Sunday Night Journal — April 25, 2004M
There was a large rally for abortion rights in Washington today. A few days ago I happened across a list of celebrities who intended to participate, and I took time to read it because I try to avoid spending money on the work of artists who are militant supporters of abortion.
I don’t expect virtue of artists, and I certainly don’t expect moral clarity and logical thinking from pop musicians and actors. I know that most artists today are on the leftward end of the political spectrum and that support for abortion rights comes with that territory. I also know that most of them preach and practice a way of life that puts them in a pretty fair way to want the services of an abortionist. So I am neither surprised nor outraged when they speak the conventional doctrines. But it’s one thing to be more or less thoughtlessly or selfishly “pro-choice,” quite another to be so committed to the notion of a fundamental right to abortion as to take to the streets in support of it. I look askance at anyone who does so, and the work of an artist is diminished in my eyes by such an association, just as would be the case with an artist who participated actively in fascism or communism: there is something amiss with his moral apparatus. In the case of a couple of artists, such as John Irving and Garrison Keillor, the intensity of their detestation for those opposed to abortion is enough to distort their work and make me avoid it altogether—a sad event in the case of Keillor, whose work I once enjoyed but which, when I last checked in with him five or six years ago, seemed to be getting steadily uglier.
But back to the rally: one name I noticed on the list was that of pop musician Sheryl Crow. I don’t really know Ms. Crow’s work except for a few songs that have been on the radio. They were not particularly to my taste and I haven’t investigated her music any further, although I’ve been told some of it is quite good. But her name caught my eye because she had been in the news a year or ago for her views on the war in Iraq. She was the author of one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard anyone say about war: “The way to avoid war is not to have enemies.”
There are many good reasons for opposing the war in Iraq, but to think that we can unilaterally decide “not to have enemies” is pretty stupid and would be criminally irresponsible in a person whose duty is diplomacy or defense. Of course there is a kernel of truth in Ms. Crow’s idea—we should certainly try not to make enemies, we should try to make peace, and one can, again, reasonably argue that we have made in the Middle East enemies we need not have made. But one wonders if she has read Osama bin Laden’s various declarations of war against the United States, and, if she did, how she believes she could coexist with someone who would probably at one glance classify her as a harlot deserving of death. “Those youths know that their rewards in fighting you, the USA, is double than their rewards in fighting some one else not from the people of the book. They have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you.”
Avoidance of reality is not a virtue. Discretion may be justified in averting one’s eyes from that which is unseemly to dwell upon, such as the broken bodies of the victims of a car crash, but there is no virtue in pretending that there was no crash and no one died. There is a degree of symmetry in Ms. Crow’s position on both war and abortion, in that they are both grounded in avoidance of reality. One may reasonably and fairly suppose that the motive for the first is a kind heart and a horror of violence, and that the motive for the second is something much less noble.
In regard to war she doesn’t wish to acknowledge the intractable conflicts that no one has yet figured out how to remove from human life, conflicts that are not mere disagreements subject to negotiation and compromise but deep and deadly oppositions that can only be settled by force.
In regard to abortion she seems to share with other advocates of the practice a wish to avoid acknowledging the thing itself, to the extent of not wanting to use the word at all. The strange and compulsive use of the word “choice” as a euphemism indicates a bad conscience and a suspicion that what they are advocating is abhorrent, which often seems to increase their rage against those who openly call it abhorrent. Sheryl Crow’s performance in Washington today is sponsored by a pro-abortion group called “Rock for Choice” whose official press release never uses the word “abortion.” The one-time National Abortion Rights Action League is also suppressing the word, having decided that its former abbreviation, NARAL, shall itself the name of the organization: I think the full name is now NARAL Pro-Choice America. The abortion rights movement wishes to avoid the reality that it is the abortion rights movement.
But those who propose abortion as a solution to the problem of unplanned and unwanted pregnancy attempt to avoid reality on a deeper level. They wish to avoid or cancel the fact that sexual relations between men and women frequently lead to the conception of a child, and that once that has happened there is no going back: a life has begun, and will cease only with a death. The promoters of abortion wish to pretend that it is possible to go back.
People who are opposed to abortion are frequently told that they are advocates of a “simplistic” solution, by which is meant not that the solution is simple but that it is too simple to serve the purpose. The idea that making abortion illegal would remove the problem is indeed “simplistic.” And in fact there are not many abortion opponents who think it would end the problem; they only think it would greatly reduce the number of abortions, not begin a golden age. I don’t think I’ve ever heard from the anti-abortion camp an idea so truly simplistic as Sheryl Crow’s suggestion for avoiding war.
There is, however, a perfectly simple solution to the problem which abortion is intended to solve. That is for people (I suppose nowadays I ought to specify “male and female people”) not to engage in sexual relations when they aren’t willing to accept the possibility that a child will be conceived. In any single concrete case this is always perfectly workable (barring, of course, the case of rape). It may be difficult, but “simple” and “easy” are not synonyms. And it is hard to imagine any reasonable person having an ethical objection to it (I specify “reasonable” because no doubt there are those who would argue that restraining sexual desire is immoral). Of course it is foolish to expect that everyone would follow this rule, and so it would never solve the problem across the entire scope of society, but it is simple, and it is a solution for any specific couple, in that it will always work for those willing to avail themselves of it. Unlike Ms. Crow’s proposal for ending war, it requires no utopian conditions in the world at large, and depends on no help or cooperation from the state or anyone else. As Garrison Keillor himself had one of his Lake Woebegon priests say “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the bus?” (the fictional character thus, in a paradoxical phenomenon not at all unheard of in art, showing himself more wise than his creator seems to be, or to have become).
The problem of unwanted pregnancies may be a complex shades-of-grey sort of business when viewed from the perspective of the law, which must apply to all. From the perspective of any individual couple it is very much black-and-white: they either do, or they don’t, engage in sexual relations, and they either are, or are not, willing to accept the possibility of pregnancy. (Once a child is conceived things are less straightforward, at least for those who do not maintain an absolute prohibition against the deliberate taking of innocent life.) The decision for war takes place at the level of the state, where a great number of calculations and guesses, some of them mostly blind, about the motives, intentions, and capabilities of other states, and about the consequences of going or not going to war, are involved, and it will in many cases never be perfectly clear in retrospect whether the decision was wrong or right. Anyone who thinks he has a simple solution to that problem is truly being simplistic.