The Scarlet Letter

I used to argue a lot with friends about abortion.  I generally don’t any more.  I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the following things.

1) We humans are capable of just about any kind of imaginable evil.  I’ve studied and taught classes on gladiators in Ancient Rome and chattel slavery in the Americas.  I’m aware of human sacrifice by the Aztecs, the Terror Famine in the Ukraine under Soviet rule, and the series of genosuicides in China under Mao.  There is no limit to the human capacity to kill, in small and large scale, other humans.

2) There seems to be a notion that humans, especially mothers, would not knowingly kill their own children “if only they knew” what they were doing.  This is goal of shaming laws requiring ultrasounds, etc.  Perhaps this is true for many, many people.  Perhaps some of these laws have forced women to reconsider their choices and choose not to have someone assassinate their children.

But there is no shortage of humans in our population that do not feel that way, who are not swayed by the “don’t kill people, and especially don’t kill your own children” taboo that the rest of us seem to take as a base moral compass.

Sometimes dads rape their daughters.  Sometimes slave-owners enslave their own children.  Sometimes teachers and priests and Boy Scout leaders molest children.  Sometimes mothers kill their babies.

I think back on the story arc of the TV show Maude, where Bea Arthur’s titular character chooses to have an abortion.  What always gets me is the line where she says, “Pour me a double, I’m drinking for two, now.”  This is not a woman who was unaware that there was another living person inside her.  This is a woman who doesn’t care.

Among the first four people in the Bible, 25% of them turn out to be murderers, which is, I guess, as good a ballpark as any in estimating the number of people who live in our society willing, without much crisis, to do awful, awful things to their fellow man/own baby.

3) An even greater percentage than those openly willing to do evil are those willing to turn a blind eye to it.  Roman slavery was not without its critics (Seneca the younger comes to mind), but there were no serious attempts to abolish slavery.  Northerners pre-civil war saw abolitionists as pests at best and revolutionaries at worst.  “I personally would never own a slave, but who am I to tell someone else they can’t have one,” I think best sums up the general attitude in the North.  I can’t help but see the parallel between Calhoun’s defense of slavery and the modern pro-“choice” movement.  Sort of a mid-1800’s version of “Our property, Ourselves.”

I’m sure many of my friends will be saddened to know that I believe they would have supported the legality of slavery, gladiatorial combat, and the Deutsche Ovens, had they been there, but there it is.  I’m equally sure that they will not be swayed by my arguments, and probably won’t even understand them.

4) The greatest explanation of the human capacity for evil is the end of the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, when the jury finds the black man guilty of a crime they all know full well he could not have, and did not, commit.  But they do–unanimously, and probably slept soundly that night despite it (as much as fictional characters ever sleep).

There is no great difficulty in understanding that blacks were people, that Jews are people, or that fetuses* are people.  We know these prima facie, but some of us don’t care.  (*it’s a fourth declension noun and so fetus is the singular and plural form. Fetus is the plural in Latin, fetuses in English, never, ever “feti.”)

But in a world with child prostitution, ethnic cleansing, the chomosomicide of the mentally retarded, and suicide bombings, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that perhaps abortion is one more support for the theory that lots of people just don’t give a shit if other people die.


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