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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Abortion, Authority, and Civic Religion (Again)

In the wake of the murder of George Tiller last week, two news items seem worthy of particular note: first, the statement made earlier this week by Tiller's accused killer, Scott Roeder, that "there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal"; and second, the news this morning that Tiller's clinic, Women's Health Care Services, will not re-open--news that was both "hailed and mourned" by all the usual figures on both sides of the argument. Those who opposed Tiller and the practice of late-term abortion called it a "bittersweet announcement," while those who supported him in his work pointed that that the closest abortion provider to Wichita, Kansas's largest city, is now a three-hour drive away, in Overland Park. If nothing else, this may mean that, for the time being anyway, Wichita may longer be the red-hot center of the abortion wars.

Which may be going away, anyway, certainly if President Obama has anything to do with it. No, I'm not saying he's changed his mind about abortion rights; his position is still the same, and so my doubts still remain. Still, what to make of his appointment of Alexia Kelley to oversee faith-based initiatives for the Department of Health and Human Services (initiatives which, it must be noted, Obama is on record for having praised, and wanting to expand)? It's an appointment that's being attacked by liberal defenders of abortion rights, of course, even though her opposition to the practice is solidly grounded in the "common good" rhetoric of compromise that anyone who listens to Obama carefully is bound to hear again and again. And, of course, cynics could argue that it's just a bone being thrown to opponents of abortion rights. But I wonder if something larger is going on.

My old friend Matt Stannard, as many socialist beliefs as we may share, is much more broadly progressive than I, and as such he has far fewer traditionalist or religious reservations about abortion rights that I do. But that being said, he still recognizes the validity of qualms about the practice, and is mildly optimistic that today, in the wake of Tiller's murder, and with the Republican party's over-reliance upon white, Protestant anti-abortion rights voters having resulted in arguably a near-complete marginalization of their party, the time is right for a new "progressive pro-life" movement to emerge. He writes:

[T]here is a pluralistic religious basis for finding abortion morally objectionable and regrettable, but not worthy of a murder charge, and not worthy of preventative assassination. That alternative is the view that most people "on the fence," and quite a few people on both sides, hold whether they're explicitly aware of it or not. This type of belief requires empathy....It requires a commitment to religious pluralism. It requires a sense of interconnectedness and mutual submission. It requires humility. It does not require the abandonment of core Christian beliefs, though it might demand of its adherents a skeptical attitude towards the pronouncements of purported Christian authorities. Such skepticism won't scare off those who are drifting towards progressivism, though, since they are probably a corollary to the increasing number of Americans professing agnosticism and atheism. We are slowly drifting towards the liberalization and democratization of religion, and progressive Christians would rather work with nonbelievers than potential Pat Robertsons or, to be sure, Scott Roeders....

Since the only solution that would satisfy all parties in the abortion debate is one which renders unwanted pregnancy either impossible to begin with (a question of technological possibility) or completely without material inconvenience (a question of political economy), these are the directions we should take our debates. Progressives now control all sides of the abortion debate. Pro-life consciousness is the consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life and death....Tied to an emerging group of fair-minded, socially-committed activists, it has the potential to take the national debate about abortion to an entirely new level: a progressive level. Economic justice is pro-life. Anti-war is pro-life. Anti-death penalty is pro-life. Universal health care is pro-life. Punishing women for sexuality is pro-death. Insisting on abstinence education programs that undoubtedly fail is pro-death....

In other words, pro-life and pro-choice progressives can continue to debate about abortion, but within a larger frame of agreement about the world we're working toward. Eventually, that debate will become very different, much more beautiful, complex, and educational, than it is today. I'm declaring the relevant part of the abortion debate to be post-violence, post-restriction, and post-conservative. I imagine fair-minded people may find exceptions to this declaration, but my guess is that an increasing number of pro-lifers will move in that threefold direction in the months and years to come.

Read the whole thing; it was of the strongest expressions of left-leaning idealism that I've read in the blogosphere for a long time. And it is, in every way, a progressive idealism, in ways that I like and ways that I don't. I'd like to hope that I'm one of hose "fair-minded people" he talks about, and so hopefully, if his projected movement does become a reality, we will be able to talk fairly about the degree to which we can, in the midst of "the liberalization and democratization of religion" (moralistic therapeutic deism, perhaps?), nonetheless see a way as a community or nation to respect, or at least grant as worthy of some legitimate balancing, the concerns of those of us whose approach to abortion (to say nothing of other issues) is informed by "the pronouncements of purported Christian authorities." I think this is important, because I strongly suspect that some of the strongest voices for the social justice principles which undergird Matt's progressive ideals are going to bound up in exactly that kind of traditionalism and respect for community and authority (as some strong leftists troubled by abortion have admitted in the past) even if the context for that respect is inevitably going to involve greater pluralism than in the past.

What does that mean? It means holding on to, and finding ways of articulating, "these things [that] are old" (as Obama put it in his Inauguration Address) in the midst of change, and that will mean attempting to find new ways of expressing peoples' beliefs and concerns. It will mean changing debates, perhaps by bringing surprising voices into the conversation, as Obama's appointment of Kelley has possibly done. It means, for example, insisting that abortion is an evil, while admitting that the best way to deter people from choosing it or reduce the number who do so is to work on supporting mothers and parents and neighborhoods and jobs and all those things that surround the decisions people make. If Matt's progressive pro-life movement would allow for language like that, then more power to him (and to it). I would definitely sign up.

Some will never be satisfied, of course, and not just terrorists like Scott Roeder. The Obama administration supports abortion rights vigorously, but it also supports legislation designed to support pregnant women in their choices, and such action is often seen by opponents as a distraction from the "real" issue. "You don't have to have a lot of social programs to cut down on abortions," some say. Ross Douthat might well agree with them--I suspect because, ultimately, his opposition to abortion is grounded in his religious convictions about the status of the fetus, which means that as interesting as various regulations and conditions and support structures may be to him, he probably wants to be able to talk about (as Scott Lemieux I think correctly notes) those times and situations where abortion simply should simply be forbidden, save for some extremely rare and desperate exceptions. So perhaps we can't avoid coming back around the issue of religious authority, and the possibility that the progressive pro-life position that Matt's--and perhaps Obama's too--efforts point towards will necessarily involve some sort of show-down between those who want their civic religion to include some kind naturally grounded absolutes, and those who are willing to ground it more subjectively. I'm not comfortable on either side of that show-down (I'm a hermeuntist who thinks truth comes through subjectivity, after all!), though I'm clearly more on the former than the latter. In the end, I hope that the Roeders of the world won't force me to take a side...or rather, will allow me to work in my own small way with the one (progressive) side towards the goal of reducing abortions, while still keeping one respectful foot on the other (traditionalist) side, with its willingness to acknowledge the occasional appropriateness of laying down the law. And maybe, if I'm lucky, Obama's common good rhetoric will work it's magic as the time goes by, and straddling that particular divide eventually won't be such a pain. If I'm lucky, that is.


Anonymous said...


Just a word about Alexia Kelley, who is a good friend. She's about the best person imaginable for the job at HHS. A commmitted progressive who is pro-life to the roots, she is also steeped in Catholic social teachings and has good and active connections with various religious Christian and Jewish faith-based organizations.

In a matter of a few years she built Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good into the pre-eminent progressive Catholic public policy organization in the country.

I say this to confirm your sense that her appointment is particularly revealing of where Obama is headed on these matters.

Your old dissertation director...

Russell Arben Fox said...

Steve! Thanks for commenting, and for sharing your insight into Kelley. I've only become familiar with Alliance for the Common Good through your own blogging (I'd heard of it before, but hadn't followed its writings or activities at all), but what I've seen has impressed me greatly. If Kelley's the primary mover and shaker behind the organization, then in speaks very well of Obama's judgment indeed.

Not that such resolves all the sorts of concerns that someone thinking about how to properly preserve or extend a certain kind of morally or religiously grounded response to abortion (and other matters) into the public sphere (something much needed now, in the wake of Bush's abuses of just such things, as well as the liberal overreaction against any kind of religious leftism), but such conceptual concerns are hardly to be intransigently insisted upon in the face of the possibility of real progress on abortion reduction. That's something the Douthats of the world need to keep in mind.

daisy_duck said...

i ve read this article before. i dont know where but i know this article...

Matt J Stannard said...

Thank you for your kind words about my post, Russell. I suspect that much of our disagreement will revolve around the "post-restriction" environment to which I believe a genuinely constructive pro-life discussion must now subscribe. What needs to happen is for pro-life progressives to completely break away from ANY politics, activism, and policy prescriptions of the right. More later (perhaps on The Underview) ---as I am about to fix lunch for kids and friends.

Anonymous said...

You won't get any real traction with a progressive pro-life movement as long as the primary candidates for abortion reduction are underage, poor, or otherwise disadvantaged women. I imagine that this is partly what matt is referring to in his comment. And I caution you in no uncertain terms that Douthat will never be your ally in such an effort.