John Ryan is among the great heroes of the pro-life movement, and has been like a brother to me for decades. We disagree about many things, but no one ever should think that our disagreements reveal disrespect.
I said I was ashamed for the pro-life movement when Trump spoke and pro-lifers cheered. John applauds Trump’s words, and thinks that if there’s room in the movement for a left-winger like me, I should be willing to make room for a right-winger like Trump. Words to that effect.
Let me try to explain something. It’ll take a bit. I want to get several ideas across, if I can.
As background to what I’m after: when I taught Shakespeare to high school kids, I used a technique borrowed from the Folger Shakespeare Library: to figure out what a word like “blood” means in a play, it’s worthwhile looking at every use of the word. Treat it as a word that you don’t understand at all, like “scloop,” and try to determine its meaning by context. Reach deliberately for the connotations of the word.
So, similarly, we might learn what some people mean by the word “abortion” by looking at what they say about other forms of violence, like war. With another group of people, it might help to listen to what they say about hospitality and immigration. We might learn by listening to what they say about other issues involving women, like rape.
There’s an oddity. Some people, when they speak about abortion, deny fiercely that it’s an issue of sexuality. But when you listen, they talk about abortion and homosexuality and divorce. If they have nothing to say about other forms of violence or bigotry, I think it’s fair to disbelieve their claim that they don’t see abortion as a sexual issue. They say “abortion, abortion,” then get red in the face and talk about sex.
I do not assume that I know what people mean when they use the word “abortion.” I want to listen for a while. Do they want to stop something violent like war? Do they want to welcome unscheduled arrivals, like immigrants? Do they want to protect people from violence, like rape?
Do they have a patient approach to living things? When they see something small, do they promptly and vividly imagine its growth to maturity? Do they intuit the unity of a life, from embryo to fetus to baby to child to adult to elder?
Do they want to protect Western Civilization from vast social changes? Is abortion an example of decadence, next to plastic cars, plastic money, plastic breasts, falling SAT scores, high school diplomas without reading Great Books, cell phone habits, private jets and gold faucets and $800 meals?
Do they want to punish sassy girls who act like sluts?
Do they just want to harness the energy or collect the money of some determined and selfless workers?
I think I’ve seen these options, and others, while working with pro-lifers for 45 years. People can get eloquent about abortion and still leave you wondering what they mean, what they want. You have to listen. And when you speak about abortion yourself, you have to pay attention to the context you use.
Take war, for example. It seems to me that war and abortion are similar. War is a form of global curettage, using a weapon to scrape vulnerable life off the very thin layer at the surface of the globe. And it seems to me that abortion is like war, especially because they both damage people at both ends of a weapon. Takashi Nagai, a Catholic leader (and prophet) who helped to rebuild the Catholic community in Nagasaki after the second American bomb wiped out a third of the Catholics in the nation, reflected on this. Obviously, he saw what war did to the victims. But he also saw what war did to the perpetrators; he was with the Japanese army during the invasion of Manchuria. Violence does grave damage to the person in front of a gun, but perhaps far more damage to the person behind the gun. And abortion is like that. The mother – who enters an abortion clinic trying to escape from responsibilities she doesn’t want or cannot handle – leaves as the mother of a dead child with no easy way to grieve. Dearest Lord of mercy, draw near.
Trump does not connect war and abortion. He’s ignorant and careless about nukes. He has made threats, referring to our nuclear arsenal, or bigger button – threats that are not in any compatible with the “just war” theory. He made these threats quite recently, just weeks ago. So his opposition to abortion is not related to his views on nuclear war: he’s not squeamish about massive violence. That’s not what troubles him about abortion.
How about immigration? Consider Scripture: the Law of Moses starts with reflections on the Exodus, when God saved his people from slavery in Egypt. After that experience, we should (1) be grateful to God for his love and (2) avoid imitating the Egyptians. So hospitality to strangers is, arguably, more fundamental than the Ten Commandments. Consider schedules: strangers – including immigrants and babies – come into our lives on their schedules, not ours. Consider “widows and orphans”: the prophets throughout Scripture ask us to protect widows and orphans, and pro-lifers hear that as a call to protect pregnant women and unborn children. Widows are mentioned in Scripture 49 times; of those 49, 21 refer to the pair, widows and orphans; of those 21, 18 refer to a trio, also mentioning strangers. Hospitality is hospitality is hospitality.
I don’t think that Trump’s opposition to abortion is linked to his commitment to hospitality. On the same day as the March for Life this year, the Federal government drifted toward closing down – over the issue of hospitality to immigrants.
Consider another context, violence to women. The early feminist movement, in the 19th century, was pro-life. Margaret Sanger’s life work is often described as making contraception available; that’s not a stupid description of her work, but I don’t think it’s accurate either. I think her work was to make the feminist movement subservient to the eugenics movement. She drove a wedge between the protection of mothers and the protection of babies. She set their rights apart; in fact, made them seem to be in collision. This was a change of unimaginable proportions. It seems obvious to me that re-building a society that protects the unborn must also mean strengthening women’s rights, asserting and defending women’s dignity and equality.
But I don’t think that we can understand Trump as a true champion of women’s rights, laboring diligently to restore a sense of the incalculable dignity of motherhood. He supported a pedophile for Senate a few weeks ago. And in recent weeks, the mainstream feminist has asserted itself as a far more credible voice against rape than the pro-life movement allied to Playboy Trump. Pro-life leaders have NOT defended women who felt supported, at long last, when they reported rape. How could pro-life leaders support rape victims – without calling for Trump to step down?
John, I don’t think it’s possible to understand Trump’s views on abortion in terms of war, hospitality, or women’s issue. And I don’t think he’s defending Christendom; he doesn’t think that way. And I don’t think he wants to punish women who act like sluts. I think his motivation is clear: he wants to harness the energy of a movement. He wants our votes, our support. Period.
To the extent that we support him, we lose any chance of explaining ourselves. We cease to be credible. We cease to be intelligible.
So it seems to me.
John, I don’t mean to challenge you, just to explain. Feel free to respond, but don’t feel obliged.
With great respect.