Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio, which is subtitled “On the Development of Peoples.” George Weigel glibly — and falsely — dismissed it. (Probably something there he doesn’t want you to see?) On the other hand, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both praised it in remarkably strong terms.
[Note: Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve approached three periodicals with strong progressive, social justice slants — one of them Christian, the other two more mainstream — with this piece. Acknowledging that the stance it takes on abortion does not fit with their own editorial positions, I noted that it embraces the premises that ground those positions and said I hoped it might offer their readers a chance to consider the issue from a new point of view at this important time in American politics and perhaps stimulate a respectful conversation. Call me naive or unrealistic. All three rejected the piece, and rather quickly. Rather than continue to shop it around, I post it here.]
Our Widening Embrace
As the American left surges, let’s include the unborn in its circle of care
by Barry Hudock
It’s clear that after a few days of post-election funk last November, the American left has no intention of languishing in despondency following Donald Trump’s rise to President of the United States. The massive January 21 Women’s March in Washington, DC, on the day after the inauguration, was only the first vivid sign of this, but it is far from the only one. Indeed, energized by threats to decades of progress on an array of human and civil rights issues by an unpopular president who leads a deeply divided party, the left is now, as Owen Jones has rightly noted, “stronger than it has been for decades.”
I have personally experienced the compulsion to action that Trump’s cynical nationalism, racism, and misogyny arouses. In the weeks following the election, I knew that as a white male born and raised in rural Pennsylvania (in a county where Trump received over 78 percent of the vote!), I could not avoid finding ways to counteract the ugly forces he had unleashed. Since then, I’ve volunteered to teach English to local Somali immigrants, begun making regular calls to my congressional representatives, and developed the new habit of thanking immigrants I encounter for choosing to make the U.S. their home. I have Donald Trump to thank for, unintentionally, goading me into action.
But even as I stand with so many other Americans concerned about those disadvantaged by our policies and our fears, I find myself keenly aware of a major difference among us. Indeed, the Women’s March brought out the difference in sharp relief.
Just days before the event, its central office released a statement to “assure all of our partners, as well as participants, that we are pro-choice.” The March, they made clear, welcomed only people who “share the view that women deserve the right to make their own reproductive decisions.” This comes in spite of the powerful statement included on the event’s website, explaining its mission: “We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us.”
Of course, one human right – surely the most fundamental of them all – is the right to life. It has a prominent place in both the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. And as the very term suggests, human right come with being human. There is no achievement, skill, or ideological test by which we earn it. It is limited by no citizenship or border. Governments do not grant human rights; they are bound to respect and protect them.
It is tragic, then, that the rights of those who are not yet born are so ignored. Whether or not the pre-born are human is not a matter of creed, philosophy, or opinion. It is a scientific fact.
Now, I am not naïve enough to think that acknowledging this fact solves every question about the morality or legality of abortion. Theoretically, at least, one can argue that personhood is different than humanity. The latter is a scientific matter, but the former is a philosophical one; there is no genetic test to confirm personhood.
But this is precisely where the instincts of progressives ought to serve as a moral compass, pointing them in a different direction than they have typically taken. Such folks are more prepared than most to insist that there is no segment of the human community that does not count as people. They know better than most – or are at least more willing to admit it – that while human history (including American history) is littered with attempts to put certain humans outside the circle of those considered human persons, this has always led to profound tragedy, atrocity, and bitter regret.
Is there any example of a time when excluding a certain category of humanity from what was judged to be personhood was just and good? The progressive answer most common today amounts to this: “No, there is not. Well, except one. We have deprived black people of their humanity before the law, and that was disastrous. In various ways and through various means, we ignored the human rights of women and gays and native Americans and the poor, and in every case it led to crimes that cried to heaven for vengeance. But in the case of the unborn, yes, denying the right to life and every other right – that is the way of justice.”
Does this really ring true in progressive hearts and minds?
President Obama said in his farewell address of January 10, 2017: “[T]he long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.” Legal abortion does not widen that embrace; it narrows and restricts it. Indeed, it transforms that protective embrace to a destructive fist.
Demanding a woman’s right to abortion in the name of her bodily autonomy is a lot like Donald Trump’s jingoistic nationalism. In both cases, protection of the self comes at the expense of others, especially of the vulnerable. With both, autonomy destroys solidarity.
Dismiss this as “mansplaining” if you must – there’s no denying, that’s a thing. But before you do, please remember that it echoes the convictions of some of foundational figures of the United States’ women’s movement – Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Blackwell, and more.
Consider instead the possibility that the biological data and ethical thinking that grounds the pro-life movement is not mansplaining at all. Rather, maybe the false and tragic dismissal of the developing fetus as a mere “clump of cells” and the insistence that the rights of women must be defended at the expense of an even more vulnerable population, are what we might call bornsplaining – the efforts of those who are already born to justify ignoring the rights and dignity of those who are not and who can’t speak up in opposition.
As the strength and energy of the American left surges – like antibodies going after a disease that is attacking our body politic – I am heartened, and I pledge to lend a hand. But for the sake of consistency and of the solidarity of the human community, I implore my fellow advocates for causes of justice to broaden their minds and hearts even wider.