JOHN WATERS, Irish TimesIf liberal individualists had campaigned against abortion, it would have become unacceptable years ago. It’s not impossible, given a different light to the one liberal-individualist society avails of normally, to see the rights of the unborn child in “human rights” terms – this being, in other contexts, one of liberal individualism’s prime instruments of agitation.
If you miss the hidden coherence of liberal logic, it seems conceivable that abortion might easily have become, like racism or homophobia, an individualist “sin”. Liberal causes generally appear randomly selected until you see the common factor: reaction against tradition.
Thus, it is not the intrinsic merits of the particular cause but the fact that it offers an opportunity to tear down a tradition that recommends something to the liberal mind.
This is why liberal concerns can sometimes appear inconsistent, almost senseless, and why, for example, liberals appear to choose their victim-figures arbitrarily and without any visible pattern – mothers over fathers, children over mothers, the state over children, lesbians over gay men and so forth.
On Friday last, in Washington on other business, I was persuaded by friends to accompany them to the March for Life happening that day. This was the 40th March for Life, the first having taken place in 1974, the year after the historic Roe v Wade decision of the US Supreme Court.
Since then some 56 million abortions have taken place in the US. Last Friday half a million marchers filed in sub-zero temperatures up Constitution Avenue towards the supreme court building on Capitol Hill, where the decision in Roe v Wade was handed down on January 22nd, 1973. A USA Today/Gallup poll recently found that 53 per cent of voters want Roe v Wade to hold, with 29 per cent wanting it overturned.
One striking feature of the march was the high visibility of faith and religious groupings. This may seem a superfluous observation the way present-day culture is set up, the presence of crosses and rosaries provoking the tautological idea that objection to abortion is simply an expression of religiosity. This short circuit offers the culture a shallow explanation for the “pro-life” position.
In my experience, people do not oppose abortion because they are religious – they see the killing of unborn children as self-evidently barbarous for the same reasons that they recognise the religious dimension, which essentially relates to an acceptance of dependence and a certain view of human dignity.
But modern culture filters and edits out such interventions by filing what it calls “fundamentalist” beliefs as hangovers from an obscurantist past.
Observing the marchers, I tried to see them with a liberal eye, and recognised again that it is impossible for the human rights dimension of abortion to penetrate modern culture while the “religious” aspect remains uppermost in the mix. The purpose of the demonstration was being disabled by virtue of the fact that the uncommitted observer had been condition by culture to respond: “Ah, God botherers marching against abortion!”
A familiar feature of the march was the prevalence of videos and posters depicting dead, torn and discarded foetuses. It’s an aspect of pro-life strategy to which liberals frequently object, declaring it offensive and hurtful to women who have had, or might have, abortions.
There’s an incongruity here too: if an aborted foetus is no more than unviable tissue, then what is the source of liberal squeamishness?
I find it difficult to look at such images, but I imagine that, had I a mind to support abortion, I should have no such difficulty. And yet this tendency of pro-life marchers falls paradoxically into the liberal barrow, providing evidence of the “fanaticism” said to underlie the “conservative” stance.
Walking up Capitol Hill, I found myself wondering how liberals might have approached the issue had they become opponents rather than sponsors of abortion. One of the most effective elements of liberal-individualist strategy has been the transformation of cultural understandings by dint of the reinvention of certain words. Who could have thought, a generation ago, that the concept of marriage could be unmoored from a meaning rooted in natural procreation and the conjugal union of a man and a woman?
In this change is reflected a desire of man to become the architect of his own condition. Similarly with abortion. Indeed, here lies the hidden commonality between the various liberal causes: the desire to manipulate reality out of its recalcitrant relationship with nature.
But let us indulge briefly the fantasy that liberals might have opposed abortion, citing the human rights of the unborn. Let us hypothesise that this strategy might in some way have presented itself as useful to the advancement of liberal causes generally.
We know for sure that the argument would already be over – that liberals would have utilised their control of modern culture, their capacity for reinventing words and meanings, and their awesome talent for demonising opponents, to make abortion seem an unambiguous abomination.
My hunch is that, rather than opposing abortion per se, they would have concentrated on changing the meaning of pregnancy and birth. And I suspect they might have adapted for this purpose a particular aspect of the technology of modern reproductive care: the ultrasound image.
Many times, I have seen images of unborn children in the womb – taken well within the limit of permissible abortion in many western societies – which revealed the unborn child as, beyond question, a human person. I have seen many images in which the features of the child are recognisable as the person who emerged and grew, with a name and a face.
Had liberals chosen to oppose abortion, they would have started somewhere like this – agitating for the recognition, perhaps legal registration, of unborn children long before autonomous “viability”.
In such a parallel world of possibility, we might now regard the moment of birth itself as relatively unimportant, a distracting and arbitrary instant in the growth of a human being. For there is something here that takes abortion out of the realm of the abstract, rendering it impossible to contemplate the features in such an image becoming torn and bloodied under the indifferent gaze of modern society.