Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Myth of Essential Privateness

William Harper


November 3, 2003

A ban on "partial birth abortion" is shortly to become the law of the land. Amidst reported agonized consciences on both sides, a recent Senate vote sent the bill to the White House, where President Bush will certainly sign it.

A venerable, worldwide church—the Anglican Communion—is shortly to split. With the consecration of openly gay bishop-elect Gene Robinson on November 2, and the decision to give priests permission to bless same-sex unions, the Episcopal Church USA will break with the majority of the 38 "provinces" that make up the Anglican Communion.

A sentence is shortly to be handed down on Judith Scruggs, whose 12-year-old son Daniel committed suicide, for failing to provide a "proper home environment." Daniel's absent father is not shortly to be convicted of, or sentenced to, anything, writes Maggie Gallagher, whose article skewers several decades of permissive divorce law for failing to stem parental neglect and abuse, despite the predictable flood of personal-liberty propaganda accompanying that law.

Who will put Humpty-Dumpty together again? Does the partial-birth abortion ban recognize the fetus' personhood, or does it merely confirm that Senators can be squeamish like the rest of us? Will restructuring a split church uphold the gospel of Christ and the glory of the gift of diverse human callings, or will it promote bitterness and lawsuits and deny to the worldwide Anglican Communion the precious gift of its global perspective? Will state law make allowances for the essential goodness of the family despite the many distressing disguises in which families are found, or will it hound a neglectful woman struggling to fulfill her creational obligation as a parent?

Tying these three situations together is the dog-eared yet persistent assertion of the essential privateness of sexual relations. Bishop-elect Robinson should be consecrated, say his supporters, because he has been found competent to serve in the administrative and pastoral tasks that the office calls for; what he does in his bedroom is not his church's business. Likewise in the cases of abortion and divorce. Privacy, not social agency, is the key that unlocks the legal opinion.

A wise man once wrote that if sex and fertility are joined, then sex and the world are joined also. Wendell Berry exploded the myth of essential privateness thereby. In our dealings with fertility and its consequences, Berry wrote, "we are establishing one of the fundamental terms of our humanity and our connection to the world."

Americans inhabit a culture that has rejected this essential joining, and with it the ethics of care that is its natural accompaniment, in favor of an ethics of rights. Legalized abortion, the validation of same-sex unions, and current divorce law all march under the banner of advancing rights, but do they sacrifice care? If rights confirm our separation from the world and each other, as Berry insists they do, the answer is plain.

In the three situations outlined above, the fragility of human institutions is plain to see, as is the myth of essential privateness. Notwithstanding the ideology of rights, human beings are essentially social. Care for the poor, care for one another, and encouragement of the vital agencies of social husbandry are both an obligation and a limitation on government. Yet for such principles to be realized, they must inhabit institutions committed to upholding the principles and sharing them: churches, social service organizations, political parties, families, and more. An ethics of care, furthermore, must encourage the flourishing of these institutions under hostile circumstances. One cannot be neutral on this, for as Archbishop Rowan Williams, the head of the Anglican Communion, warned, neutrality toward the ethos of a social institution only encourages "an ethos of individualism, functionalism, and ultimately fragmentation."

—Timothy Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”