Abortion and the Politics of Protest

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Kathryn Walker reviewed a book called Raised Right: How I Untangled my Faith from Politics by Alisa Harris.  I hadn’t so much as heard the book before, but my interest is certainly piqued now.  Harris, like so many others in my generation, finds herself, despite having been given a full-blown fundamentalist, pro-life, right-wing upbringing, having somehow wandered across the political divide, so that she is now unmistakably left-wing, though still, I take it, evangelically Christian.  In this book, she chronicles her journey and tries to explain why.  For a fuller summary of the book, I certainly recommend Walker’s excellent review; if I ever get around to reading it myself, perhaps I’ll offer my own review, but for now, I simply wanted to pick up on one interesting question that Walker raises.

Walker does not share Harris’s newfound sympathies for the Left, but she does at least give her a fair hearing, and grant that she may have some good points.  But for Walker, the most important issue is still abortion, and she can’t accept Harris’s rationale for minimizing that issue.  Harris remains pro-life, but has lost her sympathy for the pro-life movement, it’s foot-stomping and sign-waving, and wants to invest her effort into caring for women, rather than politicking.  But Walker asks toward the end of her review why Harris happily engages in sign-waving in protest against Bank of America—”she embraces public displays against injustice, and it’s hard to see any difference in the latter over the former ones, except for the causes themselves. And in this case, it’s not clear why corporate greed trumps infanticide in degrees of heinousness.”

Walker’s question set me pondering a bit, because I must confess I find myself feeling a lot like Harris at times.  Of course I still think abortion is a great evil, a heart-breaking crime against the defenceless children, and often against desperate mothers as well, who are pressured into it.  But I have so little sympathy left for the pro-life movement.  There, I said it.  I’ve admitted it.  I cannot make myself care all that much whether a candidate is pro-life, as a litmus test for voting for or against him.  Of course it’s relevant, but then, so are the candidate’s views on gasoline taxes.  I simply cannot get worked up about the issue as a political issue (though I can get worked up about the issue in other respects; I found the portrayal of abortion in Ides of March heart-rending).  But, I do get worked up about corporate greed.  I don’t sympathize with sign-waving abortion protesters, but I can be brought to sympathize with sign-waving Bank of America protesters.  Is there any good reason from this, or is it just some kind of hypocrisy or something worse? 

Well, there may be a few good reasons, or at least partial reasons, and I wanted to explore them.

There are, I suppose, two distinct issues, though I have elided them here.  One is protesting, the other politicking.  Protesting is of course generally political in its orientation, but is essentially indirect, seeking to influence the attitudes and the milieu within which political decisions are made.  By the latter, I mean direct lobbying for legislative, executive, or judicial action, crafting laws, promoting candidates with desirable positions on an issue and attacking candidates with undesirable positions.

Skeptics like myself (and I would take it Harris) doubt whether the politicking is a meaningful or useful way of advancing a pro-life agenda.  Certainly, prima facie it would seem to be misguided: (1) abortions were widespread in the US well before Roe v. Wade; (2) Roe v. Wade was a judicial decision, not a legislative one, and the judiciary is by far the most independent branch of our government, and the most difficult to influence through political action (rightly so); (3) empirically, it is hard to see that 39 years of feverish pro-life politics have yielded any significant gains.  Digging deeper, it seems like abortion is not really by its nature primarily a political issue.  Of course, legal systems have an obligation to protect life and prosecute murder, but legal systems can only function within a framework of broadly shared moral assumptions.  If a culture has reached the point where no one sees the problem with something, then trying to stop it by outlawing it is like spitting in the wind.  (Of course, this is oversimplistic—there are other less drastic ways of trying to legally limit abortion, which may be effective.)  But of course a second point to note here is that few people get abortions because they think it’s a perfectly fine thing to do.  I don’t know statistics, but my guess is that most women who get abortions don’t like the idea at all, but they’re frightened or pressured or desperate enough to do it anyway.  In such a case, making a law against it isn’t necessarily going to change many of their minds.  It might dissuade a lot of abortion doctors, but there will still be plenty willing to supply a black market.  

Contrariwise, it seems clear that political action is a meaningful and effective way of confronting economic injustice, particularly when that takes the form of large corporations engaging in dubious behaviour that prioritizes short-term profits over long-term considerations and the well-being of society.  I would argue that, normatively, regulation of justice in economic exchange and justice in distribution of goods is one of the core functions of a well-ordered government.  But of course, nowadays conservatives have gotten it into their heads that in fact, it is precisely economic decisions that are private and individual, lying outside the proper purview of public justice.  To be sure, such regulation will not be wholly effective, but the fact that the injustices in question are not simply or even primarily the result of individual decisions, but are structural and institutional in nature, suggests that legislative action is a natural, appropriate, and effective way of addressing these problems.  Indeed, I could go further, and point out that the very mechanisms by which investment banking is made possible do not simply spring out of the state of nature, but are the product of political and legal structures.  The corporation itself is a legal creation, as are the securities with which an entity like Bank of America makes its money—they simply would not exist apart from some kind of legal edifice.  Therefore, to call on the law to redress their abuses, one might suggest, is the most natural thing in the world.  Empirically, we could point out that politicking against particular abuses by big business, in favor of the rights of labor (in the first half of the 20th century primarily) and the rights of the consumer (in the second half of the century primarily) yielded enormous, measurable gains.

 

When it comes to protesting, well, it is worth asking exactly what protesting is intended to do?  Protesting is, to be sure, often quite directly political in orientation.  But such phenomena as pro-life marches and the Occupy movement are not best described as a kind of popular political lobbying.  In its most coherent form, protesting is a form of public witness against injustice—it seeks to call attention to, to name, an evil that is being done amongst us, with the intent of influencing the perpetrators to rethink their actions, and, perhaps more plausibly, of influencing our fellow citizens to become attentive to the injustice so that they will share our judgment of it, and join their voices with ours in calling for an end to it (whether that end come from individual, social, or political action).  

When we put things this way, I think it is possible to see why someone might consider this a rather clumsy response to the issue of abortion.  For it makes sense that a protest should be as public as the sin itself is.  Adultery is rampant in our culture, and while there are plenty of Christian voices calling it to account in appropriate ways, there has not been, to my knowledge, a National Anti-Adultery Rally, or a National Right to Fidelity March, or anything of that sort.  Of course, part of this is because we now consider adultery a sin but not a crime; but that’s not all of it.  For neither are there regularly large Anti-Drunk-Driving protests, despite the widespread deploration of drunk driving and its disastrous consequences.  For these problems, widespread as they are, are essentially an aggregate of individual, essentially private (though I do not mean to say that any sin is entirely private) sins or crimes.  They do not rise to the level of a public sin, a structural sin.  They do not have an institutional form that can be witnessed against in public.  

One could argue that similarly, abortion is essentially an individual sin and not a structural sin, that “the abortion issue” is simply an aggregate of individual evil abortions, rather than a unitary public evil that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The problem is not “abortion” as an abstract force of injustice, but particular acts of abortion—individual agents in the midst of individual crises, making individual wicked decisions.  The situations that lead women to seek abortions are unique to each woman, and so the best way to stop abortions is to work with individual women to help them.  Not, of course, that there are not many wonderful Christians out there doing just this; but we are asking now whether the sign-waving, marching, protesting side of things contributes to this work at all, or rather undermines it.

And of course, there is a “structural” element to the problem of abortion too—the poverty and abuse that drive so many women to desperation, to a sense that abortion is the only way out, the treatment of women as useful objects for sex, for which pregnancy is an awful inconvenience (this is not to say that there are not a great many abortions that are simply wicked unconstrained decisions of convenience).   But it is precisely this structural element that the pro-life movement, as a political movement, tends to most ignore.  

On the other hand, the Occupy movement, inasmuch as it has a coherent message, is bearing witness against a public, structural, institutional sin.  The greed, inequality, usury—however you want to label the core problem—that today infects our society is a structural sin.  Yes, of course, there are greedy individuals, and if no individuals were greedy, then perhaps we wouldn’t have all the problems we’ve had in recent years.  But the evil, and the harm that it does, far transcends individual greedy decisions; it would be possible for most of the investment banks’ employees to be good decent people just doing their job, and for all the problems still to persist.  The systemic usury and injustice of the financial system is the result result of warped incentive structures, poor laws, a loss of sense of the true purpose of financial institutions, collusion amongst the powerful to protect one another and veil their dealings from the public, etc.  Therefore, public protest, as a way of calling attention to the systemic problems, as a way of naming this evil and inviting us all to join in decrying it and undermining is foundations, seems highly appropriate.  

(Of course, I acknowledge that the abortion issue has a counterpart to this kind of corporate corruption, in the so-called “abortion industry”—doctors, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, entrenched advocacy groups, etc., that have a vested interest in perpetuating abortion, hiding the truth, and manipulating the powerful.  I think that pro-lifers perhaps overstate their case here sometimes, but inasmuch as this is a real power, a real fortress of evil, it warrants a forceful public witness.)

Having said all this, though, I think it is fair to admit that neither of these is, I think, the real reason why Harris (and myself) find ourselves naturally more sympathetic with sign-waving against crony capitalism than with sign-waving against abortion.  The real reason is that the former is new and the latter is old.  We grew up with the latter, and we frankly find it a bit tiresome and grating now.  It feels like our sub-culture has been harping on the same old problem forever and ever and it’s time to just deal with it and move on.  Whereas, although for our parents protesting the evils of capitalism might’ve been a common enough part of their experience, for us, it’s new, fresh, and a bit exciting.  

Now, I say all this in a tone of somewhat mocking self-criticism, but there’s more that needs to be said here as well.  For one thing, just because something’s appeal lies partly in its newness does not render it invalid.  I think stodgy Baby Boomers are right to point out that the enthusiasm for social justice causes among the rising generation is partly fuelled simply by the novelty (to us) of the cause; but I would also make the case that the cause still happens to be a very just cause, worth getting passionate about (and yes, perhaps protesting about, though that’s really not my cup of tea).  

More importantly, the newness factor makes an objective difference when one is asking about the appropriateness of the rhetoric of protest.  No doubt part of Harris’s antipathy to pro-life protest arises from her sense that, after more than three decades of it, any positive potential has likely worn off, and it is much more likely simply to have the effect of hardening opponents, and alienating potential sympathizers who are simply sick of the conflict and polarization.  A protest movement is always at its most effective when it is brand new; pretty soon, it starts to grow stale and tiresome, and people just sound like they’re whining, or obsessed, or pathologically combative.  Indeed, just look at three months of the Occupy movement.  A couple weeks in, they were cool.  A couple months in, and it’s like, “C’mon guys, enough already.  Pack up your tents and stop digging pit toilets in the park.”  After the initial point has been made, and awareness has been raised, it is usually time to turn to more constructive, concrete, and patient means of bringing about change.  In large part, to be fair, the pro-life movement has certainly done this, and has succeeded thereby in incrementally reducing the rate of abortion and in some cases improving the legal restraints upon it.  But inasmuch as portions of the movement continue to adopt the posture of angry protest, demonizing opponents and refusing to vote for any political candidate who does not share their fervour on this particular issue, it risks not only failing to be an effective voice in American culture and politics, but also continuing to drive away young evangelicals, contributing to a widening political gap between the generations that threatens to further fracture American evangelicalism and harm our witness to a watching world.