Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has made his Christian piety a minor theme of his presidential campaign — quoting Proverbs on the debate stage to critique Republican opposition to a minimum-wage increase, attacking conservative evangelicals over their “porn star presidency” and un-biblical approach to refugees, urging his party to court religious voters and take religion more seriously.
Buttigiegian integralism does not include, so far as I can tell, support for any policy that deviates from the progressive catechism; like certain fervent Republicans of the religious right, he appears to believe that God’s will has finally been perfectly instantiated in the platform of a single political party 2,000 years after the birth of Christ. But because Buttigieg is a smart guy — a Rhodes scholar, even — I assumed that his religious politics at least included some kind of intelligent-sounding explanation for his position on abortion, his support for his party’s absolutely-no-restrictions line.
Buttigieg offered such an explanation on the radio early this month. I want to quote it in full, because right and left have been arguing over what he meant.
“Now, right now, (Republicans) hold everybody in line with this one kind of piece of doctrine about abortion, right, which is obviously a tough issue for a lot of people to think through morally. Then again, you know, there’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath, and so even that is something that we can interpret differently. …
“No matter where you think about the kind of cosmic question of where life begins, most Americans can get on board with the idea of, alright, I might draw the line here, you might draw the line there, but the most important thing is the person who should be drawing the line is the woman making the decision.”
The immediate conservative interpretation of this quote was that Buttigieg was justifying pro-choice maximalism with Scripture, by citing the same Bible he quotes to condemn the GOP on other issues to claim that human life begins with a baby’s first breath outside the womb. The progressive response was that no, he was saying instead that (to quote the noted theologian Wiggum of Springfield) the Bible says a lot of things, nothing it says on abortion is definitive, and so even a polity influenced by Christian piety should leave both believers and nonbelievers alone to decide the fetal personhood question themselves.
The progressive interpretation is probably the more accurate description of what was going through Buttigieg’s mind when he was answering the question. But the conservative claim that he believes that personhood is mystically imparted via the inhalation of oxygen is the more accurate description of his actual legal position, and the emerging orthodoxy of his party.
That orthodoxy, as embodied by legislation in liberal states and pressed by activists upon the Democratic candidates for president, would allow abortion absolutely throughout pregnancy while still prohibiting infanticide absolutely thereafter. You can describe that kind of regime as agnostic about fetal personhood if you wish, but in legal terms it is stringently definitive. It draws an incredibly bright line — here a legal nonperson who can be terminated for any cause, there a legal person whose killing is a grave offense — at exactly the moment Buttigieg’s biblical reference invoked, the moment of first breath outside the womb.
So it’s fitting that the Smartest Guy in the Room (trademark) among the Democratic candidates gestured to Holy Writ in defending this position, however dubious his exegesis. Because the gesture captures the reality that the Democrats, in their zeal, are moving toward the most mystical, the least scientifically defensible, of possible positions on fetal personhood — one that only a special revelation could support.
All definitions of human personhood are equally mystical, comes one response, but that’s not really true. The difficulty of the pro-life position, the extremism inherent in any anti-abortion politics, rests not in our mysticism but in our biological-philosophical rigor. Our side of the debate has the simplest and most scientifically coherent definition of personhood, and our difficulty comes in persuading people that this logical coherence should outweigh the muddle of moral intuitions on the status of the embryo and the requirements of female equality. The pro-life position is rejected, when it is rejected, for leaning too heavily on scientific definitions, not for ignoring them.
A pro-choice philosophy, meanwhile, can be more or less scientific depending on where, instead of conception, it wants to draw its moral lines. A case for legal abortion that’s organized around brain development or fetal viability, for instance, has difficulties insofar as both definitions are moving targets. But both at least encompass some biologically relevant status that a fetus could acquire, some benchmark it could reach, that would establish its right not to be dismembered and destroyed.
The first-breath definition, by contrast, has nothing to do with fetal development at all, which means that it requires a kind of magical thinking about what happens to the fetus when it passes through the birth canal. Or else it requires believing that there is nothing that could give a fetus a right to life so long as it lives inside a woman; your unborn child could be reciting Shakespeare to you in sign language and it would still have no right to life.
The latter position is held by certain activists and philosophers, but even the most liberal politician hesitates to defend abortion rights so baldly, which is how you get the mysticism of life’s first breath instead. But neither argument, neither form of maximalism, has much support outside the liberal base. Instead, Roe v. Wade has been sustained for many years precisely because the country understands it to ratify some kind of developmental or viability-based system — a system that seems closer to the uncertain, conflicted middle than the more exacting ethic proposed by the anti-abortion side
So it’s striking that with Roe perhaps threatened by the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (perhaps!), the abortion-rights movement has decided that allowing any room for viability and developmental-based restrictions is capitulation, and that a mystical maximalism is the necessary play.
This isn’t just a matter of what Democratic candidates are now expected to say, the disappearance of “safe, legal and rare” from left-of-center rhetoric. Planned Parenthood, which has long benefited from its cultivated reputation as a health care outfit that occasionally performs medically necessary abortions, is currently embroiled in a messy fight with its former head, Leana Wen, that reflects the new maximalism: Wen, hired originally because she was a talented M.D., says she lost her job in part because she wanted to embrace the health-provider reputation and do outreach to the conflicted and lukewarm — and that goal conflicted, in obvious ways, with a “not till the first breath” definition of when legal personhood begins.
Meanwhile, as a kind of grimly ironic accompaniment to his scriptural musings, Buttigieg’s hometown, South Bend, has just discovered that its longtime abortion provider, the late Dr. Ulrich Klopfer, kept a substantial collection of fetal remains on his property: 2,246 “products of conception,” to be exact, carefully preserved.
The version of pro-choice politics that has been generally successful in this country allows Americans to support abortion rights within limits, while still regarding figures like Klopfer as murderous or monstrous.
But the more maximalist and mystical your claims about when personhood begins (or doesn’t), the more strained that distinction gets. The unapologetic grisliness of a Klopfer, or a Kermit Gosnell before him, haunts a Buttigiegian abortion politics more than it does a “safe, legal, rare” triangulation, because it establishes the most visceral of contrasts — between the mysticism required to believe that the right to life begins at birth and the cold and obvious reality that what our laws call a nonperson can still become a corpse.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.