Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Choice Superstition” first appeared in the April 2004 issue of Touchstone.
Patrick Gray on Abortion Rhetoric & Common Sense
The Kentucky farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry called a recent book “An Essay Against Modern Superstition,” and many readers must have asked: If an idea or practice is modern, isn’t it free from superstition? Superstition is something primitive, unscientific, and unmodern. Fear of the “Evil Eye” and belief in palm reading are superstitions. Anyone who thinks that a person meets misfortune as the result of a dirty look or can avoid misfortune by following the advice of a fortune-teller does not know how the real world works.
What is superstition? Philosophers of old, as well as modern philosophers like Bertrand Russell, identified the corruption of the rational faculty by the passions as the hallmark of superstition. I would add that this corruption is marked by a rejection of common sense and ordinary language for wishful thinking and redescription of reality.
Nowadays we define superstition by contrasting it with science, our “common sense.” Whereas science sees the world as rational and predictable, superstition sees the world and the powers that rule it as irrational and unpredictable, and therefore a source of constant anxiety. Thus, superstition appeals most strongly in connection with births, deaths, illnesses, romance, and other situations in which our human fragility is most palpable.
Scientists deal in hypotheses that can be tested by other parties and discussed in objective ways. The superstitious reject scientific explanations in favor of esoteric theories that can never be disproved and are often presented in an odd and mystifying jargon. Both science and superstition are ways by which people try to understand the world into which they have been thrown and try to manipulate it to get what they want. By artfully avoiding certain hard questions, the superstitious can remain convinced that their way presents a reasonable, effective answer to life’s problems.
Is Berry right? Are there modern superstitions that no one currently thinks of as superstitions? A few hundred years from now, what modern beliefs and customs will look to everyone like rank superstition?
Although Roe v. Wade purportedly settled the question in a modern, enlightened way, a closer examination of the movement to establish abortion as a basic human right may well show its rhetoric and reasoning to be fundamentally superstitious. In their passion to legitimate the practice, advocates of abortion have abandoned common sense and ordinary language for wishful thinking and redescription of reality in a manner characteristic of the superstitious mentality.
These advocates cannot admit that the procedure results in the death of a real, living person (in part because admitting that “abortion stops a beating heart” would be politically fatal to their cause). To get around admitting a reality to which common sense and science bear witness, they must assert that whatever gets aborted is not a living human being, for it is impossible to kill something that is not alive in the first place or to abort something that has not in some sense already begun.
So when confronted with the basic question of what is aborted, if not a living human being, they must resort to wishful thinking and redescription of reality. It is first an “embryo,” they say, and then at a slightly later stage of development, a “fetus.” And what is this embryo-turned-fetus? A progressively more sentient being, not yet “alive” (for that would allow the possibility of its dying), but clearly not dead, either; not yet human (for that would give it rights), but not anything else for which scientists can name the genus and species.
Thus, anyone who defends the practice of abortion must posit a state of limbo, a literal no-man’s land somewhere between life and death, between human and non-human, inhabited exclusively by embryos and fetuses. Many would extend this interim state to the moment of birth, when the fetus mystically becomes, in the twinkling of an eye, a human being. Some, like Princeton’s infamous Peter Singer, would extend the state even further, to some months, or even years, after birth.
Others will admit the basic human status of the fetus, i.e., as a member of the species Homo sapiens, but this leads to even more mumbo-jumbo. For if abortionists acknowledge that the unborn child is a human being, one is naturally led to ask why they can still permit its “termination.” The abortionist’s response is that there is a distinction between being human and being a person and that the fetus has no inalienable right to life because it is not yet a person.
What distinguishes a “person” from a mere Homo sapiens? The decision of the woman carrying the fetus, no more, no less. Something magical happens to effect a change in the ontological status of the fetus when the woman chooses to regard it as her child. This is essentially an appeal to emotion: The personhood of the fetus is a direct function of one parent’s desire to have a child. Contrary to popular stereotypes, opponents of abortion have no monopoly on emotional argumentation.
If it will look bad in the hindsight of history to defend the termination of a fetus because it is not a human being, it will look even worse to defend the “termination” of an admittedly human being on the grounds that, though technically human, it had not attained “personhood.” Both will be seen as the denial, through the use of an esoteric theory, of a truth observable by common sense.
Is it nevertheless unfair to characterize the pro-abortion position as superstitious? Perhaps, but the legitimating apparatus of the abortion industry has a certain Rube Goldberg quality to it that may force future generations to ascribe the fervor with which it was defended to superstition. Uncritical submission to the oracular pronouncements of a handful of old men, wearing black robes and seated on an elevated bench, as the final word on so serious a matter as life and death may well strike our descendants as woefully superstitious, rather than enlightened.
The pro-abortion side of the debate pretends that science buttresses its claims and that the pro-life side relies on religious arguments rooted in a backwards and outdated (read: superstitious) worldview. Yet against my proposition that any line drawn during gestation to demarcate the beginning of personhood will in the future appear capricious and irrational, some abortion advocates might point to the fact that some of the most prominent thinkers in the Western tradition did not consider abortion murder until the fetus was “fully formed,” approximately forty days after conception.
This rejoinder overlooks two inconvenient facts. First, the exception allowed by Philo of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, and others for fetuses not yet fully formed was premised on the belief that only after a certain point did it acquire a soul. Few if any defenders of abortion will say this, because it requires them to invoke a metaphysical theory of ensoulment (another superstition) to justify their views of neonatal development.
Second, and more important, thanks to advances in our knowledge of genetics and to technological innovations such as ultrasonography, we now know a lot more about fertilization and embryology than our ancestors did. It is very hard to imagine that Aristotle, much less Aquinas, would have been as permissive as they were had they known what we know. Why should we return to the scientific dark ages and ignore all the insights into the secrets of human life that have come in the last few decades alone?
Ironically, opponents of abortion are now much more likely than its proponents to bring scientific evidence into the conversation. (This trend has been noted by one of the godfathers of postmodern literary criticism, Stanley Fish, an intellectual not easily pigeonholed as a right-wing ideologue.) When faced with the crucial question to which science is qualified to speak—whether and when human life has begun—defenders of abortion ignore science and appeal to the esoteric theory of personhood mentioned above.
They are increasingly uncomfortable when the discussion sticks to science, and with good reason. Researchers continue to push back the time at which movement and cell specialization can be detected. By day two after fertilization, we know for sure that what is growing inside the woman isn’t just a tumor. Before the end of the fourth week, the nervous system (including the brain) has begun forming, and the heart even sooner than that. By the time most women know they are pregnant, the embryo can already respond to external stimuli.
Destiny & Power
The non-scientific character of the pro-abortion perspective is a necessary but not sufficient reason to regard it as a superstition. Superstition includes more than just esoteric ideas about how the world works; it also includes the desire to do something about it, to use this “knowledge” to gain some measure of control when faced with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a universe seemingly devoid of meaning and order. The articulation of the pro-abortion agenda in terms of empowerment also shows why it may in the future be viewed as an instance of superstition.
Our finitude, our acute awareness of it, and our rebellion against it have long been defining aspects of the human condition, and much of the world’s great literature seeks to come to terms with it. A major aspect of that finitude is our bodies, for the realities of life in a human body place limits on our potential for self-actualization. But we shall overcome our finitude, the world promises; biology is not destiny, we are told, for the alternative is to remain captive—whether to one’s womb or to confining social roles prescribed by the powers-that-be.
To what lengths are we willing to go to escape “destiny”? Perhaps it is only a coincidence that ancient writers such as Livy, Plutarch, and Tacitus regularly identified the practice of human sacrifice, especially of small children, not only as a profound evil, but also as the most egregious form of superstition. Such demented means were justified by the end of gaining power in one’s dealings with the gods. According to Minucius Felix, a third-century Christian apologist, it was the rumor of ritual infanticide carried out in private meetings that gave the imperial authorities one more reason to label Christianity a superstitio.
For Roman writers, those who practiced human sacrifice gave proof of their immanitas—the antithesis of humanitas—and also of the depravity of the deities demanding such horrible worship. Jeremiah, who reports God’s condemnation of those who offer their children to Moloch and Baal (7:31; 32:35), would agree. The widening gap today between religious groups condoning abortion and those condemning it is likewise no coincidence.
So why is it that at present a great many reasonable people are unreasonable when it comes to recognizing the inhumanity of abortion? The simple answer is that they do not want to, and they do not want to because they sense that it means accepting finitude, that there are physical and moral limits on their autonomy.
Like many superstitions, the pro-abortion position contains a kernel of truth. It is hard to deny that an unwanted pregnancy places real difficulties in the paths of both women and men who do not have the option of abortion. For all the joys that come with parenthood, only a negligent mother or father can truthfully say that children do not demand a great deal of sacrifice. An unwanted pregnancy is seen as posing a genuine threat to personal autonomy and freedom.
Here one sees the corrosive effects of the notion of freedom that obtains so widely today. Freedom, says a character in George Orwell’s 1984, is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. It is the freedom to acknowledge reality, which includes acknowledging human finitude. Truth is the basis of true freedom, which is not to be confused with the ability to say that two plus two equals five. The Supreme Court’s reasoning, if it can be called that, in the 1992 Casey decision upholding Roe was that true freedom means the freedom to say two plus two equals five. “At the heart of liberty,” said the majority, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” A more reliable source suggests that only the truth—a truth we do not define ourselves, because it is given to us—will make us free (John 8:32).
The surest way to keep people in the chains of superstition is to convince them that they are free in the way Casey defined freedom. Pro-abortion rhetoric accomplishes this by mixing the truth that parenthood entails hardship with deception about true freedom and the nature of the unborn child. The result is a delusion, which may be defined as a state of captivity to a false belief.
Acquiescence to the abortion rights agenda often begins as unwillingness to acknowledge the implications of human actions and their all too human consequences. It ends up in atrophy of the mind and spirit—in superstition—with the power to discriminate between true and false and good and evil being its final casualty.
People in the centuries to come are likely to shake their heads with disbelief or even disgust when they look back at our abortion culture and the rationale used to justify it. Their assessment may very well be that our modern age was just as superstitious as any we now look back on with a supercilious and enlightened eye.
Patrick Gray teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and their two children.
“Choice Superstition” first appeared in the April 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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