Democracy and Abortion
Over at Mirror of Justice, where, until recently, I used to blog, Richard Stith has been pushing an analogy between abortion and the Spanish Civil War. (I know.) Here’s his latest post. His basic argument, in a nutshell, is that abortion is private violence carried out with the acquiescence (approval?) of the state, just like the violence directed against the Church in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War. And, just as the state was culpable in 1930s Spain, it is culpable now. There’s so much that’s strange about the analogy that one barely knows what to do with it. The culpability of the Spanish Republic is hardly so uncontroversial that the example sheds much light on the current abortion debate. Indeed, in my view, the argument tells us much more about its proponents than anything else. But it is a useful case study for what’s so dangerous about unhinged abortion rhetoric.
I won’t belabor the problems with the details of the historical story Stith is trying to spin. Suffice it to say that it is constructed out of cherry-picked quotations from Hugh Thomas’s very long and detailed history of the Spanish Civil War as well as some outright temporal distortion. Even more troubling to me than Stith’s abuse of history, though, is the subtext of what he is saying. He disclaims any attempt to justify the nationalist uprising, which ultimately led to the intentional liquidation of, on most accounts, nearly 200,000 civilians in nationalist-controlled territory — people who had committed “crimes” like voting for the Popular Front, reading Locke or Rousseau, or being Freemasons and who were either executed summarily or, in some cases, after trials lasting just a few minutes. It also spelled the end of democracy in Spain for over a generation. But Stith does suggest that the violence (some of it, on his own description petty harassment or verbal abuse) directed against the Church (and mostly, in reality, against Church buildings) prior to the nationalist uprising justified the uprising itself and “explains” the brutality that the nationalists employed from the very beginning of their rebellion.
He then compares the Spanish Republic to the contemporary United States. I’m not sure Stith realizes or necessarily embraces the implications of the comparison, but I, for one, find it chilling in the extreme. Is his point that, like the Spanish republic (at least as he believes it to have been), the contemporary constitutional system in the United States is, as a result of the unlikely prospects for outlawing abortion, illegitimate and not deserving of our obedience? I can’t really be sure, but I suspect, nevertheless, that we can expect more of this anti-constitutional rhetoric from the pro-life movement in the years to come. As Damon Linker observed in his book, Theocons, when Republicans control government, the ire of the pro-life movement tends to be directed against the courts, with a plea to let the political process do its work. But when the democratic process seems unlikely to deliver the goods, as in the current environment, that ire can easily shift towards the democratic process or the polity itself.
Of course, the aspersions cast on the legitimacy of a constitutional system that permits what, in the view of Stith and others, is a form of mass-murder, has the virtue of being consistent. If abortion is mass murder, full stop, then it is hardly a stretch to make the comparisons that Stith is making or to say, as he did in an earlier post, that a jury ought to acquit a person who murders an abortion doctor. But my sense is that, while many people talk this way, few have really thought through its implications. Would abortion really justify a bloody civil war? Stith may think so (I really can’t tell), but I doubt many others do, even if his position is the logical implication of their immoderate rhetoric. These unwelcome implications might be a reason to step back from this sort of talk. And I hope and suspect that it’s mostly just that — talk.