Sometimes you just have to get something off your chest. This is one of those posts.
I’ve organized regular get-togethers of the liberal/progressive social group Drinking Liberally in the Peoria area for more than two-and-a-half years. (Online here, at Meetup, and Facebook.) There’s always a healthy debate at our meetings What would you expect from a bunch of liberals and progressive drinking at an Irish-themed bar? But only a few issues have ever completely blown up one of gatherings, with people getting angry, walking out, etc.
Abortion is one of those issues.
I think I’m safe in saying that most Drinking Liberally-Peoria members are pro-choice, in every sense of politics and policy that that description has come to mean. But not everyone fits in that category, and certainly I don’t. I’ve argued my position a few times at Drinking Liberally meetings, and now I’ll set some of those down in writing.
I want to start first by re-printing a portion of an email exchange I had with a curious conservative earlier this year. All of what follows is my writing and not any of that person’s:
Abortion is a hard issue, obviously. I’m afraid I don’t line up on the commonly understood “liberal” axis with this one. I don’t exactly like this phrasing, but I call myself a “pro-life” liberal. Using that label suggests I have more in common with people who describe themselves that way than I do. Using that description at one of my Drinking Liberally meetings brought a bunch of shocked looks, but as is typical for all of us, the group respectfully let me explain my point of view.
I believe that everyone has the right to life and that a human life begins once the various chemicals of the sperm and egg combine to create the batch of cells that can – if everything goes right – become a human being.
However…the world would be a much easier place if we only had one right or a clearly ranked set of rights, but unfortunately, that’s not so. Various rights and values compete all of the time. That’s why all of this is so hard.
One of those rights is the life of the already existing human being, the mother. If the pregnancy proceeds in a way that it threatens to kill the mother if brought to term, we have two separate rights to life competing. In that case, I believe the mother should have the right to a safe and legal abortion, if that’s what she chooses to do.
Another one of those rights is the right to liberty – the right to make our own choices about our lives, to live the life we pick and not the one forced upon us. That right to choice/liberty is taken away from a woman in cases of rape and incest. She did not pick that pregnancy, and it’s an ugly thing to have the state force a woman to have that child under those circumstances. That woman’s right to choose her life competes with the unborn child’s right to life. I don’t think it’s my place to decide how to balance those rights. I think that decision must remain with the woman, and she should be allowed to get a safe and legal abortion under those circumstances.
Where I draw the line is when abortion is chosen as a means of birth control. Often the opposite of the “pro-life” side is called “pro-choice”. Well, I believe the choice comes in when someone decides to have consensual sex. Once that choice is made, it’s hardly the unborn child’s fault that he or she came to be, so that’s no grounds for violating his or her right to life.
All of that just begins to scratch the surface of the argument. There are all kinds of objections and issues that I’m leaving out. I guess I’ll say a couple more things and then let it go for now: First, what I outlined above pretty much describes the mainstream of American public opinion on abortion. Most people want it legal and safe and left pretty much up to the mother. At the same time, people recoil from an unlimited right to an abortion. Second, I think a great way to avoid a lot of this would be to make birth control and adoption opportunities readily and widely available. Of course, like I said above, that puts me in opposition to many of the people who describe themselves as “pro-life”.
Let me say a few more things.
First, I’m highly critical of Bill Clinton, but he did have a good line, when he said that abortion should be safe, legal…and rare.
Second, my views above would likely get me condemned by both of the extreme ends of this debate. There’s very little room for grey in public discourse on abortion.
Third, I think what distinguishes a “pro-life liberal” from a “pro-life conservative” is that a pro-life liberal actually care what happens to the kid once it’s out in the world, whereas a pro-life conservative seems to say, okay, great, it’s born, now it’s someone else’s problem.
And finally, yes, I’m a secular humanist. Just in case you’re curious, because I’m often asked, yes, I was raised a Catholic. But my position doesn’t have anything to do with that. Don’t prattle on to me about the soul, etc. No, my position is based in humanist values. To put it one easily recognizable way, we all, as human beings, have an inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And unless there are drastic, extenuating circumstances, we should respect those rights.
Now have at me. Or better yet, come to Drinking Liberally, and let’s talk in person.
Update: Listen to this interview with Jen Roth on the program Point of Inquiry. She’s a founder and member of a couple of different organizers working to advance this perspective.