“If the legal pro-lifer really wants to reduce the number of abortions, he or she has no choice but to argue for why abortion is wrong, why a culture in which abortion is frowned upon is superior…”
At the upcoming March for Life planned for this coming Friday, pro-life/anti-abortion advocates will be marching across Washington, DC. Their mission is to: “end abortion—uniting, educating, and mobilizing, pro-life people in the public square.” The marchers are not only protesting the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion, but they are also fighting for a culture that regards abortion as immoral. But these two goals are perfectly separable, and sloppily confusing the two has prevented progress on the contentious issue of abortion.
The abortion discussion is mired by a conflation of two concepts: culture and government. The notion that these are distinct was more obvious in past eras. For example, under monarchy, it is quite apparent who are the rulers and who are the ruled. In a monarchic society, the set of values and ideas that people express (i.e. culture) often exists in stark contrast with the oppressive actions of the royal elite. For example, when monarchies went to war with each other, it was often understood that soldiers of one side should only wage violence against those of the other side—civilians were considered off-limits.
Democracy blurs the lines between ruler and ruled, between bottom-up culture and top-down control. Not only do the masses participate by way of voting, but anyone can in principle be elected to office. Language itself has morphed as monarchies gave way to democracies: one speaks of “we” when one is really talking about government officials. Do “we” go to war in the Middle East, or does one group of individuals make that decision and send young men and women to do their bidding? Do “we” raise taxes, or do a handful of people make that decision and impose it on the rest of us? The names of nations are a salient and egregious example. Much has been written recently about a trade war between the U.S. and China—but this is confusing the citizens living in each nation with their respective governments. While it may be the case that the people of each country do wish to wage economic warfare against each other, there is no reason for this to be the case in general, even while governments raise tariffs and the like.
Separating the culture of a people from the actions of its government is not merely an academic exercise. Precision in both thought and language can be enormously helpful in many cultural conversations. Consider the abortion debate. There are really two layers to this conversation—the cultural and the legal. To be “pro-life” could mean that you think merely that abortion is immoral—and that we should advocate for a culture that values the sanctity of a fetus and frowns upon abortion. This stance has nothing to do with government, nothing to do with imposing one’s worldview upon peaceful people. But “pro-life” could also mean wanting abortion to be illegal*. In our current governmental paradigm, we must be clear about what it means for something to be illegal—if you are found to have violated the law, men with guns may find you and throw you in a cage at gunpoint. They may fine you first, but the same logic applies, for behind the fine is still the threat of violence. If this sounds hyperbolic, I implore you to think through what may ultimately happen to you if you’re found with some illegal drug and refuse to cooperate with government agents.
For if a law is not backed by the threat of violence, it is not a law at all, but merely a toothless suggestion.
The difference between being merely culturally pro-life and being legally pro-life has enormous consequences, but these are brushed over in a hazy conflation of culture and government. Cultural pro-lifers might implore pregnant women to birth the child and give it away for adoption. They may shame their ideological opponents, calling them names and accusing them of moral inferiority. They may even ostracize those in their community who have had an abortion. But one action for which they are not advocating is throwing women who’ve had abortions in jail.
To advocate for laws against abortion, on the other hand, is to call for just that. Rarely are the dark consequences of outlawing something made explicit. The legal pro-lifers want to live in a society in which someone who’s had an abortion may be arrested and thrown in a metal cage against her will. Again, the typical protest here is that there are intermediary steps, such as fines or programs. But even these milder actions are backed by threat of force, of violence, of the inhumane confines of a prison cell. For if a law is not backed by the threat of violence, it is not a law at all, but merely a toothless suggestion.
Ask yourself, then: who are you willing to throw in a metal cage against their will? Someone who’s had a puff of marijuana? Seems a bit harsh. How about someone who pays his workers under the table? Is he really deserving of spending time in a cage, like an animal? And the woman who aborted a fetus—are you willing to force her into a metal prison for having done so?
Confusion between culture and government breeds another error: the false idea that if the government bans something, then the culture will follow suit. But again, legislation from a handful of individuals does not necessarily reflect the values and preferences of millions of individuals distributed across thousands of miles. Black markets emerge wherever free people desire a product or service the users of which are threatened with imprisonment by the government. Prostitution, paying below minimum wage, and hard drugs are currently illegal in the United States, yet they’re all easily discoverable between sea and shining sea.
The same applies to abortion. Politicians can legislate from on-high as many anti-abortion laws as they wish, but you cannot outlaw the ideas in people’s minds. Changing the values held by peoples requires a creative and peaceful exchange of ideas. The understandably impatient legal pro-lifer may respond that abortion is murder and should be outlawed immediately. But this misses the crucial point—that culture precedes laws. If the legal pro-lifer really wants to reduce the number of abortions, he or she has no choice but to argue for why abortion is wrong, why a culture in which abortion is frowned upon is superior, etc. So long as people recognize abortion as a viable option, they will continue to occur, laws be damned.
Conflating government and culture has stifled numerous arguments in the modern era. That individuals vigorously promote contrasting moral values and different ways of life is nearly always a good thing. For even if a proponent turns out to be wrong, we will have learned why and, thus, will gain a better understanding of our own values. In other words, so long as we keep “the culture war” to, well, the culture, we have a chance to improve our ideas indefinitely through the continuous exchange of positions and arguments. This possibility of peaceful improvement is cast to the wind as soon as the government intrudes on civil discourse. For then, the Socratic dialogue is replaced by a ruthless game of politicking. A violent, zero-sum contest tragically supplants the open-ended stream of progress.
Societal progress starts with the pursuit of better ideas, not better laws. It is always easier to imagine outlawing some behavior you despise, but we cannot legislate our way to a better world. The Socratic method, the peaceful exchange of ideas, is the only way for us to progress as a civilization. I hope that those attending the March for Life do not abandon peaceful advocacy on behalf of their values in exchange for the “simple solution” of government control.
*I’m ignoring the nuances of special cases, term limits, etc., because they don’t affect the crux of my argument.
Logan Chipkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and host of the Fallible Animals podcast. His writing focuses on science, philosophy, economics, and history. Follow him on Twitter @ChipkinLogan