What Adam Smith can teach the pro-life movement

Sometimes moral intuitions are on the side of the pro-life movement. Sometimes a person like Abby Johnson will perceive, in a flash of insight, that abortion really does end a human life. Sometimes getting people to trust their instincts is more effective than complicated logical arguments beginning with the premise that we know what an apple is.

Sometimes, though, it seems like intuitions work against us. Sometimes people look at a seven-day-old embryo and say, “But I just don’t feel like that’s a baby.” Sometimes women procure abortions and feel just fine afterwards, with no apparent remorse for having killed.

Why does abortion, especially in the first trimester, seem intuitively innocuous to some people?

Adam Smith’s writings on the nature of empathy–which he termed sympathy–can shed some light on this issue. For Smith, sympathy isn’t automatic. It’s also not abstract. It’s not some nebulous feeling that we instinctually share with every human being–rather, it’s a reaction to particular people and their particular circumstances. In order to understand the behavior or feelings of others, we must picture ourselves in their place: “the spectator must, first of all, endeavour, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance . . . He must adopt the whole case of his companion; and strive to render as perfect as possible, that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded” (Theory of Moral Sentiments 1982, 21). It is through projecting ourselves into their situation that we develop sympathy with them. If we don’t physically see and interact with a person, we have trouble vividly imagining his circumstances. Intimacy brings sympathy: we are more easily able to sympathize with a friend, whose person and circumstances we know very well, than with a beggar on the street. This is why we don’t weep for the tragedies of distant people we’ve never met, though we may, through imagination, be able to conjure up some small degree of sorrow for them:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would . . . express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people . . . When all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened . . . If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren. (Theory of Moral Sentiments 1982, 136)

A child hidden in the womb, whose cries we cannot hear, whose face we cannot see, whose state of life we cannot remember experiencing, is therefore a person with whom we find it difficult to develop sympathy.

How do we fight against this natural difficulty? One answer, obviously, is the wider dissemination of ultrasound images. I personally had never seen an ultrasound until I was 8 weeks pregnant with my first child–and when I saw her, I was amazed at her budding human form and her ability to move, having been told before that such a young fetus was merely a passive ball of cells. Disseminating more ultrasound images to the general public, and requiring women seeking abortions to look at their child first, is a powerful way to promote sympathy for the unborn.

Another way to encourage sympathy is through narrative. For instance, this article from Priests for Life describes an ad that seems to have been effective in lowering abortion rates:

[A young woman sits by a fireplace, facing the camera.] “You know, I used to be pro-choice, and then something happened to me-I had a baby of my own. When I was pregnant I finally realized that all this little kid was trying to do was make it, just make it, just like all of us.”

The woman situates her unborn child in a larger narrative about the human struggle to survive. She draws attention to what we have in common with the unborn in order to make it more familiar, more sympathetic.

But both ultrasound and storytelling are imperfect methods. There are, after all, pro-choice parents: people who have watched their children develop from shadowy ultrasound images to squirming newborn while still refusing to admit the humanity of the unborn.

According to Adam Smith, such a failure of moral imagination occurs because of a defective culture. He lamented the horrors of infanticide: “Can there be greater barbarity . . . than to hurt an infant? . . . Yet the exposition, that is, the murder of new-born infants, was a practice allowed of in almost all the states of Greece” (Theory of Moral Sentiments 1982, 210). These civilized nations allowed such a horrible practice because it had become the custom: “Custom can give sanction to so dreadful a violation of humanity . . . Such a thing, we hear men every day saying, is commonly done, and they seem to think this a sufficient apology for what, in itself, is the most unjust and unreasonable conduct” (Theory of Moral Sentiments 1982, 210). Humans, being social creatures, naturally imitate those around them; and if we see that these people, especially if they are otherwise good people, commonly engage in a certain practice, we easily come to believe that it can’t possibly be so bad.

Those of us in the pro-life movement, then, know what we must do: build a culture of life to counteract the prevailing cultural sentiments. This is easier said than done, but often we can help just by making our voices heard. In certain social circles–particularly the well-educated urbanites–being pro-choice is taken for granted. Pro-lifers are “the other.” They are thought to live in far-away places like Kansas or Utah, where they chain their ever-pregnant wives to the kitchen stove (for all pro-lifers are male, of course, and just want to control women’s bodies) and read the maladictory Psalms aloud to their 18 children. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Showing pro-choicers that pro-lifers are real people–that we’re their friends and co-workers and neighbors–can help dispel the myth that abortion must be right because all normal, right-thinking people are in favor of it. It’s harder to demonize the pro-life movement when they know us personally and have come to sympathize with us.

If your reaction to that last paragraph is “I don’t know anyone who’s pro-choice, so mentioning I’m pro-life won’t do any good”–well, that’s a problem. It’s easy to withdraw from the culture of death, but harder to transform it. We need to meet people on the other side, listen to them, and love them. After all, it is hard to fight evil if we lose our own sympathy in the process.


Heteronormativity and the cult of good feelings

One of the standard arguments against “heteronormativity”–that is, holding the married, heterosexual, complementarian family as the ideal–is that doing so marginalizes other kinds of families. For instance, Drucilla Cornell writes in the New York Times:

There is a voluminous literature arguing that the act of child adoption itself constitutes a trauma. For example, the writer Betty Jean Lifton argued that no matter what adoptive parents do, an adopted child has undergone a foundational trauma. I have argued against that position because for Lifton, biological connection is the only way for a family to constitute itself through a foundational narrative of belonging. On that view, an adopted child will necessarily be robbed of such a narrative, and will be without answers to basic questions like “When did mommy meet daddy?” and “What happened on the day I was born?”

But of course it is not only adopted, children who lack such narratives. Those who do not live in conventional heterosexual families are also cut off from them. The normalization of the heterosexual family — mommy and daddy and baby makes three — does not describe the majority of families. If one narrative of family belonging — in this case traditional heterosexual — is treated as the only valid one, it cuts off other possibilities for other stories of how one becomes a family and belongs to a family. Thus, the very argument that adoption is foundationally traumatic shuts down possibilities that would allow adopted children to tell different family stories and be part of different kinds of families. The argument itself becomes exclusionary.

This argument amounts to “We shouldn’t allow the heterosexual family to become the dominant narrative, because it makes other families feel baaaaad.” Gay and lesbian parents, adoptive parents, single parents, infertile couples–all of these people will feel bad–“excluded”–if we adhere to a standard narrative of family formation.

Frankly, I find this argument mystifying. I freely admit that many aspects of my own life are sub-optimal and far from ideal, so I don’t understand this concern that the very existence of ideals will lead to hurt feelings. For instance, it would be better if I learned to sew my own clothes, instead of whining that I can’t afford pretty, high-quality, sweatshop-free clothes from places like Modcloth or Shabby Apple. It would be better if I attended Mass daily instead of once or twice a week. It would be better if I spent all my spare time writing my dissertation instead of this blog. Does admitting all of this hurt my feelings a little bit? Yes–but then, those hurt feelings should be channeled towards constructive action, towards acquiring better homemaking skills, a stronger relationship with God, and a better work ethic, even if my life situation doesn’t specifically allow for daily Mass or sewing lessons. It’s possible to admit that our lives are sub-optimal without becoming paralyzed with depression.

If Ms. Cornell genuinely believes that gay parents or single parents are just as good, perhaps better, for children than the traditional heterosexual ideal, she should say so, not just complain that people who believe otherwise are making her feel bad. The progressives’ argument against heteronormativity seems preoccupied with attaining good feelings, which is an oddly self-centered goal. The goal of life–especially family life!–is to perform your duties and vocation as best you can, not to pursue good feelings.  While Christians should certainly be charitable and shouldn’t seek to gratuitously cause bad feelings, I don’t think that merely stating an ideal is uncharitable.

Virtue is Habit Forming

Blogger Monica Bielanko urges readers to delay procreation:

Consider waiting until your thirties to have children. Make your twenties all about you! Be selfish! Get it all out of your system so you are really, really ready to give yourself over to your kids. Kids are demanding and tiring. I absolutely cannot imagine having a baby at 25. At that age, I don’t know how I’d handle the rage that taps you on the shoulder when your child claws you and pulls your hair in the midst of a very public tantrum not to mention the many, many sleepless nights that are chained to parenthood. That’s saying nothing about the overwhelming expense and responsibility kids introduce to your once-simple life. Yeah, yeah, you want to be a “young mom.” That’s overrated. Being a responsible, patient parent who isn’t wishing they were out at the club with friends is way better than being a young mom.

She mentions the actvities that a twentysomething should engage in when waiting for marriage and children: travel, partying, dating multiple men.

It’s a common view in our culture that selfishness is something we should indulge to the fullest during our youth, because only indulgence can exorcise selfishness from our souls and allow us to (eventually) attain charity, prudence, and moderation.

But, according to Aristotle, “moral virtue . . . is formed by habit” (Nicomachean Ethics II.1.15). We have the natural capacity for virtue, but it must be developed through activity. The best way, then, to attain a virtue is simply to practice it now–not to put it off and assume it will materialize in the future.

Perhaps women with an excellent natural disposition can circumvent this sort of cultivation. Perhaps that is why Monica Bielanko was able to party through her 20s while still becoming a good mother in the end. I doubt most women, myself included, would benefit from such advice. After all, the SAHM lifestyle doesn’t magically confer unselfishness, and a decade of caring only for yourself is unlikely to help with the transition to a true life of service. Even if you do manage to learn–in a very short window of time–to put your family’s needs above your own, you still may never learn how to expand your newfound charitable attitude beyond the family. Proverbs 31 tells us that a good wife also “stretches out her hand to the poor”–so we are evidently called to visit our sick neighboors, to help the needy, and to love others, in addition to our primary vocation of caring for the family.

Moreover, there’s a reason why the Bible condemns coveting–because our selfish desires are never really sated. No matter how many “life experiences” you acquire, there are always more places you haven’t traveled, more alpha badboys you haven’t dated, more music festivals you haven’t piled in your college roommate’s pick-up truck to go see. There are obscure fuzz-pop bands you haven’t name-dropped yet and exhibitions of Soviet propaganda posters you haven’t attended . You could spend a lifetime in the quest for the next new experience without ever reaching that inner conviction that you’re “done,” that you’re ready to quit searching and settle down–because the more you view life as a “thing” to be polished and perfected and displayed, the more alienated you become from the truth that the meaning of life consists in a gift, rather than a hoarding, of self.

If I could give my own advice to single women, I would say: Attend daily Mass–you may not always have the opportunity to do so once you have children, and you need to draw on the graces of the sacrament as much as possible while you still can. Make a habit of regular volunteering, so you can more easily continue it once you have a family. Discern what God wants of you. Don’t be afraid to get “burned out” on self-sacrifice–the more you give yourself to God and others, the easier it gets. Practice the virtues. Love much.

The Right to Kill

In a piece titled “Yes, Abortion is Killing–But It’s the Lesser Evil,” Antonia Senior acknowledges that abortion takes a unique human life. But, as her choice of title implies, she then argues that such killing is warranted, indeed demanded, in order to serve the greater good of women’s independence:

But you cannot separate women’s rights from their right to fertility control. The single biggest factor in women’s liberation was our newly found ability to impose our will on our biology. Abortion would have been legal for millennia had it been men whose prospects and careers were put on sudden hold by an unexpected pregnancy. The mystery pondered on many a girls’ night out is how on earth men, bless them, managed to hang on to political and cultural hegemony for so long. The only answer is that they are not in hock to their biology as much as we are. Look at a map of the world and the right to abortion on request correlates pretty exactly with the expectation of a life unburdened by misogyny.

As ever, when an issue we thought was black and white becomes more nuanced, the answer lies in choosing the lesser evil. The nearly 200,000 aborted babies in the UK each year are the lesser evil, no matter how you define life, or death, for that matter. If you are willing to die for a cause, you must be prepared to kill for it, too.

Her position may initially seem mystifying (not to mention sickening). After all, if you admit that a fetus is a person, doesn’t a political philosophy predicated on individual rights and liberties require that we respect the fetus’ rights by not killing her?

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium vitae, addressed this very sort of contradiction:

In this way, and with tragic consequences, a long historical process is reaching a turning-point. The process which once led to discovering the idea of “human rights”-rights inherent in every person and prior to any Constitution and State legislation-is today marked by a surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death. . . .

We can find them in an overall assessment of a cultural and moral nature, beginning with the mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. . . . We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection.

Our society’s Lockean view of human rights grounds them in personal autonomy. Man is granted rights because of “his mind’s power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it,” as Betty Friedan wrote. But what becomes of a person who is radically dependent, who is incapable of shaping the future for himself? What becomes of a woman who is profoundly brain-damaged due to a tragic accident, or to a fetus who is literally, physically dependent on another person? In our liberal feminist paradise, not only do these people fail to deserve protection, but they must be eliminated in order to facilitate the independence of others.

Antonia Senior may be unusual for her honesty, but there is nothing unusual in her contempt for the weak–or in her willingness to sacrifice them so that others can “follow their bliss.”

Stay Together for the Kids

It’s often said that divorce is better than exposing children to constant parental arguments. In reality, of course, divorce doesn’t put an end to conflict–but even if it did, even if most divorcees were capable of the mythical child-centered divorce, would it still be superior to a conflict-ridden childhood?

I know full well how devastating parental fights are from a child’s perspective. I remember the queasiness I felt whenever I heard a familiar edge creep into my mother’s tone, which signaled a fight brewing. And I remember, in a moment of frustration, telling my parents that they should just divorce already and spare me the pain of their constant bickering.

Well, they didn’t–and I’m glad. They’ve mellowed in their old(er) age, have improved their marriage, and are much more pleasant to be around now. They’ve proved that a snapshot in time–particularly those first few stressful years of raising young children–doesn’t provide the full picture of marriage, that it can grow and improve over time.

But you know what? Even if things hadn’t gotten better, I’d still be glad to be an adult with two married parents.

Having an intact family provides an experience of continuity that just can’t be beat. Like many twentysomethings today, I’m nomadic–I can’t bring my husband into my childhood home and show him the trees I’ve climbed, the secret hiding place in my bedroom wall, the fireplace where we used to gather at Christmas. We’ve moved around a lot and haven’t put down roots anywhere. But I can bring him to where my parents live today, and, as different as it is geographically from my childhood home, it still holds my past. My dad’s clutter, my mom’s jam cookies baking in the oven, the stories about that time my toddler self put a bead up my nose, the yellowing photos of my great-grandparents on the fridge, and, yes, even the same old arguments, sometimes re-hashed–this has made me who I am today, and it continues to shape my life now.

The story of my family didn’t end with one of those door-slamming arguments. We have not just a past, but a present, and a future together. Since humans are storytelling animals, it’s important to see ourselves embedded in a larger narrative than just that of the individual self.