Friday, August 12, 2011

The search for pro-life intellectuals

Students for Life of America has an interesting little blog post on the difficulty of finding an academic advisor for a pro-life group on a college campus.
Advisors of student-run groups are a necessity at most colleges and universities in the U.S., since they, theoretically, help with administrative logistics, resources, and almost always help get your group “official” recognition by the university administration. But the growing number of student pro-life groups who are unable to find a sponsor are shining a light on a whole new injustice.

If you can’t find a professor willing who is pro-life or willing to stand up for their beliefs, your constitutionally protected right of speech is silenced.


The fact is, plenty of professors may not have the time, willingness, or courage to sponsor student-run pro-life groups, no matter what their views, and this poses a real threat to the exposure of the pro-life movement to young people across the country.
From personal experience, I wouldn't say an academic advisor is all that essential for actually doing things, but this probably varies from school to school. Whatever the case may be, I suppose one could call it an injustice that student groups are not allowed to exist without a faculty representative, even when such a representative is unavailable. Each school will have its own policy on this, but the best policy would be one that favors free speech and allows even fledgling student groups to organize themselves on campus.

But frankly, that is neither here nor there. SFLA is missing something huge in terms of long-term strategy: sooner or later, we're going to have to get to the root of the problems faced by pro-life student groups. I don't care what kind of gains the pro-life movement makes in national public opinion polls; as long as 90% of professors on college campuses remain resolutely pro-choice on abortion, the United States will never see Roe v Wade overturned. It is not enough for SFLA to protect students from the intellectual climate on these campuses. In the long run, we have to define the intellectual climate.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: ideas change culture. And people who deal in big ideas also have a big influence on people in power. They may not have exactly the kind of influence they want, of course. But on an issue like abortion, there are really two main paths which our country can choose to follow, and right now most intellectuals favor the wrong path. Thus, while intellectuals themselves tend to see the issue as highly nuanced and may argue about what really is the best way to precisely think about it, all of their diverse views form one overwhelming consensus that a woman's right to choose must not be questioned. And if this cannot be changed, I cannot fathom how the pro-life movement hopes to succeed. I can think of no social justice movement in history which has ever succeeded without the backing of prominent intellectuals.

So what can we do? In my opinion, the pro-life movement has to create its own intellectuals. The first step towards this goal is to encourage more diversity within the pro-life movement. There is already a great deal more diversity than people imagine. One can, without very much difficulty, find pro-life organizations founded by feminists, atheists, gays and lesbians, liberals, libertarians, Jews, Muslims, and so on, in addition to the Christian and conservative organizations that everyone expects. But the next step is to affirm this diversity within the movement. I don't know exactly what causes intellectual progress, but I am quite sure that it always flourishes more in an environment which allows diverse opinions to run into each other often, rather than an environment in which diverse opinions are either shunned or ignored.

And one should not think that I am excluding pro-life principles themselves from this intellectual diversity. Pro-lifers rarely agree on exactly what it means to be pro-life. For Catholics it often includes dealing with issues of birth-control; for most of the rest of us, it doesn't. For many pro-lifers, assisted suicide must be opposed as much as abortion, and on the same grounds; others do not agree. In fact, pro-lifers can very often disagree about exceptions for abortion. I have no doubt that someone who supports an exception in the case of rape, or in the case of saving a mother's life, should still be called pro-life, whether or not this is in fact a contradiction. Every person's thought will surely contain a contradiction somewhere, and it is only when we allow different opinions to come into contact with one another freely that we can iron out these contradictions. It is essential for intellectual progress that we allow ourselves the freedom to doubt our own beliefs.

It is not enough, of course, to merely encourage diversity. After all, this is a movement, and movements require work. I mention diversity first because I think that without it, we will lack the raw materials for any sort of intellectual progress. At some point, we have to use those raw materials. In any group of people so widely diverse as those calling themselves "pro-life," there will always be some individuals with a special propensity for intellectual behaviors. These individuals should be spotted and encouraged to pursue occupations, such as university professor, which would allow them both to continue in their intellectual growth and to be spokespersons for the pro-life cause within intellectual circles.

But this is hardly all I have in mind. It is easy for the pro-life movement to applaud intellectuals who happen to share their conviction on abortion, because so many people tend to think that all it takes to agree with them is moral courage. What has been tragically overlooked is that moral courage is unsustainable without intellectual growth. We need more intellectuals to think about bioethics, and to provide deeper and deeper theoretical foundations for pro-life beliefs. Not only does this increase our ability to defend our views, but it also attracts more intellectuals into the movement, thus building "intellectual momentum."

To illustrate why I think this, consider that since 1973 the pro-choice position on abortion has been firmly established by law, and that no matter how much sway the pro-life movement has had on public opinion, abortions are as freely available today as they were after Roe v Wade--and yet, major academic publications (in the Journal of Medical Ethics, for instance) continue to explore the various ethical grounds justifying abortion. It is unfortunate that while many pro-life activists are struggling to push forward the same basic arguments we have always used, pro-choice arguments are becoming more and more refined among the intellectual elite, which has its way of filtering down. We have made some progress by using advances in medical imaging, which is invariably to our advantage so long as people actually get to see the true nature of the unborn. But this ultimately does no good if intellectuals have anticipated the moral questions raised by these images by several decades.

Intellectuals don't like to sit still, defending the same old ideas but with nothing new to back them up. They like to be part of big movements of ideas, and they like to see how many ideas tend to fit together. How we see ourselves as human beings is related to everything we study. If you read some of the commentary on our failing economic system, you will find that a lot of it deals with such questions as whether human beings really are rational actors. The answer to this question alone has crucial implications about how the economy will behave. Thus many intellectuals are announcing the death of laissez faire capitalism on the basis of modern discoveries about our imperfect reason. How rational this reaction is I will not discuss here. The point I am making is that the big picture is extremely important, at least to the kind of people we are so desperately missing in the pro-life movement.

In fact, I am of the firm conviction that one might be able to arrive at a comprehensive political and moral philosophy by starting with bioethics, in particular with the abortion issue. I feel pretty certain I am nearly alone on this, but I will attempt here to defend myself as well as I can. There is no political issue which so forcefully demonstrates how little we understand ourselves as the abortion issue, and if we do not understand ourselves, we cannot hope to understand the issues which concern us most. If it is not clear to us whether or not a fetus is human, then we do not understand what we mean by "humanity" very well, do we?

In my personal opinion, the fact that almost all American political ideologies--conservative, liberal, libertarian--endorse the view that human beings are fully autonomous individuals shows to me how little appreciation we have, not only for the gestation process, but even for childhood. The presumption is always that childhood is a developmental stage, while adulthood is a finished product marked by full autonomy; or sometimes we find the far more absurd view that children also are fully autonomous and therefore capable of making rational decisions for themselves. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that adults are like children in being irrational (though we would all love to make jokes about Congress at this point, wouldn't we?). I am merely suggesting that autonomy may not be the true defining characteristic of a human being, and that perhaps it is not even the ultimate goal. Sadly, I must leave these considerations behind for the time being.

I cannot here explain in detail what a comprehensive political philosophy would look like if we began with pro-life issues. All I can do is point out how significant it would be to create, or at least attempt to create, such a philosophy. Traditional pro-life arguments have started with our common political assumptions and sought to win the argument by a simple deduction: an unborn fetus is human, all humans are autonomous individuals with the right to life, therefore an unborn fetus must be protected by the law. But our opponents can use the same principles to prove the opposite conclusion: a fetus is not an autonomous individual, therefore it is not a human, therefore it does not need to be protected by the law. And so we must rethink the principles implicit in our argument. It is impossible that we should succeed in this unless we start thinking about the bigger picture.

To be sure, the pro-life movement has had its intellectual defenders. Richard John Neuhaus triumphantly declared, "While the pro-life cause welcomes, and has been greatly bolstered by, the support of many distinguished intellectuals, the same is not true of the pro-choice movement." He said that "pro-life intellectuals, like pro-life activists, insist on talking about the science and moral reasoning pertinent to the moral status of the unborn. So do the more honest of pro-choice intellectuals, which is why they are more hindrance than help to the pro-choice movement." I can't help but disagree about pro-choice intellectuals being a hindrance to their movement. The more intellectuals continue to mull over the issue of abortion, the more convinced they seem to become that, no matter what the proper justification may be, abortion is still a fundamental right of women. It does not matter that their questions may bother the activists at NARAL, any more than it would matter if the questions of serious pro-life intellectual began to bother the folks at NRLC. So long as the intellectual elite generally agree on an issue, this tends to create a wall through which very little social change can ultimately break through. I am not discounting moral strength; I am only expressing my doubts about how effective it can be without intellectual backing.

Neuhaus represents exactly the kind of pro-life intellectual people expect--Catholic, and conservative. Catholics, I admit, are often quite better than the rest of us at thinking in terms of the big picture; but unfortunately this also happens to be a very old big picture. I am not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with that. I simply have to point out a trait of intellectuals that is of particular importance. Intellectuals, as a rule, enjoy progress. They do not want to feel that their ideas are outmoded or irrelevant. Thomist philosophy, for example, might not be the best approach to winning over a new generation of intellectuals. It could be, but I doubt it.

Again, we have to realize that we are diverse as a movement. This means we have potentially more to choose from. The only problem is that we are not intentionally cultivating what potential we have. Students for Life of America, as a rule, is more interested in traditional activism than in pursuing intellectuals who may be beneficial to our cause in the long run. I can't fault them for this. But I would urge SFLA to consider the things which they themselves have told me over the years: that college campuses are a major battleground for the soul of America on the issue of abortion, that college campuses are generally hostile environments for pro-life activists, and that college professors provide very little if any support to our cause. If you put these things together, you start to realize we really have no choice. If we're going to be successful in this movement, we need pro-lifers in the academy.

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