[University Faculty for Life, June 1994]
The abortion battle has been dragging on for over twenty years. It began sometime before Roe v. Wade, when individual states first loosened their laws. I have friends who have been active in the cause from before the beginning; some of you may fit that category.
But I have only been working at this for about five years, and so my perspective is perhaps fresher. It seems to me that what we have been doing, frankly, isn’t working. For all the energy, money, prayer, and sacrifice we have put into this cause, still a million and a half babies die every year. In fact, public opinion is more negative toward us now than it was just a few years ago.
We have hit deadlock. About 20% of Americans thoroughly oppose abortion and 20% thoroughly favor it; the vast “muddled middle” is stuck somewhere in between. Like a twenty-year game of musical chairs, we have shuffled around and around in a circle without resolution. When public patience on this issue runs out, the music will stop and the status quo will triumph. It looks as if pro-lifers will be the ones short of chairs.
I’d like to suggest some things we can do to break through that deadlock, how we can persuade people to listen to our point of view and reject the violence of abortion. I can start by talking about what persuaded me. At one point in my life I was thoroughly pro-abortion.
Early in my college years I was a fervent feminist, at the time when that movement was new and its adherents were called “women’s libbers.” As a “libber” I fought, as my lapel button said, to “Repeal All Abortion Laws.” Abortion, I believed, was essential to liberation. Men were able to compete in the workplace, to succeed and get ahead, because they were not hampered by pregnancy and childrearing. Women could not enjoy the same success without the same freedom. The bumper sticker on my car read, “Don’t Labor Under a Misconception: Legalize Abortion.”
Then in 1976, a few years after Roe, I read an essay in Esquire magazine titled “What I Saw at the Abortion.” In it surgeon Richard Selzer described watching a 19-week abortion, a prostaglandin-injection procedure. He described the abortionist sliding the needle of the syringe into the woman’s belly, and then, he writes, “I see something other than what I expected here…it is the hub of the needle that is in the woman’s belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side. Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish.” [i]
The image horrified him, as it did me. I had never before considered that there might be something alive in the uterus, something that very much wanted to live. Selzer concludes his essay: “Whatever else is said in abortion’s defense, the vision of that other defense will not vanish from my eyes. And it has happened that you cannot reason with me now. For what can language do against the truth of what I saw?”
The truth of what he saw affected me deeply; I could no longer say that abortion was right. But something held me back from rushing headlong into pro-life activism. I still was troubled by how difficult an unplanned pregnancy could be. I knew that abortion was disastrously wrong, but couldn’t visualize how to solve the problems that women face. The dilemma seemed irresolvable.
I believe that the great majority of Americans find themselves in this position. The abortion debate has been consistently phrased as one of baby’s rights versus women’s rights. Our opponents say, as I once did, that a woman’s life can be devastated by an unplanned pregnancy. The baby seems like an evil invader, an alien force that has taken over her body and seeks to destroy her life. If you have not spent five minutes imagining what it would be like to have an unplanned pregnancy, experiencing that panic and claustrophobia, you have not yet grasped what drives our opponents’ fervor.
The pro-life side, on the other hand, had but one simple message: “It’s a Baby!” In season and out of season, through weeks and years and decades, we persisted in saying that the life in the womb was a human child, showing sonograms, repeating that the heartbeat begins at 21 days, and so forth.
In one sense, this is a good message. It is the message that converted me, as I read Selzer’s essay and visualized that life struggling and snuffed out. It is the only argument we have that ultimately convinces and galvanizes. If abortion didn’t kill human life, we might still oppose it; it would still be unnecessary surgery that meddles with a woman’s natural bodily processes in order to adapt her to hostile societal expectations. We might see it as deplorable, degrading and potentially dangerous, like liposuction or breast implant surgery. But we would not be trying to make it illegal. It is the fact that abortion kills babies that ultimately mobilizes us.
On the other hand, the “It’s a Baby!” message, standing alone, backfires in several ways. In the first place, imagine the pregnant woman, frightened and alone, who hears this message. She hears us talking about how beautiful and precious the baby is, and perhaps sneering that women who want abortions are selfish, motivated by convenience. She hears us charge that she only cares about her career, or that she’s using abortion as birth control. (This continual stress on the precious, innocent baby might even stir up residual vestiges of childhood sibling rivalry: “They like the baby better than me.”)
The woman gets a pretty clear picture here: she and her baby are mortal enemies, and we’re on her baby’s side. Who’s on her side? Abortion advocates are beckoning to her, telling her that they understand her grief and know what a terrible decision it is. When she turns to the embrace of those sympathetic arms, she takes her baby with her.
Secondly, the “It’s a Baby!” message alone strikes the vast muddled middle as failing to take seriously the woman’s plight. Nearly everyone knows someone who struggled with an unplanned pregnancy; our apparent willingness to dismiss those difficulties as “inconvenience” strikes as either callous or wildly naive. In an earlier age, common values of duty, responsibility, and parental obligation may have made the pro-baby rhetoric more acceptable; now that compassion and tolerance are the highest virtues we look out of step. The middle is apt to decide that we’re mean people, and they don’t like us.
In the third place, our opponents hear our attacks on abortion as personal attacks on them. When we say, “Abortion is an immoral choice,” they hear, “People who favor abortion are immoral people.” There is a personal sting to it. I long wondered why, at debates, I would attack abortion—and my opponent would not defend abortion. Instead, she would attack me. What prompted this?
It’s a natural human response. We feel the same way when someone criticizes our personal behavior—food, dress, exercise, faith experience. The critic may be “only trying to help,” but we are angered to be judged. Rather than defend our choice, we tend to criticize in return, especially attacking the other person’s virtue and authority to judge. The “It’s a Baby!” message is not one that offers solutions—it merely makes the judgement that abortion is bad. People who think it’s not so bad will naturally feel insulted, and respond with less-than-helpful irritation.
It is true that “It’s a Baby!” is our single most powerful argument. But it is an argument that, taken alone, can backfire in ways that are nearly disastrous.
Let’s look again at this deadlock. For twenty years their side has been saying “It’s a woman’s right,” while our side has been saying “It’s a Baby!” There is good news about this rhetorical battle that pro-lifers rarely realize. The good news is that we won.
A pollster for the National Abortion Rights Action League, Harrison Hickman, told attendees at their 1989 conference, “Nothing has been as damaging to our cause as the advances in technology which have allowed pictures of the developing fetus, because people now talk about that fetus in much different terms than they did 15 years ago. They talk about it as a human being, which is not something that I have an easy answer how to cure.” [ii]
Middle America has become thoroughly convinced that the life in the womb is a living human being. In 1990, a Gallup poll asked whether respondents agreed that “abortion is the taking of a human life;” 77% said yes. [iii] A Command Research poll in 1992 asked whether the respondent agreed “the fetus is a human baby…killing is always wrong;” 73% agreed. [iv] In 1989 the Los Angeles Times asked respondents whether they agreed that “abortion is murder.” This is strong language; even many pro-lifers avoid the term “murder” as imprecise and unhelpfully inflammatory. Yet 57% of those responding to the Times poll said that yes, abortion is murder. Only 35% disagreed. [v]
If America agrees that “It’s a Baby!” and that abortion kills that baby, logic would suggest that it would welcome laws against abortion. But such is not the case. When the same Gallup poll asked whether “the Federal Government should have no voice in the abortion decision,” 63% agreed. The Command Research poll asked whether “society should not decide whether a woman should have an abortion,” and 71% agreed. And the Los Angeles Times found that “Abortion is murder” was no predictor of abortion politics. A fourth of people who “generally favor abortion” agreed that it was murder, as did a third of women who have had abortions. The Los Angeles Times poll summed it up this way: “I personally feel abortion is morally wrong, but I also feel that whether or not to have an aboriton is a decision that has to be made by every woman for herself.” Seventy-four percent agreed.
Pro-life tactics for twenty years have depended on the assumption that, if people realized that the life in the womb was a baby, they would want abortion to be illegal. It seemed only logical. But we had overestimated the American capacity for logic. When we said “Abortion is wrong,” they didn’t think, “No, abortion is right.” Instead, they thought, “Abortion works.” It’s functional. It has an indispensable social role. It keeps women available for sex without long-term obligation—something our culture was coming to hold as a very high value—and keeps women in the workplace without the distraction of child-rearing.
For twenty years we had been saying “It’s a Baby!,” but we were answering a question no one was asking. America was not lying awake nights wondering, “Is it a baby?” But there was a question they were asking. It was, “But how could we live without it?” Justice Blackmun, in his Webster dissent, stated that “women have ordered their lives around [abortion].” (What a horrible thing to order your life around.) The majority opinion in the Casey decision made a similar point—that the nation has just gotten used to having abortion around to solve problems. It would be disruptive to take it away.
It is hard for pro-lifers to realize that people can excuse bloodshed on the basis of expediency. We like to believe that the average person is nobler than that. After all, the people we are surrounded by at our conferences and churches and pro-life rallies are noble, principled, self-sacrificial types. We generalize from ourselves and our circle of friends, and expect the common man to share our penchant for high virtue. It is a touching naivete. A Gallup poll found that “fewer than 10% of Americans are deeply committed Christians.” [vi] When we pitch to the other 90% ideas that seem obvious to us, we’re likely to miss the mark.
This, then, is the biggest drawback to using the “It’s a Baby!” message alone. It doesn’t answer the practical question. It does perpetuate the idea that the conflict is one that pits a child against her own mother—a conflict so irresolvable that the public just wants to walk away. If we are to overcome the present abortion deadlock, we must put mother and child together again on the same side of the equation, answering the concerns about the difficulties in the mother’s life as well as asserting the child’s right to live. We must keep mother and child united, insisting that what hurts one hurts the other, and what helps one will help the other.
Let’s take a look at how to present a pro-life argument that breaks through this deadlock. The first point to be considered is that of attitude. We usually speak of the abortion conflict or debate; we talk about fighting and trying to win the battle. What this language may obscure for us is the truth that we can’t defeat our enemies—we must persuade them. This is a battle for ideas and opinions, not land. You can’t simply push your way in. You have to coax others to join you.
This means that preparing to discuss abortion doesn’t entail memorizing lists of witty, logically devastating comebacks. A beaten enemy is not your friend—just a more dangerous enemy. Mark Crutcher suggests the following scenario: imagine that you are attending a debate on abortion. The pro-choice speaker is prepared, eloquent, and charming. The pro-life speaker is clumsy and incompetent, and blows it completely. Do you leave the hall thinking, “Gee, I guess I was wrong”? No; the more clever the person on the other side is, the more you’ll feel annoyed and defensive.
In order to persuade, we need to listen and, as best we can, to love. We need to respect those who disagree with us, showing them that, if they were to come around to our side, they could do so without losing face. We need to be attentive to the specific reasons this individual is pro-choice, and not just blast away at the broad profile of the national movement. It may be that only one or two concerns or misunderstandings keeps this person from joining our side. Listen and respond.
This will come easier to some temperaments than others. I imagine our movement divided roughly into two camps: Proclaimers and Persuaders. Proclaimers are bold sorts who are moved by the horror of abortion and compelled to state it powerfully and urgently. This is an important role, but Proclaimers are not particularly good listeners, and persuasion depends on listening. Persuaders are more adept at digging the rocks out of the road of communication. Both Proclaimers and Persuaders are needed in any cause, along with a score of other specialists: administrators, strategists, counselors, financial supporters, intercessors, and the servant-hearted people who run pregnancy care centers.
1. The winning, persuasive case for life can be presented in four points. The first is, “It’s a Baby!” Yes, this is nearly universally accepted already, but it remains our most galvanizing point. It cannot be neglected, although alone it is not enough, and can backfire, as described above.
One shift I would suggest is to spend less time on the nature of the unborn—fetal development, the heart beating at 21 days, the little feet—and more on the nature of abortion and how it destroys that serene harmony. It is not the life in the womb that people find distressing but the violence that destroys that life. No one wants to be in favor of violence.
Talk about what you’ve learned about abortion and how it distressed you. No one can argue with your experience or your feelings, and your feelings gently transfer to your listener. You can paint word-pictures by speaking of abortion as bloody violence, by talking about dismemberment, the fetal limbs going down the garbage disposal, the chemical scalding that burns away the baby’s tender skin. Use words like grisly, ghastly, horrifying. Bear witness to your feelings: realizing that this is going on 4500 times a day makes us feel overwhelmed and sorrowful. (It also makes us angry, but that is not a helpful emotion to display when trying to persuade. The other feels challenged, compelled to disparage your anger and reject your judgement by insulting and ridiculing you.)
People know that the life in the womb is a baby, but they don’t know how hideously abortion destroys that life. That’s the knowlege that will make it hard for them to look in the mirror and say, “I’m pro-choice.” Don’t expect to convince them in one conversation; it’s enough to plant seeds that will work their way deeper in moments of reflection.
If word-pictures are effective, wouldn’t photos of aborted babies work even better? I’ve come to the conclusion that these photos too often backfire. In one poll, 41% of respondents said that when they are shown these photos, they get angry at the person who showed them to them. [vii] In my research with post-abortion women, two who visited pregnancy care centers were shown aborted-baby photos. In both cases, the women became furious at the counselor, and decided to have the abortion almost to get even with her.
I believe that word-pictures can be even more effective than actual photos, in the same way that a radio thriller is creepier than a crudely graphic slasher film. The intimacy of the spoken word prompts hearers to paint their own mental picture, which gets past defenses more easily and linger longer.
2. When you begin your approach by reiterating the truth that “It’s a Baby!”, the listener is likely to automatically balance the scale in the familiar way: Yes, but women want abortions. The second point to make, then, is that abortion hurts women. It costs a terrible price in children’s lives, and does not even deliver on its promise to help.
Look at the assertion that women want abortions. In what sense does she want it? If you had $300 to spend, is this where you’d like to see it go? Even if abortion didn’t kill babies, it would still be a physically awkward, unpleasant, painful procedure. Most women are reluctant even to go for their yearly pap exams. This procedure will probe her body even more extensively, opening the uterus and vacuuming it out. Abortion is a physical violation deeper than rape. Do we really believe that women want this experience?
Beyond that, the procedure itself is one designed, not to heal a physical problem, but to subvert a healthy, normal process. Just as our bodies are made to breathe and digest food, women’s bodies are designed to sustain a pregnancy and deliver a baby. There is a natural balance to these physical functions. When machines are intruded into her body to interfere with this process and kill her child, her natural bodily ecology is disrupted. It’s not surprising when physical damage results.
Some studies have shown the rate of miscarriage after abortion rising 2-3 times, the rate of sterility rising 4 times, and the rate of ectopic pregnancies increasing a full 5 times. (The Centers for Disease Control notes that the rate of ectopic pregnancy has gone up 500% between 1970 and 1987, and they don’t know why. [viii] If they looked at the single biggest change in women’s reproductive health care during those years it might give them a clue.) More recently, connections between abortion and breast cancer have been suggested.
While it is good to present these possible complications, don’t get caught in a battle of numbers. Statistics can be produced (or invented) to support any refutation. But the overall theme—that pregnancy is natural and that abortion disrupts that normal process, that this can reasonably be expected to cause physical problems—provokes little resistance. It meets the common-sense test.
In answer to the belief that women want abortions, we counter that it’s (1) expensive, (2) awkward, humiliating, and painful, and (3) potentially dangerous. We have not yet reached the most compelling reason: abortion breaks a woman’s heart. I received a letter from a man whose wife had an abortion; afterwards, he said, she just fell apart. “They told her that it would give her control of her body,” he wrote. “But what kind of trade off is that, to gain control of your body and lose control of your mind?”
Abortion may look like the only way for her to express her freedom, but the price is too high. Too often she realizes this only when it’s too late. I think of the gypsy in Verdi’s opera, Il Trovatore. Outraged by the Count’s cruel injustice, she stole his infant son and, in a crazed act of vengeance, flung him into the fire. Or so she thought. For, in turning around, she discovered the Count’s son lay safe on the ground behind her; it was her own son she had thrown into the flames. Abortion looks like liberty, like throwing off the shackles of injustice. That thrilling illusion only lasts until you realize who it was you threw into the flames.
Sometimes there are indications that even pro-choice advocates are willing to acknowlege this searing grief. Some years ago I wrote the following lines in an article: “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.” [ix] A while later I was surprised to see the quote appear in an essay by the pro-choice columnist for the Boston Globe, Ellen Goodman. [x] Soon after that it appeared in a box as “Quote of the Week” on the front page of Planned Parenthood’s Public Affairs Action Letter. [xi] About six months later it showed up again, this time as “Quote of the Month” in The Pro-Choice Network Newsletter. [xii] Apparently there are some things on which both pro-life and pro-choice can agree.
3. When you’ve made the points that abortion kills babies and that it hurts women, you have broken through the deadlock that classic abortion rhetoric presents. The question is no longer women’s rights versus babies’ rights; abortion hurts them both. Now we arrive at the second, the practical question: How could we live without it?
Living without abortion means solving two problems: preventing unplanned pregnancies in the first place, and giving women support when they do become pregnant. Our third point, after “It’s a Baby” and “Abortion hurts women,” is that we can prevent unplanned pregnancies.
Our friends on the other side are very interested in this cause, and put much faith in contraception and sex education. Some pro-lifers oppose contraception as an immoral seizing of God’s right to determine when new life begins, and as offering a false power that contributes to an “abortion mentality.” Other pro-lifers have no moral objection to contraception (as long as it is non-abortifacient), and may even use it in their own lives. But they are skeptical of contraception’s ability to solve the problem.
After all, birth control has become much more available since the early 70’s. Condoms can be purchased for less than the price of a pack of cigarettes in shops in every small town, and using a condom is touted nearly as a patriotic duty. Yet the rate of abortion has remained steady at 1.5 million for a dozen years. It’s not that people are uninformed about contraception or unable to aquire it. Other influences must be at work.
Scientists have discovered, however, that unplanned pregnancy is not caused by lack of contraception or sex education. In virtually every case, they’ve found, pregnancy is caused by sex. When the sex is between two people who have no lasting commitment to each other, the pregnancy is far more likely to be unwanted.
The sexual revolution was lifted from the pages of Playboy Magazine, on the erroneous assumption of early feminists that whatever men wanted, women must want too. (They made a similar mistake in looking at men’s 60-hour work weeks in high-stress jobs, back-stabbing office politics, ulcers, and rare opportunities to see their kids, and concluding that it was a wonderland from which women had been excluded too long.)
As the old adage says, “Girls give sex in order to get love; boys give love in order to get sex.” When the market is flooded with one commodity—free sex—its trading equivalence in square units of love plummets. Girls lost their power in sexual relationships. They could only go on giving more and more sex in the hopes that, someday, they might win a little love in return. This did not equal women’s liberation. But it did lead to a lot of sex in transitory relationships—the kind least likely to accomodate child-rearing, the kind most likely to create a pregnancy that would be viewed as a crisis.
The sexual revolution marked a rapid increase in sex without commitment. But, as feminist poet Adrienne Rich writes, “The so-called sexual revolution of the sixties [was] briefly believed to be congruent with the liberation of women…it did not mean that we were free to discover our own sexuality, but rather that we were expected to behave according to male notions of female sexuality.” [xiii] Discovering women’s own sexuality, rather than adopting male notions, will likely mean rediscovering the value of commitment and romantic love, the value of chastity and even marriage. Too much is wrong with the balance of power in male-female sexual relationships to be fixed by backing up a dumptruck and burying it in condoms.
4. The fourth point has to do with the woman who is already pregnant. For her, our opponents’ vows to work for sex education and contraception are cold comfort, if not downright insulting. I recently concluded a year’s study into the problems of pregnancy, seeking to discover the reasons women were most likely to choose abortion. (Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion) After reviewing several studies and conducting my own, no clear pattern was emerging.
But when I spoke with groups of post-abortion women a nearly-unanimous consensus appeared. Women had abortions, in nearly every case, because of relationships. Most often it was to please the father of the child, who was pressuring for abortion either in obvious or subtle ways, or hinting at abandonment. The second most common reason was pressure from a parent, most often the girl’s mother. It seems that mothers’ tigress-life desire to protect their offspring can extend even to protecting a daughter from a grandchild, if it looks like the pregnancy will interfere with the daughter’s welfare. A third reason was the woman’s desire to protect her parents from the effects of her pregnancy, which she felt would over-burden them.
That this decision so often rests on feelings about relationships should not be surprising. Carol Gilligan’s 1981 book, In a Different Voice, suggested that while men make moral decisions on the basis of principles of right and wrong, women make decisions on the basis of who will be hurt and who helped in the situation. In my experience, a woman chooses abortion to please or protect people that she cares about, then discovers too late that there was another person to whom she had an obligation, her own unborn child. The grief that follows abortion springs from this conviction that a relationship was fatally betrayed.
Supporting women with unplanned pregnancies means continuing all the things pregnancy care centers have been doing: providing housing, medical care, clothing, counseling, and so forth. But in light of this special need for relationships, we should also be paying special attention to being a steadfast friend (this is more important than any material help we can give) and to doing whatever we can to repair relationships in the family circle that have been broken.
Rather than automatically dismiss the baby’s father as a cad, we should careful explore whether marriage is a possibility. “Shotgun” marriages have a higher rate of success than expected: in one study, 50% of black teen marriages to legitimize a pregnancy were still intact 10 years later. With a national divorce rate of 50%, they’re batting average. White teen couples did even better: 75% were still together 10 years later. [xiv] Even if a marriage fails, at least the child will have some experience of male parenting, some early memories of Dad, better than none at all. There’s a financial benefit as well, even if the marriage fails. Sixty-four percent of divorced and separated mothers receive child support payments; for women who never married, that rate is only 20%. [xv]
Pregnancy care centers can also help improve relationships with parents. The Pregnancy Aid Center in Greenbelt, Maryland will go with a girl to break the news to her parents, meeting them on neutral ground, for example a restaurant. When parents are involved with the girl in discussing abortion alternatives, if adoption is one of the options included, the girl is six times more likely to make that choice. [xvi]
In thinking about the best resolution to unplanned pregnancy, care center staffers must avoid the temptation to encourage the girl in single-parenting. This may appeal to her emotionally, but the overwhelming evidence is that it is devastating to children, contributing strongly to poor school performance, delinquency, and another generation of unwed mothering. The mother, of course, also finds herself in financial troubles that she may never fully rise above; she is less likely to finish school or to ever marry. The mother should be encouraged to consider either marriage to the baby’s father or adoption; encouragment of single-parenting puts pregnancy care workers in the position of enabling the establishment of dysfunctional families. If we love babies before birth, we should love them and their mothers enough after the birth to help them find healthier alternatives.
When these four points are covered, listeners will often say, “I agree with everything you say—but I just don’t think abortion should be illegal. Why can’t we just keep working for these social changes, and leave abortion legal for the cases when it’s needed?”
This question is a bit moot at present; pro-lifers last made a major attempt to pass laws against abortion in the 1990 “Abortion as Birth Control” model legislation campaign. The results were disappointing, and since then legislation has not tried to restrict the practice as much as hedge it with waiting periods, informed consent, and parental involvment, all of which may have the unintended effect of making abortion appear reasonable and acceptable. When the topic of whether abortion should be illegal comes up, it can hijack the discussion and carry it into polarized areas that have no present practical application.
But the truth remains that abortion should be illegal. Martin Luther King expressed the reasoning in words like these: “You cannot legislate morality, but you can regulate behavior. I can’t make a man love me, but I can stop him from lynching me.” That is the bottom-line purpose of law.
We have in America a great many laws affecting all areas of our lives. We have leash laws and zoning laws and parking laws, and if 90% of those laws were erased from the books tomorrow we could still get by; we could still have a civilization. But there is an irreducible core of laws that we could not live without, laws that without which we would have barbarism.
Those are the laws against violence. They are the laws against child abuse, against rape and murder, against spouse-battering. These laws are sometimes the only thing that stand between the small and weak and the strong and powerful. Abortion laws are that kind of law. Unborn children are our smallest sisters and brothers in our human family, and they deserve that protection.
We already have twenty-years’ evidence of what happens when that legal protection is repealed: these children are killed at the rate of 4,500 a day. Residual humanitarianism or goodwill or compassion doesn’t bubble up from some mysterious source and protect them; only the force of law can do that. It will do it imperfectly, to be sure, but these children deserve whatever protection we can win them.
The arguments offered against abortion laws tend to envision a perfect society where women are empowered and free; a few legally-permitted abortions (or 35 million) is the price we must pay. This tragically bizarre logic puts me in mind of a conversation in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan is arguing with his brother Alyosha about the perfectibility of human existence. He says: “Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating her breast with her fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on her unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell me the truth.”
These four points —abortion kills babies, it hurts women, we can prevent unplanned pregnancies, we can help women who get pregnant—summarize an approach to the abortion debate that can be effective and persuasive. It is important to note that none of these arguments mention God. None use religious or Biblical citations to carry their point. I find that it is nearly always ineffective to use religious arguments with people who are not religious. When you say, “God says abortion is wrong,” they don’t slap their foreheads and exclaim, “By golly, you’re right! I never thought of that!” Instead they think, “Oh—you’re one of those.” You get put into a little mental box from which you will never escape, and anything else you say will be dismissed.
But there is a religious element to our cause; it has to do, not with our arguments, but with our motivation. We are here because we can do no other. We are bought with a price, we are not our own. Other generations had different evils to fight, and some generations appeared to have time off from fighting, a fairly easy walk. But we live in troubled times.
In our case, there is a wave of death spreading over the land, and we cannot ignore it. The death of thousands of children daily leads the way; behind them, death is being urged for the elderly, the disabled, sick newborns, and even the depressed, while those who win deadly disease as soldiers of the sexual revolution are hailed as heroes. When this much death comes upon a people in a flood, we can recognize the sinister hand behind it. We know that we are not free to ignore it or hope it will go away. We must sign up for the fight.
But the language of fighting and conflict can misdirect us. As suggested above, we can’t beat people up until they agree with us. We only make progress by persuading. Instead of fighters, we may be called to be servants, reaching pregnant women one at a time with hope and help. We are called, not to trample our enemies, but to love them. It’s a humorous paradox: before I became active in the pro-life cause, I didn’t have any enemies. Now I have lots, and lots more opportunity to show love, to be a peacemaker. The Beatitudes say that peacemakers will be blessed, so I suppose that was a blessing I didn’t have as much chance of enjoying before.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” says Jesus (Luke 6:27-8). St. Paul adds, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:14, 17-21)
This is not the way of fighting a battle that comes most naturally to us. When we imagine God fixing the world, we think of his unlimited power. We want to come to him like a child with a broken toy and say, “Daddy, fix it.” When we imagine God healing his world, we think of it as being as simple and direct as a giant hand driving a giant nail.
That is, in fact, how God chose to heal his broken world. But he let the nail be driven into the hand of his Son. When we offer to do his work in his world, we enter into that mystery: strength perfected in weakness, dying to self in order to live.
I do not know why God does things this way. It was within his power to grant us victory in the pro-life cause at any point in the last 20 years. He could have had Justice Blackmun sit bolt upright in bed one morning a week after Roe v. Wade and exclaim, “I’ve made a terrible mistake!”
But God has let victory linger for his own reasons, one of which may be our own sanctification through trial. How far back would you have to look in your family tree to find someone who suffered for the faith, who stood for the truth in the face of adversity? You might have to look back hundreds of years. It may be that our children, our grandchildren, won’t have to look very far.
No matter how the story goes in our lifetimes, we will not yet be at the story’s end. At the end there is a banqueting table, where we will gather with all those who fought the good fight. There will be the famous names whose faces were on TV, and those who spent days folding baby clothes at the maternity home. There will be the politicians and leaders who fought on the world’s stage, and elderly women who spent their last years interceding from a nursing home bed. We will see some of the women that we helped and some of the one’s we weren’t able to help; we’ll see some of the babies that we saved, and all the babies we couldn’t save. We will see the end of all history, and every knee bowing to Jesus Christ the Lord. And for one fleeting instant we’ll recall with surprise that once there was a time we felt discouraged.
“And God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
[i] . Selzer, Richard, “What I Saw at the Abortion,” Esquire, January 1976. Reprinted in Selzer, Richard, Mortal Lessons (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), p. 153 ff.
[ii] . Hickman, Harrison, “Framing the Pro-Choice Message,” audiotape, NARAL 1989 National Conference.
[iii] . Abortion and Moral Beliefs, a Survey of American Opinion, The Gallup Organization, released February 28, 1991.
[iv] . Life Issues Poll, National Survey, Command Research, February 1992.
[v] . George Skelton, “Most Americans Think Abortion is Immoral,” The Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1989.
[vi] . “Deeply Committed Christians less than 10%,” AFA Journal, July 1991.
[vii] . Command Research, Life Issues Poll, National Survey, February 1992.
[viii] . Charles S. Taylor (UPI), “Ectopic Pregnancies Reach Their Highest Level in HIstory,” Bowling Green KY Sentinel-Tribune, February 11, 1991.
[ix] . Frederica Mathewes-Green, “Unplanned Parenthood,” Policy Review, Summer 1991.
[x] . Ellen Goodman, “Not ‘Choice,’ but ‘Better Choices,’” Ellen Goodman, The Baltimore Sun, September 18, 1992.
[xi] . Public Affairs Action Letter, September 25, 1992.
[xii] . Pro-Choice Network Newsletter, May 1993.
[xiii] . Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York: WW Norton & Co., 1976), p. 73.
[xiv] . Susan and Marvin Olasky, More Than Kindness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), p. 56.
[xv] . “Child Support System Called ‘Abysmal,’” The Washington Post, March 3, 1991.
[xvi] . National Council for Adoption Factsheet, citing a 1991 study.