The relationship between theory and practice is always tricky, but when it comes to politics it can get so out of whack that you really do wonder what motivates people after all. For instance, why are Southerners all Republican now? It was the Republican party who served as the aggressor (at least in the Southerner’s eyes) during and after the Civil War. My grandfather swore that he would never vote for a Republican, and I’m pretty sure he kept that promise. Even growing up in the 1990s, in my small Mississippi town, I remember that all of the city and county officials were Democrat. There usually weren’t any Republicans even on the ballot. And yet, by some magical twist of history, almost all the Southern states vote Republican on the national level, and almost all conservative-minded Christians in the South believe that the ideals of the Republican party are more or less consistent with a Biblical world and life view and philosophy of governance. Is this change simply because of Civil Rights? It’s hard to say.
Again, there’s the case of my grandfather still voting Democrat late into the 20th century and even until the start of the 21st century, and he was hardly a progressive-minded man, at least when it came to social issues. And most Southerners are not just Blue-Dog Democrats or Dixiecrats, opposing the Civil Rights’ issues but still retaining older Democratic values of labor protection, agrarian values, and suspicion towards unchecked corporate power. Not at all. The Republican transition is mostly complete, especially on the fiscal matters. And yet, Mississippi still manages to bring in more Federal subsidies than any other state (at least I think it’s still #1 in that category). As I said, it’s a very strange world. The moral issues probably have as much to do with the transition as anything, as the Democrats did kind of become the party of revolutionary morality, but even here there are a lot of questions that could be asked.
Abortion is another case where things don’t actually make sense. In fact, it is much weirder. On the surface, it seems easy enough to explain. In the eyes of the traditionalist, it is a symptom of moral degeneracy and cultural decadence: consequence-free sex. And in the eyes of the more bleeding-heart type of liberal, abortion is a necessary “medical” procedure in order to defend a victim or oppressed member of an underclass. But these are both pretty superficial explanations, even if both have some measure of truth to them. Consider, by contrast, the famous “privacy” justification.
The fact that abortion is a “private” matter, between a woman and her doctor, is often offered as why it ought not be regulated. This is actually the legal foundation which Roe v Wade uses, by the way. But who, I ask you, normally uses privacy as an argument against government regulation? It’s not the liberals!
Additionally, just think about what abortion is in the most basic terms. It is a violent procedure which dramatically alters the natural course of things by use of technology. It’s totally Bacon’s conquest over nature, even to the point of turning a production into a termination. Why would “green” or “environmental” people support it? And why wouldn’t those titans of industry support it? Wendell Berry-types should all be pro-life, whereas Uncle Pennybags should be volunteering for Planned Parenthood.
No, it doesn’t work that way, you say. Abortion only appears that way if you try to hitch it to a moral ontology. I would dispute that, actually, since I tried to keep my above language fairly generic, but let’s examine that objection for a minute. Again, what kind of political thinker typically wants to remove morality or justice from discussions of human liberty? And who are we typically told that it is who wants to dehumanize, depersonalize, and deny basic rights to other weaker entities in an effort to maximize efficiency and production? Again, the teams are all topsy turvy here.
But what about abortion as women’s rights and even worker’s rights? Isn’t it a means to allow full participation in our society? Well yes, but again, consider what’s involved and what it is that is actually being participated in. Abortion says that a woman can be “equal” so long as the natural things which come about from female sexuality are restricted or obstructed completely. And the thing which they are then allowed to participate in is, more often than not, a nearly exhaustive industrial-capitalist system which claims the majority of their time, interest, and loyalty. I’m reminded of that line from Chesterton, “women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they help their husbands.” One woman’s equality is another man’s wage-slavery. Who benefits from women being able to separate themselves from their womanhood, and what is the nature of that benefit? It would seem to me that it’s a perfect fit in a kind of totalizing economic system which succeeds only at the expense of competing interest groups.
And, indeed, treating abortion solely as a “medical” issue is just a perfect example of what Michel Foucault criticized in The Birth of the Clinic. It’s the medical gaze to a t, only it’s not only the doctors who get to dehumanize. We now make the dehumanization a key feature of the legal code. Someone wants to stop and ask if maybe there is a danger here? Silence that man.
Now I know on one level this is all a bit of over-complication for abstract purposes. For most people, abortion is a more or less “practical” response to a concrete situation. And I don’t dispute that on the individual level. But when it comes to the structural level, the political and legal culture which is always informing our biases, these observations seem relevant. Indeed, I don’t know why they haven’t been more obvious for a long time. But as I said, politics is weird, and people have mixed motivations.
What asking these kinds of questions does help clarify, however, is that our political theory needs improving. Christians will need to broaden their imaginations, and they need to be willing to criticize some of their own favored social and political tendencies. We need more or better categories. We need to challenge the narratives.