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Abortion, right and left - Ranier Fsadni

Opposition to abortion is not a self-evident conservative stance. Every time it’s been depicted this way, it has been to the political disadvantage of the opponents. Photo: Art Babych/Shutterstock.com

Opposition to abortion is not a self-evident conservative stance. Every time it’s been depicted this way, it has been to the political disadvantage of the opponents. Photo: Art Babych/Shutterstock.com

As a rule it is bad manners for a regular columnist to criticise a guest opinion writer. It looks like picking an easy target. But there are exceptions and Fr Geoffrey Attard’s contribution to this newspaper last week is one of them.

Fr Attard wrote about the need for a ‘Christian right’ in Malta. It’s his solution to a problem. He is peering into the near future and at the likelihood of the legalisation of abortion in Malta. He thinks a ‘Christian mindset’ is the only bulwark, and that this ‘mindset’ is to be found in the Christian right.

As far as forecasts go, he’s not alone. Which is why it’s worth looking more critically at what he wrote. It’s a textbook case of how a proposed solution can aggravate the threat it’s meant to deflect.

Here it happens, in part, because real history is ignored. What we’re told about the past is largely pseudo-history, and it leads to a serious misreading of the present.

Some of it is simply laughable. Just one example. We’re told that it was “only under” George Borg Olivier’s leadership,  and “his friendship with Christian Democrats, such as Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti, that the Nationalist Party strengthened the democratic Christian values pertaining to ‘the Christian right’”.

Actually, Borg Olivier was wary of ideology. He was most influenced by British liberalism. He did his best to keep the Church at arm’s length (he was more diffident about how close the Church’s teeth got to Labour).

He resisted the attempts (by, say, the young Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, Guido de Marco and Eddie Fenech Adami) to give the Nationalist Party a more Christian Democrat complexion. He and Andreotti didn’t even know each other (as I learned from Andreotti himself).

Is it pedantry to point this out? No, we need to be wary of anything we might take to be ‘obvious’ about the past. It’s salient to understanding the counter-intuitive politics of abortion.

To conflate Christian democracy with the Christian right, as Fr Attard and several others do in Malta, leads to two different but related errors.

First, it means you can’t understand the past. ‘Christian democracy’ is a term in one of the founding documents of Malta’s Labour Party. The PN’s own understanding of Christian democracy was enriched by, among others, politicians and supporters who joined it after earlier involvement in one worker’s party or another.

This is true also at the European level. Sometimes the career movement was in the opposite direction. Some of Europe’s most distinguished centre-left politicians – like Jacques Delors, Romano Prodi and (representing a new generation) Enrico Letta – began their political careers as members of Christian Democrat parties and continue to count themselves as fundamentally driven by the concerns of the Christian Democrat centre-left.

Second, to associate Christian politics with the ‘right’ is worse than historically mistaken.

Church leaders, including the leaders of the Catholic Church, actually urge Christians to participate and enrich the entire mainstream political spectrum. It was for this very reason that Alcide de Gasperi rejected using ‘Christian’ as part of his own Popular Party’s name before World War II. The Christian in him shrank from limiting the Church to one political party.

But the most relevant mistake here is the political one. If you’re trying to organise a broad social front against the introduction of abortion or euthanasia, why define yourself as right-wing or conservative?

Church leaders, including the leaders of the Catholic Church, actually urge Christians to participate and enrich the entire mainstream political spectrum

It will only make it more difficult for people occupying the rest of the political spectrum to join you, even if they do share your concerns. You’re narrowing your own appeal and platform.

Despite how it’s often depicted, opposition to abortion is nota self-evident conservative stance. Every time it’s been depicted this way, it has been to the political disadvantage of the opponents of abortion laws in both Europe and the US.

In actual fact, abortion laws and conservative values have often walked hand in hand. Abortion practices are as old as infanticide. It’s safe abortion that is modern.

Social conservatism is about maintaining the status quo. The conservation of resources, social security and the preservation of social status have, historically, legitimised the killing of the unborn as much as the idiom of women’s self-determination might do today. Forget the rhetoric: historically, abortion and infanticide can be found propping up patriarchy as well as greater liberty for women.

If an abortion law seems increasingly like a common sense law to have, it’s because ‘common sense’ takes its cues from how the social status quo is organised.

It’s why infanticide seemed legitimate to the ancient Roman paterfamilias, who deemed it common sense that the right to life was something that he, not human nature, granted his children. (When the early Church opposed Roman patriarchy on this point, it was being radical, not conservative.)

It’s why, in some societies today where baby girls can be a crippling social burden, there is strong social pressure on killing them while still unborn.

It’s also why, in highly individualist societies, abortion on demand seems compassionate and why appeals to social values seem hypocritical. Where are the social and communal values, the sharing of responsibility, when it comes to raising the child?

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that, in fact, abortion laws in Euro-America are supported by men and women in roughly equal proportions. In social practice, abortion laws don’t pit men, as a class, against women. They help preserve men’s status, security and resources as much as they do women’s.

So, if anything, there is a strong political case for saying that being opposed to abortion, today, in 2018, is an anti-conservative stance. Only a reformist, communitarian politics would make it truly humanitarian, consistent and not hypocritical.

If, instead, you get your cues and arguments from the Christian right in the US, you’ll go down the wrong path. That’s a politically conservative coalition, allied with a political movement that wants to keep social welfare to a minimum.

In other words, it replicates the very same rugged, individualist society, suspicious of the common good and welfare support, which creates an electoral majority for abortion laws in almost every US state except a handful.

In Europe, abortion laws are of course also to be found in countries with strong welfare states. Being against abortion laws is counter-cultural. It calls for a politics of hope and institutional reform that is broader than the narrow-minded understanding of the so-called ‘culture of life’ associated with the Christian right and, at the same time, more radical than the selective compassion of the liberal left.

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