Fifteen years ago this month Naomi Wolf, the prominent American feminist, published a striking article in the New Republic entitled “Rethinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric: Our Bodies, Our Souls.” Highly critical of the dehumanizing rhetoric of the pro-choice movement, Wolf argued that feminists must reject morally neutral language to describe abortion and dehumanizing euphemisms to describe the child in the womb. Feminists, Wolf argued, should accept the fact that abortion is, in her words, a “sin” which ends a human life.
The most surprising aspect of Wolf’s article, however, was not this clear-eyed encounter with the truth of abortion, but her unflinching endorsement of abortion despite the very truths she recognized: “Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die.” She maintained that the pro-choice movement needed “to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real death.” As she observed near the end of her article: “We have no ground on which to say that abortion is a necessary evil that should be faced and opposed in the realm of conscience and action and even soul; yet remain legal”.
With her stark, honest article, Wolf tried to re-inject the language of morality into the lexicon of the Left at the end of the culture wars. She attempted to concede all of the points of the opponents of abortion — acknowledging the immorality of abortion and the morally compromised context in which the euphemistic “choice” to kill one’s child occurs — without, however, altering its legality. To Clinton’s famous formula, Wolf wanted to add the final, necessary recognition: abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” because abortion is murder.
But Wolf’s project of recalibrating the cultural Left to accept its own moral contradictions came to a screeching halt with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the debates over the morality of the ensuing military conflicts, the cultural Left had to set aside the very compromises that Wolf argued was necessary to make sense of the internal contradictions of the decadent West. As a new set of ethical problems suddenly appeared, moral reasoning returned to its primary colors of black and white, right and wrong. Either the terrorists, or the Bush Administration, were clear villains.
Nowhere was this rejection of moral compromise more clear than in the debates about torture. Unsurprisingly, no-one on the cultural Left advocated a Wolfian position on this subject: no-one argued that, to borrow her phrasing, torture “should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the (state) must be able to decide that the (terrorist), in its full humanity, must (suffer or even) die.” Indeed, no-one dared to argue for a moral “ground on which to say that (torture) is a necessary evil that should be faced and opposed in the realm of conscience and action and even soul; yet remain legal.”
In the Bush years, the cultural left rediscovered a realm of moral clarity without compromise.
The very same kind of moral compromises Wolf encouraged her fellow travelers to embrace for the sake of their souls were now seen as the tell-tale sign that America had actually lost its soul. In a 2009 article in the New York Times entitled “Reclaiming America’s Soul,” Paul Krugman forcefully argued that members of the Bush administration needed to be investigated because torture had occurred on their watch. He wrote: “America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals…And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate (acts of torture)…and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.”
It is heartening to see cultural liberals such as Krugman reject any compromise on the issue of torture, but where does this put those same opponents of torture on the question of fetal pain? If it is unacceptable to torture terrorists — even for the noble goal of saving innocent lives — how can the reality of abortion, acknowledged by Wolf, be reconciled with this position? If terrorists should not endure pain or death for any reason, why does the child in utero not enjoy the same rights or at least the robust defense of liberals like Krugman? The rebirth of moral clarity among such liberals on the issue of torture makes their position on this decisive moral issue look shallow, craven, and contradictory.
In the 1990s, Wolf argued that recognizing the evil of abortion would save the soul of American feminism. In the next decade, liberals argued that accepting the evil of torture and war would cause America to lose its soul. But which side is right? Should cultural liberals be encouraged to see torture as a private matter between an interrogator, his family, his conscience and his God? Or should not the same solicitous concern for terrorists who have been subjected to pain be extended to the defenseless denizens of the womb, who have committed no crimes and pose no threat? Until their concern for terrorists and criminals is extended to their own unborn citizens, cultural liberals have no chance of reclaiming America’s moral authority or, for that matter, its soul.