Edited by Spencer Ackerman
TODAY WE HAVE DONATED THE total cost of all subscriptions between Sept. 6 and Nov. 29 to two abortion charities in Texas, The Frontera Fund and Jane’s Due Process, which focus on abortion access to undocumented people and teenagers, respectively. For our fundraiser, the legendary punk rocker Ted Leo wrote and recorded a REIGN OF TERROR-inspired song with Spencer on drums and War on Women’s Sue Werner on bass. We committed to donating the costs of subscriptions during the period that “Into The Conquering Sun” was exclusively available through FOREVER WARS. The fundraiser continues at Ted’s Bandcamp, where, since Nov. 29, you can stream the track, as well as find the lyrics to it.
You FOREVER WARS subscribers have raised thousands of dollars for these charities since we announced this effort in September, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for it. The total was $3,325. Receipts are appended to the bottom of this post and an earlier post here.
Because there is currently a long-gestating effort to criminalize abortion before a Supreme Court that has been ruthlessly wrested away from the electorate by conservative Christians, it feels right to take a moment to explain why we wanted to hold this fundraiser and to engage with the anti-feminist position we hope to stop. As a Christian myself, and a former pro-lifer, I feel both acute embarrassment and a desire to confront the position I left behind too few years ago.
I HATE WRITING ABOUT my background. There are few safe spaces in the national media to discuss the unique problems of institutional American Christianity with any complexity. In general, our national press seems dominated by people who think of conservative Christians as a species of exotic and occasionally charming animal that occurs naturally only in Southern exurbs and might make suitable pets if they could only be housebroken. In fact, American Christianity is an enormous political and social movement that cuts across denominational lines and geography with its own parallel institutions and culture. My family is bound up in that movement in good ways and bad. I’ve mentioned it here.
One of the most deeply held tenets of the kind of Christianity in which I was raised is that abortion is simply murder by another name. For many Christians, this is the locus of most of their religious practice. They write and read books presenting elaborate thought experiments carefully calibrated to support their position. They volunteer at “crisis pregnancy centers” intended to talk women out of abortions. And they work to elect politicians who will reverse Roe v. Wade.
I don’t take part in this any more, but I used to. I find it very embarrassing to remember, but it doesn’t do anyone any lasting good to obscure the truth. As a kid and a teenager, I attended anti-abortion rallies and helped a family friend, a devout Christian, run in a number of Republican primaries. (He never won, probably because he wasn’t personally corrupt. Republican politics may be ideological but they are also filthy.) As I got older and left the conservative enclaves where I had gone to church, school, and college, I met more people who had had abortions and were comfortable telling me so, and I became pro-choice in a general way, with a sort of embarrassed sense that I hadn’t understood it very well. Perhaps (I hoped) this was all unknowable, or at least none of my business. When my own wife became pregnant with our son, I learned as much as I could about reproductive health and the laws that restrict it, that embarrassment at my former self curdled into disgust.
And at that point, I decided that not only was abortion very urgently my business, the only moral thing to do was to work as hard as I could to undo the damage I had helped to wreak as a “pro-life” man. I hope that the money you have all so generously given will serve as some small payment against that enormous debt.
ROSS DOUTHAT, IN THE NEW York Times, makes the case “against abortion.” He doesn’t quite describe his argument as the case for outlawing abortion, the goal of the movement he represents so often and zealously in his column. The column is worth reading because it illustrates the extent to which pro-lifers are willing to engage with the pro-choice case. I would say it is actually more engaged with pro-choice thought than most of Douthat’s allies at conservative churches and and publications and think tanks. The argument is interesting for how much it both implies and reveals.
“At the core of our legal system, you will find a promise that human beings should be protected from lethal violence,” Douthat writes. “Not to kill,” he says, is “a fundamental duty.” Douthat attributes his opposition to abortion to science. He knows that a zygote is in every meaningful sense a person “from embryology,” not from the tenets of his Catholic faith. He offers pro-choicers olive branches throughout the column, saying that pro-lifers’ monomania has let their opponents believe that they only care about children who are still in the womb. But the foundation of his argument is this: “There is no way to seriously deny that abortion is a form of killing.”
There is of course a way to deny this. I deny it enthusiastically. Lots of forms of human life can be ended without “killing” a person. My hair is human life. A molar pregnancy is in fact a unique form of human life that will never exist again, but it cannot become a baby, no matter what newspaper you write for. Zygotes are constantly being tossed into medical waste containers at IVF clinics. Precious few picketers can be seen outside their doors.
“[A] distinct human organism comes into existence at conception, and every stage of your biological life, from infancy and childhood to middle age and beyond, is part of a single continuous process that began when you were just a zygote,” Douthat continues. This is a nicely constructed logic trap, but what is “conception?” Lots of zygotes don’t implant in the walls of the uterus; this isn’t even considered a miscarriage, much less the death of a child. It is weird for Douthat to draw the line here if he’s arguing from “science.” One reason I can think of that he might want to do so is that people who oppose abortion also often oppose contraception, including IUDs that prevent implantation.
It may be that just because something has the potential to become something else, it can’t be assumed that it will or even ought to become that thing. If a teenager has the genetic potential to become a gold-medalist Olympic swimmer, it does not necessarily follow that life will lead them there, especially not if they would prefer to become a novelist. Like Douthat, an Olympian may look back and see only the path that led to the highest place on the tri-level podium, but an adolescent can only look forward and see a fork in the road. Choice, then, seems more important than destiny, and a zygote can’t make choices. It is far crueler to everyone involved to take away that teenager’s freedom by insisting they deliver an unwanted child.
ACCORDINGLY, THE TRUTH IS THAT to address any of these cases specifically would be not merely to consider the real people policed by the draconian and often fatal legislation that conservatives are so loath to discuss in detail, but to admit that our efforts to preserve life can make it less worth the living.
People may live without brain activity. Every adult understands what it means to have loved someone so much that their death comes as a relief because it marks the end of their suffering. A miscarriage at eight weeks is simply not the same thing, or even the same sort of thing, as a school shooting that kills a child. And there are birth defects so extreme that they will absolutely kill the fetus, and maybe the mother.
Perhaps there is some invisible principle at work in the decision to force something to slowly gain sentience, learn only pain, and then die without even the dignity of the words to describe that pain. That principle seems unmoored from any scriptural doctrine or indeed, any standard of decency. Abortion is no more pleasant than any other surgery but its necessity is vividly clear; it has been around far longer than the objection to it on supposedly ultimate moral grounds, no matter how eager its opposition is to clothe itself in history and tradition.
Pregnancy is not a passive process; ask anyone who’s been through it. To use the power of the state to impose it, and then a birth, probably a dangerous one, on anyone who has not enthusiastically consented to those things is frankly obscene. It privileges the pseudoscientific personhood of a blastocyst over the visible personhood of someone demanding not to be physically and psychically maimed.
In metaphorical terms, and involving only men to avoid further frightening anyone, the current pro-life position is not much different from legislating that I give a kidney to my mailman, who will die without it. To me, personally, it does not much matter if the mailman is in desperate straits, or even if he is a blameless specimen of humanity. Even if the mailman is a dear friend, one to whom I would happily give a kidney, I think I would probably resent it if I was vivisected by the state and my organs were redistributed to him on the basis of need.
Douthat responds to a version of this argument by declaring that a fetus “is not some adult stranger but the woman’s child.” Again, the child-ness of a zygote is a bizarre contention, but it is also important to ask why it matters under the law that the zygote is “not an adult stranger.” Whether Douthat or Amy Coney Barrett or anyone else believes a pregnant woman owes some greater duty to his or her unwanted fetus than they owe to a stranger, they do not derive that belief from the law, the opinion of the majority of the electorate, the sciences, or any other metric we use to govern this country. It is an article of their faith. That faith is not our law. When my coreligionists conspire to make it law, they do so illegitimately.
WHILE I APPRECIATE conservatives’ protestations of sincerity, I often don’t believe them even a little. Really? You think that the women’s clinic down the road is literally murdering babies every day, and your response is to hold a sign outside the door and yell at the patients?
"When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life,” Clyde Chambliss, a Republican state senator in Alabama, said of the abortion ban he sponsored. Asked why the ban included an explicit exception for in-vitro fertilization, Chambliss explained, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant."
That’s the ballgame, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s worth noting that you can’t invent a position so extreme that no one will take it. Many pro-lifers forthrightly want to end IVF. They want to end medical experimentation using tissue from abortions. Some object to the use of HEK-293, a kidney cell line that originated with a fetus aborted in about 1972—this is why extreme pro-lifers object to the COVID vaccines. (Other drugs that use HEK-293: Tylenol, Tums, Mucinex, Robitussin, Lipitor, etc, etc, etc). You can call these people hypocrites and some of them will write long, bizarre disquisitions explaining why it’s moral to take Tylenol but not to conceive a child using artificial insemination, but some will simply become even more extreme. I don’t think this sort of full-blown anti-biology lunacy will find purchase in the wider Republican party. But then, I didn’t think we’d be facing down the end of Roe, either.
At the moment, the most pressing danger here is not to babies but to women, whose right to determine the course of their lives is endangered by the bans in Texas and Mississippi, and “trigger laws” that will ban lifesaving and liberating procedures in 21 states if Roe is overturned.
Roe v. Wade was not decided in a vacuum. Lawmakers understood that women need abortions to participate fully in society—indeed, to be full people under the law. I dislike even pointing it out, but children who have been abused often need abortions. The subject is very unpleasant and that’s a reason to pay more attention to it, not less. Attributing full personhood to a zygote is not at all different from declaring most of modern medicine irretrievably tainted by stem cell experimentation. Biological illiteracy and corresponding conspiracism will make for bad laws, and those laws will not stop with pregnant bodies. People who cannot bear children must stand beside people who can, because the pro-life movement threatens all of our lives.
That is why we called on you to raise money for abortion charities, and you answered with thousands of dollars. We hope it does a little good and again, we thank you so much for your contributions.