the Abortion License
By Deborah Danielski
(Published in Our
Sunday Visitor, October 25, 1998)
Has one of Americas leading
philosophers of deconstructionism a theory that
denies the existence of God-given moral truths
changed his tune on abortion?
That was the contention of a radio
broadcast by Christian commentator Chuck Colson. In one
of his daily "Breakpoint" programs last fall,
Colson reported on statements made by Duke University Law
Professor Stanley Fish at an annual convention of the
American Political Science Association.
"When pigs fly!
Thats what people say when they hear a claim they
believe to be utterly impossible," Colson said.
"And its what you might say if someone
suggested to you that Americas most committed
secularist and abortion advocate were to admit he was
wrong. But thats exactly what happened last
In the weeks following, transcripts of
Colsons program about Fishs unlikely
conversion flew like pigs across cyberspace, winding up
in e-mail boxes and in Christian and philosophy chat
rooms under provocative headings like "Fish Cuts
But theres a problem, according
to Fish. Colsons story isnt true. He
hasnt changed his mind on anything.
In an interview with Our Sunday
Visitor, Fish said that Colson had no evidence for
labeling him an "abortion advocate," and that
his own writing proves he has never been a
Fish said that he has opposed abortion
privately since his early teens and that it was a
decision he reached based on a very personal matter (see
box). He had publicly stated that opinion, he added,
because "no one ever asked."
Fish declined to discuss his personal
religious convictions, but he said that he espouses a
distinct "anti-secularist" philosophy in his
writings. "I find it awkward, to say the least, to
have to announce that I consider myself a person
favorably inclined to religious sentiments and
perspectives," Fish wrote in his response to Colson.
Even a "cursory reading" of
his works, he added, would show that he is a strong
supporter of "religious interests and religious
discourse and against the tendency of liberal thought to
Some have speculated that Colson had
assumed Fish held anti-religious and anti-life views
because of his advocacy of deconstructionism and his
esteemed position in the overwhelming liberal ranks of
the academic world.
But Fish said that would be wrong.
"It is always incorrect to assume you can know what
someones moral convictions are based on their
philosophical theories," he said, adding that he
does not consider himself a liberal.
If he is to be labeled at all, he said
he is a "radical conservative." His position on
abortion has always been based on an inner conviction
unrelated to scientific evidence or philosophical
argument," he said.
Colson was not alone, however, in
assuming that Fish was "pro-choice." Fish made
his anti-choice announcement in response to another
participant in the debate who made the same assumption.
The American Political Science
Association debate centered on the question of whether it
is possible to debate important moral issues when people
proceed from deeply divergent starting points.
Expressing his own understanding of
Fishs "starting points," Syracuse
University Professor Stephen Macedo assumed Fish
supported "affirmative action, abortion rights, and
equal treatment of gays and lesbians."
Fish begged to differ. "I am in
favor of affirmative action and gay and lesbian
rights," he responded. "But I do not
support abortion rights."
There were no reports of pigs flying
when Fish publicly announced his antiabortion stance, but
participants confirmed to Our Sunday Visitor that Colson
captured the mood correctly when he reported that
"the next sound in the room was that of 200 jaws
hitting the floor at once."
Fish dropped another bombshell on his
academic audience when he announced that he had been
wrong about the nature of the arguments made by each side
of the abortion debate.
Fish had been challenged about remarks
he made in a 1996 article in the religious journal First
Things. Fish had written: "A pro-life
advocate sees abortion as a sin against God who infuses
life at the moment of conception. A pro-choice advocate
sees abortion as a decision to be made in accordance with
the best scientific opinion as to when the beginning of
life, as we know it, occurs."
But in a paper prepared for the APSA
debate Princeton University political theorist Robert P.
George, a Catholic, argued that Fish was "mistaken.
George said that science doesnt
necessarily support the "pro-choice" side and
that pro-lifers dont need to make their arguments
on the basis of religious belief. He pointed to the
overwhelming scientific evidence about the humanity and
development of the unborn child.
"On the contrary," George
later explained to Our Sunday Visitor. "Nothing
would please the pro-life side more than to have the
issue of abortion settled purely on the basis of
scientific evidence as to the point at which a new human
being comes into existence. It is the pro-choice side
that wishes to shift attention away from the facts of
embryogenesis and intrauterine human development."
At the APSA debate, Fish responded to
Georges arguments by saying, "Professor George
is right. And he is right to correct me."
Far from being a change of
"heart" or "opinion," however, Fish
told Our Sunday Visitor that his apparent about-face on
that aspect of the abortion issue was simply "an
acknowledgment of factual error." "I should
have known better," he said. "Pro-life
arguments are now based on scientific evidence and the
pro-choice arguments are not. That is a cultural,
In his own paper prepared for the APSA
debate, Fish expanded on his view:
"Nowadays, it is pro-lifers who
make the scientific question of when the beginning of
life occurs the key one in the abortion controversy,
while pro-choicers want to transform the question into a
metaphysical or religious one by
distinguishing between mere biological life and
"Until recently pro-choicers might
have cast themselves as defenders of rational science
against the forces of ignorance and superstition, but
when scientific inquiry started pushing back the moment
when significant life (in some sense) begins, they
shifted tactics and went elsewhere in search of
Beyond ivory towers
What effect Fishs public
anti-choice stand will have on the abortion debate
remains to be seen. Even he is not sure what the
implications of his convictions are. He opposes a
womans "right" to abortion, but he
objects to being labeled "pro-life."
"I do not support abortion
rights," he said during the debate, "although
what I would support in this vexed area is not clear to
He told Our Sunday Visitor that he also
opposes assisted suicide, but wavers in his opinions on
capital punishment. Though he teaches deconstructionism,
Fish told OSV he does not personally deny that absolute
truth is "out there."
"But it is of no help to us that
there is an absolute truth of the matter of things,"
he added, "because unfortunately, none of us are in
a position to say definitively what that is
although we all think that we are."
In his commentary, Colson said that
"this change of mind has repercussions far beyond
the ivory towers. It exposes the essential lie that the
pro-choicers advance: That is, that pro-lifers are trying
to cram a particular sectarian view down everyones
throat. Not so, as Fish amazingly admitted."
Even if it was not quite the change of
mind that Colson had imagined, Catholic commentators said
that Fishs public remarks were significant.
Conventual Franciscan Father Germain
Kopaczynski of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in
Boston pointed to Fishs observation that
"pro-choice" arguments are based on rhetoric
and ideology, while the pro-life position is bolstered by
the latest science.
"I think Fish is right," he
said, "to point out that it is the pro-lifers who
are making their case against abortion by using
contemporary scientific findings while the pro-abortion
crowd falls back on rhetorical devices such as our
bodies, our lives, our right to decide."
Father Richard John Neuhaus, who has
been in public dialogue with Fish in the pages of First
things, the journal he edits, said that his coming out
against abortion "might give others within the
academic community to follow suit."
"In certain academic circles, Fish
is a very influential person," Father Neuhaus added,
"particularly among those who are viewed as being on
the cutting edge of literary theory those most
entrenched in pro-abortion dogma. What he has to say is
important in those worlds and we certainly hope it will
have a positive influence." Maybe pigs arent
flying, but this debate may have begun a long-overdue
"deconstructing" of the logic of abortion in
Something just welled up inside
Duke University Law Professor Stanley
Fish told Our Sunday Visitor that his personal
convictions against abortion made public for the
first time in a recent debate of the American Political
Science Association actually stem from an incident
that occurred in his life in the 1960s, a decade before
abortion was legalized in the United States.
While he would not discuss the incident
in detail, he said the question arose within his own
family as to whether abortion should be considered as a
"way out" of a situation.
"Something just welled up inside
me that said, no, no," Fish said. That
decision was not the result of philosophical reasoning,
he added. "I wasnt even capable of
philosophical debate at that age. It [the conviction] was
He expressed surprise at having been
labeled "Americas most committed
secularist" in a recent Christian radio commentary
by Chuck Colson. And indeed, in many ways, Fish has
proven himself, in his writings, to be friend of
Fish consistently argues against the
liberal position that moral truth can be arrived at
through intellectual reasoning alone. In a manner he
attributes to the writings of Aristotle, he says moral
conviction cannot follow from consideration of rational
arguments but is "arrived at by God knows what
An expert on 16th and 17th
century Christian writers -- especially John Milton,
best-known for his epic poem Paradise Lost
Fish prefers not to divulge his own personal beliefs. But
he said he has great respect for religious thinking and
finds religious writing "endlessly fascinating and
The arguments employed by religious
writers in past centuries in the areas of interpretation
of language and the nature of truth are "infinitely
more sophisticated" than the philosophies of
liberals promoted today.
In his debates with Fr. Richard John
Neuhaus in First Things magazine, and in a recent
essay on church-state separation in Columbia Law Review
(December 1997), Fish argues aggressively against
attempts by liberals to enforce a split between religious
and intellectual thought.
He maintains that the liberal academic
and political community had "made a big mistake in
demonizing and marginalizing religion."