by Cheryl Maslow
During the course of an extended blog discussion about a wide range of issues, including abortion (see comments following several posts on Gil Bailie’s blog log, Reflections on Faith and Culture, from July through September 2009), I noticed that several writers in the group were describing abortion as murder or as genocide. This is standard pro-life rhetoric, and it is hyperbolic. Both of these words have straightforward dictionary and legal definitions that make them unsuitable for describing abortion. Then, an exchange between two of the participants, Paul and Athos (following the post of 9/6/09), stirred up my thoughts about a book I read over a year ago: Carolyn Marvin’s “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.” Marvin argues that collective victimage constructs American national identity, and she develops her ideas out of a reading of René Girard and Emil Durkheim. But I sensed that many of her insights have implications for the abortion issue and its weighting against other issues that we discussed on the blog, particularly climate change, income disparity, and health care. Because both Paul and Athos had read René Girard and understood the sacrificial mechanism he illuminates, I decided to spin out my thoughts about abortion as sacrifice and to challenge the notion that abortion is genocide. My motive was less to defend abortion than to develop my intuition that not all sacrifice involves scapegoating. The following paragraphs are a revised and expanded version of a three-part comment that I submitted. A basic familiarity with Girard’s mimetic theory is helpful in reading them.
Athos writes: “When a conventional culture begins to break down, it tries to surcharge its victimary mechanism by either increasing the prestige of its victims or number of victims: regicide or genocide. … We’re in the latter stage, and we’re sacrificing our unborn children.”
The word “genocide” seems misapplied when used to describe abortion. (Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group, according to Merriam-Webster.) This is not just a quibble over definitions. We have a much better chance of understanding both abortion and genocide as sacrificial phenomena if we make careful distinctions.
Athos was of course correct in describing the pre-born as “defenseless, innocent, and voiceless.” I say “of course” because both the pre-born and infants are universally regarded in this way—squalling infants on buses excepted. This doesn’t prevent their being killed in abortions and wartime bombings or neglected to the point of starvation or disease-related death. I am not the first to point out that caring for the pre-born and the newly-born requires caring for the mothers that are carrying or nursing them, for the fathers that support these mothers financially and emotionally, and even for the broader society and ecology that sustains them all. This means that the abortion issue is also the health care issue and the income disparity issue and the environmental quality issue. And it is a part of a vast web of many other issues as well.
How many millions of the unborn or newly born have suffered and died in the Sahel because of water shortages resulting from mismanagement and over-exploitation of resources? These deaths could have been prevented, but tribes and sovereign nations decided that other matters were more important. This is sacrifice, but it’s not necessarily “victimage” in the Girardian sense. These deaths did not restore harmony to a community in crisis as the victimage mechanism does. Rather, the powerful (the state, multinational corporations, tribal leaders, warlords, etc.) decided that these individuals were expendable, and the cause-effect relationship went missing in time, space, and human memory.
Closer to home, corporations continue to dump toxic wastes into our rivers and streams in spite of decades-long warnings about the effects of mercury poisoning on infants and pregnant women who ingest freshwater fish. (In August 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey discovered unsafe levels of mercury in more than a quarter of freshwater fish consumed in this country.) By not enacting and enforcing stringent anti-pollution measures, we are implicitly sacrificing future generations to short-term corporate profits. These unborn generations are considered expendable but, again, there is no animus toward them, only indifference.
Combat troops, prepared to sacrifice their lives for their country, are also considered expendable. Europe sent 8.5 million of its young men to their deaths in the trenches in World War I, and 21.2 million more were wounded. But, once again, they are not “victims” in the (Girardian) sense that there is any polarization of animus against them. (Our animus is directed toward the enemy.)
But genocide requires animus toward its victims, who cannot and must not be regarded as defenseless, innocent, or voiceless. Paul echos the classic Girardian paradigm when he writes, “The victims are always there, and everyone is sharpening his weapon for use against his neighbor in a desperate attempt to win himself a plot of innocence that he can inhabit on his own or in the company of a regenerate human race.” This is animus, and these are victims in the sense that Girard describes.
So we have sacrifice with and without animus toward the sacrificed. In one case (exemplified by both regicide and genocide), the sacrificed are victims in the Girardian sense because their deaths restore social order (by investing the victimizers with their coveted innocence). In the other case (exemplified by abortion and sending soldiers off to war), the sacrificed are considered expendable for the sake of some national, tribal, or societal interest, and the sacrifice is given legal and even moral sanction by the state.
Athos writes about our need to “bow to an External Mediator transmitted and vouchsafed by the magisterium of the Church.” Many pro-life religionists believe the state has no right to sanction violence against the unborn. Some of these individuals would prefer that powers now held by the state should be returned to the Church. But the reality is that the nation-state does have the right to kill and to sanction killing, and it has the right to sacrifice whatever group it deems expendable until it relinquishes that right as the result of a popular vote, a judicial or legislative decision, or a revolution. In our present health-care and insurance reform debate, we’re about to find out who is expendable. The sad part of it is that the state has now become so identified with corporate interests that it has begun to operate like a front for them. Thus, we are now at two removes from the magisterium of the Church that Athos referred to.
I clipped a March 2009 article from The Atlantic Monthly about a Hamas leader who had sent one of his own sons to his death in an attack on an Israeli settlement. He told the writer that he intended to encourage another son to do the same, and that, with four wives, he hoped to have 50 children. (The writer reports that shortly after the interview, this man, his remaining children, and his pregnant wife were killed by an Israeli bomb dropped on his house.) The article is entitled, “Beyond Belief,” as if to suggest that this Hamas leader’s intended serial sacrifice of his children was beyond comprehension to us civilized folks in the West.
This man considered his sons, and perhaps even his daughters, as expendable, but who are we to be so scandalized? We who hold up Abraham as a paragon of faith and have sent our own sons off to be slaughtered by the millions in the trenches?
I see two kinds (or perhaps levels) of sacrifice. In the first, exemplified by regicide and genocide, social order is restored through polarization of conflictual mimesis against the victim. (The victim is vilified in an attempt to force unanimity about his or her guilt.) In the second (e.g., combat death and abortion), no animus is directed toward those who are “sacrificed.” They are treated as expendable because the nation that disposes of them (or, in the case of abortion, allows their deaths) holds what it considers a higher interest. Soldiers are expendable because they are protecting the nation’s fertile center (which is strongly associated with women). Aborted fetuses are expendable because the women carrying them have decided that the fetus’s survival is incompatible with something that they value even more highly, and, in many cases, I should hasten to add, their decision may be entirely altruistic. The nation, with its voting women, has granted women the right to make this decision and, in so doing, has demonstrated its own “higher” interest in protecting its fertile center—associated more with women than with fetuses. (Our sisters, aunts, cousins, daughters, and mothers must be kept safe from back-alley abortionists and protected from prosecution.)
This, to me, is the meaning of the startling title of Richard A. Koenigsberg’s book, “Nations Have the Right to Kill.” There is certainly no other entity that can claim this right, which passed from the Church to secular power centers many centuries ago in the West. International bodies have been trying to wrest some of this authority from nation states and to claim legitimacy for their own declarations of human rights, and this is an encouraging development. Meanwhile, sectarian groups compete with each other and with the state, but it seems unlikely that we’ll return to a theocratic era anytime soon in Western democracies. When Athos speaks of bowing to “an External Mediator transmitted and vouchsafed by the magisterium of the Church,” he is speaking on behalf of a sectarian group, the Catholic Church. Fine. The problem, however, is that this “vouchsafety,” if I may coin a term, is not believable or acceptable to those outside the Church. Other sectarian groups have similar notions and would hardly allow the Church to gather all authority and legitimacy into itself. And then there are the secularists, like myself, for whom such talk is meaningless. Excuse me, you want me to bow to whom? Pluralism has grown too vast and unwieldy to ever be stuffed back into the little starter pot from which it sprang, so perhaps we need to approach issues of authority from a more universalist perspective. (Hmmm. Maybe the Unitarians can help us here…)
The two sacrificial types that I mentioned (one exhibiting animus toward the sacrificed and the other not) have permeable boundaries, and we need only expand the number of examples for this to become clear. I selected only two from each category (regicide and genocide for the one and abortion and combat deaths for the other). Expanding either one is simple, but let’s take the second category, where no animus exists. Fetuses and combat troops are highly visible, and the spilling of their blood is generally noticed by those who have decided they are expendable. But what of all those other people that we treat as expendable, either through our actions or our neglect? The homeless, the uninsured, children living in poverty in one of the richest countries in the world? Every small decision to turn our backs on a person in need involves a sacrifice, and those of us who live in dense metropolitan areas are perhaps more acutely aware of making such sacrifices every day. We sacrifice others to our convenience, our comfort, our security, and our privilege—all without the slightest animus toward them. We may even feel pangs of guilt, but these are quickly over-ridden by numb indifference. These sacrifices—for sacrifices they are—have real impacts on people’s lives. When we decide to seal our borders against immigrants from poorer countries, we may have the best reasons in the world, but they all come down to preservation of our own comfort, security, and privilege. Impoverished Mexican workers are expendable, and we sacrifice them to a “higher” interest. I am saying this as one who supports immigration controls.
So where’s the permeability between this category and that of the other one, where there is animus toward the sacrificed? Well, I think we see it where groups or individuals that are sacrificed for the sake of what we might consider some sort of higher good become more powerful and begin to resist and to find their voice. Those less powerful who refuse to accept their own expendability—who refuse, in Athos’ words, to remain “defenseless and voiceless”—may be softened up through vilification. In wartime, those able-bodied men who protest the war and refuse to enlist may be labeled as unpatriotic or even treasonous. In our society, the poor are often blamed for their condition, even when many of those poor are small children and pregnant mothers.
Everyone is struggling not to become expendable, and some of our greatest fears about health-care reform are that we will be left out, uncared-for; that our care will be rationed, or that government death panels will decide when we are to die. We all know, on some level, that passive neglect, discrete demotion, or deselection can morph into scapegoating if we don’t go quietly.
But in struggling not to become expendable—and not to become victims—we are also struggling to stay on top, to preserve and enhance our own prestige, our privileges and our security, even if this means treating someone else as expendable. We send our boys off to war because we consider whatever they’re fighting for to be more important than their lives. We seal our borders against desperately poor Mexicans because we consider them a threat to our prosperity and well-being. We lock our doors against the homeless in our cities because the homeless are expendable when balanced against our own interests. The plain truth of the matter is that all of us are in the business of sacrifice, all the time. It’s practically all we do. By giving money to one charity, we withhold it from another.
In such a diverse society, we are bound to have wildly divergent ideas about who is expendable, and we may try to advance and legitimize our choices by declaring them to have some transcendent status. Thus, abortion is viewed not just as a bad choice but as one that is morally wrong and offensive to God. And it is promoted ahead of all other issues. One of the contributors to the discussion offered this: “Abortion trumps all other issues [and] is the moral problem of all moral problems,” and “…we will never solve the other problems we face until we address abortion itself in a better way.” Another contributor writes, “There will be no peace in the world until there is first peace in the womb.” In other words, the abortion issue takes precedence, and there’s no point in dealing with climate change, poverty, substance abuse, or any other issue until we have dealt with abortion. Politically, this often translates into holding all other issues hostage until some goal such as the overturning of Roe vs. Wade is met. Climate change is seen as “someone else’s” issue—in fact, an expendable issue, and Gaia is sacrificed to a human fetus.
We and future generations live with the consequences of our choices.