On the issues surrounding pro-life legislation, last year I wrote a series of posts on what I called “smashmouth incrementalism.” You can refresh your memory (if you like) here, here, here, here and, naturally, here.
The issue resurfaced in the last few weeks in various places, most notably through the firing of Kevin Williamson from The Atlantic. After he had been brought on board as the house conservative, some busy research bees, who didn’t like the idea of a house conservative, found that he had once sardonically suggested “hanging” for women who had had abortions.
What I would like to do here is make some scattered observations about the whole topic of pro-life legislation and penology. You could probably make the following paragraphs flow reasonably enough, although you might have to rearrange them a bit. Some may appear to be inconsistent with each other, but I think that if you read through the smashmouth posts (as I already hinted that you should), you should see how they all tie together. They do tie together, and are all coming from the same place. And they are all going to the same place, which is where human abortion is finally abolished.
So here they are, some scattered thoughts and observations:
The question about what to do with those who obtain or perform abortions is not a question created by some deeply conflicted theocratic impulses in the pro-life world. Rather, it is caused by the identification of abortion as murder—a commonplace in pro-life rhetoric. You can’t call it murder without at some point having some people wonder why it should not be treated as murder. So all Christians who are pro-life should be willing to avow that their ultimate political goal is to have all human life respected under law as human life. That is what we are about, that is why we are here. But there is still a distinction to be made between telos and tactics.
The fact that the question is a preeminently reasonable question to raise will not prevent some unreasonable people from being the first to raise it. We are not proposing sharia Christianity, although there are some sharia Christians out there.
Raising questions about what we ought to do when we have finally ushered in our ideal biblical republic five hundred years from now can be very helpful and clarifying. It helps us keep the telos clear. But what we ought to be doing then is not the same thing that we ought to be doing now, located as we are, here in this pagan and postmodern empire. The next thing for us is not the next thing for our great grand-descendants, and Jesus taught us that people building towers need to make sure that they have counted their bricks (Luke 14:28).
This question means that, in our legal system, we should be willing (in principle) to apply the categories of first degree murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless endangerment. But we should also be willing to acknowledge that there is an awful lot about conception and pregnancy that we do not yet know, and that our ignorance has direct relevance to our ability to render a right judgment in many of the circumstances. We know enough to know what deliberate killing is, but we don’t know very much at all about reckless endangerment.
Kermit Gosnell should be tried for first degree murder, yes. A mother who sins in a comparable way, also yes. But a mother with a tenuous understanding of biology who takes a morning after pill? If I think the law should prohibit this under the heading of involuntary manslaughter, does that make me a temporizer?
And a mother who leaves her toddler in a hot car certainly should face consequences—so what risky behaviors should a pregnant woman be required to avoid? Do we want the government making those determinations? They would be happy to, you know. If this is a straight across determination, haven’t we demanded that they intervene? Do we even know enough to say? Not yet we don’t.
But the kingdom of God does not arrive like the 82nd Airborne. The kingdom of God is leaven that works through the loaf. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that eventually grows to a large plant. The apostle Paul introduced absolutely no pro-life legislation. It was going to take many centuries for the Christian faith to grow actual legislatures. In the meantime, the Roman Empire had no shortage of human rights abuses that could technically have been addressed with judicious laws (e.g. outlawing slavery, infanticide, gladiatorial games, etc.), but Paul was playing the long game and did something else first. Now Paul occupied himself with missionary work and church planting either because he didn’t care about the social implications of the gospel, or because he was an incrementalist who understood what the preconditions for responsible social legislation were. I believe it was the latter.
Pro-life activists who understand the telos only will be tempted to fire before we see the whites of their eyes. Pro-life activists who understand the tactics only will be tempted to accommodate themselves to some compromised position that contradicts the central logic of the pro-life position. But firing on the enemy prematurely can be as counterproductive as refusing to fire on the enemy at all.
There was a principled way for Luther to oppose Karlstadt, not because he wanted idols to stay up, but rather because he wanted the Reformation to stay up. And when there was an iconoclastic riot at Perth, no less than John Knox faulted that “rascal multitude.” Sometimes demanding everything now is a good way of getting nothing ever.Sometimes demanding everything now is a good way of getting nothing ever.
But we have to acknowledge that at some point everyone has a point. Not everything that looks counterproductive is counterproductive. Not everything that looks prudent is prudent. In any pitched battle, at some point somebody has to be prepared to be unreasonable, and that brings with it the need to be willing to look unreasonable. The first man over the castle wall is obviously being unreasonable. If he wins the battle, we call it heroism. But there also have been plenty of rash warriors who lost great battles because they ran ahead. And there have been even more timid warriors who lost great battles because they lagged behind. One of the things that impressed me about the Kevin Williamson affair is how many establishment conservatives backed him after his comments were made public. The man is an obvious hardliner, but with the charisma and/or connections to maintain the respect of non-hardliners—despite the fact that the usual machinery of destruction was being applied to him. The thing can be done, in other words.
The fact that we are fighting for the unborn does not mean that we do not need to guard our own hearts. To return to the metaphor of the battlefield, not all heroics are actually heroic, or even useful. But not all chin-stroking back at central command is useful either. The battle for the unborn is currently being waged primarily on social media. After the battle is won there, it will move to the legislatures. With this being the case, we have guard against moves that might be clickbait savvy, but which will not actually save any lives. And we also have to guard against being media-duds who are incapable of inspiring anyone to do anything. There’s always something.