Rejoinder to Peter Steinfels
I hope that you will not take it amiss if I write this in a more informal style than we’ve been using, but my feeling is that now may be a good time to engage in direct dialogue. Wasn’t it something like that which you first proposed to Anne Conlon after reading my critique of your Commonweal article? Anyway, it seems like a good way to go. To answer my own question of “Who’s he talking to?,” I am talking to you, and not in an unfriendly way.
The two of us have much in common. We’re close to the same age, we’re both native Chicagoans, raised there in the ’40s and ’50s, and we both take our Catholic religion seriously. I know we both try to practice Christian caritas, though we inevitably fall short because we’re sinners. So let me start off by apologizing for anything I wrote that might have caused you pain. I certainly didn’t mean to. On the contrary, what you interpret as “nasty barbs aimed at me and my religious views” were really attempts to put into an understandable framework some of the remarks that you made about the Church, the Republican Party, and the pro-life movement. And when I say “understandable,” I mean it in a double sense: not only comprehensible but understandable empathetically. Over the past 50 years we’ve journeyed through much of the same cultural territory, and we’ve probably had similar gut reactions to some of what we’ve seen along the way.
As you know, I was completely innocent of the provenance of your Commonweal essay. I didn’t know anything at all about your conference or your plans to address Archbishop Chaput. But I don’t understand how that pricks any “balloon” you think I might have launched. Inspired or informed by an earlier conference paper you delivered, you wrote an article in Commonweal. That particular article was all I had to work with. It seems to me that my own response stands or falls on my reading of it, not on any inside dope about how it all began.
All this by way of preface. But let me not presume on your time. I’ll get down to business now and say what I need to say about your article and your response to my critique of it. Here it is, in a nutshell: Despite your having written two long pieces, I do not really know what you are talking about. Sometimes I think I do, but then I get tripped up by something else you say.
On the one hand, you insist that all you are doing is distinguishing between what, on the basis of both faith and reason, should be held and promoted, and “what can be legally established in a diverse, pluralist society.” What should be held and promoted is the moral proposition that “human lives, from their earliest formation, deserve to develop and not be extinguished, regardless of what can be written into law.” What can be legally established at this point in our history—abortion bans at some later point of pregnancy—necessarily falls short of what is morally optimal. Yours, then, is an argument that combines moral absolutism with political pragmatism.
If I got that right, then there is absolutely no distance at all between what you hold and what I argued in my “Lincolnian” piece in The Atlantic. Do you see why I thought that when I first skimmed over your article?
But then I found all this other stuff in it. I will summarize by calling it the dot-at-the-end-of my-sentence stuff. I’m referring to the argument, dear to the hearts of abortion defenders, that this . . . this thing down there can’t possibly be human because it’s no bigger than the dot at the end of this sentence. Of course, as you point out, by the time the woman discovers she is pregnant, the “dot” has already grown about seven millimeters and has begun to have a heartbeat. But it is small, no doubt about that. And yet, you quote Dr. Seuss: “A person’s a person no matter how small.” But then you qualify that: Seuss’s poem was about very little people, but not pencil points. The “sheer size” and the “sheer invisibility” of the creature in the womb make it difficult to compare it to an “obviously” human victim.
So where are we going with this? Although religion, science, and logic have firmly convinced you that the unborn baby is human from its earliest existence, it is not “obviously” human; its status is “ambiguous.” Ambiguous to whom? To pro-choicers, for sure. What about to you? “Many, probably most, abortion opponents assume that this ambiguity exists only in the minds of prochoice adversaries. I am arguing that it also exists in the very situation itself.” (Your italics.) Well, if it’s in the situation itself, then its humanity must be ambiguous in your mind, too, no? So it’s hard for you to imagine.
In your reply to me you say, “No, I don’t find it hard to imagine. I simply find it easy to imagine that others find it hard to imagine.” To which I am tempted to reply with a question: Why do you find that so easy to imagine, if you don’t actually share their view that it is hard to imagine the humanity of the fetus? But maybe we’re grinding the corn a little too fine here. What I was trying to say was that you seem to have accepted the pro-abortion position that the smallness of the little creature in the womb has to be considered among the criteria for determining its right to live. You reinforce that reading when you cast doubt on whether there is any one “magic moment” in the life of an unborn child. Pregnancy, you say, is a nine-month process, so you can locate it at just about any point in the pregnancy: “the emergence of heartbeat, primitive nervous system, brain wave, quickening,” and so on. In your reply to me you put it slightly differently, but it comes to the same thing: Instead of a “big bang,” there is now an accumulation of big bangs and little bangs along the way.
But those aren’t “bangs.” They are stages of the continuous development of a human creature that already has 46 chromosomes, just like you and me. The little creature was created when a sperm with 23 chromosomes slammed into an egg with 23. That was the seismic event I had in mind. The “bang” metaphor loses its point when applied to the later, organic development of a being thus dramatically conceived. As I said in my critique of your article, once you start down the road of successive “bangs,” you can locate the origins of a human being at any stage you want, right up to the moment of birth (or, as Barbara Boxer might say, when you take it home from the hospital).
But, you say, “I am not backtracking.” You say you’re still going to stick with your original formulation about the humanity of the unborn child from its earliest moments. It’s just that there is a “gap” between “what a community like the Catholic people teaches as morally demanded, and therefore what individual Catholics should urge with family and friends regarding their own actions, and on the other hand, what can be legally established in a diverse, pluralist society.” (My emphasis.) In my critique I called that a “bifurcation,” and it still sounds like one. It is not as crude and reductive a bifurcation as the one Mario Cuomo advanced in his 1984 Notre Dame speech, but still, like Cuomo’s, it distinguishes between what we are allowed to say domestically and what we should say in the public square. In your response you took great exception to this interpretation. You scoffed at my suggestion that you’ve set up two different speech-worlds: one in the public sphere, and one at home, “with family and friends.” But I don’t know what other construction I can put on the words above, which I believe I have quoted in context.
Or was it that you were just distinguishing, Lincoln style, between what we should continue to hold morally and what we can reasonably expect to enact into law? If so, to whom were you proffering that advice? The most obvious audience would be the pro-life movement. But then it would be gratuitous. Over the last year, no state legislature has attempted to ban abortions “from the moment of conception” (which would be literally impossible). The very earliest ban was North Dakota’s at six weeks after the woman’s last period, which is where you were once ready to draw the line. Arizona also enacted a ban, but it was at twelve weeks. Texas’s abortion ban—headlined in the national media because a state senator staged a filibuster against it—was at 22 weeks. So if you were offering this advice to a pro-life activist, he or she might say, “Why, thank you for that, but we’ve already become pretty pragmatic.” This was not always so. In the ‘90s, when I wrote my Atlantic article, the dominant voices in the pro-life movement were still quixotically insisting on a constitutional amendment banning all abortions in the nation. Now their approach is to take down the abortion regime incrementally, one brick at a time.
Are you opposed to their approach? You don’t address that question in your article. In fact, you don’t address them. You say you “keep the pro-life movement at arm’s length.” But why? You seem to be giving them advice on how to proceed, so why don’t you dialogue with them? You think of them as the cat’s-paw of the Republican Party, whereas many of them were driven into the Republican Party by the party they had once supported loyally, almost religiously. You think of them as the enemy of the “women’s movement,” whereas the leading pro-life organizations today are headed largely by women, including the Human Life Foundation, the publisher of this journal. (It goes right down to the street level. When my daughter and I pray in front of abortion clinics, I’m the only guy there.) The original feminists, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century foremothers of feminism—women like Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, and Susan B. Anthony—hated abortion and spoke out against it in language that might make you wince: “murder,” “foeticide.” They didn’t want to jail the women who had abortions, but none of them would dispute Alice Paul’s characterization of abortion “as the ultimate exploitation of women.” I respect you too much to think you’d buy into the Marxist-Marcusean proposition that the poor dears suffer from “false consciousness,” failing to understand their true interests.
Your relationship to the Catholic Church, as I said in my critique, seems more complicated. There does seem to be a lot of anger at the way the Church in America operated in the 1950s, when you and I were coming of age. I can understand it and sometimes I’ve shared it. “Has McKenna ever been angry with the Church?,” you ask. The answer is yes. But I try not to hold a grudge. The Church is my family, and on occasion I’ve had issues with some members of my family (the family I was raised with and the one I helped beget). But it never lasts long, because I have no place else to go. I can’t desert my family.
I assume that that’s the way you come out, too. But I see in your essay a lot of unresolved tensions between your allegiance to certain leftist political movements, particularly feminism, and your acceptance of the Church’s teachings on abortion. In your reply to me you refer to “the tragic chasm that has opened up between the pro-life movement and the world-historical movement for women’s equality with its consequent disruption of traditional gender roles.” Forgive me for what you call my “sleuthing,” but in my own way I was trying to grasp what you were doing in your essay. When I talked about a grand bargain—a term you never used but which seemed to fit—I saw it as an attempt to bridge that “tragic chasm.”
Maybe I was wrong, but don’t we all resort to sleuthing when we can’t otherwise figure out what someone is trying to say? I see that you did some sleuthing, too. You think that I am invested in a certain kind of historical triumphalism, the certainty that the pro-life movement is on the way to inevitable victory—and therefore I can’t abide the doubts you have raised about its future. Oh, Peter, you couldn’t be more wrong! Hegelians, Marxists, and Progressives believe in the inevitable triumph of political movements; Christians believe that God is in charge, and that His ways are not always ours. Come to think of it, even if I were not Christian I would never think of the certain triumph of any project I’m invested in. At my age I’ve seen so many of my great plans go down the tubes that I’d be a fool to believe I’m on the winning side of history.
Here is what I do believe, and what animates everything I write on the subject. I believe that deliberately killing a child in the womb is a grave moral offense. I acquired this belief not from a catechism but from the section on embryology in my biology class at the University of Illinois in 1955. At that time abortion was illegal in the U.S., so the issue wasn’t pressing, but Roe v. Wade changed everything. Throwing out even the most permissive abortion laws in all 50 states, it made the killing of unborn children a constitutional right. Later, I found out how that right was being exercised: by dismembering, poisoning, scorching with chemicals, and stabbing in the head those “products of conception” from which the Court had removed all solid protections. Some of the particular killing procedures I just mentioned have been outlawed, and others have been made obsolete, but the routinized killing of unborn children goes on at an average rate of 2,000 per day, some of it less than ten minutes from my house, at a clinic that specializes in late-term abortions.
In changing the law, Roe changed me. When the Church, heroically, standing almost alone, came out so squarely against Roe, I finally realized how important it was for me to consider, and reflect upon, the whole body of its teachings. In a sense, then, it wasn’t religion that drove me to oppose abortion; it was abortion that drove me to deepen my religious engagement.
So now you know where I’m coming from. I’d be happy to talk it over with you anytime over a cup of coffee or something stronger. My goodness, you needn’t sit there puzzling for another two months over why I wrote such nasty, mean, unfair things about your article. Indeed, as you see from these pages, I consider your essay to be extremely thought-provoking. I’m not sure what it was saying, but isn’t that often the way with provocative works? You have stirred the juices of supporters and critics alike, and for that I congratulate you.
With all best wishes,