Thursday, November 20, 2014

Choice, death, and begging the question

In the University of Oxford, there should have been a debate this week, hosted by a University pro-life society, about the cultural impact of abortion.  It didn't happen, largely due to protests by other societies. You can read about it here and here. There are lots of issues around this, including of course the right to freedom of speech that one ought to expect the University to uphold.  There is also the issue of poor argumentation.

Consider some of the comments from groups opposed to the debate.  Here is the Women's Campaign: 
It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies... The event description seems to suggest that increased access to abortion contributes to a ‘culture’ of ‘[treating] human life carelessly’. Framing the debate in these pro-life terms denies people autonomy over the choices they make regarding their own bodies,
Now, apart from the ridiculous nu-speak (cisgender?), and the bizarre idea that only people who have direct experience of an issue are able to have an opinion on it, the problem with this statement is that it assumes exactly what ought to be debated.  Is the question of abortion simply one of one's own body?  Is this about a man with a uterus-free body telling a woman with a uterus-equipped body what she ought to be doing with her body?  Of course, the reason any of us are pro-life in this context is because we are convinced that there is a third party present - a baby, a life, a real human being.  Speaking up on behalf of a third party who is powerless and voiceless is, I would suggest, always legitimate, no matter how much it impinges on someone else's autonomy.

Six years ago, I wrote something about clarifying the terms of the abortion debate.  At that time, I had the feeling that many people did not understand that this was primarily a debate about facts, not values.  I argued then that nobody thinks killing is okay; it is just that we disagree over whether abortion is killing, and that is a matter of fact to be debated.  I still think clarifying this would be really helpful.

However, I no longer feel so optimistic that sorting this out would move the debate forward very much.  It seems clear to me now that there is a value debate going on.  It is not a debate about life, primarily, but about choice.  The comments from feminist groups about this proposed debate make it very clear that autonomy is the ultimate value for them.  We must be able to choose; each individual must be able to choose.  Let me be honest: I am no longer sure that if these people were convinced that the human foetus were a real, living person waiting to be born, they would want to ban abortion.  In other words, I very much fear that choice has become so important that people would consciously kill and sanction killing in order to maintain their own autonomy.

There is, I think, a profound link between choice and death, in a way that there is not between choice and life.  None of us chose to live.  In Christian thinking, life is a gift.  Life is grace.  It is given to us.  To go on living is also not a choice (contra existentialism).  I cannot choose to keep living.  Of course, I can and do make myriad small choices which contribute to the upkeep of my life.  But none of them is a choice to live, and neither is the sum of them.  In the same way, I make choices that contribute to the continued living of others, most obviously my children.  But I don't choose for them to go on living (neither did I really choose for them to live in the first place; life simply isn't within my power or gift).

But I can choose to die, and I can choose to kill.  Whereas going on living shows my dependence, and contributing to the ongoing life of others shows our interrelatedness, choosing to die or to kill is all about autonomy.  A choice with complete finality, for me or for someone else; a real choice, a choice which shows that I am me and I can enforce my will.

And that is the culture of death that springs from radical individualism, and is masked by positive sounding words like 'choice'.  God have mercy on us.

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