Linking Abortion and Climate Change

Is climate change a leading pro-life issue? Without a doubt. As anyone paying attention can tell you, it is the greatest threat to life, health, and stability in the 21st century. I drew out these arguments in a recent piece in Commonweal, and I don’t need to rehash them. Those who dispute this have their heads in the sand—including those who insist that the pro-life movement is about abortion and nothing else.

This explains the strong reaction to articles like this one, making the uncontroversial claim that climate change should join abortion and the death penalty as foremost moral concerns. Note the opposing voice in this article—Jay Richards. Richards is an outspoken climate change denier from Catholic University with a twitter handle dubbed “Free Market Jay.” Oh, and he was hired by a business school that receives generous funding from the Koch Brothers. Connect the dots.

Anyway, Richards appeals to the weakest argument in the book—abortion is intrinsically evil, while burning fossil fuels is not. This statement is quite correct, of course. It’s also utterly meaningless in this context. Masturbation is intrinsically evil. War is not. Somebody please tell Putin and Assad that their Syrian horror show is of lessor moral importance than masturbation.

Another critic, this time from Daniel Payne at The Federalist, makes a somewhat more sophisticated argument, from the position of gravity and proximity. According to Payne, abortion is the direct killing of a human life, while the burning of fossil fuels is only indirectly tied to unidentified ill effects somewhere in the world at some time in the future.

There are a number of problems with this argument, though. First, the set-up is wrong once again. From a public policy perspective, it is not about judging a person who kills an unborn child on one hand versus one who burns fossil fuels on the other. That kind of moral calculus would be trivial. The real issue relates to the legal frameworks and socioeconomic institutions that permit people to opt for abortion and engage in carbon-lavish lifestyles. From this perspective, there is clear moral overlap between the issues, especially in light of the moral gravity of climate change.

Second, Payne seems to face the same ideological bias as Richards. He says very clearly that he disagrees with a statement made by Sarah Spengemen of the Catholic Climate Covenant: “If we want to leave our children an inhabitable earth, if we have a responsibility to the unborn, we have a responsibly to act on climate.” This, of course, is uncontroversial. It says nothing about whether climate change is more or less important than abortion. The only people who would dispute such a statement are those who deny or downplay climate change, such as ideological libertarians. And indeed, it looks as it Payne has bought into this particularly American disease—in another recent essay, he claims that the science is unsettled and denounces the “sham apocalyptic rise of climate predictions.” OK, so his cards are on the table…

It is also ironic that Payne tries to distinguish abortion from climate change by arguing that abortion is killing “for the sake of immediate convenience.” Well, that is precisely the issue with climate change too—we are loath to disturb the “immediate convenience” of the rich in terms of high-carbon lifestyles, consequences be damned. The average American emits seventeen tons of carbon dioxide a year while the average citizen of the European Union emits just seven tons. What is this if not “immediate convenience”?

Drawing this out: we know that the poor will be (and indeed already are) climate change’s cannon fodder, due precisely to the behavior of the rich. This is very much how the Church frames it, especially in the developing world. Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar, for example, argues that climate change is tantamount to “criminal genocide” by the rich against the poor. And Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria accuses the energy companies of “crimes against humanity” for their devastation of the environment. Sounds like a leading pro-life issue to me…

This brings me to the deeper connection between abortion and climate change. They are both tied to what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture”—a culture of self-centeredness and self-absorption in which people and things are used to satisfy instant gratification and discarded when they serve no further use. There’s a reason why the libertarians who frequent outfits like The Federalist don’t like this framing, because it implicates the current market economy, founded as it is on a cult of consumerism. “Free to choose” is a value that abortion defenders and libertarians hold in common. And the freedom invoked to do as you please with your body is same freedom invoked to live a carbon-lavish lifestyle.

This refusal to connect the dots extends to policy solutions. Such solutions include enacting regulations to both restrict the availability of abortion and reduce carbon emissions, while at the same time providing viable and affordable alternatives so that people have the freedom to make morally responsible choices. But this raises a number of right-wing red flags. These people tend to give a thumbs-up to regulating abortion, but a thumbs-down to regulating carbon. And while they extol the virtue of freedom, they have little appetite for enhancing qualitative freedom if it means interfering in market outcomes. This is all incoherent—economically and morally.

And this is really why outfits like The Federalist are so opposed to equating issues like abortion and climate change. And by the way, if you want to see The Federalist’s values on full display, check out their cover article calling for the immediate repeal of Obamacare with no replacement—to avoid (and I quote) “months and years of the media wailing over…all the children and puppies who will be hurt.” Sorry, but this is highest-order wickedness. This outfit has no moral authority to opine on what it means to be pro-life. 

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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