Given the widespread practice of both abortion and infanticide, even in Christian cultures, it’s apparent that people struggle to abide by a moral principle that causes huge practical problems. Christianity only ever blended with paganism, rather than fully replacing it, because Christian teachings do cause huge practical problems for followers of the faith. It is difficult to be a good Christian; it is supposed to be. The legal status of abortion is at the center of the contemporary culture war because it represents the bleeding edge of dechristianization.
There’s a very short and very brutal poem by the Scottish poet Hollie McNish, written in 2019 and titled “Conversation with an archaeologist”:
he said they’d found a brothel
on the dig he did last night
I asked him how they know
a pit of babies’ bones
a pit of newborn babies’ bones was how to spot a brothel
“It’s true, you know,” said the writer and lawyer Helen Dale when we had lunch in London last year and I mentioned this poem, which I chose as one of the epigraphs to my book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. Helen was a classicist before she was a lawyer, and as a younger woman she had taken part in archaeological excavations of ancient Roman sites. “First you find the erotic statuary,” she went on, “and then you dig a bit more and you find the male infant skeletons.” Male, of course, because the males were of no use to the keepers of Roman brothels, whereas the female infants born to prostituted women were raised into prostitution themselves.
I realize that this is not a nice thing to think about. Personally, I find that if I let my mind rest for more than a moment on these tiny extinguished lives, and on the cruelty of the society that regarded their suffering as an acceptable consequence of the need to satiate male lust, I experience a painful, squeezing, swooping sensation in my chest that I’ve discovered only since I became a mother myself—an involuntary physical response that I felt for the first time during my third trimester when I read an article on abortion that included a graphic description of what the procedure actually involves. I recalled that moment as I spoke to Helen, and it occurred to me that I had no idea what modern abortion clinics do with fetal remains. The answer, I’ve since discovered, is that the remains are usually burned, along with other “clinical waste.” There will be no infant skeletons for archaeologists of the future to find.
To mention abortion and infanticide in the same breath is a provocation. A majority of voters in Britain and America regard abortion as permissible in some circumstances, whereas very few are willing to say the same of infanticide (with some notable exceptions, as we will see). But this distinction has not been made by all peoples at all times. The anthropologist David F. Lancy describes the “far more common pattern”:
Among the ancient Greeks and Romans sickly, unattractive, or unwanted infants were “exposed” or otherwise eliminated; the Chinese and Hindus of India have, since time immemorial, destroyed daughters at birth, to open the way for a new pregnancy and a more desirable male offspring; the Japanese likened infanticide to thinning the rice plants in their paddies; among foragers such as the Inuit or the Jivaro, unwanted babies were left to nature to claim.
Modern technologies such as ultrasound allow us to identify undesirable characteristics (for instance, female sex or Down syndrome) earlier than our ancestors could, but the most common reasons given by women seeking abortions today—poverty, fetal disability, and simple unwantedness—were the same reasons given by mothers and fathers who killed their newborn infants in other times and places. Historical and anthropological accuracy therefore demands that we plot the acts of abortion and infanticide on a chronological continuum, since they have typically been performed for the same reasons and have been permitted in accordance with the same moral calculus.
It was the arrival of Christianity that disrupted the Romans’ favored methods of keeping reproduction in check, with laws against infanticide, and then abortion, imposed by Christian emperors from the late fourth century. Christians have always been unusually vehement in their disapproval of the killing of infants, whether born or unborn, and their legal regime prevailed until the mid-twentieth century when we experienced a religious shift that will probably be understood by future historians as a Second Reformation. Christians are no longer in charge, and their prohibition of abortion—unlike their prohibition of infanticide, at least so far—is regarded by most pro-choice secularists as archaic, illogical, and misogynist.
I am uneasily agnostic on this issue, and I use the word “agnostic” advisedly. I’m emotionally and intellectually drawn to Christianity, and—like everyone else—I was raised in a culture suffused with fading Christian morality and symbolism. But I don’t believe, not really. And that lack of sincere belief means that my position on abortion law is not bound by any religious framework. I do not wish to see abortion per se criminalized, not only because of the effect criminalization would certainly have on desperate women, but also because—if I am entirely honest with myself—there is a very limited number of circumstances in which I would want an abortion for myself, and I would want it to be legal.
But like most voters, even in our rapidly dechristianizing era, I don’t consider abortion morally trivial. Abortion is not just “healthcare”; it is not at all like getting a tooth or a tonsil removed. I am repulsed by the grandstanding of pro-choice activists who insist that all abortions are good abortions, and who have rejected the Clinton-era slogan “safe, legal, and rare” on the grounds that it promotes “stigma.” The slogan resonated because it roughly expressed the view of the modal American voter: that abortion is sometimes a necessity, but always sad.
Uneasy agnosticism on both abortion and infanticide has probably been the norm in Christian societies, even during periods when the church was far more powerful than it is today. Laura Gowing, for instance, writes of the reluctance of witnesses and neighbors to condemn women suspected of infanticide in seventeenth-century England: instead, they would present the accused as “confused and anxious, heartbroken and manipulated by her fear of naming the father.” Although a 1624 statute demanded that women found guilty of infanticide be hanged, courts were unlikely to hand down such a sentence. This reluctance persists still, as Helen Dale writes:
An echo of humanity’s infanticidal past is still found in jury rooms throughout the common law world: the reason we do not refer to infant-killing as “murder” is because in 1922, it was reclassified and re-named with passage of the Infanticide Act. This was done because juries refused to convict—even before 1920, when they were all male and the Crown case was overwhelming—and had been refusing to convict for some time. The only crime for which fewer convictions were recorded was abortion. In Scotland, there hadn’t been a successful abortion prosecution for 50 years. To this day, infanticide convictions are astonishingly rare.
“Juries,” as Helen put it to me, “are pagan.” Increasingly, we all are.
In 1939 T. S. Eliot gave a series of lectures at the University of Cambridge in which he described a fork in the road. Western Civilization might continue along the Christian path, he predicted, or it might adopt “modern paganism.” Eliot, a Christian convert, hoped for the former, but he feared that we were already hell-bent on the latter.
Eliot’s binary is the basis of a 2018 book by the legal historian Steven Smith titled Pagans and Christians in the City. One might reasonably ask why our choices should be limited to these two options, to be pagans or to be Christians. If we fully abandon Christianity, so say the secular reformers, shouldn’t that clear the way for some newer and better guiding philosophy?
No, says Smith, because paganism never really went away, which makes its return all the easier. Forget the account of history offered in, for instance, Gustave Doré’s painting The Triumph of Christianity Over Paganism, in which Christ and his sword-wielding angels descend from the sky and scatter the old gods. Even after the Christian emperors began to persecute pagans in earnest, Smith argues,
Paganism lingered on both in the countryside and in enclaves like Athens for decades, even centuries. . . . paganism endured as a powerful, evocative, shaping force in the historical memory and imagination of the West. It persisted both in a positive form—in wistful memories of (and attempts to recapture) the beauty and freedom that had ostensibly been lost with the suppression of paganism—and in the more negative form of a lingering anger or resentment toward the force that had supposedly defeated and suppressed it—namely, Christianity.
Smith and Eliot do not define paganism narrowly as an interest in entrails or in praying to Jupiter. Rather, they understand it as a fundamentally different outlook on the world, and on the sacred.
In theological terms, pagans are oriented toward the immanent. The pagan gods, in all their beauty and terror, are elements of this world, in contrast to the transcendent God of the Abrahamic faiths. To be sure, Christianity incorporated immanent elements over time. The ancient sacralization of sites such as wells and stones persisted, but with heathen deities replaced by Christian hermits or martyrs. Pagan festivals became entwined with the Christian calendar. The pantheon of deities was replaced by an ever-growing host of saints. Christianity flourished when it permitted followers to incorporate religious practices that were found, not only in Greek and Roman religion, but in many other religions—practices that seem, in fact, to be instinctive in human beings, particularly the veneration of nature and of ancestors.