On the Abortion Trump Card

A lot has been written about evangelical support for Trump, including this excellent piece by Hollis Phelps. I share Phelps’s cynical view of the leadership, but for many everyday evangelicals, the picture is not so stark. They are not political nihilists seeking power and recognition for themselves, at least not primarily, and they do not have elaborate theories of how Trump is a modern-day Cyrus annointed by God to bring the chosen people to the promised land. Rather, for most of them, I imagine that what led them to hold their nose and vote for a man like Trump is the same thing that leads them to vote for Republicans every time: abortion.

That is the moral trump card, and now that it has literally led to Trump, I think it’s past time to ask whether it is really a moral trump card at all, or whether it’s just a convenient excuse to do what feels comfortable and familiar.

I will concede that the fetus is alive and is a member of the human species biologically. I don’t want to debate “when life begins” — it seems indisputable that some kind of biological life is beginning at conception. But does a life begin then? Does the fetus begin to live its life from the moment it is conceived? Is it the kind of being that even has a life yet?

If that question seems abstract, I’ll give an example of the kind of biologically human entity that has a life: a Latina teenager who is allowed to stay in the United States under Obama’s DACA program. It is stated in Trump’s plan for his first 100 days that he will summarily end that program, and that will ruin lives. This Latina teenager will be uprooted — whether immediately or over a grace period — from the life she knows in the US and sent to a place she likely has no memory of. All the hopes and dreams she has for her life here will be radically over, and she will have to start over from scratch. Maybe she will have relatives there to take care of her, and maybe her life will somehow be even better. But the plan does not take any of those contingencies into account — she’s here illegally and needs to be gone.

This policy shift will not directly kill her — though again, the policy doesn’t evince any actual concern for whether she lives or dies once she’s out of the country — but it will definitely uproot and destroy everything she has known as her life. And to support Trump on pro-life grounds is effectively to say that her life, which is actually unfolding, which she is currently experiencing, which she had planned and dreamed and hoped for, is worth less than the purely biological life of someone who hasn’t even been born yet. Is this the moral high ground, or a sick parody of moral deliberation?

Worse: the certainty that her life will be ruined is less important than the outside chance that a future Supreme Court justice will tip the balance in favor of someone who hasn’t been born yet, who has never yet experienced or thought or loved or hoped. Because the irony is that there have been Republican majorities on the Supreme Court more often than not in the time since Roe v. Wade, and yet they somehow never got around to doing what is ostensibly the most important thing.

And why should they? As soon as it’s repealed, suddenly the pro-life movement is no longer a monolithic voting bloc and can start considering other options. They have their locked-in votes from the evangelicals as long as Roe v. Wade stands, and they can get away with anything else they want to do — including nominating a man who is a virtual embodiment of everything that Christians supposedly oppose, and who barely bothers to give lip service to the pro-life position.

It should be a rule of thumb: when someone presents you with an absolute, non-negotiable moral trump card, they are not appealing to your moral sense. They are trying to blind it. They are trying to fool and manipulate you. And evangelicals have let themselves be fooled and manipulated for over 40 years.

16 Responses to “On the Abortion Trump Card”

  1. gwynbosky Says:

    May I reblog this? This subject has been close to my heart as a pro-life liberal and have struggled to explain to pro-life friends why I think the dangers of Trump’s policies are worse than the risks of abortion. You thoughtfully and wisely addressed this issue.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Do you mind just linking with a short excerpt?

  3. gwynbosky Says:

    Of course. All credit to you sir.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sure, that’s fine. Glad you found it helpful.

  5. wlancehunt Says:

    The fetus being a human life at the moment when a sperm means egg has implications, far beyond a reason to prevent abortion, the usual reason for claiming this truth. If a cell of the united egg and sperm is life, it is to be treated like all other human life, it’s death must be investigated as possible homicide because someone is at fault for this: an investigation must proceed. Since up to 31% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, almost 1 of every 3 fertilized eggs, “unborn humans”, die befor birth. If they are truly human, their death must be investigated as if they had been born as well. (It would make sense also that they are to mourned as a if they had been born, with funerals, etc. but that is another point.)
    Since so many pregancies end in miscarriage, especially early in the pregnancy without the woman knowing she was pregnant, it’s clear that a system must be put in place to make sure all pregnancies are detected. Can we take a woman’s word for it? Nope. They might not know. But, we have to know.
    This means mandatory pregnancy tests for ALL woman, even if they claim not to be sexually active. It’s a human life after all, and people lie. So, all women, married, single, in a relationship or not, must be tested regularly to make sure all human lives are accounted for. No woman, no daughter or sister is exempt.
    If detected, all human lives must be monitored to the either miscarriage or birth. (We’ll assume abortion is illegal, and an admission of murder.)
    So, if a woman does not carries a human life to term this life must be investigated as a possible homicide. Did she drink? Do something that might have threatened the life? Did the father? Were there drugs involved? Was there an accident? Whose fault? Or was there intentional abuse? Or poor judgment?
    Regardless of reason, we must have a final determination of the cause of each death of an unborn human.
    In other words, all women are to be tested, regularly, for pregnancy, from first period to menopause. And if found pregnant, every action must be watched for possible threat, or cause of death.
    I.e. woman become chattel. There are unborn human lives at stake, and everyone lies. (This is spoken from a lunatic’s point of view to show the implications of this thinking, which is meant to exert Old Testament control on women.)

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I was with you up until the gratuitous Old Testament reference.

    The horrifying thing is that not all of this is hypothetical. In El Salvador, where abortion is totally illegal, women can be jailed for miscarriages — every premature end to a pregnancy is treated as a prima facie abortion, with the burden of proof on you to prove otherwise.

  7. wlancehunt Says:

    Perhaps it was gratuitous; it’s shorthand for a much longer, more complex argument that I put in, now that I look at it, as more of a signal to other New Atheists and Anti-theists that I’m a member of the tribe. I know better than to bring up a new idea at the end of an essay/piece as it prevents sufficient development, and acts more as a shibboleth than actual thinking. I’d have to spend a long time unfolding that idea, which is off point here, but the highlights would be that it was the ultra orthodox Jewish and Catholic women in NYC that gave rise to Planned Parenthood (they were tired of being baby factories), and that one thing both of these groups share is the Old Testament, as does Islam: all sects of the Abrahamic sky god share this one book, and all the prophets there in. And as far as I know, the most restrictive reproductive laws in the world all have this one book as a basis of their culture (such as El Salvador, Pakistan, and Nigeria)—Isreal is tricky as many people there are secular, but there are many Ultra Orthodox sects that prohibit birth control and abortion. This idea is really a book in and of itself. But, I’ll mind the signaling better, making sure I take my own advice.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    What those cultures also share is a heritage of Greek philosophy and specifically Platonic philosophy, which did much more than the Bible to advocate for a strictly reproduction-focused approach to sexuality. This book may prove informative.

    In general, random references to the Old Testament as sources for bad stuff in society are undesirable because they echo the rhetoric of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Even calling it the Old Testament implies it’s been overcome by the “better” New Testament (a position that I assume you don’t hold?).

  9. Nathan Says:

    Are they really being conned or are evangelicals in on the strategy? I’m not connected to any evangelicals so I am not sure if the movement is capable of that level of cynicism. But it seems to me, and this is borne out in common poli sci research, that traditional values (like pro life) directly translate into republican party support, along with all of its implicit racism. However, this connection with traditionalism and the republican party is specific to white people so something more complex may be at work. For instance, Latinos who hold conservative views re abortion and other issues are not tied to the republican party at all.

    You seem to be hinting at this with “it’s just a convenient excuse to do what feels comfortable and familiar.” But then at the end maybe you let them off the hook re their being conned?

    From the few ardent attempts at discussions/arguments I have had with evangelicals, it seems like once you scrape away and get past the issues that supposedly define them you get to the core of their comfort: their position relative to others vis-a-vis class/race (hidden behind the “our way of life” argument). To me, it seems to be a comfort which, in what sustains it, is not so different from the comforts of the western world in general (or developed world, first world or whatever they are calling it now). As in, evangelical christianity is just one orientation among many from which one may choose to base or justify their comfort. Furthermore, I am afraid that if you told your average white evangelical they were being conned into voting for truly despicable people (and could somehow prove it unconditionally) the reaction wouldn’t be one of despair, or denial, but rather-if they were honest-their getting their guy in power was the whole point to begin with and the rest was just the very real charade of normative formalities that had to be fulfilled to give some semblance of justification to it.

    If this cynical view is unwarranted please let me know. As previously stated, I just don’t have much direct interaction with evangelicals.

  10. wlancehunt Says:

    I have to say that, prima facie, I’m suspicious of the book you recommend. Not because it goes against common opinion: I love busting myths, but I have a degree in Greek and Roman literature and culture, (B.A. in Classical Humanities ’86 from the Ohio State University) and have studied the Greek attitudes towards same sex relations, and while same sex exclusivity between adult men was frowned upon—two men could not make a home together—same sex relations was something that did happen, and it was understood that it would, specifically pederasty—an educational relationship between an adult man and youth.
    Further, the prohibition of a man “laying with mankind as if womankind” (Leviticus 20:13 among other passages) predates even the pre-Socratic philosophers by ~8 centuries (~1312 BCE vs. ~500s BCE), and more importantly, the Greeks did not abhor and fear homosexuality as did the sons of Abraham. Many Olympian gods had dalliances with same sex partners: Zues stole Ganymede, and Apollo has a long list of male lovers. This quite the opposite of Sodom and Gomorra where same sex relations were visited with divine retribution: the killing not only of the wicked but the obliteration of entire cities, the righteous included, whence the fear of homosexuality in the Abrahamic Sky god tradition.
    This non-adversarial attitude toward homosexuality lasted past the conquering of the Greek poleis by Rome. Skipping ahead 6 centuries to Nero’s Rome, we find the “Satyricon” by Petronius Arbiter. In the portions of the novel that survived the bowdlerization by the monks who hand copied what text we do have finds Encolpius with his younger, same sex lover Giaton. Encolpius has done something to anger Priapus, the Roman god of fertility, who has cursed him to only be able to have sex (an erection) with other men. In one sequence, a very good looking woman named Circe invites him to bed, but he can’t perform, then out of pride and vanity, she re-invites him, but when he can’t get it up for a second time, she leaves in humiliation, and he “takes himself in hand” berating his flaccid self, even threatening to castrate himself because it won’t obey what the rest of him wants.
    This was entertainment in pagan Rome. Not a call to fear, hate or destroy. That would have to wait until after Constantine won a 312 CE battle under the sign of the cross.
    Moving forward 2 centuries after Constantine converted to Christianity, Justinian become Caesar. Needing a good reason to outlaw homosexuality, he claimed that buggery causes earthquakes: here is the return of divine retribution for wickedness from the Abrahamic skygod.
    Lest one laugh at what Romans thought, let’s move to Jerusalem about 1.5 millennia later, specifically to the Knesset, where on the twentieth of February, 2008, Member Shlomo Benizri claimed that the recent earthquake that was felt across Israel was the result of the “homosexual activity practiced in the country”. Natural disaster as divine vengeance visited upon the wicked has been claimed here in the US in 2016. Andrew Bieszad claimed just last month that Hurricane Matthew has been sent by God as a punishment to the cities of Orlando and Savannah because of their Gay Pride parades. There are 10 countries that have laws that can punish homosexuality by death. All have cultures based, at least in part, in the Abrahamic sky god.
    The US is hardly immune to this thinking: in 2015 an Orange county lawyer proposed “The Sodomite Suppression Act,” which calls for “any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head, or by any other convenient method”, *not* because it interferes with the creation of families, but because it is “a monstrous evil” and an “abominable crime against nature.” This is sky god derived. Not Greek.
    I also question the very idea that this abhorrence came from either Platonic or Artistolian thinking. First, Platonic ideas didn’t enter the Roman Church until Saint Augustine’s The City of God in the 5th Century CE. This is over 200 years after the Battle of Milvian Bridge, and the conversion of the state religion of Rome to Christianity, carrying with it this same abhorrence.
    It was also one of the markers of the start of the 1000 years of Christendom, the de facto Christian theocracy in Europe, a culture which lost almost all Greek thinking other than the Platonism in Augustine’s work, until the decades after the fall of Cordoba in 1236, and the rediscovery of the wealth of Greek thought that the Arabs had never lost, including The Organon of Aristotle, which is less of a moral system than tools to help in thinking.
    Further, this is over 2500 years after the fear and hatred of homosexuality was officially written into western European thinking by the Old Testament.
    On that term: to be perfectly frank, I cannot imagine how referring to the group of texts containing the stories of the Jewish prophets, which are not the same across the various sects of the Abrahamic sky god religions, is Anti-Semitic. The Torah contains stories that are not accepted in various Christian sects, and even within the Christian sects, there is large disagreement between what is accepted and what is not—mainline Protestant versions have 39 books, the canonical Catholic version has 46 books, and various Eastern and Orient Orthodox Churches have versions with 49 books, and the Islamic version (Tawrat, Tawrah, or Taurat: ‫توراة‎‎‬) makes further additions and subtractions.
    It’s a way of referring to a loosely defined group of stories, which are, in fact, old—predating Christianity by over 13 centuries and Islam by 19 centuries.
    I can imagine that in academic circles the idea has been bandied around, but anti-Semitism comes more directly from Blood Libel and early Christian accusations of deicide. I keep my eye on hate groups (via The Southern Poverty Law Center, ADL, ACLU, and other secular and humanist organizations) and I’ve never heard this idea proffered before.
    Be that as it may, it still doesn’t explain the status of women and need to control reproduction—it would be instructive to look at how the Earth mother worship was replaced in the Greek vs. Abrahamic systems. But this has already gone on too long.
    (Full disclosure: When graduating with Concurrent Bachelors degrees—Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Bachelor of Arts in Classical humanities—I was required to write a fairly long senior essay, combining the two disciplines. As the authorship of the Satyricon was in question, I applied theories of psychology, that a person’s own predilections come through in writing, to lend support to the idea that the author was Nero’s Arbiter elegantiae—the judge of elegance and of matters of taste—one Gaius Petronius Arbiter. I also inverted that scene of the hero castigating flaccid himself for an upcoming novel, A Perfect Blindness.)

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Please do not be a know-it-all. I am a scholar of religion and philosophy, and I was the research assistant on the book I linked. I understand that my positions are not self-evident — but your positions are hardly groundbreaking. Simply repeating the conventional wisdom is a waste of time.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Like I say in the post, I tend to be more cynical about the leadership and less so about the “people in the pews.” Many of the latter seem to let themselves be motivated by a pro-life position that in my opinion is based more in sentimentalism and gut reactions rather than any real reflection.

  13. arc Says:

    What I find perplexing and disturbing is how sentimentalism (of the pro-life sort) goes along so very nicely with anti-Black and anti-Muslim bigotry. I believe many people hold both of these sorts of views, sadly (I know a couple of them). There is a kind of fixation on violence in both. An obsession with violence and retribution.

  14. Obnubilation Says:

    Why is there no call, even from pro- choice groups, for a national abortion referendum that would be voted on only by women? It is not just the republicans who want to keep the status quo. Democrats as well do not want to take the risk of empowering any other groups.


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