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Are Americans a people? Here’s why abortion is the ultimate litmus test

Norvilia Etienne, of Students for Life, holds a sign outside the Supreme Court of the United States May 3, 2022, the day after a draft of the court’s opinion was leaked signaling that the court was leaning toward overturning Roe v. Wade. (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos)

As reactions to the leaking of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion continue to pour out, the debates over abortion are, once again, at the forefront of our nation’s concerns. And, as expected, the United States is polarized over the question of whether or not abortion should be legal.

At the first glance, disagreements over Roe v. Wade seem similar to any other contested American issue: gun control, same-sex “marriage”, critical race theory (CRT), and the like. It is no surprise that a nation of 330 million people will have heated arguments over sensitive topics. But, the abortion debate is not just any other debate. The issue of abortion is, quite literally, apocalyptic (ἀποκάλυψις)—it unveils and reveals that which is hidden.

The fundamental question that our abortion discourse raises is not one about choice, rights, or law. The true question revealed is this: are Americans even a people?

This may seem like an absurd question. After all, we are living in the same country, dwelling under the same sky, breathing the same air, and governed by the same laws. That we are a ‘people’ seems self-evident. But how are a people defined? In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden cited St. Augustine of Hippo in defining ‘a people’ as “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” Biden then offers what he believes to be those common objects which Americans love: opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, and the truth.

C.C. Pecknold was right to note, however, the deficiency in Biden’s citation. “Do we have common agreement about what any of these words mean?” Pecknold asks. In an age where a U.S. Supreme Court nominee cannot even define “woman”, there is little hope that we can agree as to what “opportunity” or “liberty” means, let alone “the truth”. If Americans cannot define these supposed objects of their love, terms, then how can they be defined by them?

The definition of “a people” (populus) extends across several chapters of Augustine’s City of God. The first definition is offered by the character Scipio in Cicero’s Republic. Scipio likens the populus to a harmonious orchestra, with different sounds participating in tandem, achieving the same end. The populus is not simply a group of diverse individuals, “but rather an assembly joined together by a common sense for what is right and a community of interest” (City of God, II.21). This requires proper governance and justice. However, when injustice reigns through individual rulers, a group of rulers, or even in the people themselves, the populus is not merely defective—it simply does not exist at all. Augustine, for his part, admits that even without true justice (vera iustitia), there still can exist ‘a people’, and modifies Scipio’s definition of populus: “A people is a multitude of rational beings joined together by common agreements on the objects of their love” (City of God, XIX.24). This is the definition which Biden cited in his inaugural address.

But as mentioned before, we Americans cannot seem to agree as to what are the common objects of our love. Biden’s suggestions seem pleasant—who does not love opportunity, respect, and dignity? Then comes the abortion issue and its apocalypse. What Biden fails to realize is that, for Augustine, there are really only two loves—love of God, and love of self. These two loves are what forms the two cities—the eponymous city of God, and the city of man (14.28). Those objects of our love that define who we are find their ultimate meaning either in obediential love of God, or prideful love of self.

Abortion is revelatory because it is the ultimate litmus test in determining which city possesses our hearts. The reaction to the recent SCOTUS leak and the reigniting of the abortion debates in the United States both reveal a divide that goes beyond the superficial divide of “liberal” vs. “conservative”. The real divide in America is within the human heart, and concerns the object of our love. Debate on abortion usually centers on the question of “rights”. Does a woman have the “right” to terminate her pregnancy? In our current liberal milieu, the idea of telling someone what they can or cannot do is appalling. Most people think of themselves as autonomous, self-governing agents.

However, the predictable cries of “My body, my choice!” ring hollow when, merely a few months ago, these same individuals demanded that every member of society receive an experimental COVID vaccine. Suddenly, a person’s bodily autonomy was limited by the effect it had on the common good. Thus, progressives demanded we need to get the vaccine “for others”. Popular pro-abortion retorts of “Who am I to tell a woman what to do?” reek of moral relativism, but these people are far from complete moral relativists, especially when it comes to issues pertaining to the #MeToo movement, racism, and environmental destruction. Suddenly, when those issues arise, there is a clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side to be on.

Behind false notions of bodily autonomy and conveniently held moral relativism lies a much more nefarious beast. The backlash against the SCOTUS leaked draft opinion has less to do with the integrity of our legal system, and more to do with an abandonment of fundamental moral principles. Is the direct termination of innocent human life in the womb ever appropriate? Should abortion have legal protection? In the cases of moral evils that result in pregnancy such as rape or incest, is committing another evil—the procuration of abortion—ever justified?

Contrary to the contemporary sophists among us, these are not questions belonging to the realm of prudence and civic disagreement. Instead, these are questions with cosmic significance. The answers to these questions reveal the orientation of a person’s heart, and which city—that of God, or that of man—one desires to inhabit. As St. Paul writes, “Our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)

In the days to come, we will see numerous invectives hurled at Christians and people of good will. We will be subject to an unending tirade of accusations that we are only “pro-birth”, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. We will be shamed by our civil superiors, disowned by friends, a target for harassment by strangers. Abortion is not a topic in which there can be prudential disagreements with one another, as some might have regarding tax policies or electric vehicles.

If a people are defined by common agreements on the objects of their love, we might wonder if there are any shared loves among Americans. Aside from access to high-speed internet, memes, and streaming entertainment, there doesn’t seem to be much. Abortion extremism has destroyed any common ground that once existed, because abortion has taken on the role as a pseudo-sacrament. Whereas for Christians, a sacrament is a visible sign of Christ’s invisible grace, abortion is a visible sign of Satan’s invisible influence upon our world.

Abortion not only reveals this, but requires us to pick a side—the side of life and light, or the side of death and darkness. American discourse on abortion does not just reveal us as a people divided—it forces us to question whether or not we are ‘a people’, at all.

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