The history of abortion goes back millennia and across civilizations. Fluctuations in views about abortion and variations in methods characterize that history. Most societies deplore abortions but make an exception to save a woman’s life. So private practice has often been more widespread than public punishment; back-alley abortions existed before back alleys did. From a historical perspective, the debate about the rights and wrongs of abortion has never been settled. From a philosophical or theological perspective, views on abortion have changed over time and within institutions.
Until recently, the three major faiths in the West have held positions on abortion different from that now advocated by America’s anti-abortionist extremists. No faith has encouraged abortion; all have allowed it under certain conditions and at certain times during pregnancy. Judaism, despite great respect for the unborn—think “person lite”—believes that life begins at breach. It values the actual life of a pregnant woman more than the potential life of an unborn and thus allows abortions in cases of rape, incest, and threat to a woman’s life. Following Aristotle and Aquinas, Christianity and Islam believe that human, as opposed to biological, life begins with “ensoulment,” which quickening about halfway through a pregnancy indicates. Both faiths are more tolerant of abortions before than after ensoulment, for the traditional reasons, with the life of the woman paramount. So it is an intellectual and moral perversion previously unknown in history to value the yet unborn equally to, or more highly than, the already born.
The recent, revolutionary position of conservatives mainly in the Catholic Church, in some fundamentalist Christian denominations, and in the Republican Party (with its Tea Party caucus) is that human life begins at conception. This radical redefinition reflects a tactical shift in doctrine responding to two centuries of improvements in medicine which have diminished the risks of abortion to a woman’s health and life, have made abortion safer than natural childbirth, and have supported social trends favoring less institutional power and more individual freedom. This redefinition justifies conservative efforts to obstruct medical research and medical advances which have societally and personally liberating tendencies, to oppose the secularizing tendencies of science generally, and, ultimately, to diminish, not enlarge or enhance, the possibilities for human freedom.
All of which is to say that conservatives rally to the cause of anti-abortion advocates, including extremists, as a means of waging war against what they regard as the debasing influences of modernism, secularism, and democracy. In waging this war, conservatives create radical inconsistencies with their traditional positions. Thus, those who advocate small government and personal freedom nevertheless support government large enough to hinder a woman’s right to an abortion under the Constitution and to restrict her choices affecting her life. They support laws to restrict or impede the exercise of this right by curtailing access to doctors and facilities providing abortions; or by intimidating or abusing pregnant women with invasive, involuntary, humiliating, and medically unnecessary and expensive procedures.
Such inconsistencies are consistent with hypocrisy. No one who respects the sanctity of human life would treat living humans as conservatives advocate treating women. Excepting the Catholic Church and many Catholics, a high degree of overlap occurs between those who oppose abortion and those who both oppose government efforts to help the needy, for whom the quality of life, even life itself, is in jeopardy, and favor the death penalty. The Catholic Church, despite its rigid adherence to text, teachings, and traditions, now departs from them in accepting this new definition of life—which raises the question: why not other departures accepting new positions of less moment, like women in the priesthood and the end of celibacy? The answer, also another inconsistency: they would be modern.
The conservative reaction to abortion also exposes conservative ignorance of, indifference to, or disrespect for religious positions different from theirs in the context of traditional American freedoms. When Russell Allen, the smart, capable Mormon leader of the county Republican Party and I recently lunched at Ciro’s, I began serious conversation with three questions. One, does he believe in freedom of religion? Two, does he believe that life begins at conception? His answers to both questions were “yes.” Three, does he realize that, for some Christian denominations and some other religions, his answers to the first two questions would conflict. He did not.
After I noted the main differences between widely held Jewish, Christian, and Islamic beliefs on the beginning of life, I asked him whether he would legislate according to his convictions or the Constitution, with its First Amendment provision for freedom of religion. His answer was that he would have to think about it. His hesitation about legislation making the prohibition of abortion more important than freedom of religion shows that some conservatives are not fully committed to conserving the Constitution. The same is true of New Mexico Republican candidates Heather Wilson for the US Senate and Steve Pearce for the US House, both of whom have proclaimed that life begins at conception and that they are committed to religious freedom—the same inconsistency to which conservatives everywhere adhere.
It matters that Allen’s educational background involved no college study of economics, history, philosophy, political science, or religion (other than his own)—a deficiency with likely legislative consequences whatever his views on any subject. But, on the subject of abortion (as well as associated subjects), this deficiency matters little because anti-abortion extremists treat information irresponsibly. They accept whatever agrees with their views. Todd Akin (he of “legitimate rape” versus illegitimate rape) and Paul Ryan (he of “forcible rape” versus non-forcible rape) believe impregnation-proof rape fantasies based on snippets of pseudo-science pseudo-supported by never-specified reports. They reject whatever disagrees with their views. Thus, scientific knowledge about human biology and modern medicine (also the creation of the universe, evolution, and global warming) is discounted or disregarded.
Anti-abortion extremists reject scientific knowledge in these fields because they perceive it as threatening Christian faith (per Biblical literalism). Likewise, they oppose abortion as part of their faith-based, ideological opposition to modernity and, with it, democracy. They are explicit in their beliefs that rights derive from God, not a compact among people, and that life is a gift from God not to be refused by abortion. Ultimately, anti-abortion extremists prefer the Bible to the Constitution, theocracy to democracy.
Blinded by their faith, anti-abortion extremists do not see the barbarous consequences of their now-central legislative initiative. Logically, personhood amendments are the political extension of their radical redefinition of the beginning of life. They have urged such amendments to some state constitutions and to the US Constitution. They do not recognize the perverse implication of such personhood-at-conception amendments. If a zygote, embryo, or fetus be defined as a person with all a person’s rights and privileges, then its threat to a woman’s health or life would constitute grounds for abortion as a mother’s act of self-defense against her child.
An anti-abortion position by itself should not determine one’s vote. Indeed, most people are, as they have always been, against abortions. But the extreme anti-abortion position, which makes no exceptions for rape, incest, or a women’s health or life, is symptomatic of an ideological mindset unsuited for democratic government. It sets religious dogma and dogmatism above political rights and personal freedom, and suggests a tendency toward similarly anti-modern biases on important issues in other areas. An advocate or supporter of this extreme anti-abortion position is not worth considering for anything but rejection at the ballot box.