May 14, 2007

The Logic of Roe v. Wade

Over the last weeks, the US Supreme Court has issued a landmark decision upholding a 2003 ban on so-called partial-birth abortion. In and of itself, the decision is an important and valuable ban on a procedure that horrified even Justice Kennedy, who is no opponent of abortion rights. Killing an infant in the birth canal by a gruesome process I'd rather not recount is something that a society can't condone. But, as has been noted, it won't necessarily save a single life, since it only bans one method of abortion, but it may be an important step in the right direction.

Christianity Today has a very good article about the decision, and its significance:

What is the logic behind a ban on abortion, and what is the logic behind the pro-choice position. There are a few different streams of thinking that feed into these decisions. One factor that is often part of the discussion is the health of the mother. And certainly the mother's health is a viable concern, but pro-choice advocates have noted that this cuts both ways, as can be seen in Justice Kennedy's opinion in this last decision (noted in the article above). Abortion may do lasting emotional and mental harm to the mother, and this concern may pave the way for further restrictions.

But the logic that is more at the heart of the debate has to do with autonomy. Is a woman an autonomous person, free from any "roles" and expectations society places on her, free to do with her body as she chooses? This seems to be the core concern at the heart of the Roe v. Wade debate. And I think it is an important question. But I don't think it is a question that pertains particularly to women, say over against men. Instead, the corresponding question needs to be asked, are men autonomous as well. And I think the answer must be a resounding no. Now, from a Christian standpoint, this is easily defensible. And in fact, a Christianity Today article from last week, Holy to the Core, makes a great case for this. Our lives are not our own. We are not free to do as we wish, even if we were capable of it. Instead, we live in community, and even more so, we live in community with God. We cannot act with total disregard to all around us. My own power and self-determination are not the highest good. And in fact might just be an obstruction to it. And I think this abortion debate illustrates this perfectly.

So how does this logic play out on the political field. What is the publicly accessible root to our interdependence. It seems that America needs to recover its core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, realizing all the while that these are only possible in society. They are only possible in the space made by an agreed-upon framework in which we communally seek after the good. The US Constitution does a landmark job of preserving individual rights, but this cannot and shouldn't be read as a carte blanche for self-determination. By that logic, our whole society falls apart. Things like "privacy" become the buzz words of this new logic.

I don't have all the answers to where this logic comes from, nor the best way to retain what is good in the American spirit of individualism while correcting its serious flaws. But I think it is essential that we think in these terms. Because the whole abortion debate, and the very fabric of our society, turns on these questions, whether we realize it or not.

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