The Trouble With #Theyfeelpain

06/11/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

The new hashtag #theyfeelpain refers to HR 1797, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which "Prohibits the abortion from being performed if the probable post-fertilization age of the unborn child is 20 weeks or greater," with exceptions for rape or incest (if previously reported to police), and non-psychological threats to pregnant women's health. In such cases, the physician must "terminate a pregnancy...only in the manner that provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive."

On one hand this comes across as a common sense approach. A majority of Americans, even those who identify as pro-choice, do favor some restrictions on abortion. (I count myself among them.) So the 20-week mark, while somewhat arbitrary, is a halfway point through pregnancy that seems like a fair compromise. It acknowledges that, among other things, a morning-after pill is not the moral equivalent of "partial birth" abortion. I am all for authentic attempts at compromise.

But I doubt the integrity behind #theyfeelpain. It strikes me as a cynical, ad hoc strategy to win easy political points and push the nation back to making all abortions illegal.

In so far as those who hold to the traditional Catholic pro-life line are ethically consistent, I have a great deal of respect for their position. These abortion opponents are also opposed to the death penalty, perpetual war, and rampant incarceration. And on the positive side, they fight for benefits to sustain already-born people including universal health care, equality in education, living wages, and environmental protections designed to prevent the suffering of current and future human and non-human beings.

But for most pro-life folks, the simple metric of pain is really not the primary concern. If it were, they would also be vegans, since the suffering of factory-farmed pigs is at least equal to the pain of fetuses that have never seen the light of day. They would run around spaying, neutering, and fostering stray animals and fund no-kill animal shelters, since cats and dogs are "pain capable." And they would be leading the charge against circumcision of baby boys (not just girls), since #theyfeelpain too. No, a focus on pleasure and pain is generally associated with a secular utilitarian approach to ethics, and Christian moral theology has traditionally eschewed such consequentialism in favor of loftier concepts: the unique dignity of human life as made in the image of God, for example, or the pursuit of the formation of virtuous individuals through virtuous community.

But even if these folks genuinely did care about fetal pain, there is no reason to respect a position that focuses on this to the exclusion of all other varieties of suffering. Why, in American politics, is it a truism that those who purport to care about unborn babies care so little about pregnant women who will be expected to bear, unsupported, the burden of motherhood in a society that hates them and their born children? Or black girls thrown to the ground by cops and unarmed black boys shot in the streets? Or LGBT people who are physically persecuted? Or poor humans of all ethnicities who have no access to food, health or dental care, safe housing, clean water, or quality education?

It seems to me that what motivates this crowd is not primarily anyone's pain or suffering but rather a particular, romantic mythology of a battle between good and evil. This mythology gives them warm feelings of sympathy toward babies - nameless, faceless, raceless, nationless, classless babies who have done nothing (yet) to deserve their suffering (original sin be damned!). Even better, it feeds their feelings of righteous anger and moral superiority toward the horrible people - selfish, uppity, lazy, and/or slutty women and their profit-hungry doctors - who cravenly massacre these sweet innocents. For this group, #theyfeelpain reads like a way to court nice Americans who don't like to think too hard about their ethics.

In short, the emphasis on pain capability is beneath the complexity of traditional moral theology, and specious for everyone else who isn't a strict utilitarian.

But perhaps I do these folks a disservice. If pain really is the ruling principle behind their morals, I salute them. I hope to see them also lobbying for comprehensive sex education and universal health care that includes contraceptives, morning after pills, and abortion pills, so as to prevent the painful later abortions that they so abhor. As a side benefit, they may reduce the suffering of others who are not so easy to love.