On Morality, Abortion, and Empires

On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade let us consider legalized abortion as not just a court case but a sign, and ask, “What does it signify for us as nation, a culture, a civilization?”

At the height of another monolithic, global power—the Byzantine Empire—the historian Procopius, chronicler of the greatest Byzantine triumphs under the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century, recorded to his everlasting fame the outrageous and salacious “Secret History” of the lofty court. Here we learned that the Empress Theodora earned her position through her skills as a courtesan. Yet, Theodora was not just any courtesan, but an insatiable nymphomaniac, who, according to Procopius, wanted men to do things to her body that were not only depraved but anatomically impossible.

The case was partisan vitriol more than honest record of courtly decadence, to be sure, but it has been almost as difficult to disprove by historians, as it is too juicy to ignore. At the height of his calumny, when Procopius really attacked the empress, he charged Theodora of having procured multiple abortions. This was the depth of her turpitude, the lowest of the low, the worst thing he could imagine. Such disapprobation does not surprise us; after all, Procopius was writing in an arch-conservative Christian age. But Procopius did not quote Leviticus or the Church, nor did he have to. Christianity, it should be remembered, did not invent the prohibition against abortion. The cultural taboos that forbid a mother from choking the life from her womb are far older and more ubiquitous than the worship of that Man from Galilee.

The old gods worked in a straight-forward quid pro quo. They held sway over inscrutable forces of nature that we cannot control—birth, death, sickness, pestilence, the weather, etc.—andfor our worship and adoration they would protect us from them. In the gravest of circumstances, doctors or midwives could be consulted; they had their means, as always—so abortions happened in pagan times.But to deny a mother’s natural calling the gods demanded propitiation. Whatever calamity you or your family eventually suffered—infertility, cancer, poverty—you would know the cause. That is how the pagan mind worked: there was no heaven or hell to worry over. The consequences are always temporal; like the sword of Damocles, it is always just a matter of time.

The Christian mind adds two important developments to this moral calculus: First, the notion of eternal judgment promises eventual retribution. Sometimes calamity does not come and even those who violate sacred taboos seem to live a long and happy life. So lest the wicked prosper and it seems there is no justice in Heaven, Christianity guarantees a day of reckoning—a day of reckoning, furthermore, that transcends earthly affairs. Related to this is the other development even more significant concerning abortion: Christianity conceives the old notion of an immortal soul as a unique individual created in the image of God. (This development, of course, gives rise to the whole modern complex of personhood, and the terminology for it arose from the process the early Church went through to figure out just how Christ is both God and a human person at the same time.) Each birth, therefore, is the incarnation of a unique person. Abortion effaces that little image of God.

Now, our secular age and culture in legalizing abortion has rendered the taboos of the old gods toothless and the judgment of God the Father impotent—or so it seems. The age and culture have rendered so not by popular vote or by a plurality of statesmen in council, but by the merest and most specious of judicial fiats. So the Court now speaks for the gods, and for a generation now we have dutifully complied with their judgment. I cannot recall a more peculiar instance of tyranny. Certainly, no other civilization that has flouted the traditional morality of its people, called it “progress” or even “virtue,” has prospered long. No doubt Procopius deemed his imperial court’s degeneracy as auspicious, too.

But before we conclude abortion to be an apocalyptic sign of our times, remember that Procopius’ Byzantium managed to last almost a millennium after he wrote. Not all of a civilization’s ills prove to be symptoms of a more destructive civic cancer that spells its own doom. Whether legalized abortion is such a portentous symptom for American we cannot know for sure. We do know, however, what demands our repentance.

Andrew Harvey

Andrew Harvey

Dr. Andrew Harvey is an associate professor of English at Grove City College and a contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values.

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