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Equality Collides

October 28, 2013

Last week I discussed the trend in Western societies towards treating more and more categories of people equally. Frequently when a new group demands equality in a loud enough voice to register with society at large, one side claims that the debate is about equality and the other side claims that equality has nothing to do with it. The debate about abortion breaks these rules – both sides claim that human equality is at the core of their stance. For the pro-choice side the debate is about the equality of women. For the pro-life side the debate is about the equality of unborn children. This makes this debate a very interesting one for anyone interested in ideas of human equality.

It’s also fairly hard to draw some clear historical trend in relation to abortion. Both sides can discuss history in ways that make it appear that they are on the side of the (imaginary) forces of history. On one hand abortion was once part of a kit of family-planning tools that included infanticide and selling children into slavery. It’s not hard to talk about a world where over the course of history we increasingly realize that just because children are helpless we cannot dispose of them like garbage and so the various parts of these toolkits are eventually banned. On the other hand there is also a familiar narrative in which women gain increasing freedom to make their own decisions including the (extremely important) decision about whether to be pregnant. In a very real sense, two different trends both based on seeing a disadvantaged group as equal have collided.

A much larger issue for the present debate, though, is that both movements have also been hijacked. It isn’t hard to miss the fact that the debate about abortion is one about human equality (exactly who is human and who gets priority when rights interfere with one another) because the abortion debate almost never involves any debate about this question. In fact, most of the debate about abortion has degraded into a massive insult-fest. Witness the recent trend to drop the “pro” labels (pro-choice and pro-life) when talking about the other side – obviously describing someone as anti-choice or anti-life has better rhetorical punch but that punch is also a cheap shot. However, this is an obvious choice to make when one decides that the way the world works is that you (whichever side you are on) are clearly and obviously correct and the other side is brutally oppressive of whichever group you are protecting. Certainly admitting any doubt makes a position appear weaker in a debate (although it may make it a significantly more honest position). It’s simply hard to imagine a world in which a pro-choice individual would say that it was debatable whether they were a baby-killer or where a pro-life individual would say that women’s freedoms have gone too far. Of course both statements reflect a view in which the other side is not wrong merely because they are nefariously evil but that they have reasons for saying what they say.

Part of the way back out of an unconstructive dialog is to recognize the concerns of each side and to see that there are similarities between them. For reasons that I will explain shortly I myself am pro-life but this does not make the issue of women’s reproductive freedoms irrelevant. Not too long ago one of my students asked me why she never saw pregnant animals. The answer is that she has but that humans are almost alone amongst mammals in being obviously pregnant – if a human woman is unable to move quickly, work for long without becoming tired, or any of the other physical issues associated with being heavily pregnant, her extended social network will take care of her. Similarly, human infants are cared for by their parents and other relatives in ways that far exceed that of any other mammal. Babies require nearly constant attention and may take almost a decade to reach the level of independence where they do not require close adult supervision almost all the time. In cultures where women are expected to spend most of their young adult lives pregnant and then caring for young children, all the opportunities for jobs and education in the world will not help raise the status of women until they have some freedom from being baby factories.

There are three primary reasons that I believe a large number of pro-life Christians are unwilling to see this problem. The first is that calling children a burden is taboo in our family-friendly churches (an odd trend for a religion started by celibates). Of course children do take a lot of time and resources. While this may be balanced out by the joy they bring, children are not a no-cost life enhancement. Committing to raise a child is one of the largest investments a person can make. The second reason is that a lot of Christians in the West feel that women could avoid the whole issue of unwanted pregnancies if they’d just stop being slutty. The issue of one moral travesty arising from another is real, but there also needs to be a realization of the extent to which women with bad sexual morals develop the same from pressure (or abuse or rape) from men who have worse sexual morals. If men never pressured women for sex, if women never worried that their boyfriends would leave them if they didn’t put out, and if women were never objectified so that they would feel that their worth was inherently tied to sex then much of the issue of bad sexual morals in women would go away because the problem didn’t start with the women who exhibit it. (This isn’t to say that women all have perfectly pure sexual morals until dirty boys infect them with bad ideas [a claim that would be incredibly sexist in a weird way] but as someone who teaches college students and pays attention to the culture of late teens and early twenty-somethings, I am well aware of how predatory male culture has become when it comes to sex.)

The third, and very important, reason that many pro-life Christians do not worry about women’s reproductive freedoms is that they do not worry much about women’s rights in general. This is probably largely because the reference point for no women’s rights in conservative America is 1950. If I were forced to choose between being a woman living in the US in 1950 or a woman living right now in Afghanistan or a dozen other fully patriarchal societies I would choose America in 1950 in a heartbeat. The 1950s weren’t great for women but the sort of paternal patriarchy of chivalry is a far cry from the direct and brutal oppression that full-scale patriarchy brings. We think of feminists complaining that they are capable of opening their own doors but we never think of feminists complaining that they should not be always forced to open doors for men. When we talk about women getting access to higher education, we talk about debates in which women were largely depicted as incapable of benefitting from higher education and not ones in which women were simply considered to be sub-humans whose hopes and dreams didn’t matter. (Some of this is, of course, whitewashing a nastier history.) If you believe that the threat of patriarchy is not the threat that one day women might have to vacuum the house in high heels but that one day men might sell their teenage daughters to each other to cement a friendship, then you believe that there are important reasons to safeguard women’s rights, especially their right to refuse sex.

Oddly, the pro-choice blindness to the problem of abortion fits almost exactly the same category. Just as many conservatives cannot really imagine that men and women might have different places in society where men’s place would be to be fully human and women’s place would be as slaves, almost no one in modern Western societies can imagine a world in which children are anything other than the dearest treasures of their families. The recognition of children as properly human predates feminism but it is still within relatively recent history. Child labor laws, which enshrine a child’s right to try and make good on their potential, are state-only in the United States until the 1930s. Even then these laws are somewhat partisan – it is unions that first back child labor laws, perhaps because child labor undercuts union bargaining power. Perhaps more shockingly, until the 1980s many doctors assumed that babies couldn’t really feel pain and would do infant surgeries without any real attempt at pain management (the drugs used induced paralysis so that the child could not writhe in agony but did nothing to block the transmission of pain signals). Going back further in time we find that in many societies children were not immediately named because they might die and they should not be considered part of the family until they made it to some age where their odds of dying were lower. This is the same attitude that made infanticide so common once. A child wasn’t anybody when it was born and so if you didn’t want the child you just left it out to die. The early church saw abortion and infanticide as different points on the same continuum and it seems relatively difficult to me to see how one can really argue otherwise. Indeed, a number of modern ethicists (of whom I have a generally bad opinion) have suggested that infanticide isn’t a moral problem.

What ties both sides in the abortion issue together (assuming that we ignore the number of callous political vultures on both sides) is an interest in making sure that powerful groups cannot write off other groups as less-human and deny them equal treatment. What blinds both sides is the unwillingness to recognize how easy it would be to deny these rights to groups like women and children who we now feel “obviously” have these rights. (There is a fairly obvious reason that children prior to birth get completely different treatment than children who may be only a handful of hours older – we can see children who have been born and humans tend to treat people invisible to us very badly.) Where the abortion debate needs to live is at the point where we ask who is human and what rights this grants them. This will require many fewer insults and much more deep thought about who various definitions of humanity include and exclude.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2013 9:22 am

    Very interesting article, and also good writing. Bringing out the different narratives is interesting; phrasing “equality” as “who gets to be human” is perhaps even more interesting.

  2. November 6, 2013 8:57 pm

    Great observations here!

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