The USA has long fascinated me, and I have embarked on a series of reflections on culture in the USA, using American film or television as a prompt. This is the sixth article and considers abortion. There is no other matter in the USA that engenders such passion and response as one’s position on the unborn.
Note: I am not intending to lay out the positions on abortion. The purpose is to highlight that this matter has now become a central feature of the political debate.
The crucial moment in abortion history was Roe V Wade (1973), but interestingly for several decades the two major parties had similar ways of understanding the application of this decision (for example common acceptance of the Hyde Amendment).
Many politicians did their best to avoid joining in the public debate itself, seeing it as unhelpful for personal political ambitions, but the last two decades has witnessed an increasingly bitter political division, with politicians now more likely to strongly identify with one side or the other.
Law and Order (Various episodes)
Given its longevity and range of topics, it is not surprising that the Law and Order franchise has released a number of episodes dealing with abortion.
A major continuing and personalised discussion about abortion is provided in Law and Order: SVU as the lead detective Olivia Benson was conceived by a rape.
A distinctive American feature though has been the focus on the murder of abortion doctors, with three episodes ‘The Third Horseman’ (Criminal Intent, 2002) ‘Progeny’ (2005) and ‘Dignity’ (2009) all inspired by real life events.
Right from the first season with ‘Life Choice’ (1991) real-life events were considered. This episode focussed on the bombing of an abortion clinic and the death of the young woman involved. In the somewhat lateral episode ‘The Third Horseman’ (Criminal Intent, 2002) an elderly couple who were campaigners against abortion were also early and continuing activists against the death penalty.
This focussed the murder of the abortion doctor by one of their friends in a defined way.
Personal debates about abortion among the key detectives run parallel to the main cases, and all the usual questions and debate points are made. Each of these episodes has provoked outrage, commendation or praise depending on what side one is on, with ‘Dignity’ interestingly mostly condemned by pro-abortion groups.
Knocked Up (2007)
Would this Judd Apatow romantic comedy starring Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl be made today? A decade and a half is a long time, and it is more likely today the final scene would have had Alison helped to an abortion clinic by the US President herself.
This quite popular film was surprisingly whimsical, and yet poignant at times. The move to not only keep the baby (and this is the terminology that intriguingly most people still use), but to do so in the context of understanding the responsibility of and endorsing the involvement of the father was a call to people that they simply try to be parents like their parents did for them.
The increasing political context of abortion
As the Democrats moved more to be the pro-abortion party (and I use that term now simply because you cannot be pro-choice if you do not really conscience a choice) they laid the ground for the Republican Party to take up the mantle of pro-life and began the blurring of the lines whereby one party was seen particularly by orthodox Christians as the party one had to support.
This was illustrated with the use of, and emphasis by Christian pro-Trump speakers at the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Considerable publicity has been generated this year due to the decision of the USA Catholic Bishops Conference in June to work on a document to look at ‘the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the church’ in the context of the reception of Communion.
This was related not only to President Biden’s public position and Catholic adherence but followed long-running debates emanating from other political and Catholic figures.
It certainly seems confusing for non-Catholics (as well as Catholics), when some politicians claim they are true followers of the church’s teaching, and yet are also true proponents of abortion. This idea has more in common with the concept of ‘two integrities’ that some liberal denominations have pioneered to try and maintain at least a legal union when the denomination is effectively moribund.
It is just too difficult to know what goes on the mind of most politicians now as they are usually so connected to polls and minders that many are unlikely to be able to have their own view without first referring to a minder, lobby group, poll or focus group.
President Biden is an intriguing example. His about-face change on the matter of abortion (and he intriguingly seems to not even want to use the word) has been widely reported, and it was clear it was related to his political ambitions. He had tried for the democratic nomination twice before.
Biden abandoned his long-held position overnight, probably raising a good deal of Catholic angst in the process.
I have often wondered if Joe Biden had instead said something like, ‘I am still not personally supportive of abortion on demand, but I understand that it should be safe and legal if it occurs’.
Of course, if he did say something like that, he would never have been the Democratic candidate, and ultimately the President. The tide had turned in the years since his last candidature and a pro-abortion position is now a fundamental part of the Democratic Party ethos.
The next step has seen increasing challenge to the Hyde Amendment, a policy that once had a bipartisan base in the established political arena. Among some members of the Democratic Party, it has even gone further, namely abortion is to be celebrated, and opposition to abortion at any level is something needing to be purged.
Three articles for consideration
Much has been written on this subject and no doubt much more will be. Three references to conclude.
Akos Balogh’s article ‘Why the West is Increasingly Pro-Gay Marriage Yet Increasingly Anti-Abortion’ is helpful in considering the wider context of how westerners now make moral decisions.
Mark Tronson’s article on Abortion Theology provides a cultural consideration of the changes in the context of a helpful theological consideration of covenant and generation in the Old Testament.
The episode Pro Life (Season 4) in John Dickson’s Undeceptions podcast has a wide exploration of many of the philosophical issues in this debate, with considerable input from ethicist Margaret Somerville.
Peter Bentley is a Sydney (Australia) based writer and commentator on church, media and cultural issues. He is a former President of the Australasian Religious Press Association.