Beyond “It’s a Baby”

[National Review, December 31, 1997]

“This week is anti-choice week at UB,” wrote Michelle Goldberg, a staffer with the University of Buffalo (NY) student paper, the Spectrum. “If you see one of them showing their disgusting videos or playing with toy fetuses, do your part and spit at them. Kick them in the head.”

The lively Ms Goldberg demonstrates one of the reasons that it is always bracing to go onto a college campus as a pro-life speaker. In my travels—Yale, Princeton, Bryn Mawr, Brown, Wellesley, et al—no pro-choicer has actually kicked me in the head, but a few have looked as if they’d like to. A few more have delivered dark imprecations in the question and answer period, occasionally disguised as questions. And a few more have just glowered at me threateningly, like the wicked witch before the bucket of water hit her.

But most pro-choicers I’ve met, by far the majority, have been distressed, saddened, and deeply ambivalent about abortion. I recall the black woman at an Oregon college who, the week before my visit, had organized a NARAL rally. Yet during our question period she confessed that she wasn’t really in favor of abortion, even thought that it was generally a bad thing, but necessary because “If I got pregnant, nobody would adopt my baby.” This is not only false—babies of every color are adopted quickly—it is sad, and reveals the loneliness and fear of abandonment that lies behind many abortions. “Nobody wants my baby” has echoes of “Nobody wants me.”

Similarly, a woman whom I’d seen gleefully leading pro-choice chants at a rally was holding forth on her other cause, the evil of child abuse, when I asked why her concern didn’t extend to unborn children. She hesitated, then replied with disarming honesty, “It’s even worse than that. You see, I think I believe life begins at conception. I can’t help thinking, if it’s a baby after it’s born, what is it a week before it’s born? A month before? Where’s the dividing line?”

The prevalence of this pro-choice ambivalence may be best illustrated by the travels of an analogy I wrote a few years ago: “There is tremendous sadness, loneliness in the cry, A woman’s right to choose.’ No one 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.”

I was surprised that this line was widely quoted, but more surprised at where it appeared: Ellen Goodman’s column, the Pro-Choice Network Newsletter, boxed “Quote of the Week”on the front of Planned Parenthood’s Public Affairs Action Letter. The only explanation is that I’d stumbled on a suppressed truth; when brought to light, these tend to explode. The truth, which our pro-choice friends know too well, is this: abortion hurts.

It is for this reason that I’ve concluded that the usual pro-life message is ultimately ineffective. The usual message is brief and insistent: “It’s a baby.” What is in the womb is a baby. Most pro-life communication pushes that message with unwavering persistence: precious-feet lapel pins, “Abortion stops a beating heart” bumperstickers, billboards showing a row of babies, each third one ghosted over, with the legend, “Every third baby dies from choice.”

It is the truth, of course, and it is a horrible truth; that’s why most pro-choicers I meet are thoughtful people, troubled about abortion. It was that truth that flipped me over many years ago, back when I was a standard-issue, not-amused, hairy-legged women’s libber, and eagerly pro-abortion (none of that sissy “pro-choice” stuff for me).

But then I read an article in Esquire magazine titled “What I Saw at the Abortion,” in which surgeon Richard Selzer described the twitching of a poison syringe that had been plunged into a pregnant woman’s abdomen. That was enough to convince me. It was indeed a baby, and abortion made it die. No way could I reconcile that with my overriding conviction that it was wrong to use violence to solve social problems. Could that be me in the mirror: vegetarian, anti-death-penalty, sprinkled with anti-war buttons, yet in favor of the killing of our own children?

The mystery is not that “It’s a baby” troubles and disturbs; the mystery is that, for so many, it is doesn’t disturb enough. Not enough, that is, to convince them that abortion should be illegal. Polls regularly show three-quarters agreement with statements like “The fetus is a human baby and killing is always wrong,” and also show two-thirds agreement to “Society should have no say in whether a woman has an abortion.” An L.A. Times poll a few years ago showed 57% of respondents willing to call abortion “murder”— a charged term that even thoughtful pro-lifers avoid. (Intriguingly, a more recent CBS News poll found that those most likely to call abortion murder are between 18 and 29.) But among those willing to use the term were a fourth of those who generally favored abortion and—this is telling—a full third of the women who admitted to having had an abortion themselves.

The problem is that “It’s a baby” winds up in deadlock with “It’s a woman’s right.” The two statements do not refute each other, so no resolution is possible. What’s more, they continue a pernicious fallacy, that deadly conflict between women and children is a normal state of affairs.

In no sane country are women and their own children assumed to be mortal enemies; any culture that does so is slowly committingsuicide. This is true both literally—what healthy mammalian population intentionally kills its own offspring?—and symbolically as well. When we accept as normal the ripping of a child from her mother’s womb, we violate something disturbingly close to the heart of the human story. In the land where women kill their unborn children, every lesser love grows frail.

The problem, I’ve found, is not that “It’s a baby” is untrue or unaffecting; the problem is that it’s answering a question no one is asking. Since the widespread arrival of ultrasonography, no one doubts that the life in the womb is a baby. The real question is, “But how could we live without it?”

We are a nation of pragmatists. Philosophical or (worse) theological speculation about when life begins, or what constitutes personhood, are less fun than combatants realize. Most people feel uncomfortably that abortion is wrong, but simply can’t imagine how pregnant women’s problems could be solved. That is the point pro-lifers must address; instead of cruelly labeling women “frivolous” or charging that they’re motivated by convenience, we must keep mother and child together. Nature put them together in a union that takes some violence to disrupt; when we disrupt it with facile rhetoric, we’re damaging our own cause. Not to mention wounding the very women we should be seeking to help.

Proving that it’s possible to “live without it” will require a step that’s somewhat unusual; we don’t need so much to change what we do but what we say. There are three thousand pro-life pregnancy care centers across the country, where volunteers do the best they can to provide women with the basics—clothing, shelter, and medical care—and with more specific aid like job training, adoption counseling, and assistance resolving post-abortion grief. The pregnancy-care movement is over thirty years old, and such help centers far outnumber politically-oriented pro-life groups.

But It’s-a-Baby thinking has tenacious roots. I once asked a stalwart pro-life Congressman why he agreed to serve on the board of a pregnancy care center. Why did he think that work was important? He answered that we have to “convince more Americans that the destruction of unborn children is unjust…and we can do that through crisis pregnancy ministries.”

A mental train had just.jumped the track. Crisis pregnancy services don’t demonstrate anything about injustice or the sanctity of fetal life. They just demonstrate a commitment to help women love their own children to life. Yet the impulse to switch back to the default “It’s a baby” position is so strong that even someone well-informed and supportive of services to pregnant women couldn’t resist the pull.

This is not to pretend that a national transition to “living without it” is going to be easy. Abortion is so entrenched in the cultural milieu, is so handy for resolving problems (resolving them the easy way, inside women’s bodies), that the average person reels when imagining the disruption that would follow if it were unavailable. Abortion is the handmaiden of the sexual revolution, that great male victory in the war between the sexes. As feminist poet Adrienne Rich says, “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.”

Scientists have finally discovered the cause of unplanned pregnancy: sex. When sexual relations take place in a relationship lacking emotional commitment, any unsought pregnancy is much more likely to be difficult. Abortion allows the Playboy-friendly status quo to continue, disposing of the ties that might bind.

The problem is that women’s sexuality is deeply tied to commitment and emotional stability, and in this bad bargain women lose. Abortion severs two relationships at once, the woman from her lover and from her child. No wonder pro-choice slogans ring with first-person-singulars: my right, my decision, my body, my choice. The flip side of autonomy is loneliness. Abortion promises to make a woman unfettered, empowered and free; instead she finds herself isolated, endangered and sad.

It’s a sadness condoms can’t cheer. Contraception fails to make everything dandy, because it is a technological solution for an emotional problem. Where the balance of sexual power is so far off, throwing a few condoms into the mix isn’t going to improve anything. In fact, half of all women having abortions say they weren’t using any form of birth control at all—despite the low-cost availability of condoms in every small town across the nation, and their use promoted as nearly a patriotic act.

Living without abortion means restoring that sexual balance-of-power, with respect for women’s need for commitment and security—in short, abstinence before and fidelity within marriage. It also means supporting women who get pregnant nevertheless, with pregnancy care services and adoption counseling.

While the financial and practical needs of these women are great, the surprising thing I learned while researching my book, Real Choices:Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion, was that women said what they needed most was a friend. As I traveled the country holding “listening groups” with women who’d had abortions, I always asked, “What situation caused you to make this decision?” I expected to hear tales of financial or material woe, yet nearly ninety percent of the time women told me they’d had their abortion because of a relationship—because someone they loved, a boyfriend or parent, told them to. When asked what anyone could have done to have helped them complete the pregnancy, over and over the answer was: just stand by me. “I would have had that baby,” I heard repeatedly, “if only I’d had one person to stand by me.” Pregnancy care centers may run short of diapers, maternity dresses, and doctor fees, and but as long as they can keep the doors open and the lights on they can do that one necessary thing: be that friend.

When I’ve spoken at colleges and elsewhere, I’ve found that talking about the women’s needs and problems has a disarming and opening effect. Even many who are hostile will say, “I agree with you about all that, but I just don’t think abortion should be illegal.” If we can agree about all the foregoing, we’ve come a long way indeed. I do think abortion should be illegal—in any civilization, laws protecting the weak from the strong belong to the irreducible core of justice. But I don’t know if I’ll see such laws in my lifetime. I’m convinced we can do much, working together, to prevent abortions even while the regime of legal availability remains. Tomorrow morning, 4100 women will wake up and think, “My abortion is today.” An amendment to the Constitution is not going to suddenly appear and halt them; in fact, if we miraculously padlocked all the abortion clinics tomorrow, without making any changes in our support system, all we’d have is women banging on the locked doors and crying. We wouldn’t have done anything to alleviate the problems that drove them to the clinic in the first place. What can we do to help them?

But one thing I don’t do any more is debates. Too often these amount to verbal mud-wrestling, a spectacle put on for purposes of entertainment, not elucidation. They entrench positions around cheering sections, rather than lead to consensus and change. Beside, an access of cleverness doesn’t lead to success; you can’t beat someone up until she agrees with you.

Instead I’ve become involved with dialogues. Through the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, based in Washington, DC, I can meet for respectful dialogue in a group of pro-lifers and pro-choicers. We don’t expect to change minds or to agree, but we do seek to comprehend each other’s beliefs; we try to clear away the false misunderstandings so we can arrive at genuine, honest disagreement. I’ve learned a lot there. When I look across the table at a pro-choicer, I don’t see a fiend who deserves a “kick in the head,” but someone troubled by the grim reality of abortion, and seeking a solution she can live with.

I think I’ve found that solution. And I can never doubt my conviction that abortion is a bloody horror, death to children and living death to their mothers.

But I know from experience that, at these charged moments of dialogue, careful listening is the most necessary thing. Because in the pro-choicer I not only see my enemy, and my friend; I see, across the span of twenty years, myself.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.