Abortion is part of a wider social crisis

It has been said that the consistent anti-abortion position is the Catholic one. In the Catholic stance, not only the sanctity of life is emphasised, but the dignity of the individual, and the responsibility of the man to the woman, too. On the other hand, the right-wing, secular alternative has been to make abortion illegal without enforcing men’s responsibilities in the pregnancy and beyond; that is its peculiar injustice. Traditional conservatism restricts abortion, but not the licence of individuals. Abortion is part of a network of issues that include the fantasy of sex without consequences, and easier divorce.

To write about this with the one clean angle that articles usually need would be a mistake. The matter is too interwoven. Contraception, abortion and divorce reform have been linked. By liberalising one, society pulled at a thread that led to the others. By the 1970s the state was setting taxes and paying benefits which were a safety net for childbirth but a disincentive to marriage — and was paying for abortions, where the child was brought to its end. Whether unemployment, childbirth, or abortion, the state empowered all individuals to make any and every choice, regardless of ideas of that choice’s value. That was the logic of modern liberalism, which modern conservatives adopted (and which had no normative values).

The purchasing-power of the state’s use of taxes replaced the difficult and dignified idea of re-creating a family. So entrenched is this change, after sixty years, that it has buried any sense of what the Catholic notions were about. They sound just like foreign language. Our near-absolute individualism has no notion of the world’s being God’s creation, and our share in it being to re-create; of God being Love, so that Love is the motive of the universe, and our part in His purposes being to expand that love. As any essentially isolated individuals will be inclined to do, we reject those ideas, perhaps bitterly, as unreal and outrageous. God, and perhaps family, may have nothing (some might say) to do with us.

Our entirely different view is a leisure concept of life, in which we exist already (like inventors of ourselves) in a landscape of possibilities, and we define what it would be rewarding to do more in terms of how we feel and what we get, than by what we achieve. To think of contributing to institutions in a longer term (like the family), is not our default thinking; nor do we normally consider how we might fit into God’s purposes. When individualism thins down personhood that much, it is hard to remember what a person is, let alone should be. I become my choices.

There is no mercy in such a view, but it is a rational reflection of the political economy that we have. All sorts of phenomena, each deseving its own angle and its own article, become entangled in that. People have been encouraged to live in debt so as to spend borrowed money. This has revived profit-maximising systems which otherwise would have eaten themselves. People have been schooled to regard spending and borrowing, not saving or self-denial, as the norm, because the rich make more money on debts than on thrift; and their investment choices drive change. People do not expect to be able to repay debts — properties being exorbitant in price, and tuition fees stretching out longer than ever.

So you have to ask yourself, in a world doubting fathers and fatalistic over debts, what point there could be in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Yet no more central a story of mercy and ultimate purpose could be found.

What has happened with people and the family has happened in so many other areas of creativity, too. In more austere times, when credit was not available for creating an appearance of affluence, people had hobbies. They had the things which they made. Now machines make things quickly and cheaply that people used to know how to make. Carpentry is no longer a common skill. (In lockdown people have been encouraged to cook and grow food more, but for different reasons.)

In the factory, a woman or a man poured most of their waking lives into what became, literally, someone else’s product. Only in the hobby did you have an object you could call your own. Only in this private sphere could you feel the fully human satisfaction of having laboured: not just of suffering over something, but of possessing it too. However, to support itself in its crises, our style of economy needed to colonise private life. As with the shift from playing an instrument to subscribing to a streaming service, it needed to take over the most intimate things so as to seek rents from them. Even meeting people became a matter for data capture.

It would be very odd if the way we now live had no effect on our thinking. Either the state, with its furlough, benefits and rebates, or the company world, with its entertaining apps and labour-saving devices, provides a sort of world in which we can live and move and have some kind of being. In the last couple of generations we have become accustomed to getting our lives ready-made, but keeping ironic distance from them, rather than to sacrifice, and to making new life. The factory has moved, for the most part, abroad, and contracts are zero-hours, unpaid, short-term or renewable. Someone cannot repay her debts and her short-term employer may not repay her commitment. It makes no sense to many people now to think of working for goals one may never see, investing oneself in projects one cannot own, and in these and other ways, giving one’s life away. It made more sense before change in the economy was so frantic. Then, we could imagine that living religiously was self-denial towards some future glory.

Yet that never was faith. This may be the surprise. Abraham did not know in advance that Isaac would be reprieved. Jesus did look into annihilation on the Cross. Gethsemane was a place of impossibility in which total abandon to, trust in, God, was required. Christ sweated blood. The resurrection is unreal without the utter death. Religious commitment never has been a cost/benefit analysis, and there never has been any true banking concept of faith in God. Salvation is not a return for merits worked or time invested.

It has always been the truth that God owes us nothing, and gives everything freely; that anything we give back to Him is His, which we return. The situation of all human life always has been that of a child giving her father or her mother a card on some special day made of paper and ink that the parents have bought (or money they provided!). It is a recreation of what we never could have made — recreation, not leisure — our share in God’s all-encompassing creativity. What is wonderful about the card from your child, and each human life, is the personal stamp that this one individual brings to what is only the common stuff of things.

The talent by which you make your way in life is nature, nurtured — neither the nature you got nor the nurture you had was some invention of your own. No one has things on their merits: in the final analysis that is a self-justifying rationale, when everything we have has been, in some part, a gift. In parenthood, you hand on freely what you were given, as God gives all to all. Faith was trust in that gift, and that the gift has not finished.

In this landmark moment, with Roe v Wade overturned, and with the abortion question made again a matter of democratic debate rather than diktat, it might also be possible to step back to a wider view entirely. The world may not conform to our choices. In fact, we can quickly be captured by the effects of our own choices and desires — wrapped in the app. Those who campaign for abortion rights in the US will now do so at state level. But if those debates are to get anywhere at all, a broader and richer world view will be needed than just choice. We should confront this reality, that through state and capital we pay to be separate, to be less than we could be, and to have lives ended.


Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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