The recent discussion on abortion in Tikkun, while refreshing free of the shrill polemic that usually graces the rhetoric of pro-choice and pro-life advocates alike, strikes me as being yet another example of “prepackaged politics.” There is an unstated assumption in all these articles that any respectable leftist position on abortion must include, however ambivalently, support for legal abortion on demand. Those on the Left who have their doubts about abortion, such as Christopher Hitchens, are castigated as sexists for not voicing “politically correct” opinions.
I worry about this sort of divide-and-conquer rhetoric, for it plays directly into the hands of the Right, which also believes in “prepackaged politics” and does not hesitate to grab the moral high ground so often ceded by the Left. As a communitarian, I am troubled by the Left’s insouciance toward abortion, and by its reluctance to question whether the agenda set by Roe v. Wade squares with its own principles and hopes. But I am even more troubled by the Right’s refusal to consider the ethical and legal complexities of abortion, and by its predilection to moralize in a social and political vacuum. Those who think the Left has taken a wrong turn on abortion need to engage in sympathetic criticism and encourage constructive discussion; otherwise support for the Left’s agenda may suffer serious erosion.
Ruth Rosen and Carole Joffe both define the political dimension of abortion in terms of women’s reproductive rights. In this they are the mirror image of orthodox pro-lifers, who define it in terms of the fetus’s right to life. What nobody dares to question is the shared idiom of this political battle, the very idea of self-evident and inalienable rights. For both the pro-choice and pro-life orthodoxies, rights are above politics and beyond dispute. No one should be too surprised, then, that abortion is less a matter for discussion than for verbal war: rights, whether those of women or the unborn, are brandished as conversation-stoppers, as manifest truths that only the morally or the intellectually deformed would fail to recognize.
I think it is high time to ask: What is the nature of such rights? Does it make sense to keep on introducing such rights as “givens” when the very idea of self-evident and incorrigible truths has been discredited by almost all of twentieth-century philosophy? If the moral theory of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is no longer viable, then is there any reason to think that we can use its moral concepts, such as rights, without fear of distortion, anachronism, or inconsistency? Might not the discourse of rights carry with it a very real danger–that of serving as an ideological smoke screen behind which all sorts of harmful and self-serving behavior might be justified?
For any appeal to rights to be intelligible, such rights must be placed in an entirely different conceptual context than that of the Enlightenment-inspired idea of self-evidence. To respect a person’s rights is to perform one’s duties toward that person, which in turn are dependent upon and given content by virtues which secure the good of both the individual and the community. In this interpretation, “having a right” is a highly refined derivative notion: one cannot introduce rights without defining and describing an entire complex of moral and political goods. Indeed, each right presupposes the truth of an entire systematic vision of “the good life” embodied in and determined by the life of a concrete community. In short one cannot begin to address any issue concerning rights unless one has some idea of the sort of person one ought to be, and the sort of community one wants to create.
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