(Image by Orna Wachman from Pixabay)

I may be off my own personal Twitter for Lent but I’m still running the Minimise account: and let me assure you, the algorithm still feeds that account plenty of the controversies, clickbait, and scissor statements that rule the website.

One that particularly struck me was this tweet from Matt Walsh. This duly kicked off a massive firestorm, with the tweet provoking wildly different reactions from different people. But these reactions didn’t split neatly down left-right lines. Here and here, for example, are two contrasting reactions from conservatives.

The discussion made its way to pro-life Twitter. Interestingly and encouragingly, most people for whom pro-life work formed a major part of their public-facing persona disagreed with Walsh and thought that the man should have given up his seat. A thoughtful pro-choice philosopher explicitly connected the issue to abortion by quoting a post from David Oderberg.

That line “Abortion would never be thinkable in a society where people regularly saw self-sacrifice as a norm” got me thinking. The way we approach the abortion issue at Minimise is by arguing that most people’s ordinary beliefs about human rights and human equality lead to the pro-life position. Pro-choice and pro-life people aren’t committed to fundamentally different premises about the value of human life or the limits of bodily autonomy. In other contexts than abortion, people don’t actually believe that you need to be conscious or have sophisticated cognitive capacities to have human dignity. In other contexts than abortion, people don’t think that your right to bodily autonomy allows you to kill someone. Pro-choice people mostly have the right fundamental values on these questions, they are just applying them inconsistently when it comes to abortion. They don’t need to transform their worldview or adopt a new set of ethical commitments to have the right position on the human rights of the unborn.

This, though, leaves us with an obvious question: why are pro-choice people being inconsistent with their own values when it comes to abortion? Sure, at Minimise we talk a lot about the non-rational factors that influence people (both pro-choice and pro-life) to have the positions they do. But we mostly talk about them to try to help people on both sides overcome their biases, motivated reasoning, and tribal thinking so that they can listen and talk to one another more effectively. We rarely venture into questions like, “Why does this tribe exist in the first place?” or “Why are people motivated to believe this conclusion?” Obviously the answers to those questions are going to be complex and multifaceted, but they’re worth asking.

The one place we did look at these questions was in an episode of our podcast. Called “What does a pro-life culture mean anyway?”, Muireann and I chatted about an article by Michael Brendan Doughterty on the idea of unchosen obligations. Doughterty writes:

The modern mind, particularly the modern American mind, rebels almost instinctively against obligations that are unchosen. We tend to think it is unfair to be responsible for something we didn’t consciously and in full knowledge choose for ourselves. Abortion, and all the lies about human development and human nature that are used to sell it, are an attempt to relieve people of “unwanted” obligations. That is why, even when we do everything we can to relieve people of these obligations short of extinguishing the life of the child, some will still insist on abortion as a right.

This brings us back to the aeroplane seat. Maybe as long as we expect to go through life without having to face unwanted obligations or make involuntary sacrifices, we’re always going to be motivated to remove the ones that inevitably face us, particularly when their magnitude is so much greater than seven hours in a middle seat.

Dougherty goes on:

In truth, every child’s life is so full of possibility and risk that no parents can hope to achieve the kind of full and conscious consent we so often demand elsewhere in our lives. To accept a child is to accept the limits of our own powers, and burdens we can’t properly measure. And we know that anti-abortion laws, and cultures that support family formation, can help people to reconcile themselves to what really has happened in their lives, and what may yet still. So we have a duty to continue supporting those laws, and creating that culture. But the pro-life movement’s final work will necessarily involve helping us to accept not just the full scope of an unborn child’s life but to the full claims of life upon ourselves. We need to protect family life from the commercial logic that we accept in almost every other sphere of life. Our lives are not conducted by the rules and stipulations of explicit contracts. We are often called up to give much more than we want, and in turn we often get much more from life than we bargained for.

I think there’s deep truth in what Dougherty’s saying. But I’d go further than him. It’s not enough to just “protect family life from the commercial logic that we accept in almost every other sphere of life”. We should try to unwind that logic from the rest of our lives too.