Thomas Fleming, the editor of _Chronicles_ and president of The Rockford Institute, has posted a new column flaying George Weigel, noted cafeteria Catholic as regards Just War doctrine, over the latter's commentary on Pope Benedict's chastisement of Nancy Pelosi, noted cafeteria Catholic as regards virtually everything. Fleming's argument may be adumbrated as follows: Natural law, as evidenced by the diversity of interpretations throughout history, and particularly by the inferences drawn by those who stand at the headwaters of the tradition, underdetermines the natural status of acts of abortion; critics of abortion, therefore, who maintain the contrary, and who postulate a universal duty to prevent acts of abortion, not only conflate Kantian universalism with both natural law and Christian ethics, but demonstrate an impoverished historical understanding.
Assuming that those reading my words will have, after the foregoing paragraph, skipped over to acquaint themselves with Fleming's argument, I would like to offer two considerations, apropos of that argument.
First, from that fact that ostensibly rational and intellectually competent persons disagree, both throughout the history of our race, and across the range of moral questions and the diversity of discourses, it does not follow that any one specific issue is rationally underdetermined, such that, perhaps, only a positive religious commitment can bridge the gap and deliver us to the truth. All that follows is the general conclusion that many things are in fact rationally underdetermined, either in themselves, or on account of the poverty of our understanding or the corruption of our wills. The Greeks and Romans might well have regarded abortion and infanticide as consonant with the natural law; presumably, they also regarded pederasty - depending upon the historical period in question - as either a trivial violation, or consonant with the natural law, judging by the tolerance it was accorded at various times, but it does not follow that they were correct in so regarding it. Likewise with abortion and infanticide. It is perfectly consistent to believe that these offenses are contrary to nature and that, for whatever reason, this is seldom perfectly perceived, even by rational men. Stated differently, the natural law is neither identical or coextensive with its historical contructions or manifestations.
Second, Fleming's argument emphasizes the positive duty of the individual pregnant woman towards her unborn children, a duty grounded in her personal nature - a duty of one specific person towards another(s). In my estimation, the pro-life movement would do well to lay a greater stress upon this fact of obligation, inasmuch as the discourse of rights has proven to be a double-edged sword; such an emphasis will be contingent, however, upon a renewed emphasis upon the Church, and upon community, as centers of authority distinct from the liberal state. However, if this duty, functionally or practically, is mediated solely through the volitional religious commitments of women, and their families and faith communities, it is unclear how this differs, functionally speaking, from the liberal doctrine that duty and authority are mediated solely through the wills of equal rights-bearing subjects of the liberal state. If the duty obtains only as between a woman and her child, and does not extend to the proscription of infanticide throughout a society, such that even those void of religious commitment are compelled, to the extent feasible, to observe their duties, then in both instances the obligation only acquires authority insofar as individuals have consented to by bound by that authority. One needn't postulate that the denial of rights to the unborn is a negation of the ontological foundations of the state, itself under the mandate to secure the equal rights of all subjects under its jurisdiction, in order to grasp the difficulty; it is sufficient to observe that the evasion of duties conduces to the destruction of society, and that public authority is not, therefore, bound to extend toleration to such derelictions. Society, in the persons of its authorities, is not obligated to defend its own subversion, and the continuation of society ought not be a perpetual plebiscite.
Perhaps it will be said that I have failed to comprehend the argument, one way or the other, in which case I will be delighted to receive correction. None of the foregoing, moreover, is motivated by animus or hostility, as I have previously lauded Fleming's work The Morality of Everyday Life on this very website. I simply do not perceive that the question of abortion is merely a matter of individual religious commitment, or of sub-communities within the polity. This is not a question of whether my wife is obligated to prevent abortions in China; it is a question of whether public authority is permitted to tolerate them here.