Something that’s always bothered me about the arrival of full abortion rights in Canada (passed in 1988) is the total lack of passion and political theatre with which people approach the subject now. In Canada, abortion is a banal clinical right. The government regards this procedure like any other; abortion feels no different (administratively speaking) than a blood test. It sounds utopian, and I suppose it is. In Canada, there’s basically zero legislative restrictions or conditions surrounding abortion. It’s very accessible (although this is less true for the standard list of communities most governments like to neglect). And, as it turns out, abortion utopias have one of the lowest abortion rates in the world: the number of abortions reported every year have been declining consistently since 1998. But any time something becomes banal, I get nervous. Banality is an inherently unstable, unsexy state: it’s a top spinning perfectly on a pinhead, and you know that it’s liable to topple any minute, or else be overtaken by something (or someone) possessed with more vision, charisma, or even violence.
I often wonder how this pro-choice utopia can sustain its support for reproductive bodies if it cannot supply the issue with the moral energy it requires to remain relevant in these authoritarian times. Abortion politics in Canada is like that permissive parent who would rather let their kid do whatever they wanted instead of putting in the effort of investing in that kid’s life, reminding them every day that they are worth supporting because their life has value. All I know is this: once, it was illegal to perform or obtain an abortion, and then it was slightly less illegal, and then a gynecologist from Montreal named Dr. Henry Morgentaler went on a baby-murdering bender. He even filmed it. Before Dr. Morgentaler, Canada was in the dark, in the wrong, in the archaic, but now we’re in the light, and because the absence of political conflict is what really matters here—not getting it right, not righting previous wrongs. If you were born after the laws were fixed, were they ever really broken? The past—the misogynist past, the colonial past—gets endlessly erased by the enthusiasm for the present progressive moment. Maybe the strongest display of support for an issue is to treat it like it’s invisible. Maybe I’m wrong to want something more mythologically robust. In the end, the full legalization of abortion came as the state’s dispassionate, procedural acquiescence to Dr. Morgentaler’s reproductive demands.
And this is why I follow abortion politics in America. There’s a palpable moral force animating both sides. It’s also why I’m drawn to the theological perspective on this topic. I get to think life itself matters, that it’s inherently valuable, not because personal autonomy is an immutable secular right, but because people themselves are essentially sacred. My professional ambitions matter to God because he is personally invested in my flourishing, and my work is not simply careerist labor, but the execution of my calling. If our culture makes it difficult for women to work, it hinders God’s own efforts to use those willing to serve him. Pro-choice political theorists often lament liberalism’s utilitarian soul, especially the way it surfaces in pro-choice arguments. Indeed, the well-preserved moral angle is certainly one of the strengths of pro-life ideology. But as the Trump era wages holy war against American women’s bodies with renewed punitive bloodlust, it’s now clear morality isn’t the goal for pro-lifers either; perhaps all this impassioned talk about the sanctity of human life is just a facade. If you’re wiling to sentence a woman to death for having an abortion, it’s a dead giveaway–pardon the pun–that the right to life is clearly not inviolable.
It’s not just that the pro-life movement has lost moral credibility. It’s that its ideals derive from an juvenile desire to maintain a pristine Christian ethics that never existed, an ethics that never gets muddled by the difficult circumstances of life as it’s lived on the ground. Pro-lifers have narrowly focussed on protecting the existence of a single living organism, the fetus, no exceptions, no conditions, no mitigating forces. Of course, quality ethical deliberation is nourished precisely by entertaining morally unsettling scenarios, and by the careful (and flexible) consideration of complicating factors. Pro-life theology (at least the mainstream versions) has become immensely impoverished and simplistic by its own hand because it refuses to consider any issue that relates to women and children as morally complex. Women and children function as purity symbols in the socially conservative, pro-life ethical universe. They aren’t specific, contextually-embodied humans with a range of unique desires and struggles so much as conceptual pawns in a theological discourse game, a game in which men are eager to defend their view of a mythic Christian tradition.
Personally, I can’t find anywhere in the Scriptures where the definition of life is restricted to mean biological survival only. From my understanding, God intervened in human history on behalf of the suffering and sin-laden people already alive. To me, salvation means a better life than one we inevitably make for ourselves apart from our Creator. Quality of life strikes me as a deeply theological concept.