Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book review: "Defenders of the Unborn"

Book Review:    Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: the Pro-Life movement before Roe vs. Wade, Oxford University Press, 2016.

This is a significant recent book.  Williams, a member of the history department at the University of West Georgia, has written a history of the debate in the twentieth century (particularly in the United States) over issues related to abortion.  He has written this history from the perspective of movements opposing abortion, a viewpoint with which he openly sympathises.

He details a number of significant shifts in the public debate over abortion in recent decades:

1.  The rationale for providing wider access to abortion has shifted from a population-control issue (with overtones of eugenics and - at times - racism) to an issue of women's rights.

2.  The general political milieu of the discussion had changed in recent decades.  Whereas the question of abortion is now a litmus-test of where a person is on a left-right political spectrum, there was once a time (in many of our lifetimes) when it was relatively easy in the US to find liberal Democrats who opposed abortion and conservative Republicans who were pro-choice.

3.  The arguments used by opponents of abortion were once grounded in the progressive conviction that a compassionate society had the obligation to provide good, caring public services to all its citizens, ... including the poor, ... including single mothers, ... and including the children of poor, single mothers.

4.  The arguments used by opponents of abortion (particularly those who were Catholics) were once framed in terms of what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago called "a consistent ethic of life", in which opposition to capital punishment and opposition to the arms race existed as part of a "seamless garment" with opposition to abortion.

With the embrace of the anti-abortion movement by conservative-evangelical Protestants (who, for the most part, were also allied with the extreme right wing in secular politics) in the early 1980s, this situation changed rapidly.
  • With the leadership of anti-abortion political movements passing from Catholics to evangelicals, the emphasis of anti-abortion rhetoric changed from a generally humanitarian emphasis of compassion toward the unborn to an aggressive stance of hostility  toward those who participated in abortions. (1)
  • As well, with evangelicals replacing Catholics in the leadership of these movements, more holistic, humanitarian, and pastoral viewpoints were replaced by the ideologies of the hard right.
  • An individual's position on abortion became a "litmus test" of one's general political ideology.  Individuals who were generally left-of-centre (but who opposed abortion in the majority of cases), were generally marginalised politically, as  were also individuals who were generally right-of-centre (but who held to a pro-choice position).
The tone of Williams's description of this process seems to be one of profound regret.  He appears deeply saddened by the fact that opposition to abortion is now seen as a merely right-wing political stance.

In describing these processes, Williams is scrupulously fair to all parties concerned.  In his narrative and his language, he regards all who have been involved in these debates, including those with whom he disagrees, as ethically serious individuals who acted with good will, and who deserve to be regarded with respect.

A mark of this respect is in his use of language.  He describes each movement and viewpoint, as each evolved over the decades, with the language chosen by the various movements to describe themselves at the relevant time.  He doesn't impose today's terminology on people living in the 1960s.  Neither does he impose the language of his preferred viewpoint upon people who conscientiously take a different approach.

This book is a useful resource for all who are interested in the interaction of questions of politics, religion, gender, sexuality, and bioethics.  Whatever your own viewpoint on questions relating to abortion, you should find this an enlightening work.  In my own case, when I finished reading this book, I had more questions on this issue than I had when I began, which is always a good sign.

***

(1)  And, in my personal experience, speaking as someone who isn't RC myself but who has had a long ecumenical involvement with Catholics, the motivation of most Catholics I know (even relatively conservative ones) in opposing abortion is based on compassion for the unborn.  Only among the most conservative of the conservatives can the hostile aggression of some evangelical opponents of abortion be found. 

As well, in my observation, a strong opposition to abortion is found not only among conservative RCs, but among reasonably liberal Catholics; among the sort of Catholics who are enthusiastic for ecumenism, who would encourage the divorced and remarried to receive communion, who would encourage a zero-tolerance approach by the Church to clerical paedophilia, and who would actively welcome married or female priests.

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