Dialogue is a beautiful word, replete with the promise of two opposing sides getting together in peace and harmony. Socrates was a great champion of dialogue. His perpetual frustration, however, was that his opponents were securely entrenched in a monologue – talking to themselves.
This has been my problem in trying to engage abortion supporters in a dialogue. One incident stands out in my mind and serves as an example of a monologue preventing the possibility of a dialogue.
Some time ago, in an attempt to assess the aftermath of sexual permissiveness on the campus of a major North American university, I spoke with the director of the school’s Birth Control and Sex Information Centre. By way of summarizing what she had informed me, I said to her, “You have observed a tidal wave of premarital sex, a rash of unwanted pregnancies, a high number of abortions together with their train of complications, an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a widespread disruption of studying in the dorms, a lowering respect for women, and an intolerance toward the minority of students who are opposed to premarital sexual experimentation.” I then asked her if there was anything positive on the other side of the ledger that might counterbalance this plague of misfortunes.
She hesitated for a moment. Without taking her eyes away from me, she responded in a studied tone of voice, “Yes, the freedom!” On that note, our conversation ended. There would be no dialogue. She excused herself and hurried off to her next appointment. I sensed that she was not altogether happy with her single-word defense. Something was very wrong.
It is a truth which cannot be disputed that a particular word can have multiple meanings. Our mental vocabulary, therefore, is more extensive than our verbal vocabulary. C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves expands on the fact that the word “love” has four distinct meanings. The love we have for God, spouse, friend, and pet are radically different, although they are bound together in the embrace of a single word.
Mortimer Adler points out early in The Idea of Freedom, his 700-page treatment on the subject, that “the word ‘freedom’ is used in a multiplicity of ways.” The freedom that my associate had in mind is freedom of choice. But that notion of freedom is not something that we need to acquire. It is our birthright. We are all born with the capacity to choose good or evil. Consequently, we can use our freedom wisely or we can misuse it. We do not gain freedom by misusing it. The result of misusing our freedom of choice is a series of calamities. The purpose of freedom of choice is to gain freedom of fulfillment. A person may have a natural talent for playing the violin, but if he does not study or practice, he will not enjoy the freedom to play the instrument well.
No one is against freedom of choice. That would be as foolish as being against opening one’s eyes, or breathing. But it is not a terminal value. It exists for something beyond itself. It is ground floor freedom, so to speak, which needs reason as an elevator to get us up to the penthouse. Freedom of choice would be purposeless if it did not aim for a higher freedom. If we collapse the several meanings of freedom into one – freedom of choice – morality would be both inconceivable and impossible. There would be no standard that could differentiate right from wrong. Freedom of fulfillment is the crown of freedom of choice.
On the subject of freedom, dialogue begins when we explore the different notions of freedom. Abortion advocates are stuck on a single meaning of the word, while pro-lifers recognize that freedom of choice is futile without freedom of fulfillment. And this is why a monologue sabotages the possibility of a dialogue.
The accusation, “anti-choice” unjustly caricatures pro-life advocates who are, in fact, in favor of choice because that is the only pathway to freedom of fulfillment. Opposition to abortion is not based on a negation of freedom of choice, but on its affirmation as it is necessary for the achievement of a higher freedom. Pro-life supporters, therefore, are more in love with freedom than are their opponents.
There can be no dialogue without an understanding of what is involved. The pro-life position emerges from a unified picture of the human person. A person is not a being who chooses willy-nilly and gets nowhere. A person is a being who has a fundamental responsibility to use his basic freedom wisely. And choosing wisely is for his benefit as well as for the benefit of others. The anti-choice accusers argue out of ignorance since they seem to be unaware of the broad ramifications of the abortion issue as well as the equally broad platform of their right-to-life opponents.
A dialogue can take place only when the two opponents respect the wholeness of the person as well as the many shades of meaning of words.
Donald DeMarco, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College, is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of 40 books, including, most recently, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling; Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, and Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense.