A writer named Kevin Willilamson has been in the news. I’d never heard of him. The controversy that brought him to my attention concerns a 2014 podcast in which he says that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.” And, “I’m torn on capital punishment generally; but treating abortion as homicide means what it means.”
His remarks have this troubling distinction: They reflect a real point-of-view taken to its extreme. If abortion is homicide, then there is a cold intellectual honesty about suggesting that capital punishment could fit the crime. This argument has a counterpart at the opposite extreme in opinions like this one, which suggests that any judgments about “good” and “bad” abortions are a slippery slope to unwanted legal limitations.
It’s tempting to sigh with relief that few of us follow our arguments about abortion – pro- or anti- – to their logical ends. That’s not a conversation we want to have. If abortion is murder, does that mean that women who abort their babies should go to jail? If we think that there are circumstances the extremity of which (say, rape, incest, a threat to the life of the mother) warrant access to abortion, have we not implicitly opened the door to abortion for the sake of convenience, right up to term (or even to infanticide, as some have suggested)? We all know these aren’t easy questions. They are morally fraught, legally complicated. They call into question our values, the soundness of our reasoning, and our willingness to stand, uncompromising, on our convictions. This requires a sort of moral courage that few of us possess. We pick a side, vote accordingly, and carry on until something or someone stirs the pot – like Kevin Williamson.
There are people who are committed to active engagement with this issue even during the quiet times, when there are no Kevin Williamsons in the headlines, no Supreme Court justices to be nominated, no presidential candidates on the ballot. I am honored to have been asked by some of them – the leaders of Democrats for Life America (DFLA) – to speak at their national conference this summer in Denver. I am not a pro-life professional. What I’ve been asked to address is how we can talk to each other in this contentious environment in ways that might move the conversation forward. This is something I know a little bit about.
What I know is that people’s minds aren’t changed in a climate of antagonism, them and us. I’ve been reading a fascinating sociological history of the rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark (aptly titled The Rise of Christianity). Stark, a sociologist with a “hobbyist’s” interest in the early Christian movement, says, “The basis for successful [conversion] movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments” (p. 20; emphasis original). This in 1997, before the more recent interest in and study of social networks and social contagion. “Intimate interpersonal attachments,” says Stark, are the basis of converting someone from one way of looking at the world to another. Family ties. Friendship. Love.
This is not to say that we have to agree, or even agree-to-disagree. What it means is that we need to learn to differentiate between the content of the argument and the person who’s making it. We have to consider the humanity of the other. He or she is not my opponent, however much his or her argument may be anathema to all I hold dear. I have to become open to the other as a person, equal to me. That is, if I want a chance of persuading.
Often, that’s not what we want. Instead, what we want is to feel that we’re right and they’re wrong. We want moral superiority. We want to claim the victory of our rightness. If we care about the issue we’re defending, especially if we see it as a moral imperative, like the abolition of abortion, it can become damned frustrating when they can’t see the obvious merits, the unassailable truth, of our arguments. Out of our feelings of impotency comes inevitable demonization. Not only is the other wrong, he’s “crazy,” “sick,” “perverted,” a “stupid asshole pig,” an “idiot.”
I’m sad to say that the quotes above are from the comments section of the DFLA Facebook page post about Kevin Williamson. This is the formula for maintaining the stalemate: Us v. Them.
If we are serious about changing laws, we need first to change minds and hearts. This requires that we consider the rational compromises we ourselves make to arrive at conclusions that we can live with. It means giving up a little of our moral superiority, our pride, our righteous indignation, and consider that even people whose views are abhorrent to us have reasons for thinking what they think and saying what they say. Do we have the courage to listen? Or are we too afraid of seeing the humanity of our so-called enemies?
One of my personal heroes, Father Greg Boyle, says in his recent book, Barking to the Choir: “Moral outrage is the opposite of God; it only divides and separates what God wants for us, which is to be united in kinship. Moral outrage doesn't lead us to solutions - it keeps us from them.” His approach doesn’t affirm destructive behavior but sees beneath to the life experience within which context the behavior makes sense. As it happens, Kevin Williamson was born in Texas in 1972 to a mother who put him up for adoption. A few years later, he could have been an abortion statistic. Conceived before my parents were married in 1966, the same is true of me. I’m not reaching for excuses, but for understanding. If we believe that we are defending a vital truth, one that means the difference between life and death, will we do what it takes to love our enemies, to establish “direct and intimate interpersonal attachments” to work toward genuine conversion – ours, theirs, the world’s?