This January marks the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that nullified all state laws protecting the lives of unborn children. Along with its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, Roe made it impossible for states to pass laws that restrict abortion in any meaningful way. To oppose this injustice, every year pro-lifers gather across the nation to “march for life” in their own cities or at the national March for Life in Washington, D.C.
I once asked my friend Jason if he would attend one of these marches with me, and his answer was surprising.
“I don’t know Trent. People’s attitude at these things just seems kind of weird.”
I was taken aback. “What do you mean by weird?”
“Well, after the march ends, people smile and then they say to each other, ‘See you next year!’ Why are we happy about abortion being legal for another year?”
Jason made a good point. In our fight against abortion, pro-lifers can sometimes lapse into the mind-set that abortion will never go away. These pro-lifers believe in fighting abortion, but they don’t really believe in ending abortion. They think that legal abortion will always exist and we simply have to get used to that fact.
I disagree. Throughout our nation’s history God has providentially raised up reformers who have ended injustices that seemed unstoppable. Think of the Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce (1789-1853), who helped end the slave trade in Great Britain; or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight to end racial segregation in the U.S. These injustices were thought to be invincible goliaths, but God is great at bringing down “goliaths.” In that respect, we should examine both the pro-life movement’s successes and where it needs to improve in its goal of ending legal abortion.
Keeping abortion a “dirty word”
While most people openly discuss buying birth control, there is still a hushed and embarrassed tone about abortion. In a 2011 paper on abortion stigma published in Women’s Health Issues, the authors expressed the fear that if widespread negative attitudes toward abortion continue it may result in fewer medical students choosing to become abortionists. Their paper includes the suggestion that abortion advocates must show the public that abortion is “common and usual.”
Abortion may be common and usual, but so is lying. If an action violates the moral law, then no matter how often it happens our human nature will recognize its wrongness, at least at some fundamental level. Fortunately, by keeping people aware of the aversion to abortion built within our human nature, pro-lifers have been able to pass incremental laws against the procedure. These laws, such as bans on partial-birth abortion or parental-consent laws, have been able to reduce at least some abortions. However, the cultural attitude is still split on the issue, if not pro-choice by a small majority.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 65 percent of millennials (people age 18-29) identify as pro-life, while 75 percent identify as pro-choice (available here). What does this mean? It means that not only is my generation bad at math (kidding), but many of my peers are both pro-life and pro-choice. They describe their view as moderate and say, “I’m pro-life for me. I would never have an abortion. But I don’t want to take away that choice for other people.”
This is where the pro-life movement needs to improve. We have not equipped the vast majority of pro-lifers with the skills they need to explain why abortion is objectively wrong. As a result, our culture has come to identify the pro-life viewpoint as an expression of dislike of abortion and not as a statement that abortion is a human rights violation.
Personally opposed, but . . .
When I spoke at a high school last year, during my presentation a student named Kelsey consistently gave me the “evil eye.” I could tell she was adamantly pro-choice, and I braced myself for her question at the end of my talk. She raised her hand, but instead of asking a question she made this triumphal statement: “Look, I don’t see what the big deal is. I don’t like abortion, but I don’t go around forcing my views on other people like you do.” The other students waited for my reply.
Instead of giving a speech on moral theology, I asked her a question: “Kelsey, why don’t you like abortion?”
Everyone fell silent as Kelsey struggled to answer the question. She finally looked said, “Well, I know it kills babies and all that. But what about women who will die or be stuck in poverty and can’t feed their children? I don’t like it, but I can’t take away someone else’s choice.”
I replied, “Kelsey, is this your position: You don’t like abortion because it kills babies, and yet you think it should be legal for other people to kill those babies? Did I understand you correctly?”
Kelsey’s face grew red. “Well, it sounds terrible when you put it that way.”
“But Kelsey,” I said. “I didn’t put it that way—you did!” The other students began to smile as they saw that being personally opposed to abortion while at the same time supporting its legality created a devastating contradiction. By refuting this compromise position, the pro-life movement can make an objective and secular case against abortion that can stand up to scrutiny in both academia and popular media. So how can we make this case?
The importance of empathy
First, we must have the attitude that those who disagree with us are not the enemy. We must, in the words of Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “speak the truth in love” (4:15). According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, one in every three women will have at least one abortion by age 45. When we use terms like “baby-killers” to talk about women who have abortions, our words almost certainly pierce the heart of a woman within earshot. This is especially true in our parish communities, since 28 percent of all abortions are obtained by Catholics. Instead, we must emulate Pope John Paul II’s nonjudgmental approach towards post-abortive women. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the late pontiff writes:
The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. . . . The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the sacrament of reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child (99).
We must empathize with the harsh realities that women face when they choose abortion, but we must also show that such reasons do not justify the action. Pro-choice advocates make these reasons a key part of their defense of abortion. I call their strategy “Trotting out the ‘what-abouts’”: “What about women who are too poor to take care of a child? What about the right to choose? What about overpopulation? What about rape?”
These questions can seem overwhelming, but Scott Klusendorf of the Life Training Institute has a great tool for answering them. After honestly empathizing with these situations, we should, in Scott’s words, “Trot out a toddler” and say the following: “Imagine I have a two-year-old here and his mother is too poor to take care of him (or insert any common reason for a woman to have an abortion). Should she be allowed to kill her two-year-old?” The pro-choice advocate will likely say, “Of course not. But that’s different. The two-year-old is actually alive and born, and the fetus is not.”
According to Klusendorf, “Trot out a toddler” brings our discussion on abortion back to the one question that matters: “What are the unborn?”
Think about it. If the unborn are not human beings, then abortion is no worse than having your wisdom teeth removed. But if the unborn are as much human as a two-year-old, then we should treat them like we treat a two-year-old. In other words, we should not kill them because they are unwanted.
But how do we answer the argument that an unborn child is not as human as a two-year-old? The answer is by using pictures and sound bites. The PRRI millennial survey showed that having viewed an ultrasound image was one of the best indicators that a young person would become pro-life. Images of the unborn, before and after abortion, are our best tool to bring the debate out of the abstract realm of “choice” and into the visceral reality of what abortion does to the unborn. I once saw an ardent pro-choice woman become as pale as a ghost after she agreed to test her beliefs and watch a recording of an abortion in progress. Some evils simply aren’t believed unless they are seen.
As for sound bites, my friend Steve Wagner includes this helpful sound bite in his book Common Ground Without Compromise: 25 Questions to Create Dialogue on Abortion. He writes, “If it’s growing, isn’t it alive? If it has human parents, isn’t it human? And human beings like you and me [sic] are valuable, aren’t we?” The biological humanity of the unborn is simply no longer in dispute. Even the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that abortionists could be legally compelled to tell women that abortion ends the life of a “whole, separate, unique, living human being” because this statement was scientific and not religious in nature.
Along with biology, we must master a philosophical argument that shows the unborn are just as valuable as any other human being. Racism and sexism are wrong because they pick out irrelevant traits among humans and say those traits make one less valuable as a person. But the unborn differ from born humans only in their size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency, which can be summarized in the acronym SLED, coined by the philosopher Stephen Schwartz in his book The Moral Question of Abortion.
Infants, for example, are very small and cannot think or feel like adults, yet we don’t say this shows they aren’t persons. Some pro-choice critics argue that birth is what makes a fetus a person, but birth is simply a change of address. How could moving eight inches down the birth canal magically transform a bundle of tissue into a valuable human person?
The critic may object that before birth the unborn is totally dependent on a woman’s body to live and so he is not a person. While this fact about dependency is true, it is irrelevant. Born infants are extremely dependent, but hardly anyone says it’s okay to kill them. (Yet some do—see sidebar p. xx.) Most people consider child abuse to be worse than assaulting an adult because children are much more helpless than adults. But if the unborn are the most helpless of all humans, then this is an argument that they should have greater protection under the law, not less.
The critic may even concede that the unborn are full human persons but still argue that a woman has a right to control her body and not care for the fetus. But the position that the unborn are human beings that pregnant women have total legal dominion over differs little from the classic definition of slavery, or the right of one human being to own another human being. Surely feminists who have fought to prevent women from being owned by men would see the inconsistency of women owning their children like property, especially when, statistically, half of those children are female.
The hardest case
A pro-choice advocate will retreat to the emotional hard cases, such as rape and incest, to justify at least some abortions. The ineffective pro-lifer will say that these cases are rare and only serve as a smokescreen for the real issue at hand. This may be true, but it will not persuade someone who is emotionally disturbed, and rightly so, by these hard cases.
Instead, the effective pro-lifer will empathize and say, “Rape is a horrifying evil, and what makes rape especially insidious is that not only are men often not punished for it, women are too often blamed for it. A rape victim is never at fault for what happened to her, and we should never punish her for what happened. But consider the child conceived in rape. This child is as innocent as his mother. But while it is illegal to kill the rapist waiting to be tried, it is legal to kill the child waiting to be born. Shouldn’t we promote a nonviolent solution for both mother and child and focus our sole punishment on the rapist who committed the crime?”
As you can see, the pro-life position can be defended with science and philosophy, and it withstands objections that are advanced by abortion advocates. But having good arguments is only one part of the ongoing mission to end legal abortion.
Acting as if our beliefs are true
I once asked a group of pro-life high school students, “How many of you would tell your parents if your sister was going to kill her two-year-old?” Immediately all their hands shot up. I then asked them, “How many of you would tell your parents if your sister was going to have an abortion?” Not a single hand went up.
I asked them why they wouldn’t and some responded, “Well, it’s so private,” or “It’s not my place to judge.” I then said, “But guys, what’s the difference between killing a two-year-old outside the womb and a two-month-old in the womb?” One of the students looked at the ultrasound image on his pro-life T-shirt and said, “I guess . . . there is no difference.” These students called themselves pro-life, but they weren’t ready to act like the killing of the unborn was seriously wrong until someone prodded them into thinking hard about it.
Adults also get caught in this mind-set, too. Here’s an example. Do you know anyone who is expecting a child or is about to become a mother? If you thought of a pregnant friend, then you’re wrong. That pregnant friend is not expecting a child and is not about to become a mother: She already has a child and she already is a mother right now. While it is subtle, if we treat the unborn differently than we treat two-year-olds, then we have already bought into our culture’s mentality that the unborn don’t matter unless they are wanted, and even then they don’t matter much.
The only remedy is to make a firm resolution to act like our belief that abortion ends the lives of human beings is really true. Every Sunday millions of Christians will go to church because “that’s what they are supposed to do.” And yet you’ll rarely see more than a few elderly volunteers, rosaries in hand, praying in front of an abortion facility. As I heard David Bereit, the founder of 40 Days for Life, say, “Each day abortion clinics should hang a sign on their doors saying, ‘Open with the permission of the Christian church.’”
Imagine your local abortion facility surrounded by peaceful Catholics praying for the killing to stop and for the hearts of the clinic workers to be converted. Instead of cursing or shouting, these men and women of faith gather on their knees so as not to be mistaken for protesters. Just as the walls of Jericho fell as the Israelites patiently marched around them, so, too, can abortion facilities close their doors as pro-lifers peacefully, patiently, and prayerfully make a public stand for life.
The end in mind
Ending legal abortion will not be easy. Pro-lifers will have to learn how to make the case for life and then live with the attitude that their beliefs are normal. We will have to heed the call of Pope John Paul II to “be not afraid” and graciously make our opposition to abortion known in our schools and workplaces. We will have to give our time, talent, and treasure to support pregnancy resource centers, post-abortive care organizations, and groups dedicated to passing legislation to restrict abortion. We will have to model and teach a life of sexual self-control so that children are only conceived in a relationship between a man and woman that is committed for life. We will have to work to pass laws that restrict abortion as much as possible. That is because the law can be a moral teacher that shows people abortion should not be tolerated in civilized society.
While these are daunting tasks, there is hope. We can look to other nations such as Ireland and Poland, where abortion is not only illegal, but mortality rates among pregnant women are as good as or even lower than rates in the United States. We can look to statistics that show that since 1991 over 1,500 abortion facilities have closed, representing a 70 percent decrease in facilities nationwide.
Ultimately, any victory in the fight against abortion will be God’s, but this does not absolve of us of our duty to be courageous advocates for life. As St. Augustine said, “Pray as though everything depended on God and act as if everything depended on you.”