Desire in an Age of Biopower

In The Gospel of Life, Pope Saint John Paul II exemplifies a Christian critique of ideology. He does not moralize when it comes to the direct threats against the weakest human life in the modern world: he demystifies the ideological pressures impelling abortion and euthanasia, the pressures impelling each of us in our evasions of solidarity.

All of us who would be pro-life must internalize this shift from moralism to social justice, over and over. It is wrong to denounce mothers who procure abortion (as Kevin Williamson had done). Rather, we must see the web that snares us all, a consumerist inflammation of our fallen tendency towards egoistic imperialism, which funds an ideological totality of ever-increasing scope as our technological power grows.

John Paul writes in no. 18:

"Decisions that go against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression, and anxiety about the future. Such circumstances can mitigate even to a notable degree subjective responsibility and the consequent culpability of those who make these choices, which in themselves are evil. But today the problem goes far beyond the necessary recognition of these personal situations. It is a problem which exists at the cultural, social, and political levels, where it reveals its more sinister and disturbing aspect in the tendency, ever more widely shared, to interpret the above crimes against life as legitimate expressions of individual freedom, to be acknowledged and protected as actual rights."

A violence that infests each of our interiorities and intimate relations, we dare cloak with the sacred name of liberty.

At stake in such obfuscation is the very viability of political liberalism:

"In this way, and with tragic consequences, a long historical process is reaching a turning-point. The process which once led to discovering the idea of 'human rights'—rights inherent in every person and prior to any constitution or State legislation—is today marked by a surprising contradiction. Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death."

The truth of human "rights" is that they are absolutes inscribed by God in the personal depths of each living human body so that no totality (whether of the integralist or secularist-oligarchic variety) might swallow up the singular in a false organicity or a sleek social machine. The right to life, and the right to religious liberty, stand athwart the bright ideas of whichever of us egoists has the social power. They are correlative with Levinas's "face" that demands infinite responsibility from you and me, and, at the very least, that speaks from whatever vulnerable human flesh: "Do not kill me."

It is not "liberalism" to speak of rights, while claiming that there are humans who have no right to life. It's the other thing:

"How can these repeated affirmations of principle be reconciled with the continual increase and widespread justification of attacks on human life? How can we reconcile these declarations with the refusal to accept those who are weak and needy, or elderly, or those who have just been conceived? These attacks go directly against respect for life, and they represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights. It is a threat capable, in the end, of jeopardizing the very meaning of democratic coexistence: rather than societies of 'people living together,' our cities risk becoming societies of people who are rejected, marginalized, uprooted, and oppressed."

I have always maintained that defense of the most powerless human life is the decisive touchstone of a humanistic materialism. We must not strike that vulnerable human body. How could there be Enlightenment in that? Cosmopolitanism in that? Democracy in that?

But this is also a touchstone of the earnestness of our personal commitment to human dignity: we are all caught up in processes of dehumanization. Every time we point to "those others" as the cause of death's empire, we miss the first thing: it is my egoism that gives rise to death.

You are invited to tune in to the next session of Massachusetts Citizens for Life's Pro-Life Social Doctrine Certificate program tomorrow at around 9:15 am. We'll be discussing The Gospel of Life, Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Yeats, Christopher Kaczor and Janet Smith's Life Issues, Medical Choices, and some Foucault and Agamben for good measure.