Somewhere in this town is a man holding his ear. He's the writer for a conservative publication who asked me if I would, in 50 words or less, comment on the statement that abortion and infanticide are morally identical. I could not, I said, and then proceeded to tell him in many more than 50 words what I thought about people who take a complex issue and turn it into a bumper sticker for the mind. His ear must still ring.
What would he do, I asked, if his wife were pregnant with a severely damaged fetus -- one, say, who was not likely to live long after birth and whose entire life would be spent in pain? I sort of yelled that question at the poor man whose only response was to concede that it would be a problem. It was probably expecting too much for him to say that he and his wife would consider an abortion.
But that's probably what they would do. It's what usually happens when highfalutin theory and meaningless terms -- "right to life"; "the unborn" -- collide with reality. But what I like about my question is not the awfulness of the proposition, but rather how it shows that even when it comes to abortion -- no, especially when it comes to abortion -- absolutes are just plain silly. After all, it's a long way from an abortion for a trivial reason (the wrong sex) to an abortion for a grave reason (a deformed fetus).
And yet abortion opponents acknowledge none of that. They speak only in ringing absolutes -- "the murder of innocent life" -- when innocence or guilt is not germane and even the question of life is debatable. They reject gradations, circumstances -- the difference between the possibility of life and life itself. None of that is even acknowledged. The deed is always wrong. It's lways murder.
Strangely, though, these same people become very sophisticated when it comes to actual murder -- call it murder of the born. Suddenly, arbitrary standards are rejected. Murder can be good, bad and, for want of a better word, indifferent. It is wrong to murder -- usually. But it's not wrong to murder an adjudicated killer in the electric chair. Murder in self- defense is permissible as is murder in wartime -- sometimes a variation of self-defense (World War II), sometimes not (Vietnam). But what about the murder of innocents in wartime, as in the bombing of cities? Yes, that, too, is permissible. In other words, even when it comes to killing, most people say, "Tell me the circumstances, and I'll try to figure out the morality."
But many of the same people have no compunction against making ringing moral pronouncements about abortion. This insufferable rigidity, posing as either theology or philosophy, inflames the abortion debate and gives us all a taste of what Northern Ireland must be like -- a panorama of absolutists armed with moral certainty and Molotov cocktails. Compromise is out of the question.
If you wonder why there were two dozen abortion clinics bombed in the last year and why, surely, there will be more in the future, consider the rhetorical backdrop to these acts -- the incessant characterization of abortion as murder and the refusal of political leaders, such as the president, either to say otherwise or to concede that there are more colors on their intellectual palates than just black and white. Like racist politicians of old, they cannot pretend surprise when the logic of their rhetoric produces violence. Both the lynching of blacks and the bombings of abortion clinics have their respective rhetorical contexts.
If abortion is always murder, then abortion clinics should not exist. If they do exist, then they ought to be closed -- if need be by bombing. In fact, the logic of the rhetoric would demand that people who commit abortions and women who have them ought to be executed for what they have done. Murder is murder, is it not?
We've already had the bombings, and the "executions" -- a death, accidental or otherwise, in a bombing -- will come sooner or later. And then the absolutists in public office will, like others, condemn the act. They will wonder why some people are so extreme, so arbitrary, and not realize that, like the man who called me, their problem is with their ear. They're not listening to what they themselves are saying.