ethics life politics

The Inherent Violence of Pro-Life Rhetoric

When a gunman opened fire last week inside a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people including a police officer, the response from the political blogosphere was predictable and revealing. Dozens of pundits took the murderous rampage as an object lesson in why pro-life activism, like the kind we’ve seen over the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose of Planned Parenthood, can and does lead to violence against abortion providers and advocates.

On the other side, pro-life writers moved quickly to counter this narrative, first by casting reasonable doubt as to the real motivations (and psychological condition) of the killer, and then by pointing out the conveniently selective memories of progressives when it comes to ideologically motivated violence. All in all, both sides of the political spectrum performed effectively, making it unlikely that Americans on either side of the abortion debate would change their views because of this atrocity.

And isn’t that where most of our rhetorical face-offs on abortion tends to leave us, right back where we started in the first place? It certainly seems so. The tug-of-war between pro-choice and pro-life here was predictable in that the lines of argument for each side were obvious and obviously sufficient to confirm everyone in their preexisting views.

But I also said that this exchange was “revealing,” and here’s what I mean. By taking pro-lifers to task for using rhetoric that could incite vigilantism, the pro-choice side has unwittingly granted a crucial premise of the pro-life worldview: namely, that abortion is more than a medical procedure or a “reproductive right,” but is in fact an act of violence. Progressives are correct when they say that pro-life ideas are violent, but they are wrong when they believe that the violence starts with pro-life. Pro-life rhetoric is violent because abortion is violent.

When I say pro-life rhetoric is violent, I am NOT saying that it is violent against abortionists themselves. As Ross Douthat pointed out, the pro-life movement has grown and strengthened in the country over the last 20 years in large part because it has eschewed the kind of incident we saw last week. Pro-life activists do indeed target abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, but with political and moral reasoning, not with weapons.

But the pro-life argument is indeed a violent one, and it is violent precisely because abortion is not what its advocates say it is. The violence of pro-life is the violence of crushed skulls, suctioned brains, and carefully dissected spinal cords, not of people patronizing or running the abortion clinics but of the people for whom the clinic really exists. The violence of pro-life is the violence of looking at a mangled, bloody, and unmistakably human corpse, and hearing the words “tissue harvesting.”

The violence of abortion is, for pro-lifers, the most crucial reality in the entire post-Roe v. Wade debate. And it seems that obfuscating abortion’s violence, behind either rhetoric about reproductive freedom or by the prohibition of truth-tellers like ultrasounds and undercover cameras, has become an equally important part of the pro-choice platform. When an abortion advocate hears something like “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts,” they think of that rhetoric as violent invective against women who need medical relief and sexual equality. They don’t think, however, of a little hand, or a doctor’s declaring “It’s a boy” when staring at a mass of body in a petri dish. For pro-choicers, the alternative to Roe is mass death in the darkened back alleys of America; they don’t stop to wonder if the clinics, windows down and pictures blurred, have actually become those back alleys.

In the wake of violence against abortion providers, it is of course fair to ask whether pro-life advocacy is mature and reasoned rather than vengeful. Can pro-lifers do better? Of course; constantly assessing whether our message is grounded in claims of human dignity for all or in political frustration for our opponents is absolutely necessary if we are to articulate a pro-life worldview capable of winning people as well as elections. The pro-life movement to date has not, after all, been merely a Jonah-like moral condemnation of the culture, but a holistic movement that builds pregnancy centers and adoption agencies. That must continue. No amount of undercover videos or hashtag campaigns can replace the effect of building a tangible culture of life.

But when faced with the accusation that our rhetoric is violent, pro-life must admit  that yes, it is violent. The violence of pro-life is not the violence of shootings or bombings but the violence of reality, the violence of actually looking at abortion and seeing its eyes, hands, and feet. Because pro-life is a movement to see the truth, it is a movement to see violence. We can’t escape the violence of pro-life because we cannot escape the violence of abortion.

culture politics Theology

How to Surrender the Earth to Thugs

In 1994, Michael Novak delivered an acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize entitled “Awakening From Nihilism.” Novak warned that the oppressive regimes of the 20th century relied greatly on cultural vacuums where transcendent values and religious beliefs had ceased to exist. The value-neutral nihilism peddled by many Western universities was, Novak observed, a breeding ground for totalitarianism and worship of the state.

For [relativists], it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.

But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta . It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.

The “romance of the will” is the liturgy of individual autonomy and sexual nothingness. It is the spiritual void created when a society believes it can merely create its own meaning by an act of fiat. Leaving the realm of the absolute, the transcendent, and the supernatural does not free a culture from its lessons; it merely creates a job opening for those who demand to be worshipped as gods themselves.

In Europe, ISIS gains converts and recruits. How could a militant, murderous regime gain followers out of the eminently secular, eminently fashionable ranks of the modern West? Perhaps one answer is that Europe’s secular age has failed to answer the questions it insisted it would. A fragmented, irrelevant Christianity was supposed to open the doors to a joyous, thoroughly self-fulfilled consciousness of individual freedom and intellectual vigor. But it appears in 2015 that it has only resulted in a nihilistic embrace of suicide, either for the cause of Mohammed or for the alleviation of boredom.

Here in the US, revolts across university campuses express the indigestion that inevitably follows an intellectual diet of relativism and materialism. Students are dissatisfied with a university culture that displays contempt for tradition, except that tradition that flatters and profits the schools themselves. Long having abandoned any pretense of teaching moral reasoning or character formation, American halls of higher education find themselves powerless to articulate why social media should not dictate their very existences. The classroom has been surrendered to the activist.

You see what happens? The allure of secularism is the promise of a future without the intellectual and emotional boundaries that religion enables. A mind freed from the chains of anachronism is supposed to also be free from the dictates of tyranny. But that is not so. For what we see today is that secularism is not the end of religion but merely an open invitation to the will to power. Whether it be the promise of paradise through jihad, or the promise of equality through activism and intolerance, the human soul will not rest at secularism as a destination, but will pass by it, looking for more solid ground.