Vinoth Ramachandra

Whose Choice? Which Life?

Posted on: June 28, 2022

I have often bemoaned the misleading rhetoric and double standards involved on both sides of the abortion debate in the US and elsewhere. My most recent foray was what I wrote a week before the last American presidential election (see “Re-Visiting ‘Public Reason’”, 25 October 2020).

The biggest tragedy is that rational “debate” is actually absent on both sides of the Atlantic. Liberal news media such as the BBC, for all their public posturing as balanced and rational voices, have whipped up frenzy over the U.S Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Roe vs Wade, irresponsibly referring to it as a “ban on abortion” and refusing to address the moral and legal complexity of the issue. This is the mirror-image of right-wing media such as Fox News. (I often feel like banging the heads of so-called conservatives and progressives in the U.S and pronouncing a “plague on both your houses”.) One longs for another Orwell to discipline our language in these days of insane politics!

Recall the late Zygmunt Bauman’s quip that, in postmodern ethics, Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) has been replaced by its neo-tribal version “I shout, therefore I am.” The one who shouts loudest, whether on social media or in the university, is the new moral leader. Paradoxically, tolerance is killed in the name of promoting tolerance, intellectual diversity suppressed in the name of valuing diversity.

I have, from time to time, argued on this Blog that the moral arguments against abortion should not ignore the legal challenge to protect both mother and child and ensure that poor women, in particular, are not victimized. The left-liberal chorus, on the other hand, needs to stop using such inane expressions as “the right to choose” and “reproductive rights” and accept that we are dealing here with the moral worth of two human persons at different stages of their human development. The fundamental right of a pregnant woman to understand what she carries in her womb, and the various options open to her, has been obfuscated (ironically) by many who claim to speak for such women.

I live in a country where abortion, on any grounds, is illegal. Despite this, abortions are performed routinely by some doctors as well as back-street quacks. Women are told that what they are undergoing is a “minor surgical operation” or “womb cleansing” or “menstrual regulation”. I don’t know any self-styled radical feminist who has openly confronted such deception of women by some in the medical profession.

As for the Republican lobby in the US, many of us are befuddled as to how a “pro-life” agenda re abortion can be combined with anti-gun control, anti-social welfare, and support for American militarism and the practice of torture and targeted assassinations by American allies (not least, Israel). Isn’t this a case of Orwellian “double-speak”?

If “guns don’t kill people, only people do”, why not apply the same logic to say that “abortion clinics don’t kill babies, only people do”- and, instead of banning them, persuade people not to go to such clinics by giving good reasons and providing alternatives in a civil manner?

In a Blog post of 13 February 2020 I suggested that Western Christians should not seek to return their countries to the age of back-street abortions. Also, that if the dominant secular culture in North America and Europe sees “pro-life” rhetoric tied to a right-wing political agenda, it will only deepen the popular resentment towards Christians. I wrote: “We would have won a battle only to have lost the larger war. Christians should work for cultural change which would make abortion unthinkable, by most people and in most circumstances, whether or not it is illegal.”

As for politically conservative Christians in the U.S, they can become more winsome and credible by being consistently “pro-life” and also being more willing to learn from non-Christians as well as other Christians. And the place to begin is by switching off from their parochial media networks, shutting down their white sectarian colleges and seminaries, living in ethnically and religiously mixed neighbourhoods, and joining the mainstream of cultural and social life. That is how the rest of us live.

7 Responses to "Whose Choice? Which Life?"

May I share this on facebook?

Marla- Certainly.

Thanks for this more nuanced position. i do find the fight against gun controls as inconsistent with the desire to prohibit free choice for women regarding abortion. To be pro-life should not just be limited to abortion.

Very much appreciate your calling out the inappropriate and grossly unhelpful behaviour on all sides of our polarized civic space to turn questions like abortion into simple binaries when reality is much (much!) more complex and nuanced. The polarization seems less interested in finding workable ways forward than in demonizing the ‘Other Side’ for the sake of their own political power. In any event, here is a useful article that explores some of the nuances in a careful way (and, FYI, I greatly appreciate Persuasion Community as a useful source of similarly well-considered analyses):

This is the most relieved I’ve felt reading one of your blogs, Vinoth. I concur with the excellent observations and even-handed critique of inconsistencies on both sides. I’ve otherwise steered clear of the whole polemic around the recent Roe v. Wade decision precisely for the reasons you outlined. The shrill nature of this debate is sadly indicative of how poisoned public discourse can be in our time. Social media only muddies the waters still. I would much prefer to have a one-to-one discussion with someone in most cases. That said, it would behove us as a society to find mature and conciliatory ways to broach these otherwise divisive topics. I witnessed an honourable exception at a fringe event at the UK Labour Party’s 2017 conference in Brighton. It was a debate organised by CotL (formerly the Christian Socialist Movement) and partner organisations. It attracted people of faith and no faith alike and both were represented on either side of the discussion. It was a model example of a way forward but unfortunately, one I’m yet to see replicated.

I would suggest caution in speaking of making women ‘understand what they’re carrying…’ as that could be read by some in the so-called pro-choice camp as being condescending. I do think there’s an anti-capitalist critique of abortion – warning against the sort of ‘consumerist’ rhetoric around the less extreme reasons for termination (as oppose to incest and rape for example).

“….Christians should work for cultural change which would make abortion unthinkable, by most people and in most circumstances, whether or not it is illegal.”

Absolutely. This reminds me of the arguments forwarded by the prison abolitionist movement; that is, we should seek to create a society in which incarceration wouldn’t be necessary. Pertinent to this as well as the question of the abortion, this would extend to eliminating GBV and pernicious gender norms.

Thanks so much for this brilliant, measured piece.

As a pro-life Christian who also sees hypocrisy on both sides, I agree heartily with most everything you said. I do however think there is a more nuanced reason that the left uses the terms “the right to choose” and “reproductive rights”. There is a very real sense in which the bodily autonomy of the pregnant woman is being infringed upon, and there are strong legal arguments to be made for allowing abortion solely on that basis. I think the determination of when life begins can be argued legally, theologically, and philosophically, and come to answers ranging all the way between conception and birth. But in a way, the pregnant woman’s body is acting as a life support system for the developing fetus from conception forward, and there’s a pretty good medical sense of when that ceases to be necessary and other life support can take over. Who has the right to force the woman’s life support system to continue to be used? Are there any other legal examples in which the government is granted the power to override the will of an individual regarding how they use their own body for up to 9 months? There are some bystander laws or good Samaritan laws that give punishment for failing to help someone when one could reasonably do so, but by and large, we don’t legally require individuals to risk or even inconvenience themselves to save another. When a person is on life support, we grant to right to discontinue that support to the closest family member, and that is certainly the pregnant mother. So while I think it’s morally better (especially as a Christian) to choose to provide care for the life of the fetus when possible, forcing someone to do so is far less settled from a legal standpoint. Thank you for your thoughtful engagement on this!

(1) Biologically, there is no question about when a new human life begins- it begins with conception. The UN Convention on the rights of the child accepts this. The philosophical question is whether every human being is a human person, and this is what is debated. Christian theologians mostly agree that personhood does not depend on capacities but is a relational concept. The embryo/fetus is a human person whose personal capacities exist potentially, awaiting development.

(2) Nobody has absolute autonomy over his/her body. Human rights law recognizes that I have no right to sell my body into slavery, or my body parts for commercial purposes. And governments do have laws about soliciting, public indecency, etc. In marriage (at least as conceived Christianly- 1 Cor 7:4) the bodies of husband and wife belong to each other.

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June 2022
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