Old Deities: New Sacrament
New Oxford Review
By W.A. Borst
Once you recover from the shock of the first encounter, it seems obvious, even predictable. But the first encounter is disturbing and disorienting: You feel as if you are present in old Carthage at a sacrifice to Moloch, the eater of children.
I refer to the encounter with a new inspiration on the part of proabortionists, an inspiration wondrous in its simplicity and staggering in its implications. To the claims of prolifers that religion forbids abortion, proabortionists can respond with fervor that they, too, are religious, they, too, are believers, and abortion is a spiritual practice and a sacred ritual. Abortion is an act of worship: Deus — or dea — vult.
This inspiration seems to be the genuine belief of some, as we will see. But it is sure to be used by others as a rhetoric of convenience, as a tactic in their war to keep abortion safe, legal, and frequent. I fear it could prove a shrewd tactic, with a fair chance of success. In our culture, which is morally self-indulgent and religiously illiterate but spiritually ambitious and consumerist in outlook, ideologies are labeled “spiritual” for the same reason foods are labeled “natural”: The word draws customers to the product, and there are no enforceable standards for applying it.
Since Americans, as a whole, continue to be surprisingly respectful of anything that calls itself religion, any co-opting of religious language by the proabortionists could reduce the momentum the prolife movement has built up in the past few years. At the least it could serve to confuse further the vast muddled middle of our countrymen who may not be sure if abortion is murder but who are fairly clear that government should not mess with anybody’s religion.
We are familiar with the negative religious argument against interfering with abortion. We’ve been told that abortion, like religion, like one’s view of the meaning of life, is a private matter. Our law guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. Moreover, since the major churches of this country cannot agree whether abortion is right or wrong, one is free to “follow one’s conscience” on the matter.
But now a positive religious character is claimed for abortion. In January 1998, to mourn the 25th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, 150,000 prolifers marched in Washington, D.C. But the television coverage dwelt for a while on a small proabortion rally staged nearby, and I heard an articulate young woman tell the meager crowd her abortion story. Unmarried and on the Pill, she had become pregnant by her longtime “partner.” The male partner thoughtfully concluded that he was just not ready to be a father; the female partner likewise weighed her schooling, her job, and her free time against the demands of motherhood. Then, she said, she prayed to her “god or goddess” and received the revelation that abortion would be the best thing for all of them, man, woman, and child. (Of course, it was the child who was aborted, not the thoughtful man or the prayerful woman.)
We use the word “neopagan” freely these days. But there are murderous polytheists among us, and there should be more, according to a slim and frightening book by Ginette Paris of Canada, L’Enfant, l’Amour, la Mort (1990), translated into English as The Sacrament of Abortion. (Ms. Paris’s other works include such titles as Pagan Meditations and Pagan Grace.) Paris invokes the goddess Artemis, archer, huntress, and twin sister of Apollo. While Artemis’s birth to Leto was painless, that of Apollo took nine long days, during which Artemis nursed the laboring mother and observed how painful childbirth is. Artemis vowed to remain a virgin, and she became the guardian of women who are becoming mothers. How does Paris make her the deity of abortion?
As a virgin, Artemis “belonged to no man” and was existentially free to roam the forest in search of prey and, says Paris, in search of her own self. Paris makes the case that apart of the hunter’s mind “belongs to the prey.” There is a love bond between the huntress and the hunted because the former needs the latter for her own nourishment. The “Goddess who hunts the animal she protects must be seen in this context…. We must realize that she loves the animal she pierces with an arrow.” As Artemis “may kill a wounded animal rather than allow it to limp along miserably, so [may] a mother who wishes to spare the child a painful destiny. There is nothing more cruel than the suffering of children…it is not immoral to choose abortion.” Paris reasons that abortion is a maternal heroic act, a personal sacrifice, a love offering to Artemis.
Paris’s attempt to speak Greek comes out with a pronounced Aztec accent. Her idea of sacrifice is not the noble classical one of a person choosing to give up life for his country, nor the Judeo-Christian one of submitting to death rather than betraying the faith. Paris proposes the murder of involuntary innocents. She grasps that martyrdom can be inspiring, that we admire brave soldiers, stalwart prisoners, and the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross (which she persists in calling a myth). Paris says that “martyrdom, sacrificing for a cause, euthanasia or heroic suicide…all suggest daily that death, under certain circumstances, may be preferable to life. Abortion always has been and continues to be another way of choosing death…” and is simply “a shift of emphasis,” for “Christianity has always sacrificed the mother rather than the child.” When a Christian chose martyrdom, he acted in the name of his spiritual life. “The same kind of thinking allows us to choose abortion when we are incapable of offering the child the best of ourselves and our resources.”
So says Paris. But let’s think it over. A mommy who is about to turn a child over her knee may announce “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” We know what she means to say and we know that she means well: The child will get up shortly, perhaps with a sore bottom but none the worse for wear. But for a mommy to make the same announcement to a child she is about to turn over to an abortionist would be monstrous. Only a warped heart and mind could equate the sacrifice of one’s self to the involuntary sacrifice of an unborn life because of a mother’s inability to recognize her natural and moral responsibility to her child. There is more here of Medea, the sorceress who murdered her children to spite her faithless husband, than of Artemis, virgin goddess and protector of cubs.
If Paris truly needs an ancient pagan inspiration for this pseudo-religious cant, she would come closer to the mark by choosing Narcissus, who for his failure to love another was punished with a fatal dose of self-love. The narcissism of her theory becomes clear when Paris claims that “Artemis, unlike the maternal Goddesses, invites us to retreat from others, to become autonomous.” At the stony heart of her revisionist paganism is, in fact, the modern feminist core belief in self-actualization, the seeking of self-fulfillment without responsibility for others. It was this definition of self that the Supreme Court in the Casey opinion (1992) offered to anchor more firmly the Roe v. Wade opinion (1973).
The feminists in the 1970s told us that the baby in the womb (the “blob of cells,” the “uterine contents”) was an intruder and no part of themselves, hence they should be free to dispose of it. Now in the 1990s we hear that the baby in the womb is, in some deep and mysterious sense derived from ancient pagan lore, truly a part of themselves — hence they should be free to dispose of it. The euphemisms visited upon the victims may have changed from medical to spiritual, but the result is the same: murderous irresponsibility and unfettered self-indulgence.
Women must be physically and spiritually free to abort, Paris proclaims. Yet she recognizes that women who abort can suffer after-effects that bespeak anything but a carefree spirit. The problem, of course, is our culture. “In too many cases a woman goes through a clinic like a car going in for an oil change and the fetuses are put in the trash.” The solution? “Our culture needs new rituals as well as laws to restore to abortion its sacred dimension, which is both terrible and necessary….” She proposes that rituals “well adapted to the circumstances can help them feel the love, sadness, and the regret associated with an interruption of pregnancy.”
One shudders to think what such rituals might be. In St. Louis a hospital that provided late-term abortions finally recognized that these women were suffering (after years of denial and of diligent propaganda touting the benefits of abortion) and enlisted the help of an organization experienced in helping women after miscarriages and stillbirths. But the organization ended its participation, apparently having grasped that to lump aborting women in with women who had suffered involuntary and wrenching loss is to counterfeit emotional equivalence and to affront motherhood and womanhood.
As an antidote for uneasiness or guilt, Paris also offers an economic argument: Abortion benefits society. Paris resents tax dollars being spent on children whose parents could have aborted them and kept them from burdening society, and she believes that if prolife people want all these lives spared they should have to pay for the consequences of their “backward Christian morality.” Conveniently combining paganism and pragmatism, Paris offers us the benefits of serving both Goddess and Mammon. By carving up a fetus we please the goddess within and cut our social costs. Remember, she says, “the integrity of the social fabric and the planet have to bear the consequences of unwanted children.”
Paris is a very up-to-date pagan, with a comforting faith not just in the ancient goddess Artemis but also in modern godless Science. She thinks that the abortion pill, RU-486, will soon obviate all the physical, emotional, and spiritual turmoil now associated with abortion. The abortion-at-home provided by that pill “is no more painful than a menstrual cramp and the cost is cheaper than pulling a tooth.”
So economics, science, and religion all conspire, in Paris’s world, to recommend abortion. But the greatest of these is religion, for one’s religion is the deepest expression of who one is. Paris is apparently not a lone pagan prophet crying in the Judeo-Christian wilderness. Her way of thinking is no longer practiced only by the social fringe but is making inroads among the guardians of the public conscience. Paris is in the vanguard of those who are trying to capture our spiritual life with a twisted theology. If her religious vocabulary should become part of our common speech, there is no telling to what extent our “culture of death” could go. There is a warning here for those of us who oppose abortion in religious terms: The enemy is seeking to capture from us the rhetorical high ground, and our retention of it will require alert defenses and positive counterattacks.
But to Paris and those like her who would invoke old gods and goddesses at their convenience and choose human sacrifices for them, a word of warning: Be careful what god you pray to. He may come to you, and with demands far different from those you are prepared to fulfill. Moloch may have tastes you know nothing of.
W. A. Borst of St. Louis, Missouri, has been a member of the board of directors of Birthright there and has served on the Archdiocesan Prolife Executive Committee. He hosts a weekly radio show on WGNU, and his book Liberalism: Fatal Consequences has recently been published by Huntington House Press.