How to think about abortion? For those anchored in traditional religion, the answer is very clear. For those unmoored from anything but a general sense of “women’s rights,” the answer is also self-explanatory.
The question is rather more complex when examined through a secular, yet conservative, lens. The non-religious conservative, when slightly inebriated and open to strange ideas, may actually view fondly the prospects of a mass abortion in East St. Louis or the Upper West Side.
So let us try to unpack the grim question.
For many, the license or lack thereof to abort seems to revolve around the question of “life.” If a fetus is alive, it is sacrosanct and deserves our protection. If it’s not alive, it becomes a thing, such as a coffee mug, and can surely be terminated.
But even if a fetus is alive the path is not completely clear. Cows and chickens are alive, yet we harvest their flesh on an industrial scale to make things ranging from filet mignon to chicken nuggets. Nobody seems to think this is particularly horrible.
So you may say we should add a qualifier here, regarding the life of a human. Meaning, abortion should be forbidden since it terminates the life of a human. But here too the answer is not very clear cut. How human is a fetus? Clearly, it is not yet a person. It is something else, a person in the making.
How then do we treat other forms of human life who are not yet persons? How should we treat persons in the making? Babies are clearly not persons and most people would be horrified at the thought of killing one. We, modern people, recognize our duties towards the baby, even though it cannot make any demands on us. But this is hardly self-evident – the ancient Greeks and Romans were completely satisfied with accepting infanticide, tossing deformed and undesired babies to die of exposure in the mountains. Such is the beginning of the famous story of Oedipus.
In fact, the ancient Greeks seem to have shared the view of many a radical modern feminist: My life, my choice. They lacked the technology to terminate pregnancies so they instead applied their “choice” to the early days of an infant’s life. Club foot? Ugly moles? Skeletal deformities? Off to the mountains!
And so my superficial inquiry leads me to something of a point: If you support abortion as a means of celebrating a woman’s “right,” and have no apprehensions about terminating a person in the making, you should also be OK with tossing away undesired babies, or pressing a pillow upon them ever so gently. This would be a highly unusual position in most modern societies, but the Greeks and Romans who had formed societies of many virtues would have understood.
If, however, you do not share the Greco-Roman view of an exchange policy – the ability to toss away an undesired offspring – and believe in the custodial duties we have towards a person in the making, such duties should then extend towards the unborn as well.
Conservatives, who view society as an alliance between the living, the dead, and the unborn, would surely share in the view that one’s duty extends beyond one’s own life.
And so, it seems to me, conservatives should be extremely apprehensive about abortion and definitely not view it as a “women’s rights” issue, or some sort of performative self-expression. The question touches on the very threads that bind together our society as a trust given to us by our ancestors, for the safekeeping of our children.
As with all complex moral questions that lack a consensus view, the instinct should be to resolve things locally – not to legislate for the whole continent. Instead, in such matters we should allow communities, such as Texas or Utah, to live according to their own ways. And since I just had a lovely rum drink, sure, let them do as they wish in East St. Louis too.
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6/26 Addendum: Roe has been overturned. The legal question, at least federally, is now resolved. Like many things not enumerated in the Constitution, the regulation of abortion is left to the states. Now it’s up to us, the citizens of each state to think about this dark and somber question.