Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Gary Wills on Abortion

Gary Wills, one of my favorite writers, has thrown a constructive bomb into the abortion debate.

In a Los Angeles Times column “Abortion isn’t a Religious Issue” Wills argues learnedly that there is no scriptural authority for concluding that religion forbids abortion. He sees abortion as a moral concern that should be thought about in light of “natural law.” To Wills this means “we must turn to reason and science,” and look for insights from philosophers, neurobiologists, embryologists, and others, not scripture.

Here is the heart of Wills’s argument. While I agree with his conclusions, I present the argument as a model of the way we need to conduct thoughtful public deliberation about difficult topics:

"These [abortion decisions] are difficult matters, on which qualified people differ. It is not enough to say that whatever the woman wants should go. She has a responsibility to consider whether and when she may have a child inside her, not just a fetus. Certainly by the late stages of her pregnancy, a child is ready to respond with miraculous celerity to all the personal interchanges with the mother that show a brain in great working order.

Given these uncertainties, who is to make the individual decision to have an abortion? Religious leaders? They have no special authority in the matter, which is not subject to theological norms or guidance. The state? Its authority is given by the people it represents, and the people are divided on this. Doctors? They too differ. The woman is the one closest to the decision. Under Roe vs. Wade, no woman is forced to have an abortion. But those who have decided to have one are able to

Not surprisingly, Wills has been attacked vehemently, as in ProLifeBlogs:

"Wills, a dissident Catholic liberal, has made a living attacking the church of his parents. In this article he attempts to sound intellectual, all the while presenting false, misleading bits of history along with half-truths designed to give the reader both an intellectual as well as religions reason not to care about the abortion debate."

Wills’s column is lucid and important. I presume the same is true for “Head and Heart: American Christianities,” the recently published book it comes from. His argument has implications for health policy, not just abortion.
The major impediment to serious consideration of a single payer system in the U.S. is the vexing question of whether our political discourse can tolerate the kind of thoughtful deliberation that managing a health system and setting limits would require. As much as I prefer a health system based on universal coverage financed by collective funds, grotesqueries like Senator Bill Frist’s March 17, 2005 speech contesting the diagnosis of Terry Schiavo on the basis of his review of family videotapes make me doubt our potential for rational oversight of the health system.

Wills provides an antidote to the kind of knee jerk moralizing Senator Frist evinced. Perhaps the fact that Frist’s political aspirations have crashed and burned mean that Wills’s brand of thoughtful moral and scientific analysis is not just pie in the sky. Wills’s discussion of abortion provides a model for the kind of public reasoning we must learn to do about health care.

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