If generative anthropology is indeed a better way to think about the human, then it should be able to shed light on contemporary moral controversies on issues such as homosexuality, assisted suicide, or genetic engineering. This does not mean that GA should come down on one side or another of these debates, but that it should clarify the positions of both sides, revealing them to be anthropological hypotheses rather than conflicting affirmations of moral absolutes.
Abortion is the most politically potent of these controversies because it has the greatest anthropological significance. What is at stake in the pro-choice vs pro-life opposition is the very nature of the most fundamental of our differences, the difference between men and women.
How should this difference be understood from the standpoint of originary anthropology? There are two types of relations with others: external and internal. Men can only relate to others externally, as beings physically separated from oneself. Womanhood may be defined as the capacity for another kind of relation with another, one that we may call internal otherness. The pregnant woman has within her body a potential human being. We may call it the internal other because it has a human identity different from that of the mother.
According to the originary hypothesis, the birth of human language took place in order to defer mimetic conflict among external others. I have assumed the participants in the originary scene of language to be men because it is male externality that tends to mimetic rivalry and violence, not the peaceful relation of internal otherness. Because women and children do not stand essentially in a relationship of mimetic rivalry, they do not need language in order to avert conflict. Cultural logic reflects the logic of natural selection; the biological investment in female internality is incompatible with destructive violence. Richard van Oort dealt with the hypothetical absence of women from the originary scene of language in Chronicles 14; this is not my subject here.
But the abortion issue forces us to reflect on the origin of culture because the participants in the abortion debate are the two parties to the relation of internal otherness: the woman and the fetus. Woman and fetus has nothing of the warmth of mother and child; the internal relation is only potentially a fully human interaction.
Any reader of the Gospels knows that Jesus constantly evokes the image of the child. The child is not simply a picture of innocence; he exemplifies the inability to function unaided in the world. The Latin infans, as we have heard many times, means unspeaking: the infant is one incapable of speech. Many ritual societies have practiced infanticide, where the child’s inability to speak justifies its exclusion from humanity. Christian morality, the doctrine of universal reciprocity, of what I have called omnicentricity, is concerned with maximally extending the category of the human. The child obliges us to take the extra step in its direction. Its humanity is still potential; we must solicit it, making up from our own supply what it still lacks. This is a relationship devoid of mimetic rivalry. The Gospels propose a universal relation of internal otherness, a community modeled on the nurturing relation of mother and child.
Thus the category of the fully human is extended downward to the most hapless and helpless members of our species, from publicans and sinners to the child, and from the child to the yet unborn. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why the Catholic Church and other traditional Christians are opposed to abortion.
But on the other side of the relation of internal otherness is the pregnant woman. Human culture is constituted by external relations. Women have historically not been granted full access to the culture constituted by these relations because of the internal relation that they alone maintain. But in one of the critical developments of the postmodern age, women have been able successfully to claim this access. Now that human conflicts can no longer be settled by the use of maximal violence in war, the sex defined by its exclusive externality can no longer claim cultural dominance: humanity is no longer man.
Women’s problems in external relations are peripheral; the physical or even mental differences consonant with internality do not prevent women from interacting with external others. It is even possible to place men and women on an equal footing with regard to child-raising, granting paternity leavesalong with maternity leaves. Whether or not this is “natural” in the long term, it is a demonstration that women can no longer be denied full participation in human culture.
But the regulation of internal relations is another story. Once the child is born, the father can give it its bottle, but only the mother can nourish it in the womb. When the state mandates external relations, they are fungible; a father is required to provide child support, not to care for the child himself. But a pregnant woman cannot delegate someone else to care for her child. Internal otherness is scandalous because it is a biological relation that has at the same time been culturally imposed. To extend the category of full humanity to women, this imposition cannot be maintained.
The simplest solution is to consider all human relations as external; the woman’s relationship to the fetus is therefore not a human relation, but that of a human being to an alien being within her body. Whence the analogy sometimes heard in extreme cases between the fetus and a parasiteor a tumor. But to make internal otherness the equivalent of disease is to deny the specificity of womanhood and its contribution to the human, culturally as well as biologically. The more reflective pro-choice position is that, in order that women be fully integrated into human culture, they must have the right to choose to exercise this specificity: the right to abortion is better understood as the freedom to choose to bear a child, to participate in the relation of internal otherness.
Seen in this light, the gap between the two sides is remarkably narrow. No one sees abortion as a good thing; no one wants a woman to bear a child she hates. In the ideal–and most frequent–case, pro-choice and pro-life are one: the woman chooses to bear her child.
Why do all but the most extreme pro-lifers make an exception for children of rape and incest? The logic of these exceptions is that the woman forced to bear a child under these conditions has been humiliated beyond a humanly acceptable point; she is being treated as a biological vessel. Under such conditions, internal otherness is no longer a human relation. The preservation of the child’s humanity is the equivalent of the mother’s expulsion from humanity.
But even in this extreme case, having the right to terminate the pregnancy need not mean exercising it. The free choice to bear the child is an act of love that transcends the resentment against its father. One thing the abortion debate has taught us is that abortion need not be an act of resentment, but that the free choice to bear a child is an act of love.