The nomination of Sarah Palin as Republican John McCain’s running mate for this year’s U.S. election has brought abortion issues back into the national spotlight. Palin’s position on abortion (that it should be illegal, even in cases of rape or incest) has re-galvanized social conservatives and provided new inspiration for the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement. What is this movement really about? And what can it tell us about U.S. politics and society?

I have always been astounded by the hypocrisy of the ‘pro-life’ position. On the one hand, anti-abortion advocates claim to support ‘a culture of life’, in which ‘innocent human beings’ should not die for any reason. On the other hand, they have no problem supporting U.S. politicians who have started numerous wars that have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of ‘innocent’ people. Ultimately, the ‘pro-life’ position is untenable unless it is backed up by a total pacifism in all other matters. How can it possibly be considered ‘morally wrong’ to terminate a gestating infant (who we are not sure is even ‘a life’ yet), while it is allegedly fine to murder thousands of human beings (who can only be described as ‘living’) in Afghanistan and Iraq? Thus, so-called ‘pro-lifers’ are, in fact, not ‘pro-life’ at all, as they tend to be fully supportive of policies that quash life.

Opponents of this view would claim that killing in war is totally different from terminating the development of a fetus. In the discourse of ‘national sovereignty,’ the state has permission to do what it takes to defend itself, and killing others is one of the ways through which it exercises self-defense. But when ‘self-defense’ involves imperialism, conquering ‘spheres of influence’, securing oil markets and ensuring profits for politically well-connected arms producers, how can that possibly be ‘morally superior’ to a woman aborting her pregnancy because it resulted from a rape? Or because she does not have the economic means to raise a child? Or just may not be ‘ready’ to have kids? Abortion and war are conceptually separated because they are understood to be part of divergent discursive frameworks (‘international politics’ and ‘domestic society’), which clouds the fact that both of them involve the same moral issue: human life and when it is permissible to end it. If, for a second, we step outside the discursive framework and view the issue from a fresh perspective, it becomes clear that the reasons for ‘killing’ in an abortion (although we are not even sure that it ends ‘a life’) are morally superior to the reasons for killing in war. Both operations involve the ending of ‘life’ for a particular purpose – and the purposes to which abortion is put are generally more ethical than the purposes of the vast majority of wars (especially Bush II’s wars in Asia).

So, if it has nothing to do with ‘supporting life’, what is the U.S. ‘pro-life’ movement about then? Why do they harp on about banning abortion? What is their problem with Roe v. Wade? The following is pure speculation, but I would suggest that anti-abortion activism is fundamentally about two things: social control of sexuality and reproducing ‘the nation’. U.S. conservatives want sexuality to be tightly controlled by both society and the government (as if the rampant heteronormativity permeating our culture already does not do that for them). It fits their view of social order that individuals should not have a consciousness about their sexuality or control over it. The fact that abortion promises control over when one can have a child and over the results of a sexual encounter disturbs the conservative sense of social organization. Furthermore, abortion promotes the notion that sex is not just for reproduction. In the conservative mindset, reproducing another generation of ‘real Americans’ for the nation is the principal (and often sole) purpose of sex. Abortion implies that sex can (and should) occur for plenty of other reasons as well. Overall, the pro-life movement is about maintaining control over sexuality for the sake of (re)producing a particular social order. It has nothing to do with protecting ‘life’ or ‘promoting a culture of life’ for moral purposes – if it did, most pro-lifers would be pacifist vegans, which they certainly are not.

So, for those of us who are opposed to the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement, what should our response be? I think it is high time that we stopped respecting the ‘pro-life’ position. Much energy is wasted on announcing consideration and respect for others’ ‘religious’ moralities or arguing that ‘everyone has a right to their own private opinion’ and that all the pro-choice movement does is open up space for people to exercise their own private choices. It is time to confront ‘pro-lifers’ head on with the profound moral inferiority of their position on abortion. It is shameful that they have hijacked the language of ethics for their cause, given the ethical poverty of their activism. We need to reclaim it for ourselves and to argue in favor of abortion rights from a moral perspective.

***For More Information***
For more on Sarah Palin and her position on abortion, check out this website. Also see Machiavelli’s The Prince and Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics for arguments about the discursive separation of international morality from domestic morality.

Creative Commons License