The Pro-Life Movement Meets Biopolitics
“We will have to discard simple dichotomies” when the coronavirus pandemic finally subsides, Francis Fukuyama predicts in The Atlantic. Let’s borrow that line for a moment and apply it to the pro-life cause. The dichotomy that concerns Fukuyama is between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. The one that concerns us in the pro-life community is between the proposition that the sanctity of an individual human life is inviolable and the proposition that it’s negotiable.
We put the highest value on the individual human life as a biological fact. Those with whom we disagree think that as a society we should tolerate, though regulate, the taking of human life—sometimes, for the sake of the common good; other times, for the sake of individual dignity or flourishing. Those who take human life may be other human beings, as in abortion. In the case that demands our attention at the moment, the taker is a non-human organism, the novel coronavirus.
Governments have responded to the threat by restricting our freedom of movement. The economic damage has been severe. The ensuing hardship is to be dreaded, but the decision to accept it as the cost of saving human lives should encourage us. The sentiment that animates us in our efforts on behalf of the unborn and the aged turns out to be mainstream, shared by many who are now singing from our hymnal, though they might skip the stanzas about abortion or euthanasia. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, who has offended us by promoting and even celebrating abortion rights, took to Twitter to affirm in the strongest terms the principle underpinning the pro-life cause:
My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable.
We will not put a dollar figure on human life.
We can have a public health strategy that is consistent with an economic one.
No one should be talking about social darwinism for the sake of the stock market.
Critics of that message, and of the public-health policy that it supports—a policy of shutdowns, lockdowns, and orders to observe social distancing or to “shelter in place” (i.e., to stay home)—make arguments that are familiar to veterans of abortion politics. Whereas we in the pro-life camp maintain that all human lives are of equal moral worth, those on the other side of the debate tend to speak about quality of life and about (though this is not their word) degrees of life. They feel that the moral weight of killing an embryo or of hastening the death of a geriatric patient is less than the moral weight of taking the life of someone in his prime. Near the beginning and near the end of a natural lifespan, the life in a person is less a flame than a spark, isn’t it? The unborn are immature, and the bodies of the aged are unraveling.
“Obviously it’s a lot sadder when a toddler dies in a car accident than when an elderly person with terminal cancer does,” my National Review colleague Robert VerBruggen observes. “So we might want to measure the benefits of stopping COVID in terms of ‘quality-adjusted life years,’ especially because the disease seems to fall heavily on the elderly and hardly at all on children.” The pandemic has moved some conservative Americans, who happen to oppose abortion, to think in clearer terms along those lines. Their willingness to enter into that kind of calculation is hard to reconcile, though, with the pro-life principle that, to borrow Cuomo’s language, we can’t put a dollar figure on the value of a human life.
What only yesterday was a clearer dichotomy, between pro-life and pro-choice, has begun to blur. Or the boundaries between the two sides are being redrawn. The pandemic scrambles the terms of the longstanding conflict between different philosophies regarding the value of biological human life—“bare” life, as it’s called by some of those who think that Cuomo and other government officials are misguided in their response to the pandemic. Up to now the pro-life movement has concerned itself primarily with the politics of abortion, and secondarily with the politics of euthanasia. We now find ourselves entering the larger intellectual debate that takes place under the banner of “biopolitics,” a disputed but unavoidable concept in political science.