The moral infantilism of the pro-life lobby

The Irish referendum has utterly shattered pro-life delusions.

Brendan O'Neill
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Topics Politics

The core belief of the pro-life lobby is that where it is serious and moral, its opponents, the pro-choice people, care only for convenience. We have been got at by the cult of consumerism, apparently, and now we treat even babies as throwaway objects. Our god is expedience. We want the easy life, free of both moral depth and the burden of responsibility, while the pro-life lobby elevates what is right over what is easy, and what is good over what makes people feel good.

This is a self-delusion. Arguably it is the opposite of the truth. The morality of the pro-life lobby is in fact incredibly wanting. There is a moral infantilism, even moral cretinism, to their sanctification of fetal life at the expense of a woman’s exercise of her individual autonomy. They speak in the language of morality and responsibility and consequence, but their willingness to sanction coercion to make individuals continue pregnancies they do not want suggests they have no serious understanding of these moral categories. They fail to see that morality without choice is not morality at all – it is compulsion; the erasure of the moral being who thinks and acts consequentially.

The victory of Yes in Ireland, where 67 per cent of voters demanded the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution that bans abortion, has understandably caused much consternation among the pro-life lobby. It has also exposed the shallowness of their claims to unilateral moral seriousness.

Ireland has fallen to ‘the culture of death’, they claim. In the words of John Waters, paraphrasing Psalm 137, the Irish will now ‘dash their own children against the rocks’. Yes campaigners ‘luxuriated in feelings detached from moral and spiritual reality’, said one pro-life observer, and that can only bring about ‘physical and spiritual death’. The Irish have now become, in Waters’ shrill words, ‘barbarians who value nothing but what is expedient’.

This contrasting of the ‘moral and spiritual’ seriousness of the pro-life side with the narrow expediency of the pro-choice outlook is in need of serious questioning. Because very few of the pro-life lobby’s claims to moral profundity actually stand up to scrutiny. First, and most obviously, is their failure even to use terms that might allow for meaningful moral debate. They continually blur the lines between different forms of human life, and they do so precisely as a tactic of moral avoidance.

So they never say ‘fetus’, for that would raise moral questions they are keen to avoid: primarily the moral dilemma that fetal life cannot exist without the consenting nourishment of the woman’s body, and the possibility that this sometimes raises a moral conflict between two forms of human existence. Such moral complexity, and its demand for the making of a moral judgement, is anathema to these campaigners who only pose as moral, but who in fact take a dogmatic view of conception, pregnancy and women. And as Kant reminded us, dogma is the opposite of morality. Indeed, in Kant’s words, ‘The death of dogma is the birth of morality’.

Instead of saying ‘fetus’ they flit between the terms ‘babies’ and ‘children’. ‘What is the difference between abortion and infanticide?’, they frequently ask, unaware of how starkly this question exposes their moral infantilism. They are conscious – surely? – that even the terms ‘baby’ and ‘child’ mean different things, never mind the even greater difference between those two terms and the term ‘fetus’. A baby is a very young child you can hold and feed. A child is a young human being who has not yet reached puberty. Neither of these terms is an honest description of a fetus. Neither of these terms, when deployed to describe the eight- or 10-week-old fetus that a woman has opted to have removed from her body, allows for a proper moral reckoning with the procedure being carried out. And that is the aim of their use: precisely to skirt moral complexity in favour of taking refuge in the comfort zone of dogma.

The central moral failing of saying ‘child’ instead of ‘fetus’ in relation to an unwanted pregnancy is that it represents a dogmatic denial of the fundamental difference between a child and a fetus. Which is that a child can be protected and looked after without interfering with a woman’s personal or moral autonomy, where a fetus cannot. There is nothing that can be done to a fetus that doesn’t involve interfering with the personhood of the woman. So when Waters says Ireland is dashing its children against the rocks, he unwittingly exposes the moral cretinism of much of the pro-life position, because a fetus cannot be dashed against the rocks. Well, not unless you dash the woman against the rocks, too. A fetus cannot be dashed against the rocks because a fetus is not a child.

To compare the termination of a fetus to the Biblical horror of dashing a child against the rocks – or, more pertinently, abortion to infanticide – is to demonstrate ignorance of what is probably the central moral question of abortion: whether fetal life or a woman’s autonomy should enjoy precedence. Calling a fetus a child, and likening the termination of an eight-week fetus to a mother’s murder of her one-year-old child, erases the fundamental matter that a fetus cannot exist independent of its mother’s biology, and it does this to the broader end of erasing the moral question of what should be done when a mother is unwilling to carry a fetus. The moral question, ducked through the use of dishonest terminology.

When the pro-life lobby does, reluctantly, address this question, it again exposes its moral infantilism. ‘Love Both’ was the slogan of the pro-life side in the Irish referendum, as if a cup of tea and a chat would be sufficient to convince a woman to continue with a pregnancy she does not want. Some pro-life observers offered to house women distressed about their pregnancies. If this is morality, it is the morality of the unworldly. As if the tens of thousands of Irish women who have trekked to Britain to end pregnancies they don’t want might have been made to do otherwise by being given a box-room for nine months in the home of a deeply religious family. That is to ‘luxuriate in feelings detached from moral reality’.

The pro-life lobby uses terms like ‘Love Both’ as an almost Orwellian device to disguise what would be the true consequence of its desired ban on abortion: the physical and mental subjugation of women to the dogma of those who cannot distinguish between a fetus and a child. Pro-life activists say that women who seek abortions want a life free of consequence — but this is far truer of the pro-life lobby, which never honestly grapples with what would be the moral consequences of its insistence that we sanctify in law the act of conception.

Women who seek a termination, and the pro-choice people who support their right to do this, know full well the consequences of abortion. We know that it brings to an end a human life. We know that the fetus, if everything had proceeded normally, would have become a child. We are willing to accept this consequence of abortion because we have grappled with the moral complexity of the relationship between a woman and a fetus and we have made a moral judgement: that when there is a moral conflict between these two forms of human existence, the right of a woman to enjoy sovereignty over her mind and body carries greater moral weight than the continued existence of a fetus.

That is our moral judgement. It is is the pro-life lobby which refuses to make a moral judgement, or at least to be honest about the moral judgement it has made. It uses the language of ‘Love Both’ to avoid taking moral responsibility for what would accrue from its ban on abortion, which would not be love but coercion. If the pro-life lobby were to take moral responsibility for its worldview in the same way women take moral responsibility for their abortions, it would have to say something like this: ‘We believe fetal life is more important than a woman’s autonomy. And we are willing to use the brute instrument of criminal law to cajole unwilling women to carry fetuses they do not want. We are willing to do this regardless of the individual distress and social disarray such a course of action would likely bring about.’

Women take moral responsibility for their reproductive decisions every day: they think about them, discuss them with friends, and then they decide and live with their decision. There is little evidence of the pro-life lobby taking a similar moral responsibility for what its world would look like, even though we have plenty evidence for what it would look like, in the long history of illegal abortion and unwanted motherhood.

What the pro-life lobby fails to appreciate is that morality – serious, adult morality – is built on choice. Choice is the foundation stone of the moral life. To be forced to do something against your will, whether it is to believe a particular thing or to be prevented from ending a pregnancy, is not to be a moral being. It is to be the opposite: a creature absolved of the necessity of making moral judgements, and by extension of taking moral responsibility for one’s life, by those who would seek to instruct us at every turn of our existence. It is to be closer to an animal than a human being. In the words of John Stuart Mill, ‘He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation’. It is only in ‘making a choice’ that we exercise our moral reason and become morally responsible, said Mill. So that would be another consequence of the pro-life lobby’s ending of abortion: a society made up of enforced imitation rather than of genuine moral thought and action. But then, why should they have to worry about such a consequence? In the world of the moral infant, the consequences of one’s actions count for nought.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Find him on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty

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