Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Culture of death on the way out?

Tis the season when opposing marchers mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States. People who want to re-criminalize abortion marched in Washington -- USA Today reported their story:

We live in a culture of death," said [Ryan] Phillips, a high school senior who says he has attended the march 10 years in a row. "We'd like that to end."

This assumption is exactly the sort of thinking professor Steven Pinker tries to dispel in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The data say we emphatically do not live in a culture of death, says Pinker. In fact, all over the world, people are expanding our solicitude for lives that would once have been socially discounted.

Many opponents of legalized abortion predicted that acceptance of the practice would cheapen human life and put society on a slippery slope toward infanticide, euthanasia of the handicapped, a devaluation of the lives of children, and eventually widespread murder and genocide. Today we can say with confidence that that has not happened. Though abortion has been available in most of the Northern Hemisphere for decades, no country has allowed the deadline for abortions during pregnancy to creep steadily forward into legal infanticide, nor has the availability of abortion prepared the ground for euthanasia of disabled children. Between the time when abortion was made widely available and today, the rate of every category of violence has gone down, and, as we shall see, the valuation of the lives of children has shot up.

Opponents of abortion may see the decline in every form of violence but the killing of fetuses as a stunning case of moral hypocrisy. But there is another explanation for the discrepancy. Modern sensibilities have increasingly conceived moral worth in terms of consciousness, particularly the ability to suffer and flourish, and have identified consciousness with the activity of the brain. ... The change is a part of the turning away from religion and custom and toward science and secular philosophy as a source of moral illumination. ... The vast majority of abortions are carried out well before the milestone of having a functioning brain, and thus are safely conceptualized, according to this understanding of the worth of human life, as fundamentally different from infanticide and other forms of violence.

At the same time, we might expect a general distaste for the destruction of any kind of living thing to turn people away from abortion even when they don't equate it with murder. And that indeed has happened. It's a little-known fact that rates of abortion are falling throughout the world. ...abortions have also become less common in China, the United States, and the Asian and Islamic countries in which they are legal. Only in India and Western Europe did abortion rates fail to decline, and those are the regions where the rates were lowest to begin with.

Meanwhile, people more fixated on the flourishing of living women and families than on the fetus point out hard facts about abortion in the United States today. This video clip is unusually straight forward in explaining why some women continue to need legal abortion and how society could affirm women's humanity and autonomy, if we really wanted living women and children to thrive.

Well worth watching.