Abortion and the Quest for Autonomy


Timothy D Padgett

After laying relatively dormant for decades, the abortion debate has reemerged as the most contentious issue of the day. Where once an uneasy calm dominated such questions, we can’t go more than a few news cycles without some legislation or pronouncement re-centering our attention on this longstanding public disagreement.

The spark for this latest conflagration was significantly the accession to the Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh. While a lot of attention last summer dealt with questions regarding his past, it is the way he changes the numbers game on the high court that has raised the rhetorical temperature nationwide. With the addition of this pro-life justice, and the potential for more in the future, there is a reasonable chance that Roe v. Wade could be overturned.

Such a move would not, in and of itself, make abortion illegal in the nation, but it would mean that state laws would take precedence regarding abortion’s continued role. With that in mind, legislatures across the Union have been enacting laws which aim either to provoke a review of Roe or provide a bulwark against its abolishment. As a by-product of this political maneuvering, the two sides have been adding fuel to one another’s fire, reciprocating each move the other makes as justification for their own efforts towards an ultimate goal.

While a lot of the pro-life measures are intentionally provocative, thereby to more easily elicit from their opposite numbers the lower court challenges needed to drive the new laws up to the Supreme Court, a good portion of the energy from conservatives has also come from a revulsion to the increasing embrace of abortion by their progressive opponents. Where once the defenders of the practice looked at it as a regrettable necessity, increasing numbers of pro-abortion voices are praising the lethal procedure as matter of virtuous pride.

It’s as though the mask is off. For years, the pro-choice camp argued that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare; now it’s “Shout your abortion!” It used to be about viability, but now it’s well beyond that as ever younger babies have survived outside the womb. The claim once was that the fetus wasn’t human, but popular awareness of genetic science has disabused observers of that conceit. The progressive wing of culture has made itself out to be the faction that “believes in science,” but their argument for abortion is reduced to talking as though the “magical birth canal” is a thing.

Apparently, only those lucky enough to have healthy, wealthy, comfortable situations with loving parents have lives worth living. Such assertions conveniently ignore that the vast majority of human beings have existed without such privilege.

The pro-choice faction in the nation has become increasingly strident. Major corporations, which aren’t queasy conducting business with overtly oppressive regimes, now no longer countenance setting up shop in the Southern states which have enacted protections for the unborn. Celebrities, big and small, work to support the abortion industry, with one promising that the proceeds of her Atlanta concert will go to Planned Parenthood (an odd donation given the “women’s healthcare” provider’s insistence that abortion makes up only 3 percent of its activities). Politicians from pro-choice states work to out-do one another in ever more expansive rights to kill babies, who, if otherwise born prematurely, would be, for now, protected by infanticide laws.

Further, it is increasingly common to hear words like “parasite” applied to unborn babies or to hear abortion spoken of as killing, but killing that ought to be defended. The miracle of creating a new sentient being is now derided as gestational servitude. This embrace of barbarity by those who otherwise claim the moral high ground in social discourse has been forced upon them by the unyielding facts of life.

When faced with the hard science of embryology, supporters of abortion must do one of two things. They must continue to deny that the baby is a baby, a daunting prospect given that this means ignoring the basic facts of genetics and biology. Or, they may allow that the baby is a fellow human being while arguing that killing the little one is somehow justified.

This latter approach is becoming more and more common. There are the well-intentioned arguments which try to have it both ways by acknowledging that the fetus is human but saying that it’s all for the best to have the poor thing put down. The unwanted, the disease-prone, the poverty-stricken, or inconveniently timed new lives would be an undue hardship on mother and child alike, and so they’re better off dead.

Apparently, only those lucky enough to have healthy, wealthy, comfortable situations with loving parents have lives worth living. Such assertions conveniently ignore that the vast majority of human beings have existed without such privilege.

Also ignored is the fact that the same arguments about the less-than-ideal unborn would apply just as easily to the toddler with Down Syndrome, the teen-aged product of rape, and the life-of-crime 20 something from the “bad” neighborhood. But, I guess it’s easier to euthanize those whose faces are hidden.

Then, there are the reprehensible arguments, like the “parasite” comments above, which make no bones about the fact that they are entirely open to killing human beings. Sure, it may be a baby, but having to care for another human being could really get in the way of following my dreams! In an age where personal expression is the central guiding light for moral decisions, the quest for absolute autonomy cannot be hindered in any way, even at the cost of a human life.

Pro-choice vocabulary may continue to major in allusions to health-care, but there’s a not so subtle undercurrent that abortion is primarily a question of autonomy. It's about the triumph of "my" will over against any encumbering or entangling force.

Pro-choice vocabulary may continue to major in allusions to health-care, but there’s a not so subtle undercurrent that abortion is primarily a question of autonomy. It’s about the triumph of “my” will over against any encumbering or entangling force. As an obstacle to the freedom to do as we please and live as we want, an unwanted pregnancy becomes Exhibit A in the existential crisis facing human beings in our self-defining age. To match the tempo of our time, we must be free from any possible restraint to our every passing fancy. Any threat to abortion rights endangers this absolutizing freedom.

But, even as abortion is one of its most obvious manifestations, this emphasis is about more than eliminating embryos. It’s about the way that much of Western society has evolved in the last few centuries. In our zeal to remove the chains that ensnare us, we’ve lost our way and mistaken the journey for the destination.

Movements for social reform used to be about liberalism, with the focus on liberation and liberty, as in liber – Latin for free. The older, classical view was restorative. Human beings had certain rights and abilities, but these had been taken way, restricted by the powers of princes and priests and the like. The goal was to take away the artificial constraints and let God’s (or Nature’s) way flow.

The classical movements of liberalism like abolitionism, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement – all of these were rooted in recognizing the fundamental humanity and innate dignity of those being championed. And, not incidentally, a great many of these crusades were pioneered by Christians, Christians who wanted to allow God’s gift of human nature to flourish without the corrupting influences of tyrannical ideals. When people were free of their sin-sourced afflictions, they could freely live out their lives as God or Nature intended.

But, problems soon emerged. Over time, as belief in God faded, as well as, eventually, belief in any kind of objective, knowable reality, the quest continued, but the overarching parameters became fuzzy. If it was originally all about removing unnatural shackles so that nature could take its course, this required that there, indeed, was a nature, a certain way things ought to be.

A nature that is simply liberated from external restraints is, philosophically, as confining as an artificial conservatism. If I am free of such constraints, I am still bound by my own limitations and innate characteristics. After all, restoration entails a “re,” a reverting back to a pre-existent thing, not moving forward to a . . . something. For the march of progress to continue, the act of freeing had to become more important than any particulars of who and what was being freed. Progress itself became the goal.

Progress to what? Well, that’s not too clear. There’s always another horizon of an endless liberation to attain. There’s always a way to be more progressive. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary to be in a perpetual state of flux, because once you’ve settled into one place, one position, one belief, you’ve abandoned the quest and become a reactionary.

Today’s champion of enlightened virtue will be tomorrow’s archaic throwback to a hideously hidebound conservatism. This is how Presidents Clinton and Obama could be heroes of the people in their terms of office but now would be shouted down in a Twitter-storm were they to espouse their views of just 10 and 20 years ago. This is how people scoffed at the suggestion that social acceptance of homosexuality would lead to anything more, but now you’re a bigot if you don’t support drag queen story hour at your local children’s library.

There’s no final destination, no goal, no endgame. Settled morality, objective natures, and ideological resting places – these are all regressive as they point to things which exist outside the control of the human individual and social progress.

An ever expanding autonomy is all that matters. The mother’s autonomy to live as she wants trumps the basic humanity of her unborn child. The transgender’s autonomy to live free of biological definitions trumps anatomy and genetics in forming identity. The sick person’s autonomy to live without pain trumps any virtue in enduring suffering or benefit to others of continued life. This is the endpoint of a God-emptied humanism. By removing God from the equation, we lose the dignity He grants to us as humans.

If we are to avoid this chaos, if we are to turn the tide in our own quest to end the culture of death, we must do more than win the battle over Roe v. Wade. That’d be great, and we must all pray that the courts do reverse this vile verdict. But, there is more.

We must work to create a culture of life. We must remind the world that even as idolatrous and dehumanizing chains must be broken, seeking to be free of each and every objective feature of our existence is a path that leads to madness. We must tap into the desire to work for a better world but get it back on track by pointing to the reality of God, the goodness of His world, and the reliability of His Word.

We must tell better stories that will inspire the next generation of social reformers, not only because such tales are useful, but because they are true. We must point to the truths of the Bible which remind us that human beings possess a dignity that must be defended and an original sin nature that must be restrained. We must share with our neighbors that there once was a good world, and that even now it is being redeemed. We must tell them, and ourselves, the great story that God has not left us to our own devices. He has spoken in His Word and He even now works to restore His world.


Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973 as well as editor of the forthcoming Dual Citizens: American Evangelicals and Politics.


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