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You Know What’s Murder? Politics Is Murder

The Texas Tribune / cc Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Kevin Drum asks a frequently-heard question:

Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores? . . .

If you look at actions, rather than words, it just doesn’t add up. Lots of people oppose abortion, but with very few exceptions, they very plainly don’t react to it the same way they react to a genuine murder. Their emotional response gives the game away, even if they’ve convinced themselves otherwise intellectually.

[Rep. Steve] DesJarlais [a pro-life politician who, it was recently revealed, encouraged his then-wife to have two abortions] is a good example. If he had encouraged the murder of two children—real murder, of kids who were a year or two old—he wouldn’t merely be having a tough primary. Regardless of whether he had managed to avoid conviction for his acts, he wouldn’t even be able to run for office, let alone be even odds to win. He’d be a pariah. That’s how people react to actual killing. But it’s not how they react to encouraging abortion.

I think there’s a real point here – but not the point that Drum thinks. It’s not that abortion opponents don’t really care about abortion as such, but only about sexual mores, but that political language is necessarily corrupt because its purpose is pornographic in the sense that it is intended to provoke action, not increase understanding.

So let’s be a bit more flexible in our language if we actually want to understand. “Murder” is categorically unjustified and deliberate homicide. But there are lots of other kinds of killing out there. There’s negligent homicide. There’s manslaughter. There’s justified killing – killing in self-defense, for example. There’s killing in war. Then there’s the killing of non-human animals – routine killing for food as well as the routine extermination of a variety of pests.

The shorthand way you say, “that kind of killing is just wrong” is to call it murder. As in “meat is murder” or “hey, hey, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today?” Or, for that matter, “abortion is murder.” Saying that doesn’t mean that you intend to treat everyone associated with the act as if they were literal murderers. It means you want to awaken people’s consciences to the fact that, if they really thought about the situation, they’d see that murder is not an inapt description. It means you want to change the world so that, one day, slaughtering a pig, or carpet-bombing a city, or having an abortion would be seen, socially, as an abominable act.

I know a man whose mother, when in the late stages of terminal cancer, wanted to commit suicide, and enlisted his aid to achieve her goal. Which he gave her. His actions were illegal in the jurisdiction in which they were committed. He’s clearly, at a minimum, an accessory to a killing; depending on what he did (I declined to learn the details), you might argue that he’s guilty of murder – under existing law, not some hypothetical future law. Am I obliged either to conclude that I have no problem whatsoever with assisted suicide, and be an advocate for changing the law, or to treat him as I would treat O.J. Simpson? Why? Who made that rule, and whose authority compels me to follow it?

Do some animal welfare advocates really believe that killing animals for food is murder? Maybe not – but clearly some of them really do believe that killing animals for food is profoundly unjustified killing, and that the conditions under which animals are killed in modern industrial agriculture are especially evil. That doesn’t make them hypocrites if they stay friends with meat-eaters.

Do some opponents of American foreign policy really believe that the Iraq War amounted to the “murder” of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians? Maybe not – but clearly many of them really do believe that the war was profoundly unjustified, that those deaths should be on the conscience of every American, and that we must radically change our ways and make national amends for committing a heinous crime. That doesn’t make them hypocrites if they debate on civil terms with people who see things much more hawkishly.

Do some opponents of abortion really believe that it is murder, as in, no different from breaking into your neighbor’s house and taking an axe to her children? I doubt it. But clearly some of them really do believe that abortion is profoundly unjustified killing – heck, plenty of people who are pro-choice have moral qualms about abortion, at least in some circumstances, qualms that have nothing to do with panic about women having too much sex and everything to do with worries about encouraging a cavalier attitude toward nascent life. And they aren’t hypocrites if they stay on good terms with people who have had abortions, or encouraged their partners to do so.

Of course, if they have no reaction at all, are completely unfazed by the revelation that somebody who they thought of as being profoundly opposed to abortion turns out to have gotten multiple women pregnant and then encouraged them to abort, well, that would say something. But there’s a whole spectrum of plausible reactions that are consistent even with believing that abortion is categorically wrong – in and of itself, and not as a proxy for disapproval of the behavior that led to pregnancy.

To me, the story about Rep. DesJarlais (assuming the summary above is accurate – I know nothing about him) says little about the sincerity of the beliefs of those who oppose abortion. It says a great deal, though, about the corrupting effects of partisan politics on moral crusades, something I’ve harped on before in this space. I really, really do believe that the more seriously you take the proposition that abortion is categorically immoral, the more morally imperative it is for you not to hitch your wagon to the star of either political party. Nothing is more corrupting of the anti-abortion cause than its subsumption into a culture war that is fundamentally – fundamentally – about making it easier for politicians to get re-elected.

I recognize that, as someone who does not vote pro-life, that position may sound self-serving. But I assure you: though I may be wrong, it’s what I actually do believe.


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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