54. More on Abortion and Rights

If you read last week’s blog posting, you hopefully understood that my interest there wasn’t the abortion issue per se.  It’s a highly pertinent topic, to be sure.  I’d wager that a large majority of Pagans favor abortion on demand with no great moral qualms about it, an attitude that obviously clashes with a very vociferous strand of current Christian feeling.  Eventually, I’ll get around to saying a bit more about this interesting conflict of moralities – but that’s not my purpose here.

At this point, I’m only discussing abortion as an example of a vexing dispute that the American political system can’t handle in a way that gives general satisfaction.  This isn’t a reflection on our governmental process.  It’s not that politicians are unwilling to address the subject, or that it’s ignored by the media, or the public doesn’t care about it.  In fact, our legislatures and courts are constantly dealing with the issue, and the people understand it better than they do most questions of the day.

The problem is that the matter is intrinsically unsolvable – there’s no conceivable resolution that won’t leave lots of people sickened and enraged.  A twofold difficulty is apparent:  (1) both sides of the controversy regard their own position as unquestionably righteous and (2) both sides consider the other’s position to be completely indefensible – indeed, evil.  Short of a war to the death between the parties, it’s hard to see how this difference of opinion can be settled.

And, alas, both competing claims are plausible.

From the standpoint of the “pro-choice” faction, abortion rights are fundamental to any society that seriously means for men and women to equally function as free, self-directed human beings.  Motherhood is a magnificent vocation, but it should be chosen voluntarily, not forced on those who’ve no relish for it.  A woman is entitled to absolute sovereignty over her personal being, which would include her reproductive tract.  If her most intimate bodily processes can be commandeered by others and used for purposes not her own, to that extent, she’s unequal and unfree.

The “pro-life” party, however, maintains that – whereas in olden times no one could be sure – there can be no doubt today that every life starts at conception.  When the ribbons of parental DNA combine, the template for a brand-new person, a unique perspective and a unique voice, unlike any other who has ever lived, exists in (literal) embryo, and needs only time to be fully realized.  To treat this developing person like a rotten tooth, to be extracted and discarded, is a travesty, hardly better than infanticide.  Society has a moral duty to defend the helpless and the weak.

Both sides frame their arguments in terms of a claimed right – in one case, from a woman’s presumed “right to privacy,” which includes abortion, and in the other, from the unborn’s presumed “right to life.”  Each side (rather inventively) finds its preferred right in the U.S. Constitution.  The Supreme Court acknowledged abortion rights in Roe v. Wade (1971).  But later decisions have chipped away at that ruling, and reversal isn’t impossible, if the Court continues its conservative tilt.

My point is this:  it’s hard to deny that both sets of disputants are contending for essential values – personal freedom and gender equality on one hand, and the sanctity of human life on the other.  It seems entirely appropriate that these values be politically recognized in the form of rights pertaining to women and the unborn.  And to say that something is a right, is to say it’s an absolute good, like free speech, which shouldn’t be subjected to the normal fluctuations of democratic politics.  Rights can be regulated, so there can be some fuzziness around the edges, but regulation becomes oppression if it seriously interferes with the exercise of the right.

Evidently, however, these particular rights directly conflict.  To uphold one is to transgress the other.  We can protect the unborn, but only by exerting state control over a woman’s most personal affairs in a way no man can ever be made to endure.  Or we can maintain a woman’s equal right to personal freedom and agency – but in that case, the fetus may not live.  There isn’t much fuzziness here.

You might recall how I got started on this discussion, many blog postings ago.  I said I was going to try to describe a Pagan political theory, and that the first principle of it would be that the world can’t be saved.  That is, we can’t construct a world of perfect – or even near-perfect – peace and justice.  Whatever we do, domination and discord will continue to typify human affairs.  It’s not that people are stupid or cursed.  It’s rather that the goods we seek aren’t necessarily compatible – and we’ll continue to fight wars and persecute over which to prefer.

Monotheists believe the universe has only one God, with one, and only one, set of Commandments.  Moral complexities are, to them, impossible – yet complexities do, in fact, arise, as we see with regard to abortion.  Pagans are polytheists, so we have a different take on the situation.   We figure there’s a God on one side of the controversy and another God – actually, of course, in this case, a Goddess – on the other.

And you can’t make them both happy at the same time.

Blessed be.

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