Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Dilemma of Abortion

Dedicated to my lovely Maria.

I wouldn’t ordinarily raise the topic of abortion on this blog, except that it highlights one of the key strengths of the modern West: the ability to concretize into civil law the tension between perfection and imperfection, within the framework of the separation of Church and State.

I am not unreservedly praising the modern West’s consensus on abortion: it embodies many thorny problems, and in many ways touches on tragedy. But in this life, tragedy is not always avoidable, and as the ancient Greeks so wisely knew, it is not in abolishing tragedy that man finds happiness—if only because it is impossible to banish tragedy from the mystery of existence—but in his mature response to tragedy: happiness, in this life, always a relative balance, not a static condition.

What makes abortion complex is two features:

1) the human birth is a process of increasing humanity;


2) the infant seems at some point to be part of the mother’s body.

Both of these features complicate the issue of the rights of the infant in the politico-legal sense.

The modern West has, more or less, tentatively concluded that the radical approach to defining the human in utero—in the Catholic view, from the instant of the zygote—is an untenable and inflexible response to the mystery of human generation.

The hardcore anti-abortion activists are being logical—too logical. They pursue their logic to its extremist conclusion. They ignore the two particular mysteries noted above, which I will rephrase:

1) Human being is a paradoxical process.
Human being is not simply a static and unchangeably whole entity: it also seems to develop from being less human to being more human. Even the recognized human being, on one level, never seems to arrive at a state that is beyond process. As the philosopher Eric Voegelin noted, human being is unfinished (which is to say, imperfect). On the other hand, we shouldn’t fall into the error of slipping out of the paradox: human being is not merely process. Human being is, in fact, a paradox between and state and process. Neither side of this paradox should be ignored. Hardcore anti-abortion activists tend to ignore the process aspect of human being; hardcore pro-choice activists, in their turn, tend to ignore the state aspect of human being (and in so doing, their anthropology becomes uncomfortably contiguous with those that could define who is human, and who is not human, at the whim of an ideology). The truth is somewhere in-between, and the truth is not a hard, cold fact, but rather a paradoxical mystery that in the infirmity of our human understanding in this life, we can only imperfectly illuminate.

2) Human being begins as part of the mother’s nature.

The embryonic human being seems to go through a period where its nature is mysteriously implicated with the nature of the mother. However, as we noted above, the radical anthropology most famously articulated by Catholic doctrine pushes the opposite logic to the extreme, and maintains a whole human nature for the embryonic human as ontologically distinct and ethically independent of the mother from the instant of the zygote. This kind of logic, we conclude, is a willfully obsessive attempt to control the disturbing and imperfect mystery of existence—with good motives, to be sure.
In closing, I would reiterate that the tentative consensus on abortion reached by modern Western polities is the best response, not a perfect response: it is the only workable response for a civilization committed to the secular separation of Church and State.

The reader will see in a later posting on this blog how the ‘separation’ of Church and State is really more of a tension—sort of like the tension one sees in keeping a magnet apart from metal. In the secular paradigm, the goal is not to separate the magnet (Church) from the metal (State) completely, by moving them so far apart they become utterly disconnected. Nor is the goal to simply let them collapse together into a unit. The goal is to keep only a certain amount of distance between them, in the interest of cultivating a magnetic energy, where each side may be respected and both may beneficially influence one another. The realization of this goal is always dynamic, never static, and as such, is always an imperfect process, never a perfect state.

In terms of this goal, the modern Western consensus on abortion is, on the whole, the best compromise, finding the magnetic balance somewhere between collapsing the tension into theocracy, or sundering the tension apart into two unrelated spheres of action—which could result either in civil war between religious people and atheists, or a devolution into Godless barbarism on the part of the State, or both.

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