Douthat Gets Candid on Abortion
Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ lone conservative columnist, can be frustratingly evasive. It often seems as though Douthat sets aside the argument he wants to be making in favor of tepid social commentary — probably so as not to alienate his liberal readership.
A good example of this would be Douthat’s column on gay marriage in August. Douthat begins by critiquing the conservative claim that heterosexual monogamy is natural and universal. Monogamy, Douthat tells us, is a “particularly Western understanding” of what marriage should be, an understanding rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Douthat’s observation is in congruence with a point liberals often like to make: that the Judeo-Christian tradition is just one among many, and therefore has no business legislating on behalf of the rest of the country. This is not, however, the point that Douthat wishes to make. Rather, Douthat goes on to say that he favors Judeo-Christian marriage:
But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve
Buried in the second-to-last paragraph of the column, this is clearly not a point Douthat wishes to dwell upon — yet it is obviously the most important point to establish, if he is going to disagree with the conventional New York Times’ wisdom. Hence, my frustration.
Given Douthat’s general reticence to challenge liberalism head-on, his column on abortion this morning came as a surprise. Abortion is the quintessentially divisive issue, which makes the column all the more exceptional. Perhaps Douthat realizes that the anti-abortion argument is much stronger than others in the conservative playbook. Or perhaps Douthat’s moral conviction on this issue far outstrips his opposition to gay marriage. Whatever the case, today’s column features some of Douthat’s most candid and powerful writing:
On the MTV special [“No Easy Decision”], the people around Durham swaddle abortion in euphemism. The being inside her is just “pregnancy tissue.” After the abortion, she recalls being warned not to humanize it: “If you think of it like [a person], you’re going to make yourself depressed.” Instead, “think of it as what it is: nothing but a little ball of cells.”
It’s left to Durham herself to cut through the evasion. Sitting with her boyfriend afterward, she begins to cry when he calls the embryo a “thing.” Gesturing to their infant daughter, she says, “A ‘thing’ can turn out like that. That’s what I remember … ‘Nothing but a bunch of cells’ can be her.”
When we want to know this, we know this. Last week’s New Yorker carried a poem by Kevin Young about expectant parents, early in pregnancy, probing the mother’s womb for a heartbeat:
The doctor trying again to find you, fragile,
fern, snowflake. Nothing.
After, my wife will say, in fear,
impatient, she went beyond her body,
this tiny room, into the ether—
… And there
it is: faint, an echo, faster and further
away than mother’s, all beat box
and fuzzy feedback. …
This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.
It’s enough to make you spill your latte.