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BY Ellen Wilson Fielding
“The Limits of Politics” by William Murchison (Human Life Review, Winter 1999)
William Murchison, syndicated columnist and author of There's More to Life Than Politics, writes: “As is clear to those who can see past the end of their noses, the abortion movement and the euthanasia/ assisted suicide movement are genetic twins, feeding off the same ambivalence about life's goodness, the same syrupy addiction to ‘tolerance’ in human affairs. A lawmaker's rockbottom duty is the protection of life, born as well as unborn; but if on some days, in some years, all we can do is keep the killer doctors, the Kevorkians, at bay, that counts for something.
“At the start I spoke of that broad intersection where politics and morality meet. What happens when they meet? It depends on what issue you mean, and when the meeting takes place. When politics and morality reinforce each other, the meeting goes smoothly enough. In other words, when moral consensus underlies political judgment and political action, there is not much to fuss and fight about.
“Let me illustrate. There is a moral consensus about robbery — a thing everyone abhors, except for burglars, stick-up artists, and architects of the IRS Code. The moral consensus, based on direct instruction (the Bible, etc.) and intuition (You can't just take something from somebody!) holds that robbery must be prohibited and punished. … Not so with life issues — and with a great many other issues as well; issues revolving around what are often termed ‘lifestyle choices.’ … A lifestyle choice, in the argot of the 1990s, is one that affects the chooser alone. The chooser is lord of his own life so long as he leaves others to their own devices — respecting in others the freedom he asks for himself.
“By a painful and sometimes zig-zag process, the culture over the past 30 years has defined choices regarding sex, and sexual expression, as lifestyle choices par excellence — matters pertaining to the individual and the individual alone.
“This is curious, given that sex, though private and personal in nature, is rarely solitary, affecting only one person (the examination of pornography, for instance). Pregnancy results from the union of two people. What is more, it produces a third. This makes pregnancy, on any reasonable showing, a social occasion — one, that is, in which society takes an interest. Thus, prior to Roe v. Wade, the states made it their business to protect that third life by banning abortion. The Supreme Court was able to overturn these laws only after a process in which the new view of lifestyle was assimilated at the highest level. Pregnancy, which had formerly been social, became intensely individual — a matter for the woman and the God in whom she might or might not believe.
“As with abortion, so with euthanasia/assisted suicide. The killing of real outside-the-womb human beings stirs reservations that seem not to pertain in the cases of unborn babies, without names, almost without pasts. Still, Dr. Kevorkian (and his friends at 60 Minutes) are whooping it up for unfettered lifestyle choice. The quest for autonomy in death might not seem to be related directly to the quest for autonomy in sex. In fact, the latter gave rise to the former; it raised indelicately a once-scandalous contention, that, to put it bluntly, what's mine is mine. As the public adopted that viewpoint, legislators, who supposedly represent the public, started likewise to adopt it, at least for legislative purposes.
“What we stand for, the majority of us Americans, is … tolerance. What we need — critically so — is the restoration of norms and standards and an end to fuzzy, feel-good thinking about the equivalence of certain key ideas. The point may be unremarkable. I remark it by way of trying to demonstrate the limitations of politics.
“Democratic politics, however vital to our society, will take a modern American just so far. Organize, theorize, propagandize: still the voters have to agree. How is Congress going to abolish abortion unless the sovereign voters agree to its abolition: something (if polls are accurate) they are far from agreeing on?
“The anti-abortion crusade of the past quarter century has been vital in keeping alive intellectual opposition to abortion, but the crusade's failure so far to triumph in the political arena shows the character of the opposition. The task is only in part to chase from office the hollow men and women unwilling to attach supreme value to human life. The task is at least equally — I would argue more — to reinstill in American culture a sense of reverence for life.
“What's needed? Probably more example of personal concern for life by pro-lifers — like Marvin Olasky and his wife, organizing a crisis pregnancy center at their Austin, Texas, kitchen table and adopting, shall we say, cast-off children so as to love them.
“The task is cultural, broadly speaking. It is more precisely theological. At this sublime task the churches have lagged. Not that some churches — the Roman Catholic Church is notable here — have failed to speak up for the unborn life. The larger failure is more subtle: it is that of failing to connect all the dots in the great diagram of life, showing the diagram as one masterwork of God. With masterworks, you defer to the Master's wishes. You defer gladly, joyously, gratefully, as a matter of fact.”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.