Abortion and the Clash of Moral Visions
In Tearing Us Apart, Ryan Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis put forward a compelling response to the claims of the pro-choice movement.
Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing, by Ryan Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis, (Regnery Publishing: June 2022), 256 pages.
Almost ten years ago, Ryan Anderson, then a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, appeared on Piers Morgan’s CNN show to debate gay marriage. The appearance was memorable, both for the bizarre seating arrangement—Anderson was inexplicably seated in the audience, while Morgan and pro-gay-marriage interlocutor Suze Orman were seated on-set—and for the poise with which Anderson handled the hostile occasion. Anderson politely and succinctly laid out the argument against redefining marriage from the bench. For those who had read Anderson’s previous work defending marriage, the viral video came as no surprise. Anderson’s reasoning in defense of the conservative position on hot-button social issues is superb.
It didn’t matter. The Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in the Windsor case three months later, and redefined marriage with its sweeping ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges two years after that. Just last month, even a sizable number of Republicans joined with Democrats to advance a radical redefinition of marriage that was alien to human civilization before the 21st century. It’s safe to say Anderson’s argument wasn’t as consequential as it should have been.
But now, on the heels of a very different Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Anderson has written another tightly argued book on a contentious topic: abortion. Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing, co-authored with National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis, enters a political moment quite different from the one that received previous works on gay marriage and transgenderism. American attitudes toward abortion are complex, but sizable pluralities want some restrictions on abortion access. With Roe now gone, the legal protection of unborn Americans hinges on the votes of the citizens in their respective states. So swaying more votes to the pro-life side becomes an urgent task.
Such is the task of Tearing Us Apart. “This book is meant to equip readers to defend life,” the authors write in the introduction. To do so, Anderson and DeSanctis embark on an ambitious tour of the different facets of our public life that are harmed by abortion. The book gets stronger as it goes on. In Chapter 1, “Abortion Harms the Unborn Child,” Anderson and DeSanctis ably refute the standard pro-abortion arguments for denying fetal personhood. It is a necessary statement to open the book, but not one that breaks new ground for the pro-life movement.
By Chapter Five, Anderson and DeSanctis point where the pro-life movement may go post-Roe. The authors extend abortion’s harm beyond the principal players in the termination—the unborn, women, abortionists—and to its sociopolitical implications. First is a compelling look at how abortion has distorted the rule of law:
Most objectionable is that the Court took abortion from the democratic process in order to decide the issue the wrong way; if the Constitution can be read to apply to the question of abortion at all, it is in the sense that abortion is an unconstitutional denial of due process and equal protection of the laws to the unborn.
The passing reference to the “14th Amendment argument" that would declare abortion unconstitutional illustrates how uneasy the post-Dobbs settlement on abortion could be. Anderson and DeSanctis are right that abortion has had a profound impact on foundational elements of common life like our judicial system, media, and culture. This impact shows just how integral terminating pregnancy is to the moral vision of the country’s ruling class. And it’s here that there’s cause for pessimism that the arguments of Tearing Us Apart can prevail on the issue.
The abortion debate engenders so much passion on both sides because it is the clearest manifestation of two irreconcilably competing moral visions tugging at our body politic. As Anderson and DeSanctis write in their introduction, “Pro-lifers insist that every human being has intrinsic worth and value.” This is the heart of the classical, Christian moral vision: man is created in the image and likeness of God, and derives his dignity, rights, and obligations therefrom. We are therefore all equal in our human dignity (which, importantly, is not equivalent to sameness in outcome or social role). One need not be a devout Christian to ascribe to this moral vision.
The pro-abortion position, meanwhile, is built on the edifice of a very different moral vision. Here, autonomy and choice are the determinants of moral value. That which is freely chosen is good; man derives his moral agency, and therefore his dignity, from his capacity to exercise autonomy. That which is given, whether through tradition or nature, is suspect and subject to the will. Therefore, the moral agency of the woman (or of the woman who chooses to identify as a man) necessarily trumps any claims the embryonic baby may have, and abortion becomes an essential guarantor of her continued autonomy.
In this framework, one can see how abortion is both the ultimate affront to the classical moral vision, and the ultimate bedrock of the progressive vision. There is no more innocent person than the baby in the womb, and therefore no more heinous attack on human dignity than that baby’s murder. On the other hand, there is no clearer impediment to autonomy than the obligation to live with the natural consequences of promiscuous choices and to care for an unwanted child, and therefore no more essential right to protect than the right to abort that child when needed.
At times, Tearing Us Apart can appear to make concessions to the progressive moral vision. This is understandable, considering it’s those on the pro-abortion side who will need to be persuaded in a post-Dobbs world. It remains to be seen whether this will successfully sway the unconvinced.
Take, for example, Chapter Three, “Abortion Harms Equality and Choice.” Anderson and DeSanctis illustrate how "pro-choice" is a misnomer by arguing that the hatred of pregnancy resource centers from abortion activists “can be explained only by the reality that they are pro-abortion, not pro-choice.” It’s certainly true that the abortion industry seeks to discourage women in crisis pregnancies from making any choice besides abortion. But it’s at least equally true that pro-lifers discourage women from choosing abortion. Indeed, the authors concede that pro-life pregnancy resource centers are honest about the fact that they will never help facilitate abortion. But this shows that in some cases, “choice” should be “harmed”. For the classical moral vision, what matters is whether that which is chosen is good, not that it is chosen.
Similarly, Chapter Two sees Anderson and DeSanctis argue that abortion harms women. The authors attempt to separate the feminist movement’s push for expanded social roles for women, which they celebrate, from access to legal abortion, which they condemn:
Rather than climbing the social ladder and witnessing the gains promised by pro-abortion women’s-rights activists, women are more embittered than they were decades ago. To be sure, there have been some notable positive changes—such as women being able to work outside the home, have greater employment flexibility, and have more help at home from their husbands—but none of these are thanks to legal abortion.
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The scores of Fortune 500 companies lining up to pay for their employees to travel across state lines to abort their children in the wake of Dobbs would seem to say otherwise. To women’s employers, at least, female career advancement is inextricably tied to abortion access.
But this is all reason for caution, not criticism. Tearing Us Apart is precisely the book for the post-Dobbs moment. Dobbs simply allowed abortion politics to begin. We have a small window in which to persuade our fellow citizens, most of whom operate under the progressive moral vision that prizes autonomy and choice as ultimate, that abortion is an abomination. If Tearing Us Apart can play even a small part in this task, and move these fellow citizens closer to the classical moral vision shared by its authors, it’s an immensely valuable work.
Let’s just hope any victories won’t be pyrrhic. If we are to avoid future Obergefells, sweeping legal rebuttals of hard-earned social conservative gains through the democratic process, we’ll need more than reasoned debate on CNN. Sooner or later, we may well need to take on the country’s prevailing moral vision and return to one that derives from God.