The Pressure of Law: or, the reason abortion and gay marriage make for nasty arguments

Jonah Goldberg, an editor of National Review Online, recently wrote a column arguing that abortion and gay marriage should not be lumped together as social issues. That is to say, according to Goldberg one can be, in some intellectually respectable way, opposed to abortion yet in favor of gay marriage. From a Catholic perspective, I tend to disagree, but that is not the subject of this post.

Rather, I would like to focus on a different statement Goldberg made, one that at first glance should seem uncontroversial to those of us who tend to be politically conservative: “But once you’re born, and–hopefully–properly raised, the government’s chief obligation is to stay out of your way.” I like that, I really do, especially when I think of the various meddling bureaucrats we have chosen to inflict on ourselves as a nation. However, I do wonder just how possible it is for “government” to really stay out of our way, given what I have called, in the title of this post, the formative “pressure of law.”

By “pressure” here, I mean that the laws by which we are bound as a society, either in the form of prohibitions or allowances, nudge us in certain directions. They form us morally, they pressure us into certain behaviors, for good or ill. Consider, for example, this brief passage from the German philosopher Robert Spaemann, in which he takes issue with the argument then being advanced in Germany (back in 1974) that legalizing abortion would take the “pressure” off of the abortion decision for women, thereby rendering them more open to being dissuaded from abortion in a pre-abortion counseling session mandated by law (Grenzen, 358-359, translation mine):

“As concerns the limited possibility to counsel expectant women without pressure and thereby dissuade them from abortion, the English example has shown (from the massive rush to abortion clinics) what this counseling will be: a pro-forma consultation. The possibility of counseling currently exists. Before a woman goes to a “back-alley abortionist,” she usually goes to a real doctor in order to determine whether she is actually pregnant. If he wishes, the doctor can rather easily figure out whether the woman wants the child or not. However, to get her in a frame of mind to accept a child that she initially does not want, requires—more often than not—a repeated conversation. One such conversation could even now be suggested to doctors as an important duty. But it is against all life experience to expect from the brief conversation of an advisory body what one does not expect from the independent doctor obligated to silence. If, however, the debate is about the release from pressure—what pressure do they wish to eliminate? The pressure on <what will be called> “irresponsible procreation” will naturally increase with the legalization of abortion. The woman who is not willing to abort will be robbed of that possibility, with respect to which the laws and the risks of illegality are directed. What is worse: the pressure of an environment for the killing of children, or the pressure of laws in support of life? The question answers itself as it is asked.”


Spaemann’s point, especially in the last five sentences of that passage, is that the laws invariably influence us one way or another. While the laws made abortion illegal, women were pressured–morally and pragmatically–towards giving birth to their children. But the legalization of abortion would not simply remove that pressure. Rather, the new legal status of abortion invariably imposes a new pressure of its own toward abortion. With legalized abortion, every time a woman gets pregnant, she has no choice but to intellectually recognize that abortion is one option, no matter how much it may offend her. And with legalized abortion, a pressure is also silently imposed to justify every pregnancy, to show that it is not “irresponsible.”

A personal example, if I may– our first visit to my wife’s OB/GYN to confirm her pregnancy with my son Xavier is seared into my memory for that very reason of that pressure. After pronouncing, “Yep, you’re pregnant,” the very next questions from the doctor were whether this was a welcome pregnancy, and whether we planning on “keeping” the child– to think that that could have been it, that his light could have winked out that easily.


Which, finally, brings me back to the title of my post. The laws surrounding marriage are no exception to this tendency of law to apply morally formative pressure to human beings. While marriage is legally restricted to a man and a woman, those burdened with strong homosexual inclinations experience the law as a “pressure to be straight.” Their behavior is placed, by the law, outside the privileged sphere of normality, even if there are no criminal sanctions attached to their actions. And this pressure is a good thing, just as pain is a good thing, even if unpleasant to experience. Those with homosexual inclinations are persons, and persons are owed the truth by other persons. They have a right to the truth. And the truth is that homosexual behaviors and inclinations are naturally disordered, and thus not conducive to stable and ultimate happiness, even if they bring with them a temporary pleasure.

But perhaps you wish to say that persons not only have a right to truth, but that persons are also free, so it is inappropriate for us to arrange our laws so as to pressure others in such a way. Not a bad thought, to be sure. Yet Spaemann’s point applies here as well. Legalizing gay marriage does not remove pressure. It simply transfers it–in this case, to you, your children, and your friends. Legalized gay marriage creates an environment where homosexual behaviors are morally on par with heterosexual behaviors. You, but especially your children will be pressured, in ways subtle and not-so-subtle to conform with this view. If you think this is alarmist, you just don’t understand how seriously liberal educators take their jobs. Get ready to read Heather Has Two Mommies with your kids, and help them write a book report about it.

So what does this all mean? It means, as I said in my title, that these issues of abortion and gay marriage–and perhaps all social issues–are “zero-sum games” in which the pressure taken from one side is imposed on the other. This means these issues have to be nasty, and that nobody is going to settle down after a Supreme Court decision one way or the other. Welcome to the world, the “vale of tears” as it is called in one of the Church’s prayers. I think only hope for a relative measure of peace is to quit trying to solve these things at a federal level, and instead try to figure out ways to let more localized (and presumably homogenous) communities such as states–or ideally, even counties–settle the matters democratically. I don’t present that as a perfect solution, but as a lesser evil.


This entry was posted in Catholicism, Ethics, Law, Pro-life, Robert Spaemann, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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