The Abortion Mentality and the Spirit of the Times
(For an unpublished work on abortion of 1984)
Perhaps one of the most interesting concepts which has ever been elaborated by students of the philosophy of history has been that of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. This suggests that any given age is directed, to an overwhelming degree, by one complex of interrelated presuppositions and goals. The era in question breathes, eats, and drinks these axioms and aims with such regularity, it incorporates them with such docility and ease, that it may lose its ability rationally to scrutinize them. Indeed, the very possibility of doubt, or even conscious identification of the zeitgeist is, for many, inconceivable. Buried under the ponderous weight of daily existence, its precepts are unperceived, its guidance unacknowledged. While the hidden errors of the spirit of another time may accurately be pinpointed, and often condescendingly caricatured, the most superficial mistakes and blatant contradictions of the current zeitgeist are entertained without the slightest awareness of having ventured onto exceedingly thin ice.
Most causes in each age are, in large measure, prisoners of the zeitgeist. Their imprisonment is simultaneously both their strength and their weakness. It is their strength because it makes the task of promoting their position an extremely simple one. A mere reiteration of the principles basic to the spirit of the times is sufficient to make causes appear to be rooted in reason, common sense, and justice; they are but singing the background music of the age, familiar to everyone from a thousand other tunes.
Yet the imprisonment of a cause by the zeitgeist is also its weakness, since the victory that it temporarily ensures is a Pyrrhic one, achieved at the cost of intellectual self-deception. Objections of real substance, founded upon criticism of the validity of the precepts of the age itself are ridiculed and silenced. The true measure of the cause is not taken. A serious thinker would be able to dash down the intellectual house of cards constructed to support it without much difficulty at all—if, that is to say, he could but get a proper hearing. Confidence won by riding upon the prestige of the zeitgeist is warranted not by the inherent strength of the cause in question, but chiefly due to the power of inertia, of indoctrination, and the lack of critical ability.
The cause of abortion in contemporary America is heavily indebted to the spirit of our times. Its indebtedness might be demonstrated in any number of ways. I will limit myself in this essay to the identification of two principles dear to the current age which are called upon repeatedly by supporters of abortion in order to provide what is for them conclusive proof of the justice of their position: respect for human freedom and love of democracy. I will also draw attention to a third axiom used to parry objections to the value of the conclusive case that is thereby made: the uselessness of history as any guide to human action.
Praise of freedom, understood in an atomistic or individual sense as the absence of authoritative restrictions upon the behavior of the autonomous individual, has played a role of increasing importance in western society since the time of the Renaissance. Generation after generation, especially in the last two hundred years, has applauded the lessening controls of one kind or another as a sign of increasing freedom. The power of the Church, the State, intermediary corporate bodies, the family, and even the fixed standards of the intellectual and literary world have all been assaulted in the name of freedom. It is a natural progression, therefore, for the pro-abortionist to call upon the goodness of freedom as protector in his own cause. He appeals to fellow freedom fighters to help him in the heroic task of breaking down yet another barrier to the full exercise of individual liberty. Woe to those who stand in defense of anyone prohibiting the right to abort! They allign themselves with the enemies of the human person, shore up the power of the taskmaster, fill the cup of misery, and condemn the world to continued slavery. Abortion, like so many causes before it, is forced into a familiar mold, one that divides men into the proponents and opponents of the free society.
Similarly, the zeitgeist hymns the glories of democracy. Societies that base their actions upon the desires of The People are understood today to be the only entities upon which legitimacy has been conferred. This development, it is argued, has been a blessing for humankind, since Reason, Philosophy, Law, Science, and Justice flourish only within the democratic universe. Outside of its boundaries, there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth. Irrationality, philistinism, and self-interested elites direct the non-democratic cosmos. Moreover, the confusion reigning therein threatens its imminent collapse. Outraged populations, it is intimated, stunned by their powerlessness, will vent their righteous indignation in outbursts of disorder destructive to the survival of the community as a whole.
The proponent of abortion, born and bred with democratic lullabies wafting continuously in his ear, undertakes a demonstration of the popularity of his cause in order to render it impregnable. Public opinion polls, testimonies of the average anguished housewife, depositions of the poverty-stricken, governmental and foundation-sponsored statistics: all are called into the arena to reveal just how democratic his argument is. Once the popular character of the pro-abortion movement has been identified, it is assumed that only the fanatical could possibly remain on the offensive against it. Civil peace, reason, good taste, and fair play all dictate that opposition cease and desist immediately.
Once more, an almost irresistible strength flows from this two-fold linkage with the spirit of the times. The average American is not aware of the fact that the atomistic definition of human freedom is by no means uncontested. He is ignorant of the existence of other conceptions of individual liberty which, nevertheless, predominated in the West until fairly recently. If someone were to define freedom as “living in accord with the purpose of being a human being”, and thereby “fulfilling the duties entailed by the determined goal, avoiding all behavior preventing its attainment”, he would probably be thoroughly baffled. If, in the light of this definition, an opponent of abortion were to explain to him that the enemy of authoritative restrictions upon individual action could, at times, be the true obstacle to full liberty, his argument might in all likelihood, be dismissed as being incoherent. The populace will generally be unreceptive to the point that the question of who is on the side of freedom is really secondary to the problem of determining just exactly what freedom means; that until this is settled, nothing is resolved other than proving that it is easy to win a game when one has created the rules to his own advantage. Freedom, in the pro-abortionist sense, is understood by all, since it is proclaimed by the zeitgeist. Freedom requires the right to abort. Be a man, then, thou opponent of abortion, abandon you twisted efforts to reeducate the population, admit that you are what your enemies call you, an unregenerate tyrant, and cede your ground gracefully. Thus speaks the wisdom of the age.
Again, the average American is not prepared to deal with any argument that delivers the slightest blow to the sacrosanct status of the democratic ideal. If the proponent of abortion succeeds in demonstrating that popular feeling is indeed on his side, many, in the United States at least, will be convinced that he has automatically won his case. Few dare to argue that popular will, in a myriad of fields, may be totally extrinsic to the real issue which is involved: the validity of that which is popularly encouraged. It is rare to hear reference made to the errors which might arise through exaggerated adulation of democracy, and see such references then connected with a warning against too eager of a reliance upon this kind of pathfinder. How would an audience in the United States react, should an historian call attention to the numerous thinkers, crucial to the development of the West, who have seen in uncontrolled democracy not simply an opponent to civilization, not merely a corroding element politically, but even a danger for determining the real character of popular will on those topics where, by everyone’s admission, it ought sensibly to be consulted? The zeitgeist makes such attitudes appear to be unreal. They remain unheard, even when spoken.
Nevertheless, as indicated above, the strength of a position rooted in the zeitgeist can hide intellectual weaknesses of the most serious character. This is certainly true in the present case. Even a superficial glance at the historical consequences and potential future consequences of atomistic freedom and exaggerated democratic thinking demonstrates that they lead to a number of conclusions which the pro-abortionist himself might wish to reject. The only way that these conclusions can effectively be avoided, however, at least if intellectually unsound arguments are to be rejected, is by an abandonment of reliance upon the spirit of the times that gave them birth.
Let us begin with the question of atomistic freedom. One would think that it would be painfully obvious that this concept guides its devotees down all manner of unwished for pathways. Yesterday, it may have innocently argued against the state censorship of opinion; today it can be used to justify abortion; tomorrow it could be called upon to give legitimacy to anything from rape to imposed euthanasia for the elderly.
Needless to say, the defender of abortion who is attached to the spirit of the times will ridicule this fear. It is one thing, he will say, to try to achieve full responsible control over one’s own actions. It is quite another to invade a second individual’s personal sphere. When leaping from abortion to rape, he would argue, one has made an unjustified, qualitative progression from an action involving a single individual to one that concerns other persons. A society dependent upon atomistic freedom would not permit it.
Yet the actual historical development of atomistic freedom has shown that it continually makes just such “unjustified” leaps. Eighteenth and early nineteenth century advocates of the rights of the autonomous human individual laughed away the arguments of those who claimed that they were setting the stage for the promotion of causes like abortion. Their assumption was that the autonomous atom would act in the future according to the same precepts upon which he had acted in the past, when this brand of freedom was reproved. Formed, both consciously and unconsciously, by the Christian spirit, they took it for granted that the fetus was itself a person, and, hence, that no rational being would so exercise his freedom as to define it out of existence. Anyone who argued the opposite was accused of simply choosing insane examples in order to discredit the cause of freedom.
Nothing will prevent a similar change from taking place in the future, so long as the desires of the individual are held to be of primary importance in life. The fact that most Americans have today been formed by the view that other individuals are still persons to be treated with respect, and would not dream of treading upon the atomistic freedom of others, does not mean that all feel themselves to be bound by this prohibition. Indeed, the twentieth century has already witnessed the attempt to define the personhood of whole populations out of existence, both on racial as well as class and general ideological grounds. In our country and others, we are currently witnessing anarchistic innovations by youth, the carriers of future beliefs and values, who engage in nihilistic fantasies and whose goals seem to be to denigrate not only the value of others, but of themselves as well. Nothing whatsoever is sacred in the modern zeitgeist except for the I, and the realization that two “I’s” may clash seems to have done little to make the world rethink its commitment to the spirit of the times.
The democratic ideal is an unenviable ally as well. Historically, there have only been two major reasons for insisting that public opinion can be used as a definitive (as opposed to practical) guideline for action on important moral issues. On the one hand, this demand has been due to the belief that there is no such thing as truth, or, perhaps, that the community owes no commitment to it. Reliance on the power of number is nothing other than an appeal to force in the absence of ascertainable reason. Certainly, it was Athenian democracy’s apparently ruleless nature and aimless course that won for it the reprobation of Socrates and Plato, giving it the reputation of something from which the intelligent man must flee in horror. If this be the foundation of the pro-abortionist’s appeal to democracy, then it should be made clear that he thinks the we are living in a universe that is totally lawless. And in that case, why limit atomistic freedom to actions that concern only oneself? Why not tred on the “rights” of others?
Some have maintained admiration for democracy, when applied to moral questions, on the other hand, because they believe the voice of the people to be the voice of God. Perhaps this is the pro-abortionist’s view. If it is, however, he must be prepared to admit the divine quality of many different steps taken by The People over the course of western history. He must nod his head in approval of the Athenian ecclesia’s notorious exile of honest men for paltry and unjust causes. High praise must be showered upon popular outbursts of religious fanaticism during the Middle Ages, some of which had to be restrained, at the expenditure of much prestige, by the undemocratic Church and State. The general nineteenth century appreciation of European racial superiority ought to be greeted with hushed awe. Indeed, even the anti-abortionist position, in those areas where the population approves of it, should be welcomed with complete satisfaction.
This leads to recognition of yet another weakness. Simultaneous appeals to the demands of atomistic freedom and the verdict of democratically expressed opinion are intellectually untenable. The spirit of modern times, born in the Renaissance, managed to unite the two only accidentally, maintaining this sleight-of-hand only so long as the moral vision of the past was taken for granted. As soon as the common spiritual capital of previous centuries was exhausted, and disagreement over crucial issues re-entered western life on a major scale, the possibility of a conflict between atomistic freedom and the democratic will of the community became manifestly real. Part of the intellectual, political, and social problem of the past two hundred years has been the expansion of this quarrel between the two components of the spirit of the times into a battle of Titans.
Testimony to the unwillingness of modern man to give up either of these axioms is provided by the behavior of seemingly endless numbers of movements since the late eighteenth century. Freedom fighters interpret the appearance of opposition from the community-at-large to their demands as being a sign of the continued control of real democratic opinion by a conspiracy of evil forces. Hence, the proponent of liberty argues that his apparently rejected cause is nevertheless still the truly democratic one; it expresses what the will of the people really would be, were it not temporarily duped by its enemies.
The abortion movement, just as previous movements that were tied to both of these modern principles, also succumbs to what is in effect an ideological trick. Thus, it assumes that the voice of the people, when turned against it, demonstrates the momentary control of anti-democratic bodies like the Church, or perhaps some difficult to identify mass psychological imbalance. These anti-democratic influences must be opposed in the name of a future liberated or healed population. Where the abortion movement wins, however, even should the victory be achieved by court action, the democratic verdict is assumed to be certain and irrevocable.
Just when the anti-abortionist thinks that he has at least intellectually weakened the enemy’s cause, however, the zeitgeist offers his opponent a final and seemingly unanswerable argument: the invalidity of historical example. The modern age, it is contended, an age which, more and more, appears to have begun in the 1960’s, is ground-breaking, awe-inspiring, unique. Hence, no past rules and no time-honored evidence need guide, frighten, or even temporarily restrain it. One can blithely dismiss principles of contradiction and the most apt of analogies from history. All teachers of history in contemporary America are exposed to this attitude at one time or another. So potent a weapon is it that it frees the proponent of any modern cause from having to square off against what Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times might have called the school of hard fact.
This dismissal of history, especially when combined with an ignorance of the fact that the pro-abortion position is built upon unproved suppositions, creates intolerable conditions for debating the issue at hand. An example may be given in a radio debate that was broadcast several years ago. The program in question pitted speakers on both sides of the abortion controversy against one another under the watchful eye of a neutral moderator. This moderator saw nothing objectionable when the pro-abortion speaker began discussing the battle as though it were between a consideration for a life (that of the mother) and concern for a fetus. Such language, obviously, assumed what was yet to be proved: the idea that everyone agreed that life was not at stake in the case of the unborn child. The controversial statement was allowed to slip by without the slightest murmur.
Trouble, on the other hand, was lying in wait for the anti-abortionist. He drew attention to the fact that the Nazi regime in Germany had justified the practice of abortion with what amounted to a fundamentally similar rationale as that of abortion’s present-day supporters. Hence, the concept of a person was redefined: the unwanted (racially or genetically) were charitably excluded from a world that would not love or care for them, and the rights of the nation to dispose of its own body politic were asserted. His point was the crucial one which demonstrated the potentially monstrous paths down which the abortion argument not only could but already has proceeded. Yet the moderator cut this man off by simple fiat. Why? Because, he explained, the anti-abortionist was using offensive examples, giving the listener the “unwarrranted” impression that contemporary abortion could be equated with abortion under Hitler. This could not be true, since times had changed, the Nazis were nasty people, and supporters of abortion were not Nazis. In other words, historical evidence was not permitted to demonstrate that which was true, but which one did not wish to be true.
It is no wonder that arguments drawing some of their strength from an appeal to history are disdained by those who worship at the temple of the modern zeitgeist. Too careful an examination of history, too vivid a reminder of that which has transpired in the western past, cannot help but give one pause for reflection. Is the modern world so unique when the Emperor Augustus found himself attempting to control a Roman abortion problem which was seemingly engendered by the same desire to avoid long-term, unwanted commitments that tempts contemporary man? Can one be blithe about a cause based upon a definition of freedom and an uncritical adulation of democracy that appear to have provided passports for many unwelcome intellectual guests in the past? Should it not, rather, be the case that other grounds for possibly permitting abortion be given greater study than those outlined above?
The purpose of other articles in this book of essays will be to deal with just such different arguments. One is justified in hazarding a guess that the weaknesses which my colleagues will discover in the pro-abortion position in their fields will, in some measure, bear a relation to the problem of the zeitgeist. The evidence—philosophically, biologically, politically, etc.—that the proponent of abortion chooses, and that which he excludes, is all too often yet another index of the prejudices dictated by a spirit of the times which he does not understand to be capable of error. If the opponents of abortion could only free themselves from enthrallment to the same zeitgeist—and, alas, too many try to fight upon the very terrain that is already occupied by hostile forces, expending energy proving such secondary points as the popularity of their cause—they would find the enemy’s Achilles heel always to be the same. He takes too much for granted from what has been assumed to be true by a small part of the world in a very limited space of time, and that with insufficient proof. It is the climate around the pro-abortionist which is the culprit, and it is thus the climate from which his view springs that he must continuously be taken to task.
Perhaps, however, the proponent of abortion may be able to turn my argument against me. Ultimately, western civilization, even in its distorted modern form, has been guided by a respect for life which, during the course of 1900 years, has entered into its general spirit. This respect for life, especially weak and helpless life, has also been accepted unthinkingly by the bulk of the population, regardless of whether or not it is valid. Everywhere that life has been at question, western man has hesitated, intellectually, to justify bringing it to an end. His interest in medicine, in other sciences, and, indeed, in freedom and the question of democracy, has reached its fever pitch because of his conviction that each and every life is good, valuable, and meaningful. In wishing to permit the destruction of the fetus in the presence of what the pro-abortionist must admit to be considerable opposition, both in intellectual as well as numerical terms, he is urging a reversal of the whole thrust of western practice. He is, as William Marshner of Christendom College has argued, requesting demolition of a building before being absolutely certain that all the living beings have been safely evacuated. Should I object, on the grounds of western man’s long-term granting of the benefit of the doubt to life, he may legitimately ask me: “and why is life so sacred?” If the ultimate answer to this question is clarification, once more, of the importance of convictions which entered into the spirit of Christendom many centuries ago, then, possibly, those who have, in complete innocence, been put to death, will not have died in vain.
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