About the moral status of the phrase “the fetus,” I will just say this. As used in the conference program and website, which are not medical contexts, it is offensive, dehumanizing, prejudicial, manipulative. Used in this context, exclusively and in preference to the alternatives, it is an F-word, to go with the J-word, and other such words we know of, which have or had an acceptable meaning in a proper context but became in wider use the symbol of subjection to the prejudices and preferences of the more powerful. It’s not a fair word, and it does not suggest an open heart. Those of you who have an open mind or a fair heart may wish to listen to every speaker at this conference, and see whether they are willing to speak, at least sometimes, of the unborn child or unborn baby, and to do so without scare quotes or irony. —John Finnis, Princeton University, Oct. 15
Professor Finnis (of Oxford University) made the above admonition in a debate with Peter Singer (Princeton) and Margaret Little (Georgetown) during a conference on abortion at Princeton University this past October titled “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words.” The title comes from Barack Obama’s 2009 Notre Dame graduation speech, in which the president whose party subsequently rammed an abortion-laden health-care bill through Congress urged Americans on both sides of the abortion divide to “open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe” because in doing so “we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”
He also said this:
Now, understand—understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it—indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory—the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature (emphasis added).
“Open Hearts. Open minds. Fair minded words.” This, Obama intoned, should be the American way of debate. Catholic eye observed at the time that what the cocksure new president was preaching at Notre Dame was really “a separate but equal doctrine on abortion. Both the decision to keep and the decision to kill the child are to be afforded equal honor and respect. This is what ‘pro-choice’ means.” But having seen his health-care plan turned into a (near fatal) referendum on whether the public should pick up the nation’s abortion tab has apparently chastened him, at least rhetorically—lately he’s been humming the Clinton-era “safe, legal, and rare” mantra his abortocratic base stripped from the Democratic Party platform during the 2008 campaign. Alas, for legions of activists who would continue to ask, “Why rare?” the moral respectability with which Obama was seeking to endow abortion (with the fawning complicity of Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins and the university’s board) remains elusive.
But as “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words”—the conference—showed, the crusade for abortion respectability not only continues but continues to enlist the complicity of would-be pro-lifers. This is what John Finnis so rudely (for some in the audience) pointed out. Two of the conference organizers—theology professor Charles Camosy of Fordham and Bioethics International director Jennifer Miller—are declared pro-lifers. Yet both signed on to the deliberate exclusion of “unborn child” and “unborn baby” from all descriptive materials. As Finnis said, such acquiescence was tantamount to accepting the “preferences and prejudices of the more powerful,” in this case the pro-choice argument that baby and child are loaded words that only become “fair-minded” after a woman decides to bear her . . . fetus. In fairness, Camosy made it clear in his opening remarks that none of the four organizers—Peter Singer and former Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) president Frances Kissling were the other two—got “the conference he wants.”
J.P. McFadden, the founding editor of this newsletter who died in 1998, was adamant about using “anti-abortion” instead of “pro-life.” Most conference participants appeared to be pro-abortion (“pro-choice” they would have it), but even among the self-identified pro-lifers eye sensed that not many were adamant about being anti-abortion. Maybe this was because one of nine instructions listed in the “Guidelines for All Conference Participants” cautioned against “using polarizing and dismissive labels—including the catch phrases that have dominated public discourse.” Bernard Dickens (University of Toronto Faculty of Law), part of a panel addressing such questions as “Does choosing abortion because the fetus is disabled threaten the value and dignity of people with disabilities?” smugly asserted that Finnis himself had used “biased” language when during his debate with Singer he referred to “abortionists” instead of doctors who perform abortions.
Frances Kissling, a preening pro-choice icon, announced at the outset that her “ambition for the meeting” was that “nobody would say anything they’ve said before.” She wanted to hear “talk about abortion,” not “talk about talking about abortion.” Kissling’s long CFFC tenure has earned her “visiting scholar” status at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, where, according to her conference bio, her “primary interest is the development of a new ethic of abortion that seeks to infuse the traditional feminist approach to abortion as a human right with a commitment to personal responsibility and respect for the value of fetal life.” “I have a deep respect for the category of fetal life,” she solemnly told the audience, but “I don’t have a sense of individual fetuses, or respect for individual fetuses’ lives.” By the end of the 2-day conference, however, Kissling was reduced to “railing” (as one account we read put it; eye missed the last panel) about the absolute inviolability of a woman’s right to abortion: “I don’t care how you accomplish it, whether through a constitution, the UN, state laws or federal laws, or by the Taliban.” The Taliban—did Kissling ever say that before?
David Gushee (McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University), another speaker in the opening session, identified himself as a “follower of Jesus Christ,” a “Christian ethicist,” and a “Baptist convert from Roman Catholicism” who is “deeply drawn to Catholic social teaching.” (In a Huffington Post column defending ObamaCare just before the Senate vote last March, Gushee, a prominent member of Obama’s professional religious base, explained that he was “an evangelical Christian who seeks to live by a consistent pro-life ethic. I deeply desire to see thirty million of my uninsured neighbors in this country to be able to visit a doctor when they are sick . . . I also deeply desire to see a country that turns away from abortion as a routine social practice.”) A society that has “a 25% elimination rate,” Gushee told the 450 souls gathered in Princeton’s venerable old McCosh Hall, has “very deep problems” that won’t go away even “if Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow.” Abortion, he said, had the “scent of tragedy.”
Gushee’s lament didn’t resonate with Aimee Thorne-Thomsen (Pro-Choice Public Education Project), who a few days later posted a widely read review of the conference (see “My Take on ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds,’” www. rhrealitycheck.org, Oct. 21). While she agreed with “Gushee’s reflections on the need to address the social and economic conditions that perpetuate poverty”—because poverty, she said, perpetuates abortion—she also insisted they had “extremely different ideas of what tragic means.” She continued:
I don’t believe abortion is tragic in itself. I don’t believe that what drives abortion in every case is desperation. I’ve known too many women who have had abortions to believe that. I only wish that the conference had valued those experiences enough to lift up their voices, instead of silencing them . . .
. . . Until we all agree that women are moral agents, who are free to exercise their full human rights, I’m afraid these conversations won’t bring us any closer to bridging the gap between those who support the right to choose abortion and those who do not.
Thorne-Thomsen, who confessed that she “registered for this conference with neither an open heart nor an open mind,” went to Princeton, she said, “[u]nsure of what to expect and anxious, . . . [yet wanting] to lend my support to allies who supported abortion.” She was dismayed that Gushee had not only “framed abortion as an act of desperation in every case” but that he had “also made clear that abortion was never, could never be, a moral good.” This is the level at which the views of “the two camps,” to use Obama’s language, are indeed “irreconcilable.”
Thorne-Thomsen embodies what Kissling calls the “traditional feminist approach to abortion as a human right.” In this view, any exercise of the right to abortion must be accepted as a moral good if that is how the woman who chooses to abort perceives it. “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion,” Obama said at Notre Dame, “but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.” Obama and the Princeton conference organizers would no doubt consider these “fair-minded” words. But they are really wordsmog—what Obama was asking for agreement on is the proposition that abortion can be as morally good, as spiritually fine a decision as childbearing. In this calculus, the act itself, that is, the killing—administered by a licensed doctor, not an “abortionist”—is retributive, even healing. And the aborted creature is never a child, only a dehumanized, disposable fetus.
Where, pray tell, is there “common ground” in Gushee’s tragic view of abortion and Thorne-Thomsen’s absolute view of female moral agency? The truth is there isn’t. Some participants suggested, however, that “common ground” itself has become a “third place” in what traditionally has been an anti-abortion/pro-abortion debate. Common ground is defined here, quoting Obama again, as both sides “work[ing] together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions.” More contraception; more adoption; more pregnancy support services—many people at the conference appeared to be laboring in these vineyards. People who perhaps have pushed the fundamental question of what abortion is aside in order to concentrate on alleviating the reasons why they think women resort to it. But even if the demand for abortion suddenly plummeted—say because a direct link between it and breast cancer were to be affirmed—the argument over abortion per se, over killing, would still roil the public square.
“T.S. Eliot said hell is where nothing connects.” So began Dr. William Hurlbut (Stanford University Medical Center), another member of the panel considering questions of “fetal” disability and discrimination. Hurlbut, a physician also trained in theology who served eight years on George W. Bush’s bioethics council, warned it would be “a huge mistake to turn progeny into products.” Abortion, of course, has already initiated a kind of human commodification. Infants diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, for instance, are deemed faulty products, and, as Elizabeth Schiltz (University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis) noted, over 90% of them are now destroyed in utero. Biotechnology fueled by individual notions of self interest, and unmoored from a larger moral community, Hurlbut predicted, would soon force public debates on cloning, designer babies, and fetal-parts farming. But as long as abortion-on-demand remains a legal—and moral—good, these debates are likely to be resolved in favor of death.
Peter Singer was the real celebrity at the conference—even some adamantly anti-abortion folk were eager to chat and have their pictures taken with him. We haven’t said much about Singer here because eye readers are well-versed in his views. But there was a bit of news out of McCosh Hall: Professor Singer now countenances the killing of defective children not just for a few weeks after birth, but for a few years. And, according to his crabbed philosophy, why not? Having compiled his own inventory of attributes a human being must possess in order to qualify as a bearer of human rights—self-awareness and the ability to contemplate the future are among them—he doesn’t hesitate to follow his logic to its ugly and lethal end: empowering parents to terminate their undesired damaged offspring. Singer is saluted, sometimes by those who find his views repellent, for what seems like his “refreshing” honesty. Yes, there is something bracing about his boldness—no one will accuse Peter Singer of spreading wordsmog. But what he’s spreading is moral smog: corruption. Peter Singer appears to be a genuinely affable man. But as I heard and watched him over two days, what he really seemed to be exuding was genuine evil—now, those are fair-minded words.
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Anne Conlon is the managing editor of the Human Life Review. A slightly different version of this commentary appeared in the October 31 issue of catholic eye, a monthly newsletter she also edits.