Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/09

6

The emergence of consensus

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As Bradlaugh pointed out below to some extent abortion has become a litmus test which separates the American Left from the Right in the minds of many. Conservative evangelical Christians generally believe that the fundamentals of their faith compel them to support the anti-abortion cause (see this commenter). Historian James T. McGreevy tells another story in Catholicism and American Freedom: A History:

Evangelical Protestants generally ignored the issue until the late 1970s. A group of prominent evangelicals, in fact, cautiously endorsed abortion law reform in 1968, and the Southern Baptist Convention leadership made halting steps in the same direction in the 1970s. When the news service for the Southern Baptist Convention reported the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade., the first sentence, describing the decision as advancing the cause of “religious liberty,” seemed directed at Catholics arrogant enough to presume that their own views should be law.

Remember that Ronald Reagan signed a bill which loosened abortion laws in California in the late 1960s. George H. W. Bush had supported abortion rights until 1980, and his father had close ties to Planned Parenthood. This is not to say that I deny that those who oppose abortion do so sincerely. Rather, my point is that the “Culture Wars” which we see around us today may seem clear, distinct, and natural, but their shape was far different even a generation back. The flip side of this is that many atheists can not understand how one could be pro-life and atheist, but I would offer that to a great extent this too is an expression of the evolution of a group identity and coalitional politics. There are prominent atheists such as Nat Hentoff & Christopher Hitchens, who oppose abortion rights.

Update: Tom Piatak points out that Hitchens is not pro-life, despite reservations about abortion. The perception that Hitchens is pro-life probably emerges from a column in The Nation where he proposed women given up the right to abortion in exchange to for a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

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35 comments

  • Tom Piatak · March 6, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Although Hitchens has expressed some reservations about abortion, in “God is not Great,” he describes abortion as “The second-best fallback solution” to what he sees as the problem of reducing family size, a “solution” that “may sometimes be desirable for other reasons.” Hitchens goes on to state: “The only proposition that is completely useless, either morally or practically, os the wild statement that sperms and eggs are all potential lives which must not be prevented from fusing and that, when united however briefly, have souls that must be protected by law.” (This is from p. 222 of Hitchens’ book).

    But Hentoff is a solid pro-lifer, and has been for a long time.

  • Mark in Spokane · March 6, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    A very perceptive post overall. I myself am pro-life, and although I am religious, to be honest my strongest pro-life sentiments are based in the difficulties that I have about things like the afterlife, etc. If there is no God, if there is no afterlife, then abortion (at least to my lights, I understand that others may feel differently) becomes something even more tragic and more terrible than if there is a God to welcome the souls of the aborted into paradise.

    Thanks for a very insightful post.

  • Author comment by Caledonian · March 7, 2009 at 8:42 am

    “If there is no God, if there is no afterlife, then abortion (at least to my lights, I understand that others may feel differently) becomes something even more tragic and more terrible than if there is a God to welcome the souls of the aborted into paradise.”

    Since the vast majority of aborted fetuses couldn’t be said to have much of a functioning nervous system, if there aren’t any souls involved, what precisely is terrible about losing such fetuses? They’re tissue cultures; they lack the qualities of sentience. If a brain-dead adult body is allowed to die, what’s lost if they have no souls?

    Please explain your position to a confused rationalist.

  • Mark in Spokane · March 7, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Caledonian,

    You are confusing soul and mental capacity. They two aren’t the same thing. Compare a person with a 120 I.Q. and a person with a 90 I.Q. The person with the 120 I.Q. doesn’t have “more soul” than the other person. Same with all human beings along the developmental line. A fetus and a 95 year old person suffering from dementia don’t have more or less soul than a 25 year old graduate student studying engineering. They defintely have less mental capacity.

    Within my religious tradition, soul is generally defined within the Aristotlean-Thomistic category as the form of the body. I can explain more if it is warranted.

    BTW, I don’t think that you are unique in conflating mental capacity and soul. It is a very common view.

  • Mark in Spokane · March 7, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Ooops. I meant to write “The two aren’t the same thing.” I need to pay more attention to proof-reading before hitting the submit comment button.

    Cheers!

  • Thursday · March 7, 2009 at 10:59 am

    I wonder how much the tiptoeing of the Southern Baptists towards liberalism on abortion was a purely elite phenomenon. Church bureaucracies tend to be much more liberal than the denomination as a whole. During the late 70s, early 80s, the conservative majority of the SBC vigourously reasserted itself on a whole host of issues, not just abortion.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 7, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I wonder how much the tiptoeing of the Southern Baptists towards liberalism on abortion was a purely elite phenomenon.

    this seems plausible. but from what i have read evangelical protestant bottom-up activism exhibited non-trivial latency from roe vs. wade until the late 1970s. neither the evangelical protestants or their liberal antagonists remember this with much clarity, but catholics who were involved in the attempts to prevent the contraceptive revolution down to roe vs. wade remember.

  • Danny · March 7, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Mr. Hume is correct. Anti-Catholicism was much more prevalent among evangelical protestants than it is today, and they initially tended to view the pro-life movement with suspicion as Roman interference in American politics. An excellent discussion can be found here, and here is a more in-depth treatment of how, contrary to what most would have expected in the 60’s, it was the Democrats rather than the Republicans who became the party of abortion on demand.

  • Susan · March 7, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Actually, according to some conservatives, opposition to abortion is the defining characteristic of a conservative. If you’re not opposed to abortion, you’re not a conservative, no matter what your feeling may be about the size of government, the economy, foreign policy, etc. Thus they effectively marginalize themselves, because abortion just isn’t that big an issue to most voters, and I don’t see that it ever will be.

  • TrueNorth · March 7, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    I am an atheist and I oppose abortion. Always have, always will. But why?

    I have no problem with birth control so why do I feel differently about an unfertilized egg and the zygote it becomes when fertilized? (This is the inverse question from the one those who support partial birth abortion must answer: Why is killing the baby fine before it is born but murder a few minutes later?)

    I choose to feel differently, I suppose. There is none of the visceral disgust associated with abortion at this early stage. Any opposition I have is purely philosophical for the first few weeks of pregnancy. Don’t ask me to justify this feeling on scientific grounds, because I can’t. It is just a feeling, but I am going to go with it all the same.

    How do you feel about the Bush administration’s policy of “aggressive interrogation”. Andy McCarthy and other defenders of the policy at National Review have excellent arguments. Very logical. Waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others probably saved many lives. I can’t deny it.

    Nevertheless, I oppose it. It just feels wrong to me. Evidently, much of the rest of the world feels the same way. Atheists who mistrust such feelings do so at their own peril. “The heart has its own reasons” and they are often correct.

  • TGGP · March 7, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Chip Smith seems to be another pro-life atheist.

  • Chip Smith · March 7, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    For what it’s worth, I don’t know that I would call myself “pro-life” these days. Abortion does not “feel” wrong to me on an intuitive or visceral level. Not anymore. My reservations stem from the force of secular libertarian arguments concerning personhood and consistent legal protection. I find the cultural backdrop of the debate to be marginally interesting, but mainly distracting.

  • harry flashman · March 8, 2009 at 1:57 am

    The “pro-life” vs. “pro choice” has always made me wonder about the “choices” being made.

    If one is “pro-choice” why don’t they “choose” not create a life they don’t want, won’t support and fully expect other Americans to pay for?

    If you value “choice” why “choose” to create a life you then choose to end?

    There are about 7,000 different ways not to create a human being – isn’t that enough “choice?” You’ve got implants, pills, morning after pills, proghylactics, sponges, diaprhagms, any number of ways to “choose” before you “choose” to end a human life.

    What is the problem with not creating one you have to kill later?

    After all, you have “the right to choose.” What is the problem with exercising you’re “right to choose” before you “choose” to create a life?”

    It would seem to me that selecting beforehand would obiviate a death sentence in hindsight. How simple can it be?

    Don’t create what you don’t want.

  • Kevembuangga · March 8, 2009 at 3:47 am

    There are about 7,000 different ways not to create a human being – isn’t that enough “choice?” You’ve got implants, pills, morning after pills, proghylactics, sponges, diaprhagms, any number of ways to “choose” before you “choose” to end a human life.

    Yeah! Choice…
    Like in THIS, but I guess you didn’t hear about such cases.
    Religioids are truly fucking bastards!!!

  • Randall Parker · March 8, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Al Gore used to be for abortion restriction before abortion became a litmus test for Democrats and Republicans at the national level. Lots of people had to switch positions as the enforcement on both sides became stronger. Makes you wonder what else the top people really believe versus what they profess to believe.

  • Service Employees Are Out to Destroy America « Very Important Stuff · March 9, 2009 at 2:46 am

    [...] toward abortion.  At Secular Right, David Hume reminds that religious conservatives haven’t always seen abortion as a litmus test of loyalty to God and Party, and at EthicsDaily, Jim Evans discusses their [...]

  • Susan · March 9, 2009 at 10:05 am

    Randall, I think–though I have no data to support my view; it’s just my observation–that a fair number of allegedly anti-abortion politicians say what they have to say in order to placate certain of their constituents. Or in the case of politicians no longer with us, history is being revised to depict them as holding views they actually didn’t. In the 20 years since Reagan was president, some of the most hardline pro-lifers have been portraying him as some kind of anti-abortion crusader, brandishing a shining sword to cut down the legions of baby killers. In actual fact I’m not sure if Reagan had strong feelings one way or the other. Appointing O’Connor and Koop to their respective positions was a gesture to the pro-lifers, but otherwise, was it that big a concern to him?

  • Derek Scruggs · March 9, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    @harry flashman Did that little girl in Brazil “choose” to be raped?

  • The emergence of consensus on abortion « A Blogspotting Anglican Episcopalian · March 9, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    [...] Secular Right » The emergence of consensus [...]

  • Danny · March 9, 2009 at 1:49 pm

  • Susan · March 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks, Danny. My memory is obviously off in this particular regard. But…he didn’t end abortion, did he? Which is what I think some pro-lifers expect a president will do.

  • vic · March 9, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    the status quo on this issue is well established and will stay in place with minor alterations from time to time.

    The cynical part of me says that this is just an issue that the elites on both sides want to keep alive as it ralllies tha base – come election time – and useful idiots are -by definition -useful

  • Danny · March 9, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Vic,

    I’ve wondered about that in my more cynical moments as well. If abortion were to disappear as a national issue, I think a great many more committed Catholics and evanglical protestants would seriously consider the possibility of voting Democrat. Republican elites don’t want that to happen. As it stands, voting for pro-choicers is almost considered a confessional matter among serious Catholics.

  • Getting Organized on a Monday Morning « Just Above Sunset · March 9, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    [...] on these matters of morality and religion, Razib Khan here notes that conservatism and the pro-life movement – and unyielding dogma – were not always [...]

  • vic · March 9, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    danny

    let me just say

    It takes two to tango

  • Danny · March 9, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Vic – are you suggesting that there is a large bloc of militant feminist baby killers who are just dying to support limited government and lower taxes but who are dissuaded from jumping ship because of their strong “reproductive rights” convictions? Somehow I doubt it.

  • James · March 10, 2009 at 7:28 am

    The reason this is a conservative principle has nothing to do with the horrors of abortion. The issue is that judges think they they have a right to amend the constitution “on the fly”.

  • James · March 10, 2009 at 7:33 am

    @Danny
    As it stands, voting for pro-choicers is almost considered a confessional matter among serious Catholics.

    And paying obesiance to the most extreme pro-abortion positions is a confessional matter among national Democrats.

  • Grant Canyon · March 10, 2009 at 7:59 am

    Danny,

    There are TONS of young, professional women who vote Democratic because of the abortion issue, but whose economic interests align with the Republicans. And for a lot of them, they, themselves, would never get an abortion, but they don’t want the sterotypical old, white man telling them what they can and cannot do with their bodies.

  • Modern American Republican: More Extreme Than British Conservatives And Former Republicans - Liberal Values - Defending Liberty and Enlightened Thought · March 10, 2009 at 9:49 am

    [...] later years considered himself a liberal in response to the changes in the conservative movement. Secular Right has also pointed out that the battle lines of the culture war are a recent development: Remember [...]

  • Chris · March 10, 2009 at 11:46 am

    @Vic, Danny: It’s difficult to credibly express your commitment to limited government while dictating to someone what medical procedures they can have.

  • Author comment by Caledonian · March 10, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    “Why is killing the baby fine before it is born but murder a few minutes later?)

    I choose to feel differently, I suppose. There is none of the visceral disgust associated with abortion at this early stage. Any opposition I have is purely philosophical for the first few weeks of pregnancy. Don’t ask me to justify this feeling on scientific grounds, because I can’t. It is just a feeling, but I am going to go with it all the same.”

    And thus we see that, although rationality leads to atheism, atheism does not lead to rationality.

  • Danny · March 10, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    @Chris,

    At a minimum, a ‘limited’ government ought to exist in order to protect the weak from the strong, particularly in regards to protection from bodily harm, and most particularly in regards to bodily harm that results in death. Pretending that abortion is just some generic everday ‘medical procedure’ is nonsensical. It is not the equivalent of a political movement to prevent people from receiving rhinoplasties.

    Furthermore, some degree of government involvement in medical regulation is always going to be necessary, unless we were to move to a strict libertarian system in all the professions. As it is now, by going to a physician who is legally licensed to practice medicine, I can expect them to have some common standard of training and standard of care that they are held to, and that if they fail to deliver this standard of care they will loose their license.

    The mechanism through which this oversight occurs (in the US) is via State Medical Boards, which are usually answerable to the Executive Branch. Medical Boards, in theory at least, are responsible for enforcing a system of professional ethics. Until very recently, performing an abortion was considered to be an egregious violation of medical ethics. In fact, the hippocratic oath originally included a clause barring the physician from using his training and knowledge to perform an abortion.

  • mgarmon · March 16, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    @Caledonian
    The problem with the fetus as “tissue” is that it very quickly turns into an infant, now legally pulled from the womb just early enough to be called “nonviable”, if the heart beats for only a short time before death, it doesn’t count as life. That is the problem created by no willing to draw a line, it is above their pay grade. It is infanticide. Who gets to draw the line, and back it up as medical technology advances? Or is infanticide just a sad side effect of protecting choice?

  • Secular Right » Abortion, the forgotten years…. · June 23, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    [...] mentioned before that in the early-to-mid-1970s abortion did not have the valence on the Right that it does today. [...]

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