in saying that every legalization of abortion without exception implies the idea that law is founded upon power, then we can conclude that the overturning of such legalization may, indeed, imply the recognition, however clouded, of the moral foundations of law–most specifically the moral recognition and declaration of the good of every human person. This declarative crossing from the absence of good to the good is always and in every case a triumph. But we must be sober in our outlook: this triumph may be restricted only to the shift itself. In other words, the triumph is not necessarily one of culture, morality or conversion. It very well may be only a legal and political triumph. But such a triumph, at least in my opinion, must be a good in itself, that is, a triumph over an evil.

The pro-life (or pro-person) cause should not content itself with terminating in the legal protection of the unborn. As Nathan right notes, and we should hearken unto his words: “Abortion might end in this country, but the culture of death will march on. The solution…means glorifying the beauty and sacredness of all life. This means sowing joy in sterile hearts. This means, as always, starting with ourselves.” A pro-person foundation of culture is our hope.

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