Private Lives, Public Policies, and Abortion
Every advance in information technology and every expanded frontier for its use seems to propagate media stories of new ways that governments and industries are infringing upon the once sacrosanct zone of individual privacy. From facial recognition software to cars that track our comings and goings to medical records acquired as part of Google’s “Project Nightingale” to helpful home virtual assistants like Alexa that can act like a resident double agent, we are witnessing an unparalleled encroachment upon once-“private” information by those with an interest in acquiring it.
From the privacy vantage point, if it were not for the appalling annihilation of innocent young lives set off by those decisions, we might view Roe v. Wade and its companion case Doe v. Bolton as almost quaintly old-fashioned. Imagine, men in black robes listening to arguments against the state barging into people’s bedrooms or muscling in on consultations with the family doctor. On the other hand, we would have no sense of anachronism in restricting the arguments for the correctness of these catastrophic decisions to feminism (equal rights for women to pursue sex and careers unencumbered by offspring) and self-fulfillment (our right to, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy phrased it 14 years later in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”).
Such feminist and fulfillment defenses of abortion rights were common in the culture both then and thereafter, but they were not made the lynchpin of Harry Blackmun’s legal justification. In those days—before cellphones! before personal computers!—the justices still felt more or less bound to locate their justification for newly discovered rights in the “penumbras” of our founding document, the Constitution. And so the constitutional fig leaf of a right to privacy that would forestall legislatures from restricting a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy was applied.
But nowadays, as noted, privacy of all kinds is diminishing—through social media and online records and cameras and the multiplicity of means by which we measure, record, track, and transmit details of our lives. And so it also slips further back as a primary ground for the abortion right. Oh sure, people argue that legal abortion is necessary for the exercise of personal autonomy—a woman’s right to do as she wills with her own body. In fact, autonomy defenses have only grown more popular in an age of gender fluidity and self-definition. But autonomy is not the same thing as a right to closed doors and unpublic choices.
The “right to privacy” was, of course, merely the mechanism that the Supreme Court majority chose to legally shore up a supposedly necessary new right for women to be unpregnant, after the fact if need be. In the established Western democracies of Europe and the U.S., personal autonomy (the ability to “do what I want”) was a primary driver of the push for legal abortion. Because, in terms of the Sexual Revolution, “doing what I want” meant achieving as far as possible problem-free, consequence-free sexual activity.
In totalitarian countries, like China, the ostensible motivation for abortion was and is quite different. The Chinese government certainly had no interest in amplifying the autonomy of the individual. But in pursuing the state’s end of curtailing population growth, China instituted its one-child policy in 1979 and carried it out with a ferocity that did not shrink from coerced abortions. For those who became pregnant after having already fulfilled their limited family quota, and who refused to abort the illegal child “willingly,” local officials would frequently preside over forced abortions, even in the eighth and ninth months of pregnancy—and with no infant survivors. Violators also faced crippling fines and other unpleasant repercussions. Although side effects of the “success” of the one-child policy led to the rollout of a “liberalized” two-child policy beginning in 2016, violators still face stiff sanctions.
It seems, then, as though Western democracies and totalitarian nations have journeyed to their present pro-abortion destinations along opposite pathways—the former by expanding women’s autonomy, the latter by contracting it. But there is an underlying commonality in the refusal of both the democracies and the totalitarians to acknowledge limits that would protect the human rights of the unborn. Without stopping at each link in the chain of moral reasoning on which the West bases its human rights protections, we can, like our Founders (referring to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”), cut to the chase by moving directly to the Unmoved Mover, the first in the series of links, God. Human beings matter, are of value, because we were created purposefully, rather than emerging unintentionally from the primordial ooze. And uniquely among God’s earthly creatures, we were made capable of knowing something about him and of knowing something about ourselves, our purpose, and our destiny.
The “I do what I want” assertion of individual autonomy that resulted in Roe and Doe necessarily denies the existence or at least the legitimacy of any such overarching authority, whether the autonomous individual realizes this or not. There are those who try to smuggle religious belief past Roe and Doe by positing an indulgent, principle-less god who is happy with anything his creatures want—a shameful deity, surely, that on these terms would decline to judge even perpetrators of the Holocaust. Others imagine a god who tolerates the killing of the unborn as a regrettable necessity compelled by unfortunate circumstances such as rape, abject poverty, or abandonment.
But the principle of autonomy also underlies the rights-denying policies of totalitarian governments, as becomes plain if we simply shift the possessor of autonomy from the individual to the state. A Communist government like China’s, for example, may, according to academic Marxist dogma, be bound by historical forces to play out its part in some thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad; but in pragmatic terms, the regime’s rulers tend to just “do what they want” in furtherance of material growth, power, and prestige. The rights of the individual are irrelevant, no matter the contrary claims of the Creator whose existence Communist dogma denies. We are on our own, then—as individuals, or as nations, or as governments seeking world hegemony. We do what we want, or try to, as persons or collectives or tribes or classes.
The other day I happened upon the following words from a somewhat obscure ancient Church Father named Quodvultdeus: “First acknowledge who you are, and then you will know who made you who you are.” Fifth-century subversive thought from a man whose name is translated “what God wills.” As an antidote to nations and individuals that insist on adopting “what I want” as a philosophy of life, I can think of few better names to choose for one’s child than Quodvultdeus.