MSW on the Left and Abortion
Recently I wrote a critique of the Pro-Life movement, suggesting that it was in the grips of a totalizing ideology. Several commentators responded by arguing that this sort of attack was a reflection of partisanship, that it did nothing for the Pro-Life movement, and that I was turning a blind-eye to similar faults among progressive Catholics. This was not my intent, but I think these were substantive comments and worthy of further consideration. What kinds of criticism of the Pro-Life movement are acceptable and which are not? Must every criticism be accompanied by a moment of breast beating, so as to forestall suggestions that we are ignoring the Gospel injunction “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3).
Shortly after this I published this post I stumbled on an NCR column by Michael Sean Winters from December that encapsulates these questions quite clearly. He uses the statement by Bishop Tobin criticizing the late Nelson Mandela for his stance on abortion—a statement that many people found discordant given the near universal encomiums given after his death—to both criticize the Pro-Life movement and to reflect on the failure of the Catholic Left (MSW’s terminology) to grapple with abortion. His takes his fellow progressives to task, and it is worth quoting him at length:
[W]e mostly talk about other things and, when the issue of abortion is unavoidable, we make excuses for the pro-choice stance of those allied with us on other issues, or we shrug, or we rail against the bishops for the failure to protect born children from rape, in any event, we denude the issue. This must stop….The Catholic Left must re-engage the issue of abortion with all the seriousness it deserves….It is difficult. Let’s be honest. We don’t want to alienate our friends and, in certain social circles, abortion is not something anyone wants to discuss. Nor is it always appropriate to bring it up as, for example, when a deeply loved person has just died. But, do we on the Catholic Left look for opportunities to raise the issue, sympathetically and seriously, or do we look for strategies to avoid it?
So far, so good: these are points more conservative Catholics routinely make against progressives. I agree with him and perhaps I should be stronger in making these points myself. Unfortunately, to set the ground for his critique he frames the issue in an “Us versus Them” way which blunts his remarks. He begins with this transition:
Most disturbingly, however, Bishop Tobin’s comments harm the pro-life movement because they make that cause appear to be the sole provenance of wingnuts.
He later concludes with this language, writing,
If we on the Catholic Left who care, and care deeply, about the tragedy of abortion, if we do not stand up with greater vigor and frequency, we will abandon the issue to the wingnuts.
In between these bookends, and before turning his focus to progressive Catholics, MSW raises some important points where he has significant differences with the Pro-Life movement: in particular, I agree with him when he says that
Bishop Tobin and other pro-lifers do their cause no good when they isolate the issue of abortion from all other human concerns.
However, I think he is doing his own argument no good by referring pointedly to “their cause.” He later argues that he and other progressive Catholics care “about the tragedy of abortion” so why can’t he say “our cause”? It is not certain, but this seems to suggest he cannot envision himself in alliance with Bishop Tobin and the other “wingnuts” in the Pro-Life movement. And the result is that his positive points come off as overly defensive.
It is at this point that I begin to part ways with MSW. I admit that I am often driven to distraction by the Pro-Life movement and often distance myself from them by flying the flag of the seamless garment ethic, identifying myself as pro-life by supporting groups such as Feminists for Life or Consistent Life. As the old cliche goes, I can fight my enemies but God save me from my friends. But therein is an important point: I am willing to admit that the Pro-Life movement and I are allies, or at least share the central goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating abortion, even while I criticize their strategy and tactics. While there might be individuals in the Pro-Life movement whom I might deride as being wingnuts or at least strongly criticize for saying really stupid things (certain politicians and their comments about rape and abortion come to mind), I do not think that the movement as a whole or even in the main is dominated by wingnuts.
Some readers might object that my comments about a totalizing ideology are simply a more sophisticated way of the saying the same thing, but I disagree. The insidious power of any ideology is that it traps people within its confines and shapes and controls their response to reality in ways that can be counter-productive at best. Bishop Tobin is a case in point: in the grips of the Pro-Life ideology, he reacted to the death of Nelson Mandela without ever considering whether his remarks were helping or hurting the cause. This is not a blanket defense: “My ideology made me do it” explains but it does not excuse. But I hope that it suggests that I am approaching this matter with more nuance and less disdain. (And in this regard it is worth seeing my post praising Bishop Tobin for a previous statement that was widely criticized.) And I think my pointed criticism of its ideological underpinnings is necessary if the Pro-Life movement is going to expand beyond its current base and make further progress. But its critics, myself and MSW included, can probably do a better job making sure our criticisms are founded on our basic agreement on the evil of abortion.