Am I Really "Pro-Life"?
I believe that all human life is sacred, has inherent worth, and should be protected. I believe that because of my faith as a Christian, whose scriptures testify that all humans are made in God's image, that the same God brings life in abundance even from out of death itself. But also because of my political conviction that government exists to preserve natural human rights, starting with the right to life.
Alongside those beliefs, however, I also believe — almost as strongly, but far less happily — that there are times when human life will necessarily be ended prematurely, even with the sanction of a democratic state.
Of course, I'm describing my belief in the just war tradition.
But I’m simultaneously wondering if something similar describes my still-more complicated feelings about abortion.1
Maybe it’s just that the reversal of Roe v. Wade came at the same time that I started teaching a summer course on World War I. Whatever the reason, I’ve found myself wrestling with an evangelical Protestant version of Catholic historian Una Cadegan’s response to the Dobbs decision:
I am uncomfortable with the absolute quality of my own tradition’s condemnation of abortion. (I should note that I am also uncomfortable with saying that in writing.) As I have reflected on why, I’ve realized it’s because, despite the apparent absolute condemnation in “Thou shall not kill,” moral tradition over the centuries has in fact recognized many partial exceptions to this commandment: warfare, capital punishment, self-defense, degrees of homicide or manslaughter, etc.
I do admire the “absolute quality” of the Christian tradition that rejects all taking of life. That line stretches back as as far as early church thinkers like Lactantius, who condemned abortion, infanticide, capital punishment, gladiatorial games, and warfare in one breath. In my lifetime, Catholic activists like Eileen Egan defended a “seamless garment” of life and the evangelical Anabaptist theologian Ron Sider attempted to sketch a more “consistent pro-life stance on public-policy issues” — encompassing not just abortion and warfare, but poverty and family life. I’m not a pacifist like them, so I’m never going to agree entirely with that approach; still, I appreciate their desire for intellectual consistency and moral integrity.
What I hear Cadegan struggling with is what I observe in myself: the selective self-righteousness of those of us who as instinctively abhor one violation of the pro-life ethic as we justify others. If I can make my peace with the sinful but necessary taking of life in warfare, just how “pro-life” am I? And should my endorsement of just war make me more open to the occasional necessity of abortion as a medical option for women?
I understand that these two “partial exceptions to [the] commandment” each pose different challenges to the moral absolutism of “Thou shalt not kill.” Conceivably, one can oppose all abortion and justify war, or justify abortion and oppose all warfare.2 So sifting through my reluctant belief in just war hasn’t necessarily settled my thinking about abortion.
But as I’ve thought about the two in tandem, I’ve been struck to find a few common themes bubbling up.
Abstraction. Most immediately, I wonder what difference it makes that I’ve only known each form of killing in the abstract. In addition to the WWI course I just finished, I’ll teach three others on war in 2022-2023… without ever having participated in war myself.3 My wife and I have twin children, but I think more about abortion during political campaigns than I ever did during Katie’s pregnancy. And while I wouldn’t be surprised if the activists are right that we all know someone who’s had an abortion, I don’t think I’ve known about it in the moment.
Of course, there’s considerable value in reading, thinking, and talking about that which we don’t know by personal experience. And if I were a philosopher or theologian trained to think about ethics, I might feel more confident in my conclusions. But as nothing but a Christian and a citizen, I worry that it’s too easy for me to conform complex reality to my overly tidy abstractions.
If nothing else, I’m convinced that I should approach abortion, like war, with greater humility and empathy.4
Gender. And if ethics isn’t done in pure abstraction, it’s also not done in a social or cultural vacuum. So I was struck by another aspect of Una Cadegan’s response to Dobbs. What just war and all other exceptions to the prohibition against killing “have in common,” she added, “is that they have applied historically overwhelmingly to men. Again, are we only at the beginning of a period of moral reflection that brings the same nuanced understanding of the exigencies of human life to bear on women?” (emphasis mine)
What difference does it make if my beliefs about what killing can and can’t be justified are largely inherited from a patriarchal era in both Christian and American history?
Perhaps abortion doesn’t warrant the same level of “nuanced understanding” as war. But it seems significant that societies dominated by men have generally found it far easier to envision exceptions to “thou shall not kill” in activities dominated by men than they have when it comes to an activity unique to women. If nothing else, I ought to be honest enough to admit that I’ve paid far more attention to the centuries-long tradition of men reflecting on men going to war than I have to the more recent (and not monolithic) tradition of feminist reflection on women having abortions.
Authority. All of which also leaves me somewhat more open to one argument from the pro-choice camp in the abortion debate: that women themselves, as guided by medical, spiritual, and other advisors that they trust to help them sort through an issue that defies agreement in our pluralistic society, are best suited to make a decision about a situation whose complexity they know most intimately.
At first thought, this seemed quite different from the just war tradition, which has always held that the decision to go to war requires, among other criteria, proper authority. A sovereign government, that is, not just any individual able and willing to take life.
But at least in modern times, in democratic societies, we have recognized some authority for individuals to decide on their participation in killing. Only the government can go to war, but individual citizens can object to taking part in even a just war on the basis of religious or philosophical convictions. And we may even concede that those volunteers and conscripts who do agree to serve under military discipline might be justified in disobeying orders that require them to take life unjustly.
Those cases of recognizing individual authority to decide between life and death preserve the choice for the former, not the latter. In theory, no soldier can simply decide for himself that, say, killing a civilian or prisoner is justified, though that still happens — and is tacitly condoned by proper authorities — in ostensibly just wars.
But Americans have also recognized something like a micro version of the just war tradition, one in which individuals do have the authority to choose the violent death of another human being. As Cadegan hinted at, we empower individuals to exert deadly force to defend life and even property, and we even let them arm themselves with instruments of war in preparation for such decisions, which are often made in haste and sometimes misshaped by prejudice.
Tragedy. None of which means that I’ll come to see abortion as an absolute good. I don’t think I could ever embrace that point of view, any more than I’ve ever been able to celebrate or valorize the killing that takes place in just wars.
Instead, I find myself thinking more and more of abortion as I do of just war — in terms of tragedy. Here’s how Damon Linker put it, in a letter to his daughter after the Dobbs decision (which he opposed) was announced:
…in almost every case, abortion is a tragedy. I don’t mean in the vague sense we often use the word, as a synonym for “really bad.” I mean in the precise sense that derives from the tragic drama of classical Greece, in which fundamental goods contradict and clash with one another, leading to a loss no matter which path is chosen.
“Loss no matter which path is chosen” is an all too familiar outcome. To believe in just war, one needs to accept that death preserves life and war restores peace, that those called to righteousness are required to sin, and that love of neighbor somehow still pulses through the whole bloody mess.
At its best, such war can only be tragic. Perhaps too, abortion.
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Here I ought to repeat my earlier explanation that I like to use this kind of writing to do “thinking in public.” I always try to do that as thoughtfully and clearly as possible. But “to think in public,” especially on topics like today’s, “is to confess uncertainty in public, to reveal ignorance in public, and” — very likely today — “to make mistakes in public.”
“Everyone supports life,” Sider observed. “But some strange inconsistencies pop up on the way to its practical protection… It all depends on what one means by life.” Indeed, there may be readers who don’t even understand why the taking of human life in warfare would make me think about my response to the termination of a pregnancy, since they don’t regard the fetus as being alive, or yet a person. It’s an enormously complicated ethical and legal issue, one on which I have no expertise. All I can say is that I’m fairly confident in my conviction that life begins before birth, but I’m far less sure just how much earlier it begins.
That is, I’ve never seen combat. Of course, the United States has been at war for much of my life, without it ever impinging all that noticeably on my day-to-day existence. That’s one of the overriding themes of my fall course on The Fog of War, since those first-year students have been part of a country “at war” for virtually every year of their young lives… without it ever affecting most of them all that clearly.