Why Christopher Hitchens Opposes Abortion
Along with his good friend Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens is regarded as one of the nation’s sharpest and wittiest voices on the radical left. His “Minority Report” which appears regularly in The Nation inevitably punctures right—wing orthodoxies. (The right, for Hitchens, sometimes appears to stretch from Jesse Helms all the way to Ted Kennedy.) Hitchens also writes regularly for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Newsday, the London Spectator, and other publications. Here, for the first time, he discusses a subject which he says has long been on his mind, abortion.
Crisis: Is abortion really a political issue? It seems not. After all, politics is a dispute over the arrangements by which a community lives. Abortion raises a prior question: who belongs to the community? In this sense it seems to be a pre-political question.
Hitchens: All human value disputes are either political or are capable of being politicized. Even allegedly transcendent matters like transubstantiation have been intensely political, as you well know. The politicization of abortion stems from its central position in the feminist agenda. To a lesser extent, the axiom of “the woman’s right to choose” is an organizing principle in what you might call the broader humanist program as well. As a supporter of humanism and feminism I have strong misgivings about the wisdom, in both senses, of this one-dimensional position. I don’t think feminism should contradict humanism.
Crisis: What do you mean?
Hitchens: I agree with Michael Kinsley (editor of the New Republic) who once wrote a column saying that the Roe v. Wade decision, which was of course made by a conservative-centrist Court, was the biggest reverse for liberalism in our time. He was speaking tactically, and about the “backlash.” Nobody on the left can avoid noticing that the so-called “prolife” forces are overwhelmingly female and from income groups that traditionally voted Democratic. Yet this simple rebellion by what one might dare to term humble people has been written off as reactionary by people who can’t or won’t see the essential dignity of the right-to-life position.
Crisis: When did you first start thinking seriously about the abortion issue?
Hitchens: In Britain during the 1960s, there was a “liberal hour” when Parliament during one session voted to abolish capital punishment, to legalize homosexuality for adults, to relax the provisions of the divorce law, and to permit abortions for social reasons as well as the usual clinical or traumatic ones. This was the foot in the door for abortion on demand. It might interest your readers to know that Margaret Thatcher voted to keep capital punishment, to keep homosexuality criminal, to make divorce harder to get, and for the abortion bill. I gather that she’s since changed her position on the latter. My own vote would have been, as so often, exactly the reverse of hers.
Crisis: Why so?
Hitchens: I really couldn’t bring myself to accept the so-called “social clause.” I had a queasy feeling about the disposability of the fetus. This queasy feeling has not gone away.
Crisis: What about the feminist claim that abortion is an issue of a woman’s right to control her own body?
Hitchens: Look, once you allow that the occupant of the womb is even potentially a life, it cuts athwart any glib invocation of “the woman’s right to choose.” If the unborn is a candidate member of the next generation, it means that it is society’s responsibility. I used to argue that if this is denied, you might as well permit abortion in the third trimester. I wasn’t as surprised as perhaps I ought to have been when some feminists — only some, and partly to annoy — said yes to that. They at least were prepared to accept their own logic, and say that the unborn is nobody’s business but theirs. That is a very reactionary and selfish position, and it stems from this original evasion about the fetus being “merely” an appendage.
Crisis: But it’s only an evasion if we have some firm grounds for suspecting that the fetus is a human being.
Hitchens: True. But I think that by now we know where babies come from. And dialectics will tell you that you can’t be meaningfully inhuman unless you are actually or potentially human as well. Pointless to describe a rat or a snake, say, as behaving in an inhuman fashion. I put the question like this. You see a woman kicked in the stomach. Your instinct is properly one of revulsion. You learn that the woman is pregnant. Who will reply that this discovery does not multiply their revulsion? And who will say that this is only because it makes it worse for the woman? I don’t think this is just an instinctive or an emotional reaction (not that we should always distrust our instincts and emotions either). We are stuck with a basic reverence for life.
Crisis: But aren’t all these notions of the sanctity of human life and so on alien to your otherwise Marxist view of the world?
Hitchens: On the contrary. As a materialist I hold that we don’t have bodies, we are bodies. And as an atheist I believe that we do not have the consolation of the afterlife. We have only one life to live, so it had better be good. All the nonsense we hear about mediate and immediate animation, the point where a soul enters the unborn and so on, is at best beside the point. It has in common with the sectarian feminist view a complete contempt for science and the theory of evolution — which establishes beyond reasonable doubt that life is a continuum that begins at conception because it can’t begin anywhere else.
Crisis: But you’re for women’s liberation, aren’t you? What about the feminist claim that being compelled to have children takes women off the plane of equality with men?
Hitchens: I feel the weight of the argument keenly. But for a woman to be my equal it isn’t necessary for her to be the same. There was a very good Marxist-feminist book a few years ago, with the title Is Biology Woman’s Destiny? I admired the audacity of the title. Biology is all of our destinies. We don’t have to be completely determinist about this, but the room for maneuver is relatively slight.
Crisis: For a woman who gets pregnant, then, the options are limited.
Hitchens: There is something appalling about the idea of a woman having to bear a child against her will. The pro-abortion movement used to have an excellent slogan: “Every child a wanted child.” Unfortunately, because we are talking about children, this slogan doesn’t make a perfect match with the notion of the disposable fetus.
Crisis: So what do you propose?
Hitchens: I think we should have a historic compromise. If society is going to limit the conditions under which abortion is obtainable, it must be prepared to bargain. The Left doesn’t take the view, so common on the superstitious Right, that society is only interested in you before you are born and after you are dead.
Society should say, yes, it’s the next generation so we are going to shoulder responsibility for it. In return for child care and a socialist provision of welfare; in return for a socially-run adoption system to bridge the gap between women with too many children and women with none; in return for automatic access to all forms of contraception; in return for free abortion in cases of rape, incest, proven mental or physical incapacity, then society could look women in the eye for the first time in history and say that it would not permit the anomalies and injustice that led to feminist sectarianism in the first place.
Crisis: But you just said the fetus was a human life. Doesn’t that make abortion murder?
Hitchens: Not all taking of life is murder. It’s hysterical and wicked of the “prolifers” to go around saying this, especially when you notice how few of them are pacifists. My mother told me that she had an abortion before me and after me. (I hope that the thought, “It could have been me!” hasn’t influenced me unduly.) I wouldn’t have it said that my mother was a murderer; like every other woman of her class she had been put in an impossible position by the law as it then stood. If my historic compromise was adopted, I think only a generation or two would be required for one side to stop talking about infanticide and the other to stop comparing fetuses with appendixes or tumors.
Crisis: Would you favor reversing Roe v. Wade and returning abortion to the states, so that there would be local prohibitions on abortion, perhaps with the exceptions you recommend?
Hitchens: I would prefer to see abortion as a federal issue. Nothing is more horrible than inconsistency on the life question. Just look at capital punishment. The tremendous variance from state to state totally undermines the idea of stable justice or fair retribution. This moral objection applies whether or not capital punishment is a deterrent, which I don’t think it is.
Crisis: A federal prohibition on abortion, then, with rape and incest exceptions?
Hitchens: Yes, but I would like to see something much broader, much more visionary. We need a new compact between society and the woman. It’s a progressive compact because it is aimed at the future generation. It would restrict abortion in most circumstances. Now I know most women don’t like having to justify their circumstances to someone. “How dare you presume to subject me to this?” some will say. But sorry, lady, this is an extremely grave social issue. It’s everybody’s business.
Crisis: What about people who say they are personally opposed to abortion but think it should be legal? Is that a coherent position?
Hitchens: I suppose it could be made coherent in libertarian terms. I mean, people, say that they object to drinking or racial discrimination but they don’t think the government should ban either. Actually, the popularity of the position comes from people’s reluctance to tell women they haven’t met, who have gone through circumstances they cannot begin to comprehend, that “they know” what she should do about a pregnancy. I myself was reluctant to do this even when my wife got pregnant. It came at the worst possible time. Neither of us wanted to have a kid. My wife was considering an abortion. I urged her not to get one, and ultimately she decided not to, and didn’t. But I wouldn’t have, even if I could, gone beyond an effort to persuade her.
Crisis: And now you have a three-year-old son.
Hitchens: Yes. The point about what I am telling you is not that the law could have made a big difference to the context of my private conversation with my wife over this matter. But what law and society can do is provide a background, a moral background, for such a discussion.
Crisis: Are you alone on the Left in holding these opinions?
Hitchens: Not as much as I used to be. One doesn’t get told as often as before that this is a question where men have no right to be consulted, for example. I know a number of women who had abortions they now regret, or who had children and don’t regret it. Nature can be cunning in this way — like making you pleased you have a son when you secretly yearned for a daughter, as in my case. It’s a pity that the discovery of humanity in the unborn was gained at such a cost, but I think that may have been inevitable.
Crisis: Now if the “right to privacy,” discovered in the case of Roe v. Wade, were eliminated, wouldn’t that have repercussions not just for abortion but also for issues such as homosexuality? After all, gay rights groups have used the privacy right to assert their prerogatives.
Hitchens: I don’t know what exactly I think about the relevance of “privacy” here. Whether or not there is a privacy question, I don’t think it extends to the right to destroy human life. People are just going to have to live with other people being born, whether they like it or not. So the right to privacy needs to be qualified to that extent.
Crisis: What is your impression of the prolife movement?
Hitchens: I’m no expert on it; I’ve just been to a number of their rallies to see what was going on. I find that there is a generalized, largely inarticulate unease not just about abortion but society in general. One often hears semi-articulated complaints like “Children are growing up too fast.” There is a feeling of impersonality, of less humanity, these days. Worse, there is a sense that this is okay with a lot of people, especially elites.
Crisis: The movement could use better thinkers and organizers, it seems.
Hitchens: That’s for sure. But there is a feeling that here are people who care deeply about right and wrong. They are sometimes exploited, preyed on by bigots. But their moral integrity is otherwise quite profound. This integrity derives from its deep concern with children — morally unassailable even when badly expressed.
Crisis: Now, liberalism claims, for its cardinal virtue, caring or compassion. Isn’t this claim rendered suspect by liberal inability to feel for the fetus?
Hitchens: Well, I’m not exactly a liberal. But there is a debased compassion at work. It tends to be one-sided, exclusively focused on the female condemned, as they say, to domestic serfdom. We should recognize that there are proper concerns and aspirations behind this. Women have been kept down for too long. Their struggle for greater autonomy is, in general, a just one. But its simplistic extension to abortion, I think, has aspects of neurosis and over-reaction. I think some women are trying to take revenge in part for centuries of being told by men precisely how they should live. The prolife movement, if it is to be successful, must understand these sentiments. You cannot conduct any intelligent combat if you do not understand the impulses you oppose.