“Human rights are not isolated, private, and ‘at war’ with each other,” explained Sue Ellen Browder, former journalist for Cosmopolitan and author of Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement. “Human rights are indivisible.” The occasion for Browder’s reflection was the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, a date inconveniently coinciding with Winter Storm Jonas’s arrival at the Beltway in January. Thanks to the weather this year’s protest in D.C. was relatively subdued, though hardly so much as one might be led to believe by the comically characteristic New York Times headline “Hundreds Brave Snow at March for Life in Washington.” In fact, well over 10,000 assembled at Constitution Avenue on January 22. The Society for Tradition, Family, and Property fielded its customary platoon of bekilted bagpipers; black protestors proclaimed that unborn lives matter; television actor Kelsey Grammer defied the weather and Hollywood orthodoxy alike. The unifying theme for this year’s march was “Pro-Life and Pro-Woman Go Hand in Hand,” a slogan crafted in response to the left’s rhetoric about the right’s supposed war on women. According to leading opponents of abortion, it is pro-life activists who truly continue the work of the women’s rights movement.
Browder was hardly the only women’s rights advocate connected to the event, as more than one marcher’s T-shirt proudly announced This Is What a Pro-Life Feminist Looks Like. In her speech Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina lambasted Democrats like Hillary Clinton, who have “perverted feminism” into “a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections.” In a recent interview March for Life president Jeannie Mancini similarly concluded that “authentic feminism really does line up with pro-life beliefs,” since “[a]bortion as an act of violence against preborn human beings is contrary to equality, non-discrimination and non-violence, which are the core foundational tenets of feminism.”
By this point the annual rally has become a pilgrimage for many, and even if it has failed to stop abortion it has at least helped maintain social space for those who oppose it. Pro-lifers have ensured that abortion is still a live issue—no negligible accomplishment in an age of ever-escalating political correctness. The tenacity of pro-life activists is admirable, and the energetic, cheerful optimism of younger activists is especially encouraging. On the other hand, it would be naive to pretend that the pro-life movement is in much better shape than conservatism generally. In addition to pretending that feminism was ever anything other than a left-leaning ideology, its leaders make silly attempts to appropriate the rhetoric of the 19th-century antislavery movement, thereby ignoring the militant revolutionary essence of abolitionism. Underground Railroad operatives did not politely protest laws; they broke them. John Brown did not carry a sign; he went on a killing spree. Something does not compute.
Feminism, equality, nondiscrimination, human rights—among politicians, journalists, and academics such language is taken to be not merely the best but the only legitimate means of discussing controversies. Even in Catholic intellectual circles, where one might hope to see more courageous and dissident thought, any reluctance to play the rigged game of liberal discourse is mischievously misrepresented as a Nietzschean rejection of the very distinction between good and evil. To deny natural rights categorically is perilous, we are warned, since it implicitly carries with it the denial of natural law and thus of morality as such.
Strictly speaking the warning is true, yet a sleight of hand lies behind all natural-law defenses of human-rights ideology. What the liberal regime commands is not just that we recognize human rights, but that we recognize only human rights. When Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” human-rights theorists retort no, actually it isn’t. Individual humans are “charged,” yes, and with just the sort of divine mojo everybody in authority is obliged to respect: Individual rights are nonnegotiable. But woods, rivers, mountains, families, ancestral homes, native lands, neighborhoods, vocations, and all else formerly accorded reverence and respect now have no standing at all, for they are deemed mere instruments of personal fulfillment. Each is understood solely as a means to individuals’ chosen ends, and may thus be remade or discarded without so much as a twinge of guilt. Nobody seems to mind that C.S. Lewis would never have recognized a “natural law” that treats the countryside as so much advertising space and family farms as so much juicy real estate.
Things only go downhill from there, for egalitarianism ensures that even our supposedly precious human rights must be as standardized and uninspiring as a Happy Meal. Far from promoting human dignity, the liberal system gradually purges from public life religion, sexuality, relationships, culture, ethnicity—i.e., just about everything that distinguishes a recognizably human community from a mechanism. Am I alone in finding it painful to see pro-family theorists shackle themselves to a dry, traditionless idiom incapable of expressing that very aspect of abortion which is most deplorable? Going by typical right-to-life rhetoric Roe v. Wade is just about one set of abstract rights-bearing people receiving a license to kill another set of abstract rights-bearing people. In reality, Roe v. Wade is about mothers murdering their own children—that is to say, it is about murder at its foulest, strangest, and most unnatural.
Although somewhat sympathetic to Kant and other godfathers of liberalism, philosopher Roger Scruton has nonetheless outlined the fatal flaw of the liberal West pretty clearly. Even when he is a churchgoer, the ostensibly moderate democratic liberal has more in common with his godless radical cousin than either care to admit, explains Scruton:
Each of them proposes a description of our condition, and an ideal solution to it, in terms which are secular, abstract, universal, and egalitarian. Each sees the world in “desacralized” terms, in terms which, in truth, correspond to no lasting common human experience, but only to the cold skeletal paradigms that haunt the brains of intellectuals. Each is abstract, even when it pretends to a view of human history . . . The ideas whereby men live and find their local identity—ideas of allegiance, of country or nation, of religion and obligation—all these are, for the socialist, mere ideology, and for the liberal, matters of “private” choice, to be respected by the state only because they cannot truly matter to the state.
It is preposterous to think of abortion as a little fluke in an otherwise immaculate American regime ordained by God. To the contrary, abortion is but one of many symptoms of the world’s ongoing desecration at the hands of an Enlightenment Man who lives by abstract propositions instead of in a home. Whatever hope we have for defending the innocent begins not with imperial politics but by rejecting a deluded and dehumanizing way of existence. What “pro-life feminism” sugarcoats is the fact that the world was not made to fit our personal ambitions. From motherhood to business to political leadership, every meaningful calling demands sacrifices, and one calling is not always compatible with another.
Here in Kentucky, the abortion front of the culture war has heated up since the march, as our new Tea Party governor has issued a cease-and-desist order to an improperly licensed Planned Parenthood facility. Meanwhile the General Assembly prepares to vote on a bill that mandates pre-abortion counseling for women seeking to terminate their pregnancies. Nobody with a sound moral compass can help hoping that the lives of at least a few Kentuckians will be saved by such measures. Yet nobody with a sound mind can think that such measures come anywhere near the heart of the matter, either.