The world turned its attention to Texas recently when state Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster against a pro-life bill made national and international headlines. Not only was her filibuster watched online by at least 200,000 people, but it galvanized a group of her supporters to flood the Texas capitol as the final vote approached. Pro-abortion activists then devolved into an unruly mob that shouted down the Texas Senate’s final vote on the bill. Even though the bill garnered a supermajority of legislators’ support, the bill died because the Senate president could not hear the votes over the screams.
Texas is now in the midst of a second special legislative session and the bill is being considered again. This skirmish has the potential for great significance for the pro-life movement, because pro-lifers have a chance to distinguish themselves by the method and content of their public arguments. The battle in Texas is a chance to turn the tide of public opinion.
Vulgarity and violence have not been uncommon as pro-abortion groups have made their voices heard on the Texas capitol grounds. Pro-abortion protesters (and their young children) have paraded signs with pictures of hangers and slogans such as “If I wanted government in my vagina I would f— a senator.”
A pro-life friend of mine was spat upon and had a burning cigarette thrown in her face by a group of six pro-abortion people while she was alone on the capitol grounds at night. Another pro-lifer with a “Choose Life” license plate had her car keyed. A six-year-old child praying at the capitol was taunted and harassed by pro-abortion activists to the point of tears.
Similar anecdotes abound. Perhaps the battle lines were most clearly drawn as pro-lifers sang “Amazing Grace” in the Capitol rotunda, while pro-choicers drowned them out with a resounding chorus of “Hail Satan!”
This is further evidence that we are in the midst of a culture war, along the lines theorized by James Davison Hunter in the early 1990s. Hunter presented a range of “stories from the front” that look strikingly similar to stories we hear about today: a conservative evangelical pastor and a gay liberal Catholic in San Francisco contend over the issue of civil unions; an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and a liberal Episcopalian Planned Parenthood staffer clash in New York over abortion; a traditionalist Catholic mother and a secular humanist policymaker clash over education policy in Tennessee.
Hunter argued that these struggles were actually flashpoints in a larger “culture war” that was distinctive in the context of American history. In contrast with the Protestant-Jewish and the Protestant-Catholic clashes of the nineteenth century, this struggle brought together orthodox Jews, Protestants, and Catholics in the camp of “cultural conservatives,” who were united in their adherence to an external, definable, transcendent authority as an unchangeable measure of the right and the good. The cultural conservatives found themselves opposing cultural progressives, who tended to be united by “the spirit of the modern age,” a sort of synthesis of rationalism and subjectivism that views moral reality as an unfolding process.
Hunter contended that American politics would be more and more characterized by the struggle between these two groups to interpret the symbols of American political life. He argued that America had become fundamentally divided in the deepest wellsprings of its culture. The public symbols, discourse, and institutions such as churches, political parties, media outlets, professional associations, special interest groups (and the elites who lead them) that generate and sustain culture had become polarized along the lines of the culturally conservative and progressive. The significance is that public discourse is largely framed on the basis of terms and assumptions set by the cultural elites.
Take the example of abortion. It is true that public opinion polling reveals Americans have a range of views across a spectrum. But, notice that it is a range of views across a spectrum constructed by elites. We can trace popular and pollster usage of the trimester and exceptions frameworks to Justice Blackmun’s opinion in Roe.
Theaters of the culture war are often not just about policy outcomes but a contest over the most basic terms of the debate. Who can deny that this is at issue between conservatives and progressives in Texas? In this battle, pro-lifers have an opportunity to seize the mantle of reasonable civic discourse in their methods of argument and the content of their arguments.
So far, it has been pro-abortion activists who have used mob-like tactics to thwart democratic processes, and whose shouting, sloganeering, vulgarity, and violence have been poisoning discourse in the public square. Pro-life citizens, meanwhile, have shown politeness and meekness in the face of nastiness.
This has not gone unnoticed. As one prominent Austin news-station reporter told my co-worker in confidence, “Pro-lifers have been the model of decorum.”
More and more people are seeing the portrayal of pro-lifers as wild-eyed assassins and bombers for the slander that it is. Doubtless, it will still be difficult to get a friendly hearing in traditional media outlets. Still, this suggests that whatever hearing pro-lifers get will be amplified by their decorous methods. Pro-lifers should carry decorum over into the social media realm as well, as the general interest and exposure to pro-life groups and arguments has undergone a meteoric rise on Facebook and Twitter.
Pro-lifers can also seize the mantle of reasonable discourse by framing their arguments on premises that all Americans unfailingly share, namely, their common human nature. Natural law as fact is the moral reality “written on the heart” of every human being. The most basic precepts of the natural law are both right for all and known by all. In other words, as one natural law theorist explains, there are fundamental moral truths that “we can’t not know.” This means that pro-lifers have a radical advantage in public argument, because most people retain some clarity about what they really know. They really know that the law should embody the norm, do no harm.
The debate taking place in Texas is an opportunity for pro-lifers to make a publicly reasonable argument, that the abortion license in Texas is harmful. It is an opportunity to explain that “do no harm” entails that no one has a right to harm.
That said, the bill under consideration actually leaves the abortion license mostly intact. Two of its provisions–requiring abortion facilities to meet the medical standards of ambulatory surgical centers and requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges to hospitals within thirty miles of where the abortion is performed–are modest regulations advancing the state’s interest in protecting women’s health. They are rooted in the most basic moral truth that we can’t not know: do no harm.
After the atrocious revelations of Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia house of horrors, in which multiple women died from botched abortions, who can seriously maintain that higher standards of medical care and safety are harmful to women? Or that it is harmful to women to require doctors to have immediate proximity and admitting privileges to hospitals? To stand up for eleven hours straight arguing that these minor regulations harm women is to labor mightily to distort and deny what is written on all our hearts.
Another part of the bill bans abortions after twenty weeks on the basis of scientific evidence that the unborn child can feel pain. Fetal-pain laws no more imply that the pre-twenty-week unborn lacks the moral worth and dignity of a human being than the Born Alive Infant Protection Act implies that the child lacks human dignity up to the point he or she is born alive. The bill does not say that only pain-capable beings are worthy of the protection of law. The bill only indicates that, at twenty weeks, the unborn child does have an immediately exercisable capacity to feel pain, and this fact provides an independent warrant for greater restriction of abortion after twenty weeks. Nothing in the bill denies the ultimately correct view, namely that simply existing as a substance of the kind rational animal is sufficient to warrant equal treatment under the law.
As the national and international spotlights again fall on Texas in the coming days, cultural conservatives have a chance to provide a decorous and reasonable witness to the truth that the under-regulated abortion license is harmful to women, the unborn, and society as a whole.