Most Americans who have any media access whatsoever know that last week a California woman with six prior children gave birth to octuplets. The details surrounding the birth (six prior kids, solo unemployed parent, in vitro implantation of eight or more embryos, probable millions in taxpayer expenses) are so extraordinary that they have provoked a normally taboo public conversation about whether childbearing can be immoral.
Progressives rarely use the words moral and immoral. We’re too sophisticated for that. If some poor sod starts talking about truth and virtue or right and wrong or– gods forbid– good and evil, we get nervous and become, ahem, tolerant. It’s like bring up spirituality in a room full of atheists (who otherwise might be perfectly willing to talk about ethics and love and service and finding some meaning that transcends the boundaries of our small individual lives.)
Occasionally we progressives indulge ourselves and apply such labels to grand collective actions—ones that are far removed from our day-to-day lives, like the situation in Gaza or Guantanamo. But applying moral labels to our own behavior or, even worse, to that of our neighbors feels uncomfortably hard or sure or Republican.
Maybe we’ve spent too much time in therapy.
The reality is that our political agenda and personal priorities are every bit as morally rooted as that of the Right. The roots may be different. The research of psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that progressives base ethics on an Enlightenment blend of fairness and harm avoidance, while conservatives get their moral sensibilities roused by a more complex blend in which these two compete for priority with purity, loyalty, and deference to authority. But both conservatives and progressives have strong moral values, which undergird our political priorities. Haidt says that one of our weaknesses as a movement is that we don’t get this. I would argue that we walk the walk, but don’t talk the talk.
Let’s take the debate about abortion as an example. Abortion opponents have no trouble saying that killing blastocysts is wrong. Well, ok. They don’t say blastocysts. They say people. And then they attribute souls and personhood to fertilized eggs. But to their credit, they apply a straight up moral filter to the abortion question, and they are honest about it. They say, in public, that abortion is evil.
Most abortion proponents think that abortion averts evil.
Yes, I’m using the “e” word. And yes, we do. We think that abortion increases wellbeing (goodness) and decreases suffering (evil) in the form of child abuse, depression, crime, and overpopulation—or simply the involuntary loss of a woman’s other precious life affirming and life-giving activities.
A couple of years ago, I answered a pollster’s multiple choice questions about my abortion attitudes. “In the circumstances under which a woman might consider an abortion, is abortion always acceptable, often acceptable, rarely acceptable, or always unacceptable? Press 1 for always acceptable, 2 for often . . .” Huh? Did you notice that there’s a whole half of the moral spectrum missing here?
Three months into my first pregnancy and a few days after we went out to dinner and celebrated our first ultrasound picture of the fetus we nicknamed “Gecko,” my husband and I received a lab report that said I had acute toxoplasmosis. If I’ve got it, it’s probably common and not a big deal, I told myself. But we went to the university medical library to find out. Turns out, first trimester toxoplasmosis is a big deal. It can result in congenital blindness and brain lesions. It doesn’t always, but it can. We spent the rest of the day walking and talking and crying.
We both wanted a baby. And yet for both of us, continuing this pregnancy felt immoral. It meant taking a willful, known risk that the healing work I might be able to accomplish as a health professional would be aborted. It meant taking a willful, known risk that our family would demand more from society than we could give back. It meant taking a willful, known risk that we were committing any future children of ours to be responsible for a situation they hadn’t created. We didn’t know then what we do now — that our wickedly smart, loving eldest daughter simply couldn’t have existed; she was conceived before that pregnancy would have come to term. But the bottom line was, that as much as we wanted a baby, staying pregnant not only felt wrong. According to the moral/ethical principles guiding our lives, it was wrong.
It’s scary to open up talk about morality, because it gets done badly so often. It so easy for judgment to turn into judgmental-ness, and for moral consternation to turn into something uglier. But if you really believe that some things are good, you also have to believe that some things are bad. If you really stand for something, you have to be willing to stand against something. So I was taught an evangelical child—and it’s one the pieces of my evangelical upbringing that I still ring true.
During that telephone poll, I went through the options twice and then skipped ahead. What I wanted a question that said, “In the circumstances under which a woman might consider an abortion, is continuing the pregnancy always acceptable, usually acceptable, rarely acceptable, or never acceptable? That was the other end of the spectrum. It wasn’t a part of the interview.
In the circumstances. . .
The Right may have it easier, figuring out how to talk about morality, especially the Religious Right. If you are convinced that the voice in your head is actually the voice of a god, a whole lot of things get clear and simple. But just because we progressives don’t have that luxury doesn’t mean we should let ourselves off the hook. Being progressive isn’t supposed to be about being comfortable. It’s about moving toward a better future instead of clinging to a mythical Eden. It’s about taking responsibility, knowing that our ancestors did the best they could, but sifting through their answers in the context of what we now know about ourselves and the world around us. That means developing policies (and moral/ethical conversations) that reflect the real world complexities which govern our lives, and which will govern the lives of future generations.
A while back, Amazon.com suggested a book called, The Wisdom of Abortion: Its Power, Purpose and Meaning. I bought it for the title alone – what a radical conversation starter.