Deconstructing the Abortion License

By Deborah Danielski

(Published in Our Sunday Visitor, October 25, 1998)

Has one of America’s leading philosophers of deconstructionism – a theory that denies the existence of God-given moral truths – changed his tune on abortion?

That was the contention of a radio broadcast by Christian commentator Chuck Colson. In one of his daily "Breakpoint" programs last fall, Colson reported on statements made by Duke University Law Professor Stanley Fish at an annual convention of the American Political Science Association.

"’When pigs fly!’ That’s what people say when they hear a claim they believe to be utterly impossible," Colson said. "And it’s what you might say if someone suggested to you that America’s most committed secularist and abortion advocate were to admit he was wrong. But that’s exactly what happened last week."

In the weeks following, transcripts of Colson’s program about Fish’s unlikely conversion flew like pigs across cyberspace, winding up in e-mail boxes and in Christian and philosophy chat rooms under provocative headings like "Fish Cuts Bait."

But there’s a problem, according to Fish. Colson’s story isn’t true. He hasn’t changed his mind on anything.

In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Fish said that Colson had no evidence for labeling him an "abortion advocate," and that his own writing proves he has never been a "secularist."

Fish said that he has opposed abortion privately since his early teens and that it was a decision he reached based on a very personal matter (see box). He had publicly stated that opinion, he added, because "no one ever asked."

‘Anti-secularist’

Fish declined to discuss his personal religious convictions, but he said that he espouses a distinct "anti-secularist" philosophy in his writings. "I find it awkward, to say the least, to have to announce that I consider myself a person favorably inclined to religious sentiments and perspectives," Fish wrote in his response to Colson.

Even a "cursory reading" of his works, he added, would show that he is a strong supporter of "religious interests and religious discourse and against the tendency of liberal thought to dismiss both,"

Some have speculated that Colson had assumed Fish held anti-religious and anti-life views because of his advocacy of deconstructionism and his esteemed position in the overwhelming liberal ranks of the academic world.

But Fish said that would be wrong. "It is always incorrect to assume you can know what someone’s moral convictions are based on their philosophical theories," he said, adding that he does not consider himself a liberal.

If he is to be labeled at all, he said he is a "radical conservative." His position on abortion has always been based on an inner conviction unrelated to scientific evidence or philosophical argument," he said.

Colson was not alone, however, in assuming that Fish was "pro-choice." Fish made his anti-choice announcement in response to another participant in the debate who made the same assumption.

The American Political Science Association debate centered on the question of whether it is possible to debate important moral issues when people proceed from deeply divergent starting points.

Expressing his own understanding of Fish’s "starting points," Syracuse University Professor Stephen Macedo assumed Fish supported "affirmative action, abortion rights, and equal treatment of gays and lesbians."

Fish begged to differ. "I am in favor of affirmative action and gay and lesbian rights," he responded. "But I do not support abortion rights."

There were no reports of pigs flying when Fish publicly announced his antiabortion stance, but participants confirmed to Our Sunday Visitor that Colson captured the mood correctly when he reported that "the next sound in the room was that of 200 jaws hitting the floor at once."

Pro-life science

Fish dropped another bombshell on his academic audience when he announced that he had been wrong about the nature of the arguments made by each side of the abortion debate.

Fish had been challenged about remarks he made in a 1996 article in the religious journal First Things. Fish had written: "A pro-life advocate sees abortion as a sin against God who infuses life at the moment of conception. A pro-choice advocate sees abortion as a decision to be made in accordance with the best scientific opinion as to when the beginning of life, as we know it, occurs."

But in a paper prepared for the APSA debate Princeton University political theorist Robert P. George, a Catholic, argued that Fish was "mistaken.

George said that science doesn’t necessarily support the "pro-choice" side and that pro-lifers don’t need to make their arguments on the basis of religious belief. He pointed to the overwhelming scientific evidence about the humanity and development of the unborn child.

"On the contrary," George later explained to Our Sunday Visitor. "Nothing would please the pro-life side more than to have the issue of abortion settled purely on the basis of scientific evidence as to the point at which a new human being comes into existence. It is the pro-choice side that wishes to shift attention away from the facts of embryogenesis and intrauterine human development."

At the APSA debate, Fish responded to George’s arguments by saying, "Professor George is right. And he is right to correct me."

Far from being a change of "heart" or "opinion," however, Fish told Our Sunday Visitor that his apparent about-face on that aspect of the abortion issue was simply "an acknowledgment of factual error." "I should have known better," he said. "Pro-life arguments are now based on scientific evidence and the pro-choice arguments are not. That is a cultural, historical fact."

In his own paper prepared for the APSA debate, Fish expanded on his view:

"Nowadays, it is pro-lifers who make the scientific question of when the beginning of life occurs the key one in the abortion controversy, while pro-choicers want to transform the question into a ‘metaphysical’ or ‘religious’ one by distinguishing between mere biological life and ‘moral life’…

"Until recently pro-choicers might have cast themselves as defenders of rational science against the forces of ignorance and superstition, but when scientific inquiry started pushing back the moment when significant life (in some sense) begins, they shifted tactics and went elsewhere in search of rhetorical weaponry."

Beyond ivory towers

What effect Fish’s public anti-choice stand will have on the abortion debate remains to be seen. Even he is not sure what the implications of his convictions are. He opposes a woman’s "right" to abortion, but he objects to being labeled "pro-life."

"I do not support abortion rights," he said during the debate, "although what I would support in this vexed area is not clear to me."

He told Our Sunday Visitor that he also opposes assisted suicide, but wavers in his opinions on capital punishment. Though he teaches deconstructionism, Fish told OSV he does not personally deny that absolute truth is "out there."

"But it is of no help to us that there is an absolute truth of the matter of things," he added, "because unfortunately, none of us are in a position to say definitively what that is – although we all think that we are."

In his commentary, Colson said that "this change of mind has repercussions far beyond the ivory towers. It exposes the essential lie that the pro-choicers advance: That is, that pro-lifers are trying to cram a particular sectarian view down everyone’s throat. Not so, as Fish amazingly admitted."

Even if it was not quite the change of mind that Colson had imagined, Catholic commentators said that Fish’s public remarks were significant.

Conventual Franciscan Father Germain Kopaczynski of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston pointed to Fish’s observation that "pro-choice" arguments are based on rhetoric and ideology, while the pro-life position is bolstered by the latest science.

"I think Fish is right," he said, "to point out that it is the pro-lifers who are making their case against abortion by using contemporary scientific findings while the pro-abortion crowd falls back on rhetorical devices such as ‘our bodies, our lives, our right to decide.’"

Father Richard John Neuhaus, who has been in public dialogue with Fish in the pages of First things, the journal he edits, said that his coming out against abortion "might give others within the academic community to follow suit."

"In certain academic circles, Fish is a very influential person," Father Neuhaus added, "particularly among those who are viewed as being on the cutting edge of literary theory – those most entrenched in pro-abortion dogma. What he has to say is important in those worlds and we certainly hope it will have a positive influence." Maybe pigs aren’t flying, but this debate may have begun a long-overdue "deconstructing" of the logic of abortion in America.

‘Something just welled up inside me’

Duke University Law Professor Stanley Fish told Our Sunday Visitor that his personal convictions against abortion – made public for the first time in a recent debate of the American Political Science Association – actually stem from an incident that occurred in his life in the 1960s, a decade before abortion was legalized in the United States.

While he would not discuss the incident in detail, he said the question arose within his own family as to whether abortion should be considered as a "way out" of a situation.

"Something just welled up inside me that said, ‘no, no’," Fish said. That decision was not the result of philosophical reasoning, he added. "I wasn’t even capable of philosophical debate at that age. It [the conviction] was just there.

He expressed surprise at having been labeled "America’s most committed secularist" in a recent Christian radio commentary by Chuck Colson. And indeed, in many ways, Fish has proven himself, in his writings, to be friend of religion.

Fish consistently argues against the liberal position that moral truth can be arrived at through intellectual reasoning alone. In a manner he attributes to the writings of Aristotle, he says moral conviction cannot follow from consideration of rational arguments but is "arrived at by God knows what means."

An expert on 16th and 17th century Christian writers -- especially John Milton, best-known for his epic poem Paradise Lost – Fish prefers not to divulge his own personal beliefs. But he said he has great respect for religious thinking and finds religious writing "endlessly fascinating and very important."

The arguments employed by religious writers in past centuries in the areas of interpretation of language and the nature of truth are "infinitely more sophisticated" than the philosophies of liberals promoted today.

In his debates with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in First Things magazine, and in a recent essay on church-state separation in Columbia Law Review (December 1997), Fish argues aggressively against attempts by liberals to enforce a split between religious and intellectual thought.

He maintains that the liberal academic and political community had "made a big mistake in demonizing and marginalizing religion."

Friend of Religion?

Simply hearing the name Stanley Fish may bring the label "secularist" to the minds of those who have heard of his post-modernist teachings. Yet in many ways, Fish has proven himself to be friend of religion.

When Fish attests to an inner moral conviction that "just welled up inside me," he bears witness to what Christians refer to as the "law of nature, written on our hearts." Fish consistently argues against the liberal position that moral truth can be arrived at through intellectual reasoning alone. In a manner he attributes to the writings of Aristotle, he says moral conviction cannot follow from consideration of rational arguments but is "arrived at by God knows what means." Christians might call it "revelation."

In acknowledging the existence of absolute truth, Fish again departs from the fundamental basis of relativism. When asked by OSV if his assertion that truth is "out there" but "unfortunately, none of us are in a position to say definitively what [it] is" might be compared to St. Paul’s writing that "we see through a glass darkly," Fish said. "Or, as [Thomas] Hobbes would say, ‘we all wear different glasses.’"

Hobbes, 17th century author of the classic "Leviathon," is one of two writers Fish refers to as his "intellectual lodestars" or guides. The other is fourth century Doctor of the Church St. Augustine.

An expert on 16th and 17th century Christian writers -- especially John Milton, best-known for his epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained – Fish prefers not to divulge his own personal beliefs but said he has great respect for religious thinking and finds religious writing "endlessly fascinating and very important." The arguments employed by religious writers in past centuries in the areas of interpretation of language and the nature of truth are "infinitely more sophisticated" than the philosophies of liberals promoted today.

In his debates with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in First Things magazine, and in a recent essay entitled "Mission Impossible: Settling the Just Boundaries Between Church and State" (Columbia Law Review, Dec. 1997), Fish argues aggressively against attempts by liberals to enforce a split between religious and intellectual thought. He refers to Mission Impossible as his attempt to say to the liberal academic and political community, "You have made a big mistake in demonizing and marginalizing religion."

"… rationality and faith go together in an indissoluble package," Fish wrote in First Things. "You can’t have one without the other."

By including room for religious sentiment within his philosophical theories and insisting that it not be excluded from public debate, Stanley Fish swims against the rising tide of secularism in this post-modern age.

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