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Every Sparrow’s Fall

Here’s a piece of unsolicited advice for pro-life candidates who want to make the case for banning all abortions, without making exceptions for rape and incest: stop talking about the beautiful gift of life.

If you believe that life begins at conception, and that every life deserves a chance to live, and that therefore all abortion is murder, then it is entirely logical that there should be no exceptions to abolition. I don’t quibble with that logic.

But a “gift” is something given to someone. It’s not a fact; it’s a subjective relationship to a fact. So who is supposed to be the recipient of the “gift” of life in a case of rape or incest?

It’s not the baby. In the absence of said baby, there’s no prior entity to receive the gift of life. The baby itself is the life. Logically, then, the baby itself is the gift. Which means the recipient is either the woman, or creation at large.

That’s certainly the way it sounds when people say this, and that’s the reason this formulation sounds horrible to people not committed ideologically to the pro-life position. It makes the baby sound like a “silver lining” that makes the rape not so bad – like evidence that God’s providence was working behind even the most horrible scenes. Which isn’t remotely the way most women would perceive it.

Some might, of course. But those women, women capable of feeling love toward the product of violence upon their person, have achieved a kind of saintliness. And saintliness is, I think, to much to expect of ordinary mortals, and certainly too much for the legislature to demand.

And the position is a theological dodge anyway. God is the author of everything, or He is the author of nothing. If He is responsible for the baby, then He is responsible for the rape. Or, to put it somewhat differently, if you’re supposed to find a way to God through trauma, that way can’t be limited to finding some objectively “good” thing that God must have intended to come of it. Every moment of life, whatever happens in that moment, is a “precious gift” – if you take the idea of a “gift of life” seriously. And if God really is in any meaningful sense attentive to every sparrow’s fall, then He is addressing that sparrow’s subjective perspective; and if you’re going to present yourself as the voice of God on the subject it really behooves you to try your best to do the same.

I don’t know the best way to defend the absolutist pro-life position, but I think it has to start with an acknowledgment that hating the baby that is the product of violence, and hating the burden of carrying that baby, is an entirely normal and human reaction. That the burden of carrying this hated life is, from a human perspective, a cosmic injustice that compounds the original injustice of the rape. That burden may still be unavoidable, ethically – may be your “cross to bear” from a Christian perspective, or the “passion” that you have to transcend to see the right from a Stoical perspective, or whatever. But at least starting there means acknowledging and trying to identify with the rape victim’s perspective on the situation, rather than, as is usually the case, identifying exclusively with the baby, and consequently obliterating the woman from view.

After all, think about what the absolutist perspective on this situation demands. A woman has been violated, in a way that radically calls into question her physical autonomy. Now, she’s in a situation where she’s carrying a hated child, and she wants to prove her physical autonomy by getting rid of it. And you say: no. Even now, after what you’ve gone through, you have to embrace your own powerlessness, and accept the gifts that God has bestowed upon the world through you with good grace. That’s tough stuff. Tougher, I venture, than anything most of the men who make this kind of argument could handle.

I’m not arguing that this is an abhorrent position to take. It’s positively Tolstoyan in its moral radicalism, but that’s precisely why it deserves respect. I’m just arguing that anyone who takes this position should recognize, explicitly, what is being asked of a woman in that situation. From her perspective, more likely than not, the baby doesn’t make it better. The baby makes it worse. Recognizing that is the least a man can do if he’s going to argue the absolutist case with any credibility.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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