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Pelosi and the Bishops

August 28th, 2008

Nancy Pelosi got into trouble when she pointed out that abortion has not always been the sin in Christianity that it has been painted to be. She pointed to the works of St. Augustine in the 4th century, who subscribed to “delayed hominization,” and wrote, “the law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation.” That was Saint Augustine on Exodus 21:22, the source of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”–but also specifies (in a far less quoted preamble) that if one hits a woman so as to cause her unborn child to die, only a monetary fee is required.

Pelosi was quite right–the church has been all over on the matter of abortion, and for most of its history did not frown on abortion itself early in pregnancy. If one is to be perfectly honest, it is a matter which is less ordained by god and more of a detail that church leaders have arbitrarily decided upon–with life beginning at conception being a relatively modern invention (1869, to be exact). What Pelosi was saying is that life-at-conception is not the sure thing that some Christians try to claim it is, and in this, she was right.

The right wing is jumping all over this, with Fox leading the charge saying that “Pelosi blew it” (and that she “committed a major gaff,” which I can only presume is Fox’s bad spelling and not to mean that Pelosi committed a barbed stick) and the Washington Times warning Pelosi that she should not cross the bishops, or else. Much of the media is following their lead.

So, why is Pelosi wrong? Because a bunch of religious authorities decided to interpret biblical works differently than she did, even if Pelosi’s interpretation is closer to how the church has judged abortion for about 90% of its history. But the texts could be read either way, in that biblical texts can say just about anything you want them to say if you stretch and generalize them as much as church scholars and officials have. If you remain more strict to original writings, then interpretation favors Pelosi’s views. Doing it otherwise strays into the territory of letting the church have it both ways–give unequal weight to identical dictums in scripture, or allowing rationalizations about how the “ovum wasn’t discovered until 1827” but we’re supposed to base science on what the bible says.

But hey, with the only thing in the balance being the Catholic Church refusing to give Pelosi Communion and therefore damaging her politically as well as personally, we can at least be grateful that religion is not dictating law. It is only trying really hard, and won’t fully succeed until McCain gets elected. So relax.

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  1. Tim Kane
    August 28th, 2008 at 10:00 | #1

    This is no small thing. It is huge. I am in a hurry so I hope to comment twice upon it.

    The success of “movement conservativism” which is a hard right coalition of wealthy elites, religious right and neoconservatives is dependent on two bare thin threads, the ability to mix state and religion and the ability to use the abortion issue to re-assert authoritarianism and reverse the development of democracy.

    The mixing of state and religion is extremely thin because both Jesus and the founding farthers/framers of the constitution were against it. Historical record shows that both were extremely wise here – maybe even divinely so – for multiple reasons. Worse for the Roman Catholic Church, their job in Western society, from the fall of the Roman Empire has been to bestow legitimacy (moral authority) upon the rulers of the states of Europe. That role brought the church immense wealth, power and prestige. Democracy took that away from the church and gave it to the people. This left the church with little more than moral authority.

    Different groups in movement conservativism want different things.

    Hard right conservatives in the church want that authority back. Some may even see it as the only way to preserve the west from decadence (arise neoconservatives). Of course a largely non-religious Japan and Western Europe have debunked that – but stil the ignore that evidence and persist.

    There are no good reasons for combining church and state. They are all bad. To overcome the separation between church and state espoused by both Jesus and the founding generation, religion has made up this issue involving abortion.

    It’s a false issue, a false pretext, indeed, a rascalian pretext. Why do they pursue it? Because abortion gives movement conservatives a pretext for otherthrowing the separation of church and state, and it creates a precedent for overthrowing the sovereignty of the people with authoritarianism. People are the sovereigns: they have sovereignty over themselves – abortion is a pretext to take that away.

    Thus abortion creates the thinnest thread upon which the whole weight of movement conservativism rides on. Thus any statements made, similar to Pelosi’s statement, is going to get attacked with the full force, means and resources that movement conservatives have behind it. They simply cannot afford to – not only lose that arguement, but to leave it ambigious or even to leave it as such that, like a third rail, people need to know that they will be thoroughly and completely punished for touching it.

    The fact is, people are sovereign overthemselves, the thoughts inside their head and that which goes on inside their body. Even if you legislate it away, they’ll do what they want – remember prohibition – so there is no point of legislating it away. In the case of prohibition the vice that was prohibited turned out to be less than the vice created by prohibition (violent organized crime). Proving that you can’t legislate morality – which from a theological point is why Jesus was for separating religion from politics. The legal system has to make compromises that ethical systems cannot.

    But bear in mind, the catholic church is perfectly willing to accept the evil that comes with prohibition of abortion – from back alley abortions with coat hooks to little children having to give birth to their daddy’s baby. There okay with that. Why? Because that’s the price of power: your price, for their power.

    According to my rendering of Jesus position, religion is limited to persuasion in imposing it’s ethical systems upon people. That’s it. But the people are sovereign. If the system is good and makes sense people will buy it. If it doesn’t they wont.

    If the issue were strictly about abortion, it wouldn’t matter whether it were legal or not. The church and the like are completely free to persuade all people, one at a time, that abortion is wrong. If they succeed, then no abortions will occur. Would the church still have a problem with abortion if it were completely legal yet no one ever chose to have one?

    Anyway, congratulations to Nancy Pelosi for putting those people on their heels. I understand that all politics are local. She’s doing it to force Fox & friends to have to talk about abortion – reminding women why they are democrats.

    This leads me to one last interesting insight. Movement conservatives have largely succeeded at turning American society into sheep. The most devistating loss has been that of the labor movement (which I think is tied, ironically, to the demise of the mob – labor not having any means to punch back was ran over by wealthy corporate elites). But the women’s movement was born of the time that the labor movement was born. And we can see, perhaps more than in a long long time, that the women’s movement is still very very strong. Maybe the strongest vital movement today in our society. And it is that movement that stands astrides movement conservatives campaign on abortion. Think of that. It’s the women’s movement keeping Fox & friends, and conservatives from pushing America furthing into peionage, serfdom and slavery.

    Battle on, I say.

  2. Paul
    August 28th, 2008 at 14:40 | #2

    Tim’s got some good points, but I’m personally not entirely sure that it’s a good idea to be stirring up this issue right now.

    The problem is that rather than attacking the logic of the abortion question (should it be a choice allowed or not), the way she put it makes it seem like she’s attacking RELIGION instead. Note that the Catholic Church made a point of saying “she does NOT speak for us”.

    Many other people will react this way to a perceived attack upon their religion.

    The other reason I’m not sure if it’s a good idea is because right now, the way things stand, the religious “right” is showing cracks. They’re realizing that the Republicans have been playing them for fools on abortion; Republicans have 6 out of 9 Supreme Court Justices and controlled the House and the Senate for 6 out of 8 years of Bush’s Presidency… yet what did they really do about abortion?

    Nothing, that’s what. The reason is simple- if they had managed to jam through laws changing abortion, they would have wound up losing in the end. They’re not stupid; they know that roughly 2/3 of America basically believes that women have the right to choose.

    So had the Republicans passed bans or restricted abortions, they were in a lose-lose situation. If enough people got really pissed off about it, then more Democrats (or at least more prochoice folks) would have been elected; and if people were NOT pissed off about it, then the religious right wouldn’t be ponying up bajillions of dollars because their biggest issue would have been taken care of.

    So Pelosi tweaking them… I’m not sure it’s a great idea.

    There’s another reason… it’s not a great argument, IMO, because it’s not that likely to work.

    Someone who’s vehemently prolife certainly isn’t going to be swayed by her argument. They’re going to remain prolife no matter what.

    And someone who’s a fence-sitter, or generally prolife but possibly convincable of prochoice laws, probably isn’t going to be swayed by Nancy Pelosi telling them about religion. They’re much more likely to either listen to their own religious leaders (in which case they’re liable to be offended by Pelosi “telling them what to think”, which is how the prolifers will present it) or they’re generally more non-religious and won’t really respond to that argument that way anyway.

    I think it’s better to simply stick to the more secular, common-sense reasons for keeping choice in terms of abortion. But that’s just me; a lot of people have made really good points about attacking more often on more fronts, and they do have a good argument.

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