Our Widening Embrace

[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.



Democratic presidential candidate tells nation why abortion must be abolished

“I believe that the genius of this American experiment of ours is that in every generation we take actions to include more people more fully in the economic, the social, and the political life our country. That’s the broader arc of American history. We’ve yet to arrive at a perfect union, but every generation we have the opportunity to make it a more perfect union….

“One of the most powerful beliefs we share is our belief in the dignity of every person. That’s what’s motivated me, and the common good that we share. And, I will do everything in my power to move us forward as a nation, and make us more inclusive in every possible way I can across the board because that’s what makes us stronger as a country.”

That’s Governor Martin O’Malley speaking at last night’s Democratic Town Hall on CNN. (Full transcript here.) He was responding to a question about what he would do to secure full LGBT rights in the United States.

And in doing so, he articulated perfectly the case for the abolition of abortion.

A day of penance and prayer

In all the dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday) shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. The Mass “For Peace and Justice” (no. 22 of the “Masses for Various Needs”) should be celebrated with violet vestments as an appropriate liturgical observance for this day.

General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373

Review: Charles Camosy’s Beyond the Abortion Wars

beyondOur Sunday Visitor has just published my review of Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation, by Charles Camosy. My take is generally positive, but not without serious criticism. A snippet:

Furthermore, Camosy says abortion law in the U.S. cannot be understood as “settled” (a legal term used to justify maintaining status quo). The 1992 Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey said states may restrict access to abortion as long as these restrictions do not pose an “undue burden” on the mother seeking one. This was a new standard, and one very different than a supposed right to “privacy,” as Roe v. Wade established in 1973.

Pro-life Catholics take note: Since Casey, social programs that make child-rearing less difficult for parents — especially poor women — also make it harder to call a proposed abortion restriction an “undue burden.” Any law that provides wider access for poor families to welfare, family and medical leave, and health insurance serves to erode the legal grounds for abortion. Arguably, the long list of recent significant state-level abortion restrictions succeeded thanks in part to such programs. The same programs will make future restrictions all the more reachable.

The full review is here.

(Incidentally, I reviewed Camosy’s previous book, For the Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action, on this blog, here.)

Where Mother Jones betrays its own great principles

I am a subscriber to the bi-monthly print edition of Mother Jones, as well as a follower of the magazine’s Twitter feed. It’s a smart and quirky journal that informs, challenges, and sheds light on many important issues. Often these issues are crucial ones at at the forefront of our social conversation — like Chris Mooney’s fine cover story to this month’s issue about the psychological pathways that lead to racism — and sometimes they are those that more of us should be paying attention to but are not — like an article in the same issue about the disastrous impact of solitary confinement on adolescents held in youth detention facilities.

In short, I’m a fan of the magazine, its values, its thoughtful and incisive approach, and the work of its staff and contributors. Usually.

Unfortunately, this magazine that is practically the epitome of a principled journalistic stand for “the little guy,” the marginalized among us (as the above two referenced articles illustrate), falls far short of this ideal when it comes to the topic of abortion. They have chosen a firmly pro-choice editorial stance, and apparently (since there is no sign of a differing opinion in what they produce) no dissent will be brooked, no nuance considered.

I came across a discouraging example of this early last night — New Year’s Eve — as I perused my Twitter feed. The magazine was preparing to ring in the new year by tweeting links to interesting year-end articles with intro lines like “2014 was the year we finally started to do something about climate change,” “The 40 greatest things people said to us in 2014,” and “The worst things that appeared on Cable News in 2014.” (That last one‘s a doozy. Want to bang your head against a wall at the stupidity on Fox News? Check out that one.)

And then there was this one: “The War on Reproductive Rights Will Get a Lot Uglier Next Year,” by Mother Jones staffer Molly Redden. Actually, what caught my attention and compelled me to read through the article was its tagline: “Mandatory adoption seminars, discredited science about fetal pain, and many more highlights of anti-abortion bills coming to a statehouse near you.”

“Discredited science about fetal pain”? I’ve read about the issue of pain experienced during abortion by fetuses after a certain level of development, and though I don’t think it’s a central aspect of the moral issue of abortion, it has certainly seemed to me to be one of the more grisly ones. It’s also quite pertinent. Even if you’re unwilling to grant the philosophical premise that the unborn fetus is a person, surely the scientific, biological data that an abortion causes intense physical agony to the fetus is relevant, no?

“This science has been discredited?” I wondered. Fetuses don’t feel pain when being torn apart or burned from the inside out? Scientists are saying that? Had to check.

As it turns out, Redden is referring in her article to (1) a Missouri informed consent law that says women who want an abortion must watch a video that offers “medically accurate information” about the abortion method and (2) the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act currently being considered by the South Carolina state legislature.

About the Missouri law, Redden writes:

The video would tell women that fetuses 22 weeks and older can feel pain and that there are “adverse psychological effects associated with abortion.” Mainstream medical organizations reject both of these assertions. The video will also tell women that “the life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.”

One should certainly note, first of all, that even Redden realized that her line about mainstream medical organizations rejecting assertions had to come before, not after, the following two sentences about life beginning at conception and abortion ending the life of a unique and separate human being. This is, of course, because among the most certain and unassailable medical facts related to the abortion debate are that the life of each human being begins at conception and that abortion terminates the life of a separate, unique, living human being.

Also worth noting is the fact that the link Redden provides to back up her assertion about medical organizations rejecting the video’s assertions — another Mother Jones article — dismisses the idea of fetal pain at 20 weeks as “scientifically dubious” and asserts instead: “The majority of the scientific literature on the subject finds that the brain connections required to feel pain are not formed until at least 24 weeks.” (The other link Redden provides makes absolutely no reference to fetal pain capacity.) .

So the science regarding fetal pain has not been discredited. To say it has is misleading. Fetal pain during later-term abortion is a fact. What is in question is whether that capacity to experience pain has kicked in by five months gestation. Even the strongest pro-choicers agree that by around 6 months, it has. (I note that the New York Times reported this same uncertainty in a 2013 article on the topic. For a list of reasons that some researchers and doctors find it reasonable to think the fetus is capable of feeling pain at 20 weeks, see this site.)

There is not, in other words, a very big difference of opinion on the topic. I’m sure that the supporters of these bills would be perfectly happy to begin the ban at six months rather than five, if that would placate the opposition.

And let’s keep in mind that according to the pro-choice Alan Guttmacher Institute only 1.2% of all legal abortions happen after 20 weeks gestation. In rejecting the laws in question, Redden is insisting on protecting some of the rarest abortions.

But these are not the only potential laws troubling Redden. Among a long list of concerns, she includes bills under consideration in various states that

  • ban “physicians from giving instructions on abortion-inducing drugs by webcam or phone”
  • prevent towns or counties from passing laws that regulate crisis pregnancy centers
  • require consent from the child’s father
  • require the consent of both of the mother’s parents when she is a minor
  • require doctors to perform an ultrasound before performing an abortion
  • ban abortions sought for the purpose of sex selection

These are startling to me. Is abortion so sacrosanct that even abortion by phone must be defended and protected? or abortion because the mother was hoping for a boy rather than a girl?

All of this is is obviously a far cry from any pretension that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” It is stance that refuses to consider for a moment the most obviously relevant scientific data or the slightest nuance in ethical thinking.

In other words it is the same kind of thinking that Mother Jones consistently and competently deplores and demolishes when it comes to issues related to racism, sexism, and economic inequality.

Republicans: will we see pro-life action now?

There was a time in my life when I was a staunch supporter of any policitian who proclaimed him- or herself to be anti-abortion, because they were anti-abortion. I saw — and still see — legal abortion as an injustice on a par with legal slavery: an entire and vast segment of people are viewed, in the eyes of the law, as un-people. Given the moral weight of an issue like that, I reasoned, how could any other issue compare when I walked into the voting booth?

As the years went on, I realized there’s a reasonable answer to that question. In fact, there are at least two.

First, if politicians who proclaim themselves to be pro-life do so only around election time, and then once in office do very little to even try to improve the legal status of the unborn or regulate access to abortion, are they really pro-life anyway? Or am I just a schmuck who falls for a cynical strategy to get pro-lifers’ votes?

Second, while abortion is indeed one of the central justice issues of our time, there are others that arguably hold similar weight. Among these, three loom large: the environment, war, and poverty. In each case, there are fundamental issues that threaten the dignity of human life quite as severely as legal abortion.

Given that and the ways these various issues typically line up in American politics, I began reasoning more and more often as I approached voting booths: I could vote for this person who says s/he is pro-life and watch him/her do nothing about abortion after the election, and also watch him/her work in ways that only endanger human dignity further when it comes to the environment, war, and poverty. Or I could vote this pro-choice person, who won’t do anything to help unborn children (but will likely do little to make things worse), but probably will work hard on issues related to the environment, war, and/or poverty.

It’s a very ambiguous mental arrangement, with plenty of internal conflict. Such is politics, though, right? If you think there’s black and white to any of this, I’ll show you the important factors you’re (intentionally or not) ignoring.

Given all of this, something that’s very much on my mind following this week’s elections is a promise that our new Senate majority leader made over a year ago and has repeated since: if Republicans win control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, they would pass H.R.1797, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. That bill — which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the United States unless the woman is a victim of rape or incest or her life is in danger — passed in the House last year, but never got past the Senate. Now it has a chance of doing that.

Indeed, Charlie Camosy helpfully pointed out this week that H.R. 1797 is not the only abortion-related pro-life legislation that has been blocked by the Senate recently. There’s also:

  • the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act (that would apply the restrictions on abortion funding found in the Hyde Amendment to all federal funding streams and require that all plans offered through the ACA Exchanges disclose if abortion coverage is included);
  • the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act­ (that would prohibit sex-selective abortions);
  • and the Protect Life Act (that would ensure that no funds appropriated or authorized through the ACA could be used for abortion or insurance plans that provide abortion coverage).

Camosy notes: “Each of these bills has the strong support of the electorate, so, if they are passed by Congress, President Obama would be under immense pressure keep his veto pen dry. I think they are likely to become law if Senate Republicans decide to make them a priority.”

So I’m very interested to see whether Mr. McConnell and his Republican colleagues, who now control the Senate, will take action in these directions. I will be watching and taking note, because they now have a chance to convince me that they — that is, Republicans who claim to be anti-abortion — deserve to be taken seriously by me, and by any voters who oppose abortion, next time we walk into a voting booth.