Discouraging Heroes: On Motive and the Abortion Debate

Concern over Motive

A few years ago, someone who claimed to be a feminist woman wrote an article—which turned out to be a fake—in which she declared that she had aborted her baby upon learning that the child was a boy. The rationale was terrible and simple: She “knew” that the boy would grow up to be a monster—like all men are—and so decided to end his life before he had a chance to become that monster.

Let me repeat: This article was a fake. And those who were pro-choice were intent to show any and all who cared that it was fake.

But why would they protest such an article, as if it is some horrible thing that only those who really hated abortion would believe?

I do not believe that we need to go into some sort of pro-choice bashing here, and so this “why?” does not arise out of any broad, sweeping claim that all who are pro-choice are misandrists and so forth. The question is far more basic than that: If you believe that a woman has the right to kill an unborn child within her, what do you care the reasons?

The most obvious answer seems to be something like this: It reflects poorly on the abortion debate if someone has an abortion from reasons other than those that arise directly from the difficulty of having a child. Lacking finances, being raped, etc., are all embraced as good reasons for aborting a child. Anticipation of (stereotyped) malevolence based on the sex of the child seems a tad too presumptuous and malicious to be a good reason.

But why consider the reasons when “abortion on demand” is the standard position of most abortion advocates?

The simple answer exposes something about the worldview of abortion advocates that we may find both compelling and disturbing.

But, first, let’s consider an analogous situation. Say you are a 2nd Amendment advocate. Imagine  a story arises about someone who possesses a gun because he believes that all people of a certain race are monstrous beasts who simply want to destroy the world. Just to be clear: He only possesses the gun, he shows no evidence that he will use it, except in self-defense.[1] Would you consider this a story that threatens support for the 2nd Amendment?

Perhaps. For it suggests that the guy is a tad confused and a racist, and it seems dangerous to put guns into the hands of racists and the confused. Nevertheless, unless there is evidence of criminal intent or a background of criminal activity, most 2nd Amendment supporters would likely say something like, “Yeah, that guy is an idiot, but, as long as there is no evidence of serious danger, he should be allowed to exercise his rights just like everyone else.”

Why, then, would it matter that this (imaginary) woman had such bad motives, when it wouldn’t matter in similar cases regarding other lawful issues? I think the obvious reason, mentioned above, is really only the surface of a deeper reason: That legal rights arise out of the experience of oppression. Or, more to the point, the purpose of the law is to remove victims from situations of victimhood.

As Christians (and just decent human beings) we should find this compelling because protection of and care for those who are oppressed is a central element of Scripture. In turn, there is no question that pregnancy and child-rearing costs women far more than it does men—particularly when such large numbers of men have tossed aside the duties that come with getting a woman pregnant.

And this is perhaps where those of us who oppose abortion turn a blind eye: We say something like, “Well, she shouldn’t have had sex in the first place!” or something akin to this. But that fight is a different, and difficult, issue.[2] More importantly, it doesn’t help the woman who is already pregnant.

But there is another side to this that seems a little less positive. That victims should be treated with compassion and helped is unquestionably a demand of the Bible. But, really, two questions remain: How do you identify a victim? And what kind of help should one give a victim?

Helping and Hurting

Let’s look at these in reverse. First, what kind of help should be given to a victim? I am not, in fact, going to answer this question in the positive. Rather, I’m going to suggest that the answer we usually think of (remove whatever is causing the suffering) is not necessarily right.

The most natural response to the question of how to help a victim is simple: Remove that which is causing their suffering. And often this is precisely the right answer. If someone is trapped under a fallen tree, remove the tree if you are able. If someone is dying from cancer, destroy the cancer if you are able. And so on.

But there are times when removing that which is causing the suffering is not the right answer. Examples abound: If a nagging wife is causing suffering, you don’t remove the wife. You learn to communicate, work out the problems. If you have a broken arm, you don’t remove the arm. You suffer through it being re-set and wait out the healing process.

That is, it is good to remove that which causes suffering and also has no significant value.[3] It is not necessarily the case that you remove that which causes suffering and has value.

Of course, one might simply respond that the second set of things causing suffering were in fact an obfuscation of the issue. For the arm is not causing the suffering, the brokenness of the arm is causing the suffering, and we do want to remove the brokenness (by making it whole again). I’m quite happy to agree to this.

So, if we consider the woman the victim of the pregnancy, there is at least some reason to believe that the unborn baby has value. And, indeed, it is not the baby that is technically causing the suffering. It is the state of the world that makes so that having a baby causes suffering.

What this suggests is that we should try to remove those things that cause having a baby to bring suffering.

What are those things? Depends on whom you ask. They might be the outward effects, such as career interruption, stress, lack of sleep, painful lower back, and so forth. They might also include other elements, such as the woman’s (and man’s) attitude toward the child—that is, if she considered the value of having a child greater than that of career advancement, stress-free living, sleep, a pain-free back, and so forth, then she would not consider unbearable the suffering that comes with having a child.

It is reasonable that either of these would mitigate the experience of suffering, or at least transform it into something meaningful, rather than it amounting to empty suffering. Thus, it seems reasonable that, barring any reasons to the contrary, we should work to remove both forms of difficulty. The former would be done by helping to make things easier for women who have children, the latter would be done by a cultural transformation of the view of children—or, more simply and directly, by befriending and helping to en-courage a woman struggling with her pregnancy.

Are these things happening? To some extent, yes, and yet for many, many women, the support (whether financial or moral) is lacking. Imagine, though, that society had become supportive of pregnant women and their children to the extent that pro-choice advocates could not claim financial and career issues as justification for abortion: Free healthcare, extensive paid leave, lasting until the child entered kindergarten, free child care while working and one or two evenings a week so that the mother can have a social life, and subsidies that covered any extra costs that come with having a child (including food, healthcare, clothing, living space, etc.).

Would this bring an end to the desire for abortion to be legal? This is speculative, but I think it would not. Because, to put it quite simply, a child is a burden, even if you take away almost every aspect of financial, career, and health difficulties, a child is a responsibility that calls you away from your own pursuits. Of course, I think the number of abortions would significantly decrease, but not the demand for open access.

While most pro-choice advocates present the financial, career, and health costs as the primary motivations for their position, the focus of their efforts is the perpetuation of easy access to abortion. And yet with other things of value, we do whatever we can to save them and make things better, or do what we can to become the kind of person that can live with the pain. Most of us would prefer an arm that hurts (as long as the pain wasn’t too intense) over losing that arm. Most of us would prefer a car that has recurrent trouble over having to walk.

That is why pro-choice advocates insist that the unborn is not in fact a child, but the mother’s body (which is irrefutably false), or a bit of tissue (a reductionism, which can be applied equally erroneously to all of us). Now, it is possible to debate whether, say, a zygote is a person, but it is active (self-)deception to suggest that the fetus, in whatever state, is valueless or simply a part of the mother.

And this matters a great deal. For virtue arises in people in learning to respond properly to what has value. Consider why and what happens when we try to get people to ignore the value of something. For example, you say to someone who has shown up late to some event, “It’s no big deal” (i.e. your being on time held little to no value). We say this to remove responsibility, to lessen the load on that person, which implies that we see them as too weak to handle the failure. And if they take this to heart, they will hear the message and be discouraged.

What happens when you do this to someone who has a huge responsibility (e.g. a baby) hanging over her? You say to her, “This fetus is no big deal.” And then you emphasize this point by showing how much trouble being a mother will be (as all pro-choice arguments do). In doing so, you remove the value of the child, and so show that this is all a bunch of trouble for nothing. Which magnifies the trouble—for things of great value make concomitant trouble seem less important, while things of little value make concomitant trouble seem greater. To devalue things of value in order to reduce the person’s sense of responsibility serves to dis-courage the person into weakness and vice. And with that comes an empty life.

But it’s time to talk about how to understand what a victim is, for these ideas of suffering and value play directly into our conception of victimization.

The Victim and the Hero

What does it mean to be a victim? It seems we can approach this question in ways that are more and more precise. And each of these have different practical effects when we add the moral demand to help those who are victims. We can approach the definition broadly (rather imprecisely), such that whenever you suffer anything that you did not directly cause, you are a victim. So, I can be a victim of a drought, a splinter, or even the effects of my own addiction (I may have directly put that drug into my body, but the overdose, ruined marriage and career, or vehicular manslaughter was an indirect effect of my action). But, though we all suffer pain in life, it would be weird to emphasize this so much as to call everyone a victim. If we add the moral demand to help, then we find that we simply help anyone and everyone arbitrarily. And it would be strange to focus our resources on the upper-middle class father who has been victimized by a stubbed toe just as much as we do a victim of human trafficking.

We could modify this, developing a little more precision, by adding a spectrum of suffering: Bob may have suffered a splinter, but never really suffered otherwise. That makes Bob barely a victim. Barbara suffered abuse, neglect, oppression, and so forth, and thus is a real victim, maybe a super-victim. We must focus our efforts primarily on those who are, or who are closest to being, super-victims. This doesn’t mean that we cannot help others, but we should never take away from super-victims to help lesser victims. This, by the way, is essentially the nature of the intersectionality movement in social justice.[4]

While this is somewhat the mainstream approach and has some obviously good elements about it, it does not seem to bring everything that we naturally understand to be included in victimhood. For example, while each of us may be victims of a variety of things, I think most of us would be reluctant to consider ourselves victims if we are able to stand up and overcome the difficulty facing us. A child abused by a parent is a victim, while a man abused by another man seems less a victim, at least as long as they are relatively similar in power. So, too, one might be a victim of an earthquake, but we might be less sympathetic when one is “victimized” by a hurricane from which one had plenty of warning and resources to flee, and yet stayed, only to suffer badly.

Therefore, it seems that we should add a second modification: Victimization must include an element of helplessness. The more helpless one is before that which causes the suffering, the more one is a victim.

While each is, in the first definition, a victim of suffering in this world, and, as noted by the first modification, these kinds of suffering can vary widely, so too, as the second modification, even with great suffering, one’s status as a victim depends on one’s lack of capacity to avoid or overcome the situation.

And these, well, intersect: If Jake suffers greatly from lung cancer, but has smoked two packs a day for 60 years, you might say, “Well, Jake knew what he was doing. He’s not a victim, except of his own choices.” If, on the other hand, Jake suffers greatly from lung cancer, but has been conscientious about his health, then you might consider him more a victim.

So, too, consider Belinda who has been diagnosed with a heart condition and is told that eating well and exercising regularly will significantly increase her health and life prospects, but she changes nothing and ends up in the hospital dying. Is Belinda a victim? Yes, insofar as she had this heart condition and is now dying. But, no, insofar as she could have done something to improve her situation.

How then do we identify victims? Well, that is not easy to determine. For it seems to revolve around the level of suffering and how much one can do about that suffering. But how can that ever be determined? We hear stories of people who suffered great loss and great difficulty, from Helen Keller (who overcame being blind, deaf, and mute) to Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, Socrates, Martin Luther King, Jr., and (of course) Jesus, none of which, I think, would consider themselves victims.[5] We also hear stories of people who had no recourse, the Jews in Germany, the countless Russians purposely starved by Stalin, those trapped (physically and mentally) by the oppressive North Korean regime, those enslaved and abused in the antebellum South and under Jim Crow laws, and the innumerable, unnamed, voiceless day-to-day folks who have been crushed by oppressors everywhere throughout all of human history. And then there are those who have names and voices that cry about the various forms of oppression they have suffered.

Attempting to define and categorize victimization will get needlessly complex and difficult. But it seems to me that there are at least two things to be learned just from the above paragraph: First, people who suffer greatly under someone else’s evil sometimes become heroes. Second, those who do so rarely claim to be victims, or at the very least, act to overcome their situation.

And this is not necessarily because they got away from the suffering caused by others. It is because they were filled with a purpose, a recognition of something of value that overshadowed the suffering they were experiencing or would experience.

Don’t miss the deeper point in this: If one’s purpose is to avoid suffering (and acquire pleasure) only, then one cannot have a purpose that overshadows great suffering (and great pleasure lost) in one’s life. This is paramount! For it implies that those who have a purpose that goes beyond the fulfillment of their own desires tend to deny victim status. In short, if you have real purpose, you are not likely to consider yourself a victim.

So, too, I would suggest that those who are most likely to focus on victimhood are those whose focus is to have others act on behalf of victims, rather than have victims overcome. Now, this is perfectly appropriate in many cases where the victims are truly incapable of overcoming their circumstances (think of abused children, those who are made addicts so as to keep them from fleeing their enslavement by human traffickers, etc.)—that is, their agency is significantly reduced.

But how does this relate to abortion? No, I’m not taking this to the question of rape and incest. Rather, let us consider what it means to attempt to reduce the value of the child so as to isolate and emphasize the suffering, and thus the victim status of the mother: This serves as a means of discouraging her agency (removing the valued thing that would give her purpose) and reducing her to a pursuer of pleasure, avoider of pain (i.e. an animal). In such a state, she is not encouraged to grab hold of her crisis, recognizing the value of the child within her, and rising heroically over her circumstances toward a purpose that overshadows the suffering. Instead, she is discouraged through the denial of the value[6] of the pregnancy/child, and so pursue the path of least resistance.

I cannot help but find this attempt to discourage women through the devaluing of the human life growing within them to be vicious and degrading—not merely to the child, but to women! Women are capable of great things, of great heroism. But heroism can only arise through the courage of recognizing value and purpose beyond one’s own benefit.[7]

One might respond again: That is a horrible thing to say (particularly since I’m a man), for women suffer far more from child-rearing and bearing than men. And my response is simply: Heroism takes place in conditions of suffering, for that is where we see whether someone really values some good.[8]

Back to the Rationale

So, let us return to that fake article over which so many got stirred, in which the writer claimed to be a feminist who aborted her son because he was a boy. What is wrong about such a motive? For whether a woman chooses to abort her son because he’s a boy and she despises men, or whether she chooses to abort her son because she is shooting for tenure at a university, she is aborting her son.

I think the reason why pro-choice advocates were so energized to show it false (and so happy it was) was because such a choice exhibited moral agency in the woman, rather than showing her as a helpless victim. And this suggests that she is able to grasp greater purposes and act on them, rather than being forced by circumstances to pursue what seems to be the only way out of her situation. That is, it made it seem like she was the perpetrator, and the baby the victim, rather than vice versa (which is the narrative pro-choice advocates must maintain).

Even setting aside concerns over the unborn, I am disturbed by this approach to the woman, which seeks to press her into the corner of the victim. Whether she is attempting to rid herself of a pimple or a baby, such an approach undermines her agency and her possibility for flourishing and meaning. And that it requires a concerted effort to devalue the unborn strikes me as monstrous.

But we cannot end here. For many who are against abortion believe that the overturning of Roe v Wade is the only goal. And while I agree that overturning that horrible decision is important, I believe that we have a culture that has an unhealthy attraction toward victimization, matched by its correlate, an unhealthy distrust of the virtuous hero.[9] We Christians have often fostered this attitude, particularly in how we approach the idea of compassion and in our attempts to magnify our experiences of persecution. Our purpose should be to foster within Christians that heroic virtue that boldly picks up even a terrible instrument of torture and death—you know, like a cross—and willingly suffers under it because we recognize the value in others, attempting to help them toward wholeness, shalom, which ultimately comes only through experiencing the hope that Christ offers. So we must strengthen the weak, guide the blind, encourage the fearful, pick up those who have fallen.

What about the women who find themselves pregnant and feel that this child will ruin their lives, even perhaps as they fear they’ll ruin the child’s life? We must come alongside them, fill them with a sense of their own value and greatness, as well as that of their child. Of course, that comes not with condemnation, nor with words alone. It comes primarily in that way in which Christ, who was once an unexpected and terribly inconvenient fetus in the womb of an unmarried woman, shows us His love for us and our own possibility of greatness: By giving of Himself for us. We love because He first loved us. We can do great things because He has done great things. Not because He put on a bumper sticker and called out from afar, condemning us for failing, and demanding that someone do something. No, we can do great things in giving ourselves for others because He gave Himself for us.

Let us remember that no matter what happens with the government’s approach to abortion, we are called to live, suffer, and die as Christ lived, suffered, and died: For the sake of those who don’t seem to deserve it. Then we, too, might stop declaring ourselves victims and join with Him who overcame that before which we were once helpless victims: death.

[1] This is important to keep in mind, for he is only doing what the law allows. To murder someone is against the law, and 2nd Amendment supporters are not actively supporting murder. So, too, the lady in the fake opinion piece only did what was legal—after all, there are no laws against having bad thoughts against the child you are aborting.

[2] I’ll be writing about sexual morality shortly because I think that we Christians have failed to affect culture positively because our approach to morality is a confusing mess of good and bad. Our culture has recognized the bad, but rejected the good with it. How then do we speak to our culture in a meaningful way about an issue when the Church and culture have such widely divergent views?

[3] This wording is perhaps a little sloppy, for a tree has value (and perhaps significant value). Obviously, another situation in which that which is causing suffering may be removed is when it has significant value, but that thing is not injured or destroyed through the process of removing it. A downed tree would obviously fit into this class.

[4] Intersectionality states that one’s state of oppressor/oppressed results from the multiple kinds of identity we possess. For example, a white cis-gender male possesses traits that possess power in our culture, while a black transgender woman possesses traits that are considered oppressed by others. A white cis-gender female is partly powerful (white, cis-gender) and partly oppressed (female). One’s level of victimization is a result of the intersection of these various traits.

[5] Jesus and Socrates both almost explicitly reject the idea that they were victims. Jesus states that nothing can be done except by the will of the Father, whose will He too acts upon. Socrates simply stated outright that evil people cannot hurt good people.

[6] Courage, after all, cannot exist apart from the recognition of a value that is greater than the suffering one is facing.

[7] It would be quite reasonable to respond here that some women may see great purpose in some other end they are trying to achieve (say, the acquisition of a position that would allow her to bring about great positive ends for numerous people), which the bearing of a child would keep from happening. This response would require its own separate post. At this point, I will only say the following: 1) This surely applies to only a tiny fraction of those seeking abortion (for is the goal really that good and truly for others, rather than oneself, and could not that end be achieved by someone else, etc. etc.), and 2) if indeed there are cases like this, perhaps we might grant that having the child serves to bring about a less measurable good (who can measure the value of a person?), but every other option should be entertained before abortion is considered. (You might be thinking I’m giving ground here to abortion advocates, but I’d simply ask you to consider whether if you really only had a choice—which, given modern medicine, almost never happens—between the choice of yourself/your wife—or your unborn child, which would you choose? What about between a child already born and your unborn? And so on. Granted, these are, in our society, exceedingly rare cases, but they are possible, particularly in less developed and affluent societies. These edge cases should not be used to justify all abortion, for they simply represent horrifying choices in terrible conditions—at best, the lesser of two evils—they are clearly not happy choices!)

[8] And, no, I’m not suggesting that we should make things harder for people so as to create the conditions for heroism.

[9] These are not “natural” attitudes—which is obvious due to the popularity of the victim-become-hero theme that is so prevalent in our favored stories—but they have been fostered and have begun to dominate the political, social, and religious discussions.

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