The novelist has put up a lot of easy targets in his New York Times op-ed. I am going to take aim at six of his points, starting with his strongest one.
First: Irving asserts that abortion was legal in our country from Puritan times until the 1840s, at least before “quickening.” That’s an overstatement. Courts disagreed about whether abortion before quickening was illegal, as did legal treatises. One of the later-nineteenth-century treatises argued that lack of knowledge of embryonic development had sometimes led authorities to use quickening as a distinction. Modern historians on both sides of the abortion divide have suggested that the distinction arose for evidentiary and not substantive reasons.
Second: Irving claims that we have no idea why doctors lobbied to make abortion illegal from the mid-nineteenth century onward, or why legislators agreed with them. There is actually plenty of historical material on this subject. See, for example, James Mohr’s book on it, which notes, “The nation’s regular doctors . . . defended the value of human life per se as an absolute.” Or Carl Degler’s, which reports that “during the Nineteenth century feminists and free lovers alike condemned abortion because it destroyed a human being.” Or go to source material such as the New York Times article from 1871 saying of abortion, “Thousands of human beings are thus murdered before they have seen the light of this world.” The basic reasoning behind the prohibitions on abortion is completely obvious, and you have to go to great lengths to pretend not to understand what it was and is.
Third: Irving takes it upon himself “to remind the Roman Catholic Church of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” which supposedly mandates legal abortion by protecting religious liberty. (Apparently the Catholic church was much stronger in nineteenth-century America than anyone has previously imagined.) The condescension is ill-judged, considering that the Supreme Court, even while it has protected abortion, has never done so on religious-liberty grounds; during its most extensive consideration of the question, in Harris v. McRae (1980), six justices rejected the argument and the other three did not stick up for it; and only one justice has ever embraced it in the entire post-Roe history of the Court.
Fourth: “In 1976, with the passing of the Hyde Amendment, prohibiting the use of federal funds for most abortions, opposition to abortion gained support among Republicans.” What is this sentence even supposed to mean? Are we supposed to think that the Hyde amendment passed because Republicans increasingly opposed abortion — in which case Irving has just presented a banality in subliterate fashion — or that Republicans increasingly opposed abortion because of the Hyde amendment?
Fifth: “The sacralizing of the fetus is a ploy. How can ‘life’ be sacred (and begin at six weeks, or at conception), if a child’s life isn’t sacred after it’s born?” If there are opponents of abortion who believe that killing children after they have been born — taking actions that end their lives and are intended to end their lives — should be legal, Irving should present some evidence of them. Then he’d have an interesting op-ed. Also, if you’re going to tell us that millions of people only pretend to hold a view as a “ploy,” shouldn’t you tell us what it’s a ploy to accomplish and then present a tiny bit of evidence for the alleged motive? That Irving doesn’t bother suggests to me that he’s just going through the motions of culture war.
Sixth: “The Roman Catholic Church, and many evangelical and fundamentalist churches, willfully subject women to mandatory childbirth and motherhood — procreation is deemed a woman’s primary purpose and function. I’m not overstating. In his 1951 ‘Address to Midwives,’ Pope Pius XII states that ‘the procreation and upbringing of a new life’ is the primary end of marriage.” What Irving is not doing is reading competently. That children are “the primary end of marriage” does not mean that they are the primary end of women, any more than it means that they are the primary end of men. This passage is the quintessence of Irving’s op-ed: It’s a bilious non-sequitur.