Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 30 (February 1993): 2-4.
I read "Abortion and a Nation at War" in your October 1992 issue with interest, and might have found it persuasive if I had an open mind on the subject. But I do not have an open mind on the subject, and don't see how any decent person can in light of the widespread misery caused by "pro-lifers" and their campaign to force unwanted children into the world. Talk of the rights of the fetus is silly. How can the unborn, with no responsibilities, have a right greater than that of the woman already here and faced with the heavy responsibilities that motherhood entails? Why is she at fault if she feels that her means will not let her adequately meet these responsibilities, and spares herself and the potential child a probably dreary future? Why should not the choice be made by the person most directly concerned rather than by the self-righteous busybodies who torment unhappy women at abortion clinics?
Your editorial gives away your own prejudice by references to "pro-abortionists." No one is pro-abortion per se. It is admittedly a choice of evils, and admittedly it can be abused, as when resorted to merely as a convenience rather than to escape probable future wretchedness. But you don't have to go to poor third world countries to see the hordes of unwanted children begging and stealing in the streets to get the message. There is plenty of misery here, for which "pro-lifers" are answerable, largely because of their policy of denying clinical care for poor women.
The arguments against abortion can sound very high-minded, and the people who present them clearly think of themselves as on the side of the angels, and yet, confronted by the wretchedness that comes from the success of their efforts, like the priest in the parable they pass by on the other side. . . .
I have yet to hear or read an argument that can sway me in myconviction that pro-choice is the way of righteousness.
Blue Bell, PA
In an otherwise illuminating editorial, it is asserted that "of all democratic countries, the U.S. is far away the most permissive on abortion." This is not true. Since the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Morgentaler (1988) holding even relatively minor criminal code restrictions on abortion contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (on similar-and similarly spurious-grounds as those of the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade), Canada has been without restrictions on abortion. I suppose Canada remains a "democratic" country, albeit one wonders.
Faculty of Law
University of Western Ontario
FIRST THINGS misses the point ("The Electoral Uses and Abuses of Religion," December 1992) that the Christian Coalition is an historic alliance of evangelical Protestants and pro-life Roman Catholics. No matter what its name, it would be known as a Christian coalition because that's what it is.
We must get over our fear that using religious terms in political discourse will corrupt them. Should we drop words such as peace, hope, and love in political contexts because their religious meaning might be obscured?
Unlike the political activities of Church officials, an independent coalition of Christians need not politicize the Church. (Pat Robertson is no longer a member of the clergy.) Concrete political actions have an ambiguity that may make the theologically-minded uneasy, but we should not let that stop us from returning religion to the public square.
In "On Marrying, Again" (November 1992), Kari Jenson Gold presents two worlds: "the dark, always vulnerable world of private thought," and the "bright and clarity-filled world of action." At 22, she passionately believed the second, public world could enable spouses to keep their marriage vows, which they brought from private dark to communal light. No more. The public light has faded, with the disappearance of all communal absolutes. And Gold's belief has faded, too.
Gold's two worlds are not enough. She has missed from the start that large, transcendent world in which God shines forth, the source of any light we have. Her absolutes have disappeared because they were grounded in a changeful world. Accusing our culture of using Christianity's language without its substance, she does the same, speaking of judgment and forgiveness only in terms of societal judgment and forgiveness, which, indeed have passed away in this guilt-erasing culture. But what if our absolutes are connected to a real, eternal Person who always judges and forgives according to his mercy and grace? Then, although battered by difficult relationships and confused by shifting public values, we might discover that we are still connected to the God in whom and by whom and through whom all things hold together. There is, indeed, a still point in this turning world, who grounds these moral convictions of ours in permanent and personal ways. But to find this still point, we must look to a larger world than that of ourselves or of purely human society.
Otherwise we will be left only with Gold's meager hope that marriage and all of morality might somehow survive the ravages of culture. The prayer for grace with which she closes must fly farther than she seems to send it: to the God who make us and who alone will enable us to obey him.
Niel and Kathleen Nielson
I can find nothing much to disagree with in the Nielsons' response, except that they seem to have missed the point. My essay was, in fact, an argument for the inevitable and complete reliance upon God. But what God chooses to make of me-of us-is up to him (it has certainly not been what I'd anticipated), and many a marriage apparently grounded in Christian or Jewish faith has foundered, even as some marriages thrive without benefit of any religion. One might, of course, say that my confidence in myself and hope in the world were always misguided, indeed sinful, but surely we must always strive for a better and more faithful creation, and lament when we fall short. Understanding that what comes of the world is finally up to God does not free us from responsibilities now. Indeed, it frees us to work harder.
Mary Ann Glendon's article, "Tradition and Creativity in Culture and Law" (November 1992), gives a mostly abstract and noetic explication of British common law, and does not take up the matter of common law as history, as it has affected the politics of the British people and others who experienced it in the political and social life of Britain and Ireland for centuries. The pragmatic effects of common law are what ultimately define it, not the notions of the academy.
What we have had in British political life under British common law is a procrustean class system, one of the most fixed in the world, confirming aristocratic and plutocratic class rule, rigidly preventing the overwhelming numbers of the lower class from gaining equality, representation in government, decent working conditions, the right to union organization, suffrage, and acceptable living standards until the end of the nineteenth century. What is patent in the law in England is the effort of the jurists and parliamentarians to maintain the status quo and upper-class status and privilege until the industrial revolution, when the lower classes were eventually able to win the franchise and some [place] for themselves in governance after years of effort and much resistance. Common law did not serve the common good well.
We have one of many flagitious examples in Ireland as point. In the seventeenth century British law imposed penal laws on the Irish people, laws whose intent was to destroy the Roman Catholic religion in Ireland as had been done in England and Scotland and Wales. Edmund Burke declared these laws to be "as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man." These laws were in effect for over 200 years until Catholic Emancipation in 1829.
In Britain itself, there developed a society based on class, countenanced in law, wherein two societies existed, totally separated, one rich, the other poor and deprived. . . .
Law in itself is necessary, good, and salutary for the individual human being to exist in security in society. Its end is the common good. To that purpose it has enabled British people to live together in a British government. But the law has not been a perfect modality, nor does it result in total justice and without fault. It has been full of inequities and inequalities and disabilities. Therefore, it is necessary from time to time to change the law to improve it to suit the needs of the times and the people since different individuals and different generations see things differently, and for reasons of justice.
Those who support the thesis that the law is power and preference and command have much to sustain them in British history and the history of other countries as well.
Staten Island, NY
Gertrude Himmelfarb's splendid article ("Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History,') includes this statement: "The political theorist William Dunning said that one of the happiest days of his life was when he discovered, by a comparison of handwriting, that Andrew Jackson's first message to Congress was actually drafted by George Bancroft." Bancroft drafted the first message to Congress of Andrew Johnson, not Andrew Jackson. Most likely this is a mere typo, yet an unfortunate one, given the nature and purpose of the article.
Professor Emeritus of History
Western Michigan University
Professor Castel is, of course, right; it should have been Andrew Johnson, not Andrew Jackson. My unconscious was obviously avenging my critique of deconstruction by deconstructing my own text.