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Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Authentic Liberal Spirit

When I was an adolescent and a teen, I was a liberal.  I simply liked the whole spirit of liberalism as I saw it then: Defending the defenseless, helping the helpless, speaking for the voiceless. It spoke of heroism and self-sacrifice in the name of justice, like those civil rights workers who were killed down south.  I admired them in the same kind of way as I admire the martyrs of the Church.  Somewhere around the early to mid 1970s, though, liberalism got off track and it abandoned the most defenseless, helpless, and voiceless among us in the name of defending another oppressed group.  Suddenly, liberalism's platitudes fell flat.

There is an Australian woman whose website title is her name, Melissa Ohden.  The subtitle: "Abortion survivor. Voice of the Voiceless."

There you go.  As an abortion survivor, she speaks for the contents of the uterus that are removed and discarded in abortion.

In the pursuit and defense of the rights of minorities against injustices of all kinds, liberalism began grasping for "rights" that exceeded justice.  Everyone and every group has a right to an education and other services that are every bit as good as what any other group is getting. But does any oppressed group have a right not only to secure equal treatment, but to go beyond that and attain preferential treatment?

Logic and justice tell us No. When the fight for justice become a fight for preferential treatment, it becomes instead a fight for institutionalized injustice, which is exactly what liberalism is supposed to fight against. It also becomes a fight simply to overturn social structures - social structure requires an authority structure, which in some people's minds is inherently oppressive to someone; therefore, social structures are evil and must be overthrown. It doesn't really matter what those social structures are. (This is a principle, by the way, of the Communist Manifesto.) The destruction of the social order is couched in phraseology of social justice.  Insofar as contemporary liberalism actually does stand for social justice, I would support it.  Insofar as it goes beyond that, I do not.

The abortion issue is certainly a key bioethical issue of our day.  Authentic bioethics must adequately consider the plight of the pregnant woman, and do so thoroughly of course.  I have extreme compassion for women in difficult pregnancies. However, authentic bioethics must also give adequate consideration also to the other end of the abortion procedure. Abortion is never the only way of dealing with a medical difficulty in pregnancy, and most abortions - like the one that failed in Melissa's case - are not for medical difficulties.  What was in her mother's uterus? The question is actually falsely worded.  Not "what" but "who".  Either way, the answer is Melissa. A Melissa or Ashley or Michael or Stephen is in every uterus in every pregnancy that is terminated. There is no science to prove otherwise, and all scientific evidence that can be brought to bear on the topic, not to mention reasoned logic, only supports that answer.

Their position on abortion has caused what we call "liberals" today to fall on the wrong side of a whole host of bioethical issues as far as I can tell - almost all of them in fact, except for maybe the death penalty, and so I wonder why they are on the side they are about that. 

Instead of heeding Melissa's voice, abortion providers have stopped using that particular procedure, so as to better ensure that voices like Melissa's are never heard. Silencing the small voices. Keeping the weak in their place. If liberalism lived up to its original principles, the principles that resonated in my heart when I was a kid, I'd be a liberal today. Melissa Ohden is living up to those principles.

One last thing.  If I call liberalism to task for abandoning its roots - for abandoning me - that is not to say I am therefore endorsing any other place on the political spectrum.  If I say I don't like orange, it doesn't mean I therefore like blue.  Maybe I do like blue, but maybe I like green or red or something else or maybe nothing else.

Thanks to NewAdvent.org for linking to a post on ProlifeBlogs.com for relaying a post on AustralianChristianLobby.org.au for linking to Melissa's website.


  1. Mario:

    I subscribe to the New Advent blog aggregator on Google Reader, so that's how I noticed this post. I have a comment based on what I've written about this on my own blog.

    I agree with what you've written, but I think you've overlooked the essence of contemporary liberalism. There's an older kind of "liberalism" which is best exemplified in the American constitutional experiment, and is quite compatible with acknowledging "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God"--to use the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence. Such liberalism can, self-consistently, recognize the right of the unborn not to be killed. Until 1973, that's what it often did, and I'm sure that's the kind you subscribe to even now. But there's also a more radical and virulent brand of liberalism: the brand that 19th-century popes seem to have had in mind when condemning "liberalism." That's the brand prevalent today, and that's the one you're uncomfortable with.

    According to that brand, the most basic good for human beings is autonomy: literally, "giving oneself the rule" by which one chooses to live. What is chosen is therefore less important than its being chosen, so long as the choices one makes and lives by are compatible with others' choosing with equal autonomy. From this point of view, the unborn have no "inherent" rights because they are incapable of autonomy, and thus do not count as persons whose integrity and autonomy is to be respected by other, co-equal persons. Whatever rights they might have are those we choose, for our own reasons, to give them. And what we give, we can take away.

    It is this ideology of radical autonomy that explains other features of contemporary liberalism, such as the movement for embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, and gay marriage. As an Illinois state senator, President Obama even voted for allowing what amounts to infanticide. That ideology also explains liberals' enthusiasm for "preferential treatment" of certain groups. What groups? Those seen as oppressed victims of the presumptively powerful. Whatever allows some people less scope for personal autonomy than others is bad and must be rectified by treating them specially, so that they can gain the same degree of autonomy as "the powerful"--which usually means white, Western males like you and me.

    The radical autonomism of contemporary liberalism is incompatible with the Catholic faith, and in my opinion even with common sense. I hope you'll agree.


  2. Thanks, Mike, yes I basically agree with what you've said. However, I'm not sure that I subscribe to old-fashioned American liberalism, either, since the notion of "defending the defenseless" is not manifestly a part of that, even if it's not excluded by it. It did seem to be part of liberalism in the 1960s. However, although I am beginning to think that for some people involved, not all but some, it was just an expedient sham.

    I generally shy away from overtly political topics except to the degree bioethics extends into politics. I am neither a political philosopher nor an historian. I try to focus on the bioethical issue and the reasoning employed in deliberating it.

    I strayed a bit with this one. It is an election year after all.

  3. Anyone who is truly liberal will also be conservative, and vice versa.