In principle, I am a seamless garment Catholic who takes all the issues impacting human life to be interconnected. For example, opposing abortion and being indifferent to the needs of the mother and baby after birth are inconsistent. One of the reasons the pro-life movement has been gaining ground lately, I think, is that it more and more takes the issue of helping the pregnant woman and her baby seriously and puts this right up front.
The “throwaway culture” that Pope Francis speaks of brings out the connection between all the pieces of the garment: physician assisted suicide, environmental degradation, capital punishment, unaffordable medical care and inadequate education for the poor all spring from a common root. Use and discard. Exclude those who challenge our comfortable lives. An attitude of inclusiveness and hospitality toward the helpless, needy and vulnerable bears fruit in a variety of contexts.
Some people object that I am being a single-issue voter. I would say, rather, that the issue I am most invested in is abortion. In part this is because I am a woman, and it hits me where I live, as it were. There were times in my life when I might have been pressured into having an abortion. But the violent invasion of the womb and destruction of a beautiful, fragile, dynamic human being as it develops is particularly horrifying to me. I realize that a philosopher should be able to come up with a better argument for her vote than “x gives me the horrors!” and I am not sure I have an adequate answer; but I offer some reflections below for consideration.
Obviously, no one person can be an expert in all the sorts of issues we face. Recently I attended a workshop on how to counter the growing threat of assisted suicide legislation in Rhode Island, but I hesitated to follow through with giving talks because I did not feel confident about all the relevant facts and arguments.
On the other hand, I spent several years researching abortion in the course of co-authoring, with Phil Devine, a contribution (“Abortion: A Prolife Communitarian Perspective”) to Michael Tooley's book, Abortion: Three Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2009). I therefore have many supporting reasons for my position and answers to opponents all worked out.
I also wrote a book on preferential policies in faculty appointments, so this is ground I am familiar with. But as for climate, fiscal policy, tariff policies, health insurance, taxation policies and so on I am on shakier ground. At the polls, I am unlikely to find a candidate whose views mirror mine at all points. Even those who agree with me may prioritize the issues differently.
I know one environmentalist who was driven to the brink of suicide because he thinks Trump’s environmental policies will destroy the environment, and would be ready to try him as a criminal before some sort of international tribunal. Anyone who is not totally on board with his views is, he believes, in denial; and he uses the issue as a kind of litmus test for everything.
Another friend founded the North America Congress on Latin America and worked all his life with Latin Americans. This has rendered him particularly aware of the plight of refugees who are fleeing social chaos and mob violence in search of a better life for their children. Thus, the way the current administration has been treating would-be immigrants is uppermost in his mind when he goes to the polls.
One way that people handle the unmanageable complexity of the policy issues we face as a nation, is to pick someone who speaks the truth strongly on the issue closest to their heart and then blend in with the other issues that that person or group supports. Thus, many Democrats, driven into the arms of the Republicans by the way the party has been pushing pro-choice policies, have drifted into holding other beliefs characteristic of Republicans. I persist in being something of a maverick and not joining any herd, but this is hard to maintain politically.
I can think of several reasons for giving priority to abortion. First, although refugees may suffer pain and humiliation, they are not usually directly killed. I don't believe that anyone sits on top of Trump’s wall and shoots them down as they approach, as in the case of the Berlin wall, for example. They may go on to live reasonably comfortable lives after this trauma. But abortion completely deprives the unborn person of “a future like ours” (to use Don Marquis’s phrase) by killing them. Victims of abortion now number 50 million since 1973.
Abortion also involves a woman having her own baby destroyed and this cannot but have bad consequences for her emotional, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. The Greeks believed in gods called “the furies”, conceived of as old women who relentlessly pursued and destroyed those who had shed the blood of a family member (as Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra). Since the unborn child is a son or daughter, it is not surprising that one woman who had had multiple abortions reported she was having nightmares of being pursued by “baby furies.”
So many others are affected by the abortion – the father, the grandparents who are deprived of a grandchild, friends and extended family. Our capacity to engage in moral reasoning publicly is diminished. Many of us know someone who has had an abortion, and people don’t want to hurt others’ feelings. In America before the Civil War, anti-slavery people often had friends, neighbours, and family members who owned slaves, or even engaged in the slave trade.
Obviously, there has to be some weighing and balancing in decisions. How certain is the pro-life candidate to actually come through and put his money where his mouth is? Trump gets an “A” on this, while previous Republicans took votes and often did very little. Then, how serious are their flaws in other areas and how certain are they to do these things? Nazis were pro-life for Aryan babies but not for Jews.
The voter’s perception of how likely certain policies are to lead to ecological apocalypse is, of course, relevant to how much weight he or she attaches to a candidate’s ecological position. Abortion, however, is a litmus test in that a person who simply refuses to see that there is a moral issue about abortion, or even thinks it a positive good, immediately loses my vote.