Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Furies of Conscience

by J. Budziszewski

Descriptive Title

Denial & the Wages of Sin


Excellent article by J. Budziszewski on conscience and the two different modes in which it works: cautionary and accusatory.

Larger Work

Touchstone Magazine

Publisher & Date

The Fellowship of St. James, September, 2003

Everyone knows that conscience works in two different modes: cautionary and accusatory. In the cautionary mode, it alerts us to the peril of moral wrong and generates an inhibition against committing it. In the accusatory mode, it indicts us for wrong we have already done. The most obvious indictment is the feeling of remorse, but remorse is the least of the five Furies. No one always feels remorse for doing wrong; some people never do. Yet even when we fail to feel remorse, our knowledge of our guilt generates objective needs for confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification.

These other Furies are the greater sisters of remorse. They are inflexible, inexorable, and relentless, demanding satisfaction even when mere feelings are suppressed, fade away, or never come. And so it is that conscience operates not only in the first two modes but also in a harrowing third: the avenger, which punishes the soul who does wrong but refuses to read the indictment.

Conscience is therefore teacher, judge, or executioner, depending on the mode in which it is working: cautionary, accusatory, or avenging.

How the avenging mode works is not difficult to grasp. The normal outlet of remorse is to flee from wrong; of the need for confession, to admit what one has done; of atonement, to pay the debt; of reconciliation, to restore the bonds one has broken; and of justification, to get back in the right. But if the Furies are denied their payment in wonted coin, they exact it in whatever coin comes nearest, driving the wrongdoer’s life yet further out of kilter.

Instead of feeling remorse and fleeing wrong, we flee from thinking about it. Instead of confessing our guilt, we compulsively confess every detail of our story, except the moral. Instead of paying our debt, we punish ourselves again and again, offering every sacrifice except the one demanded. Instead of reconciling ourselves with those we have harmed, we simulate the restoration of broken intimacy by seeking companions as guilty as ourselves. And instead of seeking to become just, we try to justify ourselves.

All of the Furies collude. Each reinforces the others, not only in the individual but in the social group. Perhaps you and I connive in displaced reconciliation by becoming comrades in guilty deeds. Or perhaps my compulsion to confess feeds your compulsion to justify yourself. In such ways entire groups, entire societies may drive themselves downhill, as the revenge of conscience grows more and more terrible.

My examples focus on abortion, which is both the chief means by which our own society is losing moral sanity and the greatest symptom of its loss. The discussion has been seasoned with other illustrations just to show how broadly the Furies do their work.

The First Fury

Remorse, the first Fury, may fade, but it may also grow. In some people it increases gradually, with age and maturity; something that did not bother me much in thoughtless youth may bother me a great deal when I have had more experience of life. In some, remorse lies fallow for a while, then suddenly appears. I thought I had left it behind, but I had not; it enters my mind all at once, massive, raw, unbidden, demanding service. The reappearance may be periodic—say on the anniversary of the deed. Or it may be occasional, when I come across things that remind me of it. A birth announcement. A letter from my parents. A scent of perfume, or of antiseptic.

But the most dreadful way remorse grows is by repetition of the deed, and the bitter fact is that although our efforts to dull the ache by not thinking about it may work after their fashion, they also make repetition more likely. The simplest example comes from a recovering alcoholic who said to me that he knew exactly what I meant: “A drunk is ashamed of being a drunk—so he gets drunk.”

Needless to say, there are many other ways to keep from thinking about our guilt, some of them stone-cold sober.

One way is to set up a diversion. Because I refuse to give up my real transgressions, I invest other things with inflated significance and give up those things instead. Perhaps I have pressured three girlfriends into abortion, but I oppose war and capital punishment, I don’t wear fur, and I beat my chest with shame whenever I slip and eat red meat. Easier to face invented guilt than the thing itself.

I might also be able to keep from thinking about my deeds by averting my eyes from their consequences—for example by making someone else deal with them. In an article on why abortionists quit, journalist Mary Meehan explained that the earliest suction abortions produce “pureed remains,” but later abortions leave “identifiable body parts that must be reassembled to ensure that nothing was left behind.” An abortionist who used to do such reassembly said:

“I got to where I just couldn’t look at the little bodies any more.” Many abortionists do not reassemble the parts themselves, but have other staff do it. Some staffers are not bothered by this; indeed, some are hardened enough to make jokes about it. Others do not want anything to do with it. “Clinic workers may say they support a woman’s right to choose,” said former Planned Parenthood clinic worker Judith Fetrow, “but they will also say that they do not want to see tiny hands and feet.”1

Another common way not to face what I am doing is to pretend that I am doing something else. A study of the US clinical trials of the “abortion pill” RU-486, or mifepristone, found that some women preferred it over surgical abortion just because it lent itself to such denial.

Rochelle: With the pill, it was more natural, something more natural, [than] sticking something in me.

Wendy [interviewer]: What do you mean by more natural?

Rochelle: It felt like going through my period, so it felt like a natural process.

As the authors of the study remark, “Considering the abortion to be just like bad menstrual cramps may be a way of conceptualizing the process as not-really-abortion, but rather, as the late period that finally comes.”2 Staff who administered the drug for the trials thought so too. A nurse midwife-nurse practitioner said: “I think for some women, there was a connection between more natural, more like a miscarriage. A miscarriage is okay, an abortion is not okay. So if I’m having a miscarriage I can tell everybody I had a miscarriage. I didn’t pay for someone to put an instrument in my uterus and remove my pregnancy.” Plainly this staffer was in denial herself; she called abortion “removing a pregnancy” though she knew quite well what it removes.

Some staff thought the self-deception good. Remarked one physician, “I think there are people who want to be in denial about whether it’s really an abortion or not. I think that’s fine. . . . For some people that’s a very useful denial and more power to them if they have to use that not to have an unwanted child.” The authors, who are strongly pro-abortion, seem to agree: “Indeed, denial may be considered a form of agency, in that it enables women who are troubled about abortion to get through the experience more easily.”3

These authors assume that remorse over abortion is merely a symptom of disordered thinking. They intone that the stricken women “appeared to have been influenced by anti-abortion rhetoric” or “may also have been influenced by anti-abortionists’ claims.”

Deflecting Remorse

Euphemistic descriptions of guilty acts are another way of playing tag with remorse. The authors of the study on RU-486 lament that the “miscarriage” euphemism cannot be used for conventional abortion, which their clients inconveniently call “ripping the baby apart.” As they remark, “There is no available pro-choice language for talking about the nitty-gritty of abortion itself.”4

Not that its advocates have not tried to find one. The famous Colorado abortionist Warren M. Hern, author of a textbook on abortion practice, declares in an article that human pregnancy “may be defined as an illness” that “may be treated by evacuation of the uterine contents” and that “has an excellent prognosis for complete, spontaneous recovery if managed under careful medical supervision.”5

Drug and alcohol abuse are also common ways of deflecting remorse, and not just among alcoholics. Their proportions among abortion staff are legendary. Nita Whitten, a former abortion secretary to an abortion facility in Texas, explains: “I took drugs to wake up in the morning. I took speed while I was at work. And I smoked marijuana, drank lots of alcohol. . . . [T]his is the way that I coped with what I did. It was horrible to work there, and there was no good in it.” Unfortunately, refusing to think about the horror of abortion did not serve her well; later she had an abortion herself, fell into depression, and at one point became suicidal. Abhorrence of what one is doing sinks in even if it does not register consciously.6

The usefulness of alcohol as an instrument of the avenging Fury remorse also helps explain a variety of other social phenomena, for example, the popularity of so-called singles bars as places for the sexes to meet. One would hardly expect it, because “hooking up”—a sexual encounter with no expectation of further involvement—is emotionally difficult for young women: What they want is a bond of commitment.7 Many young women drink before meeting new men just so that if sexual intercourse follows, they will be able to go through with it. Unfortunately, drinking also makes intercourse more likely to follow, so they feel emptier still, and the next time the need for alcohol is even greater.

The Second Fury

Deflected from repentance, the confessional need seeks satisfaction in various oblique ways. Freud made one way famous: the so-called “slip,” in which we betray ourselves by consciously unintended word or speech. But displaced confession can take other forms too. For instance, we “blurt”: So driven are we by the urge to get things off our chests that we share guilty details of our lives with anyone who will listen. In its diarist mode, this kind of confession is associated with writers like Anaïs Nin. In its broadcast mode, it is the staple of talk shows like Jerry Springer, which has featured guests with such edifying disclosures as “I Married a Horse.”

But the tell-all never tells all; such confessions are always more or less dishonest. We may admit every detail of what we have done, except that it was wrong. Or we may make certain moral concessions, but only to divert attention from “the weightier points of the law.” We may tell even our cruelest or most wanton deeds, but treat something else about them as more important—perhaps their beauty, or perhaps how unhappy we were.

Blurting is often misunderstood as shamelessness. It would better be considered evidence of shame. People unburdened by bad conscience do not tell all; normal human beings are more modest about their personal affairs, especially before strangers. But the crucial point about confession is that when it is not offered in the service of repentance, it remains in the service of sin, and to see this more clearly we must consider another kind of displaced confession: Confession as advocacy.

There is nothing surprising about the fact that personal testimony can be an engaging way to advance a moral cause. Everyone likes to hear a story, and a well-told tale has the further advantage that it makes dry and difficult ideas come alive. “I know so-and-so is wrong, because I did it. This is what happened to me. Don’t follow the example of my fall; follow the example of my recovery.” The astonishing thing is that confession can be used to advance an immoral cause. “I know they say so-and-so is wrong, but it must be right, because I suffered so much from not doing it.”

Confessions can be even more persuasive in bad causes than in good ones, for two reasons. In the first place, being fallen creatures ourselves, we sympathize with sin more easily than with goodness. In the second place, distorted confessions may be told with greater zeal than honest ones. A person who has already repented and thrown himself on the mercy of God may no longer need to confess; the need to tell the story has been satisfied already. If he does tell the story, he now tells it less for himself than for others. But for the unrepentant man, the opposite is true. His heart is still hot, and the need to confess is still fiery. He tells his story to appease his conscience; because he is unrepentant, he tells it crookedly; because conscience is not in fact appeased, he must tell it again and again.

Such stories may be given either of two different endings: the happy ending, “Now I follow my heart, and the sun has come up again,” or the pathetic ending, “I followed my heart, but they were cruel to me; lend me yours.” Both endings exploit our pity, but in different ways. The former exploits our pity for the sad former state of the confessing party, because we do not want to make him sad again. The latter exploits our pity for his sad present state, because we wish that his sorrows might be soothed.

A good example of the happy sort of confession is the homosexual “coming out” story, which has become something of a cultural fixture. The pathetic sort of confession is illustrated by But What If She Wants to Die? by George E. Delury. Delury’s wife suffered from multiple sclerosis but had some years yet to live. After giving her a lethal dose of pills and suffocating her with a plastic bag, he served time in prison and is now an advocate of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

No one should underestimate the gravitational attraction of confessional advocacy of evil. The tale of the Delury murder is a case in point. He admits, denies, and dismisses his remorse, all at once. Immediately after describing the killing, he wrote of “a primitive, irrational guilt that haunted me for months.” He did not suffer because he had done anything wrong, he claimed, but something “more immediate than that, almost physical. . . . I have come to believe we humans, like other primates, have an instinctual block against killing our own kind, a prohibition that, if violated, sets up strong undercurrents of dissonance. . . .” An animal that survived might exhibit

some unusual behavior—withdrawal, heightened sensitivity to slights or threats, increased rejection or acceptance of grooming, nervousness, and a host of other possible signs of uneasiness. It was this sort of primordial, instinctual unease that I felt and called “guilt.” In the weeks and months that followed, I often spoke of my guilt feelings, trying to sort out their natures and sources. Listeners misunderstood, thinking I was referring to the act of helping Myrna die. But I had no moral guilt about the act itself, only about how I had handled it, about the silence. And, at other times, I was referring to this primitive guilt, the dissonance of a primate over the violation of a fundamental instinct.

Notice the pattern of the argument. The remorse was not too weak to signify, but too strong: too immediate, too primordial, almost physical. But conscience is a mere product of my opinions, so nothing so powerful could be conscience!

In similar fashion, Delury both reports and denies his spiteful resentment toward his wife. At one point she suggests that they write a book together. His response is to write her a poison-pen letter:

I feel I am not being treated well. I feel that everyone is perfectly ready to see me die for your sake, but no one is prepared to do anything for my sake. And I am dying. I have only a few years left, ten at most, probably, but only two or three if my workload continues as it is. I too have a book to write, two books, and essays also. I have work to do, people to see, places to go. But no one asks about my needs.

I have fallen prey to the tyranny of a victim. You are sucking the life out of me like a vampire and nobody cares. In fact, it would appear that I am about to be cast in the role of villain because I no longer believe in you. Well, one can glower and glower and be a hero.

Here is how he explains to his readers the venomous epistle:

The last sentence, of course, is a reversal of Hamlet’s, “That one can smile and smile and be a villain.” Here, too, was the infamous “vampire” phrase, pounced on by the D.A. and the press when they sought evidence of my heartlessness. I never tried to explain that the “vampire” image originated with Myrna, who had begun to use it occasionally sometime the previous year, after seeing something about Ann Rice, the vampire novelist we had never read. Myrna had said she was like a vampire, living off other people’s lives; I was reminding her of that point of view.8

It is difficult not to feel soiled after reading such sordid prose. Yet the allure of false confession is so strong that a reviewer for the New York Times was inspired to write: “This is a memoir that professes to be about death but is actually about love. . . . [Delury’s] portrait of a marriage is close to inspirational. . . . [S]omehow the villains seem small next to this man’s unquestioning love for his wife. . . . It is this book’s love story, the story of two people who had something truly rare, that makes it interesting.”9

The Third Fury

The Third Fury draws its power from the knowledge of a debt that must somehow be paid. If we deny the debt, the knowledge works in us anyway, and we pay pain after pain, price after price, in a cycle that has no end because we refuse to pay the one price demanded. It is something like trying to fend off a loan shark. We pay the interest forever because we cannot pay off the principal, and the interest never stops mounting.

In biblical reflection, the theme of false atonement is very old. The Psalmist implores the Author of his conscience, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. . . . For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:14,16–17).

A broken and contrite heart—and then holiness. These things would pay the price, if I could give them. But what if I cannot? Christianity regards this as literally true, so that penitents must rely not on the rags of their own righteousness but on the perfect righteousness of Christ. Or what if I refuse? Then I am back to the treadmill—the futility of the calves, the rams, and the rivers of oil, of the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul.

With the rise of philanthropy, the rams, the calves, and the oil are no longer offered in the same way. The fruit of our bodies still is. In one of my books I told the story of a woman who aborted her first child to punish her unfaithful husband. Later she aborted her second one to punish herself. The one thing that could make her self-loathing greater yet was to increase her guilt; the one thing that could increase her guilt was to repeat the sin. As she explained to her counselor, “I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby.”

One suspects that such sacrifices are quite common. The goddess religions feminists savor even ritualize them. Liturgies have been written for the sacrifice of children. In a book called The Sacrament of Abortion, Ginette Paris wrote, “Our culture needs new rituals as well as laws to restore abortion to its sacred dimension, which is both terrible and necessary.” She considers abortion “a sacrifice to Artemis,” “a sacrament for the gift of life to remain pure.”10 Of course these are not presented as liturgies of false atonement, but no doubt they are.

Other Failed Efforts

Efforts to atone without repentance take other forms too. As the study mentioned previously explains, RU-486 can cause severe bleeding, cramping, and nausea, the expulsion of the embryo may take several days, and the woman may be able to recognize the remains of her child in the toilet or collection bucket. The dread of it all is that for some women these burdens are just what makes RU-486 attractive. They welcome the suffering; they regard it as a price they ought to pay.

The researchers describe one such case as follows:

Pauli’s experience with mifepristone/misoprestol dragged on for weeks; she bled heavily on and off, and eventually had to have an aspiration. She saw her prolonged experience as a sort of penance she was paying for the act of abortion. The “miscarriage”’ did not go smoothly, so she couldn’t maintain the fiction that what was happening to her was a miscarriage. . . . “I just felt like this was happening because of what I’d done,” she said.11

An LPN said that

for some women I think it helped because it was a longer process. They were able to work through the guilt that they were feeling for terminating the pregnancy. A lot of that mea culpa stuff was, like, “I am guilty. I am suffering. I am having more cramps. I am having more bleeding. I’m having more time to suffer over my choice in choosing this miscarriage rather than having an abortion.” A lot of women seemed to get real involved emotionally with that. And some it helped and some it didn’t.12

“And some it helped”—is that true? False atonement may indeed “help” with the feelings of remorse; the problem is that it cannot actually atone, and so the need to atone comes screaming back—with the remorse or without it. One cannot repent of something in the very act of doing it; suffering is not a fee that makes the deed all right. How many of these women then go on to find further punishments for themselves? To what further deeds are they driven? What are the consequences for their marriages, their families, their surviving children?

Joan Appleton, a former NOW activist and head nurse at a Virginia abortion facility, reports that she used to ask herself why abortion “was such a psychological trauma for a woman, and such a difficult decision for a woman to make, if it was a natural thing to do. If it was so right, why was it so difficult?” She thought, “I counseled these women so well; they were so sure of their decision. Why are they coming back after me now—months and years later—psychological wrecks?”13

Needless to say, the phenomenon of false atonement is not restricted to abortion. Some instances are obvious, some not so obvious. One place to look is criminality. Dostoyevsky wrote that “legal punishment inflicted for a crime intimidates a criminal infinitely less than the lawmakers think, partly because he himself morally demands it.”14 A part of him wants to escape the penalty, but another part wants to be caught; he may commit his crimes carelessly just so he will be caught, or commit new ones because he has not yet been punished for the old.

Another place to look is the secretive self-mutilation clinicians call “delicate self-cutting,” which is increasingly common—like binging and purging—among adolescent girls. The usual sorts of theories are circulated. Maybe there is something wrong with their brain chemistry so that their frustration turns inward rather than out; maybe the pain relieves stress by causing their bodies to release endorphins; maybe the cutting increases their sense of control because they do it to themselves; and so on. Perhaps each theory is partly true. Certainly each is partly false. For why should self-cutting be on the rise? And why should it be especially common among girls who are sexually active? The one kind of guess that clinicians do not venture is the moral kind. There is no reason to think adolescent brain chemistry more disordered today than it ever was; but there is plenty more reason for adolescents today to feel ashamed.

The Fourth Fury

Human beings are not like the fabled Cyclopes, who lived to themselves. We are designed for a partnership in good life with our kind. Because transgression casts us out of the partnership, one of the first effects of guilty knowledge is loneliness and a need to reconcile. If we refuse to restore the bonds we have broken, then we must find substitutes. Thieves seek thieves for company; drunks seek drunks; molesters seek molesters. Just because these bonds are counterfeit, they cannot satisfy the need for reconciliation, so it presses us harder still. And so the fourth Fury, reconciliation, takes its vengeance.

The graver the transgression, the wider the gulf between the transgressor and humane society—and the deeper the sense of significance with which the substitute bonds must be imbued. People who have participated in euthanasia or assisted suicide often say that they have never before been so close to another human being; the severing of bonds gives them a stronger sense of intimacy than the forming of them. “This is the true union,” the burdened mind insists; “this is not death, but true life.” It might seem impossible that a counterfeit intimacy based on shared guilt could be more attractive than the real thing, but some people find it so.

In his study of Dutch euthanasia, psychologist Herbert Hendin found that doctors and nurses are drawn into the movement just to achieve it.15 The same allure, the same false intimacy, draws people into gangs and death squads. The groups themselves understand quite well that their unity is grounded on shared guilt; making sure that it is shared is the bedrock of their policy. Robert J. Lifton reports that among the Nazi death camp doctors, the bond with the group was sealed with “blood cement” (Blutkitt), meaning “direct participation in the group’s practice of killing”—a policy, he observes, that criminal groups have long followed throughout the world. Nothing bonds the group like mortal sin. Or so it seems.

The need for reconciliation also explains why the movements for disordered sexuality—homosexual, pederastic, sadomasochistic—cannot be satisfied with toleration, but must propagandize, recruit, and convert. They do not suffer from sexual deprivation, for partners are easy enough to find. They suffer from social deprivation, because they are cut off from the everyday bonds of life. They want to belong; they want to belong as they are; there can be only one solution. Society must reconcile with them. The shape of human life must be transformed. All of the assumptions of normal sexuality must be dissolved: Marriage, family, innocence, purity, childhood—all must be called into question, even if it means pulling down the world around their ears.

The same thing happened in another great controversy a century and a half ago. “Why did the slaveholders act as if driven by the Furies to their own destruction?” asked John Thomas Noonan:

Why did they take such risks, why did they persist beyond prudent calculation? The answer must be that in a moral question of this kind, turning on basic concepts of humanity, you cannot be content that your critics are feeble and ineffective, you cannot be content with their practical tolerance of your activities. You want, in a sense you need, actual acceptance, open approval. If you cannot convert your critics by argument, at least by law you can make them recognize that your course is the course of the country.16

But guilty solidarity has a quiet and domestic side too. “How could Mary get mixed up with a man like that?” One answer is that his being “like that” may have been the pivot of his attraction. The issue here is not the allure of the forbidden as such, but the charm of the prospect of sharing it. Let us suppose that John has a disreputable secret. He unburdens himself to Mary—“I could never tell this to anyone but you”—and asks for her complicity and understanding. Or he makes an indecent proposal to her; the effect may be very much the same.

Naturally, she is repelled. On the other hand, sharing the secret may give her a sense of intimacy, and the fact that it is a guilty one makes it only more intimate still. She has been invited to enter a chamber—nay, she is there—where the rest of the world, she thinks, can never come. Curiously, then, the guiltiness of what John has to say is precisely what he employs to attract her. Guilt is his “line.” It may not succeed with most women, but it succeeds often enough to keep him trying.

The Fifth Fury

In English, “to justify” can mean to make something just, to show that it is just, to maintain that it is just, or to feign that it is just. The striking thing is that the first and fourth meanings are exactly opposed. According to the first, I am justified when I am finally brought in line with justice. According to the fourth, I am justified when “justice” is finally brought in line with me. Guilty knowledge demands the former; we attempt to appease it, however, by means of the latter. We rationalize. We make excuses. We preserve the form of the law without its substance.

Of all the games we play with the Five Furies, our game with the fifth is perhaps the most dangerous. No one has ever discovered a way to merely set aside the moral law; what the rationalizer must do is make it appear that he is right. Rationalizations, then, are powered by the same moral law that they twist. With such mighty motors, defenses of evil pull away from us; we are compelled to defend not only the original guilty deed, but also others that it was no part of our intention to excuse.

At one point in the Congressional debate over partial-birth abortion, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who opposed banning the procedure, was asked at what point in the birth process a baby acquires the right not to be killed. Her answer: “when you bring your baby home.” It was only one of several inconsistent positions that she took during questioning, but no matter; it shows how the justifications that we employ for our deeds take on a life of their own. Others have been more consistent. Quiet medical infanticide has already begun. Who buys the premises must pay the conclusions.17

Consider the way the sexual revolution metastasized. It all began when we decided to dispense with chastity. Now that was not easy to do; there had always been unchaste behavior, recognized as wrong, but this was different. Sex had hitherto been a culturally recognized privilege of marriage for the protection of the procreative partnership. Dispensing with chastity required destroying this privilege. But one thing leads to another; to destroy the marital privilege requires denying what sex is for. It has to be separated first from procreation, and second from the particular erotic intimacy that arises from the procreative partnership and is inseparable from it.

Now no one can really be oblivious to the deep claims of these goods. To set them aside, powerful magic is necessary. One must invoke another strong good against them; the moral structure must be distorted so that it can be set against itself. And so the genie of happiness was summoned. But this was not easy to do either; as Samuel Johnson said, “Almost all the miseries of life, almost all the wickedness that infects society, and almost all the distresses that afflict mankind, are the consequences of some defect in private duties. Likewise, all the joys of this world may be attributable to the happiness of hearth and home.”18

It could not be that happiness which was invoked, or the goods of marriage would not be defeated. Comprehensive happiness had to be confused with sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure, moreover, had to be asserted not just as a good but as a right, so that all the moral force of justice could be conjured on its behalf. My right implies your duty.

By itself, a right to sex might mean only a right to perform the act—with a responsibility to bear the consequences. A right to sexual pleasure, on the other hand, is a much grander thing, because it confers exemption from certain consequences: from the ones that do not give us pleasure. I therefore have a right to contraception, because a baby might be a burden. Should contraception fail, I have a right to an abortion. Should my girlfriend not want to abort, well, that’s her lookout. She has a right not to get one, but I have a right not to hear the word “Daddy.”

Amazingly, women accepted this line. Or maybe not so amazingly, for like the men, they had accepted the right to sexual pleasure that led up to it; to reject it would be to admit that they had been wrong. Even so, the “fun” stage of the sexual revolution was now over. Men and women came to seem less like the old jam and bread than like predator and prey, and the old mockery “All’s fair in love and war” became redundant; love became a great deal like war. And if men had become enemies, then women had to get abortions—didn’t they?

Disturbing Rationalizations

Another problem was that with procreation out and abortion in, the meaning of sexuality had flipped over from giving life to taking it. It is much harder to justify killing than sleeping around. We can’t not know that it is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life; parsing the rule, we find only six possibilities of rationalization. All of them have been tried, but what do they do to us? Where will they take us next? How does this Fury avenge our unrepented guilt when we try to pretend we are not guilty?

(1) It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. Rationalization: “But I didn’t mean for this to happen; I wasn’t trying to get pregnant.”

The reasoning here is that if something happens that I don’t want, then no matter what I do about it, I am not responsible. This destroys the very idea of personal responsibility, and therewith any possibility of leading a coherent life. It is a formula for personal chaos.

(2) It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. Rationalization: “But I’m not taking life, the doctors are doing it. This is just something happening to me. I’m not involved.”

This time the reasoning is that once I have made a decision, the results are out of my hands—even if they were planned and intended. To think this way one must almost say “I am not me.” Longfellow wrote, “as in a building stone rests on stone, and wanting the foundation all would be wanting, so in human life each action rests on the foregoing event that made it possible, but is forgotten and buried in the earth.”19 But an evil deed cannot be buried in the earth; it can only be buried in the mind, unquiet, undead.

(3) It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. Rationalization: “But the fetus isn’t innocent; it makes a woman pregnant.”

Hatred of human nature is the premise of the third rationalization—especially of female nature. The sole purpose of the uterus is to home and house the baby, who has no place else to go. Yet the baby is here regarded as a trespasser, almost as a rapist. As feminist Eileen McDonagh argued in a book published by Oxford University Press: “Some might suggest that the solution to coercive pregnancy is simply for the woman to wait until the fetus is born, at which point its coercive imposition of pregnancy will cease. This type of reasoning is akin to suggesting that a woman being raped should wait until the rape is over rather than stopping the rapist.” What she means by a “coercive” pregnancy is “what the fertilized ovum does to a woman when it makes her pregnant without her consent.”

Although it is hard to imagine an actual woman taking this view, some abortion proponents consider it quite promising, perhaps because judges will believe things that most women will not. As McDonagh wrote, “the fetus is not innocent but instead aggressively intrudes on a woman’s body so massively that deadly force is justified to stop it.” She admits that “few people are going to be comfortable with the idea,” but says this shows how not only the law, but also culture and public opinion must change.20

(4) It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. Rationalization: “But it’s not human—it can’t feel, it can’t think, it can’t communicate—and how could it be human if it’s so small?”

Among pro-abortion philosophers, this rationalization is by far the most popular.21 The reasoning is that human personhood, who-ness, depends on criteria like sensitivity, intelligence, and self-awareness, and the fetus is just a what. Of course born people too can be more or less sensitive, more or less intelligent, more or less self-aware. By this reasoning, born people too must be unequally endowed with personhood—some more, some less. The only question is whom we shall have as our masters. At the top may be those with the most exquisite feelings, the most complex thoughts, the keenest sense of self—it all depends. I think I know whom these scholars have in mind.

(5) It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. Rationalization: “But it’s not alive, not truly. It’s more like a blood clot. Or like my period just won’t come down.”

Such a thing would have been easier to believe before the discovery of the nature of conception. It takes a ferocious act of denial to go on believing it in the age of ultrasound. Blood clots do not roll over and suck their thumbs.

(6) It is wrong to deliberately take innocent human life. Rationalization: “But sometimes you have to do what’s wrong.”

This is the most disturbing rationalization of all, because it embraces the wrong with eyes open. The temptation is ancient: “Let us do evil that good may result.” Some men and women involved in abortion promise themselves to repent later. Unfortunately, repentance cannot be planned, but only performed; to promise repentance later is to harden the heart now, and perhaps destroy the capacity to repent. Others who have participated in abortion promise themselves to “make up for it.” To do this is merely to call down the Third Fury of false atonement. One can certainly pay a price. One may pay many prices. But it does not pay the price.

No wonder that in the present stage of the sexual revolution that began with sex we go on past abortion and explore other kinds of killing, like infanticide and the slaying of the weak, the old, and the sick. You cannot justify one evil yet expect the others to keep their place. The cloth of the moral law is too tightly sewn for that; it is made of a single strand. Pluck loose one stitch, and the rest unravels too. “We’re not hurting anyone,” we used to say; but then we hurt. Short of penitence, we can never stop. Driven to justify one sin, we are driven to justify the next. If we have already reached killing, what comes next?

The Divine Purpose

Avenging conscience explains the remark of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown in “The Flying Stars”: “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.” Pursued by the Five Furies, the man becomes both more wicked and more stupid: more wicked because his behavior is worse, more stupid because he tells himself more lies.

This downward spiral may seem to reveal a flaw in the design of conscience. Shouldn’t it drive us up, not down? Not necessarily. As Dante found, for some of us the road up goes down for a long time first. The system of conscience has not broken; it has merely merged into the system of natural consequences. This is fully compatible with its mission. After all, the greater purpose of conscience is not to inform us of moral truth, but to motivate us to live by it. For most of us at some times, for some of us at most times, guilty knowledge is not exhortation enough. Drastic measures become necessary.

Driving life out of kilter is, so to speak, the exhortation of last resort. The offender becomes stupider and wickeder—but then he had intended to become stupider and wickeder; that is what obstinacy and denial are all about. His only hope is to become even stupider and wickeder than he had planned. If all goes well, he may finally be so wretched that he comes “to himself”—or to God. Apparently, for the chance to soften a heart, the Designer is even willing that it become more rocklike still. In this life, what has been called “the left hand of God” may be, in reality, the left hand of his mercy.

This is a staggering reflection for those who think of God as a tooth fairy. Less drastic means of turning a soul around can certainly be imagined. Probably, though, no less drastic means of turning a soul around are compatible with free will, which seems to be one of his design criteria. We may find the price too high, because in order to escape the Furies, a man may inflict terrible damage on other people.

What this suggests is that the Designer thinks scarcely any price too high to save a soul. Even souls may be risked to save a soul. Yet other souls may be risked to save those. It might even be supposed that such a God would die for them. The claim of the Christian faith is that he already has.


1. Mary Meehan, “The Ex-Abortionists: Why They Quit,” Human Life Review 26:2–3 (Spring-Summer 2000), p. 8.

2. Wendy Simonds, Charlotte Ellertson, Kimberly Springer, and Beverley Winikoff, “Abortion, Revised: Participants in the U.S. Clinical Trials Evaluate Mifepristone,” Social Science and Medicine 46:10 (1998), p. 1316.

3. Ibid., pp. 1318–1319.

4. Ibid., p. 1317.

5. Warren M. Hern, M.D., “Is Pregnancy Really Normal?” Family Planning Perspectives 3:1 (January 1971). The full text is posted at his website.

6. Meehan, op. cit., p. 19.

7. Three-quarters of the respondents in a national survey of college women define “hooking up” as “when a girl and a guy get together for a physical encounter [anything from kissing to sexual intercourse] and don’t necessarily expect anything further.” Four in ten said they had hooked up; one in ten that they had done so more than six times. Eight in ten considered marriage a “very important” life goal, although this hardly seems a good way to find a husband. Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt, et al., “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right—College Women on Dating and Mating Today,” survey conducted for the Independent Women’s Forum by the Institute for American Values, posted at

8. George E. Delury, But What If She Wants to Die? A Husband’s Diary (Secaucus, New Jersey: Birch Lane Press/Carol Publishing Group, 1997), pp. 145, 178–179 (omitting paragraph divisions).

9. Susan Cheever, “An Act of Mercy? A Memoir by a Husband Who Helped His Ailing Wife to Die,” The New York Times on the Web (July 20, 1997), posted at

10. Ginette Paris, The Sacrament of Abortion, trans. Joanna Mott (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1992), pp. 92, 107.

11. Simonds et al., p. 1319.

12. Simonds et al., pp. 1320–1321.

13. Quoted in Mary Meehan, op. cit., p. 12.

14. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a letter to the prospective publisher of what became Crime and Punishment; quoted by Ernest J. Simmons, “Introduction,” Crime and Punishment (New York: Dell, 1959), p. 12.

15. Herbert Hendin, M.D., Seduced by Death: Doctors, Patients, and the Dutch Cure (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), p. 222.

16. John Thomas Noonan, A Private Choice (New York: The Free Press, 1979), p. 82.

17. Congressional Record, 20 October 1999, page S12878. See also chapter 9 of What We Can’t Not Know.

18. Joseph Smaylor, ed., Gleanings from Johnson (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton, and Co., 1899), p. 76.

19. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Michael Angelo.

20. Eileen L. McDonagh, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock: From Choice to Consent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 7, 11–12, 192.

21. See chapter 3 of What We Can’t Not Know.

J. Budziszewski is Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, and the author of What We Can't Not Know (Spence) and Ask Me Anything (NavPress).

© 2013 by The Fellowship of St. James

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