There is no orthodoxy more firmly fixed on the American political landscape than that opposition to abortion belongs on the Right, while “defense of abortion rights” is the linchpin of the Left. But a consideration of what Left and Right mean suggests that the conjunction may be accidental and only temporary.
It’s a commonplace that the distinction between Left and Right is fraught with ambiguity. (When the Democratic party is spoken of as on the Left, it’s gotten pretty silly.) And it’s also generally accepted that the terminology arose from the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly of 1789.
But if we want a consistent usage for the Left/Right distinction, we might think of political parties ranged along a line according to how authoritarian or democratic they are. The further Right one goes, the more authoritarian the parties, and the further Left, the more democratic. (At the far Left end are the socialists, who want not just a democratic polity but a democratic economy as well — investment decisions made not by corporations but by elections.)
Lenin’s Bolsheviks, then, must be seen as a right-wing Marxist party, as must all twentieth century communist parties in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, owing to their authoritarianism And they were indeed so described by left-wing Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek.
The commitment to democracy and an ever-widening franchise means that it has been the Left under this definition that has called attention to marginalized groups in the modern West. The historic task of the Left has been to include in political and civil society groups formerly excluded on the grounds that their full humanity was denied — e.g., Africans, Amerindians, and women.
Most arguments that hold abortion to be an ethically-acceptable choice depend on the assertion that a fetus is not a fully human person, and therefore the rules about killing human beings (e.g., that killing can be justified in cases of self-defense) simply don’t apply to the argument. (It’s true that some recent defenses of abortion have begun from the premise that abortion means killing a human being: as the defender of civil liberties Nat Hentoff puts it, it’s finally hard to deny that “it’s a baby.”) Physical dependency — the fact that the fetus depends on its mother’s body — is often, curiously enough, alleged as an indication of the less-than-full humanity of the unborn.
If the Left continues to draw out the implication of its principles, it will discover the marginalization of the unborn and unwanted as for example it discovered the marginalization of women in the first and second waves of feminism in the 19th and 20th centuries. And it’s reasonable to suspect that the discovery will take as long and involve as many contradictions as that concerning women did — and does.
There are of course groups on the political Left who have drawn this conclusion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote to Julia Ward Howe in 1873, “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” Emma Goldman thought that abortion was an index of the general immiseration of the working class, and the suffragist Alice Paul spoke of it as “the ultimate exploitation of women.”
Contemporary groups with similar positions include the Seamless Garment Network, which organizes against war, the death penalty, and violence against women — within which they include abortion. A Feminists for Life group was expelled from NOW for deviance on this issue, and there are a number of religious-based radical groups that are anti-abortion, such as that associated with the late Philip Berrigan, the anti-nuclear direct-action group, Plowshares.
But it’s not just that the Left should oppose abortion if it is understood as it has wished to be for more than two centuries, as proposing the increasing democratization of human life. It should also do so because much of the thinking that leads to the position that abortion is generally acceptable depends upon a capitalist view of ownership, against which the Left is properly critical.
That the Left is opposed to capitalism should go without saying, although it’s a bit abstractly theoretical. The Left stands for real democracy, and capitalism is fundamentally contradictory to democracy. (Democracy at a minimum presumes one person/one vote, but capitalism depends upon inequality, based on how much wealth one controls.) Of course what the Left confronts today is hardly capitalism (as its right-wing promoters and Ayn-Randists like Alan Greenspan should be the first to point out), but “state-subsidized and protected private power centers — internally tyrannical, unaccountable to the public, [and] granted extraordinary rights by US courts in radical violation of classical liberal ideals,” in Noam Chomsky’s words.
But theory is always the last to know. Even though capitalism doesn’t exist, our general view of society is no other than the ghost of deceased capitalism, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof. (It’s happened before: arguments drawn from pre-capitalist societies, notably feudalism, still underlie much of the common law.) And ownership is surrounded with mystification in our understanding, because the modern ruling class is made up of those who claim to have this peculiar relationship to the means of production – they “own” them — rather than consisting of warriors, as in the feudal society, or drivers of slaves, as in the ancient world. And those who don’t control productive property in our society are even spoken of by a massively misleading analogy as “owning” their own labor (which they must sell).
Abortion is among other things a matter of political economy. Practically all of my friends who’ve had abortions or seriously considered doing so — mostly privileged people — have said that they acted for economic reasons, inability to afford the care of a child in the midst of a career being the principal one. It’s our being caught in the cash nexus that dictates to the poor and well-to-do alike that abortion is necessary.
Even the approval of abortion by Nixon’s Supreme Court — not generally men of the Left — depended in part on a calculus that abortion was cheaper than the adequate social services for which there was a popular demand a generation ago (Roe v. Wade, January 22, 1973). The justices were undoubtedly motivated by visions of an insistent “underclass,” at home and abroad, in those days of fear of both revolutionary and demographic explosion. Like the US government officials contemporaneously pressing anti-natal polices on the Third World, they agreed with the remark (probably apocryphal) attributed to Che Guevara, that “It’s easier to kill a guerrilla in the womb than in the hills.”
Some recent defenses of the moral legitimacy of abortion have shifted from arguments based on the non-humanity of unborn children (i.e., that the fetus is not human enough to have rights) to what in the US are called libertarian arguments — e.g., “I have the right to do what I want with my body (including the contents of my womb).” Defense of abortion on the basis of the ownership of one’s own body is then similar to the right- wing account of “takings,” which resists governmental attempts to limit what can be done with real estate.
But I don’t own my body; I am my body. Talking of owning one’s body arises from a malign mix of factitious capitalist theory and debased Christianity: I am then regarded as an immaterial mind/soul related to my body as the bus driver is to the bus — a ghost in a machine, in the classic phrase. (Some Christians seem to forget that the fundamental Christian doctrine is the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.) It’s finally this distancing, dualist, indeed Manichean idea of the self that casts abortion into the capitalist discussion of ownership.
Defense of the general acceptability of abortion on the basis of one’s ownership of one’s body is a capitalist position that the Left should be skeptical of, on its fundamental principles. But it’s certainly correct — if a little oddly put — to say that every person has rights over her or his body: inalienable rights indeed (which means you can’t even give them away), to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The abortion argument reduces to the question of how many persons are involved.
CARL ESTABROOK teaches at the University of Illinois. He ran for congress last year on the Green Party ticket. He can be reached at: email@example.com