[Christianity Today, December 6, 1999]
The twenty-seventh anniversary of Roe v. Wade is coming up, and I have some bad news. The abortion debate is over.
For a couple of decades there it was the hot topic, the cover story of magazines, subject of television debates, and flashpoint of political campaigns. Many a punditorial brow was furrowed over “this difficult, controversial choice.”
Then the public got bored. As far as they could tell, there were only two possible positions: thoughtful, regretful pro-choice, and hysterical, prudish pro-life. Pro-lifers, the average person thought, just didn’t realize that life is tough and women deserve compassion. Never mind that pro-lifers began establishing free care centers to support pregnant women eight years before Roe v. Wade.
Then the ugly and outrageous assassinations of abortion workers began. Peaceful pro-lifers were assumed to be guilty by association, and any residual feeling that fair play guaranteed them a hearing evaporated. Where fifteen or twenty years ago abortion opponents might be seen as reasonable-but-wrong, now they were only dangerous kooks, beneath contempt. In fact, pro-lifers were accused of pushing murderers off the deep end, by using terms like “killing unborn babies.” Just as pro-lifers were about to lose their right to free speech—rendering the unstable few even more frustrated and explosive—the whole debate ground to a halt. The curtain was rung down and the tedious “sensitive, difficult question” escorted offstage.
It’s been said that the American political attention span is two weeks long, so logging over twenty years is something of an achievement. During that time, the movement acquitted itself well. In the early years there was a mistaken over-emphasis on the rights of the unborn, based on the erroneous presumption that the average person would oppose abortion if he knew the life in the womb was a baby. When the spread of ultrasonography made it obvious that it was a baby, all right, Americans still preferred to keep abortion available. They were uneasy about it, but wanted to keep the procedure legal, as pro-choice leader Kate Michelman said, for only three reasons: rape, incest, and “my situation.”
This isn’t a logical position—either an unborn child has a right to life, and abortion is appalling injustice, or it isn’t, and abortion is the equivalent of a root canal. Yet it’s where public opinion settled, and pro-lifers saw that they had overestimated the average American’s allegiance to logic. In the last decade or so pro-lifers have also realized the folly of dividing baby from mother and treating them as combatants in a battle to the death. This played into pro-choice rhetoric of antagonism and struggle, a setting in which usually might makes right. Of the two—mother and baby—only one was empowered to enforce her choice, so pro-life language picturing them as opponents backfired. A more holistic pro-life approach, summarized as “Love Them Both,” makes more sense, and in recent years support for pregnant women has bloomed and professionalized to an impressive degree.
The abortion debate is over. The pro-life cause is not. Christians have opposed abortion since the beginning; the first-century Christian code, the Didache, specifies “Thou shalt not kill a child by abortion.” Valuing the unborn and newborn, women, slaves, and the disabled were distinctive ways early Christians challenged their prevailing culture.
What about our current culture? We can grow numb to what daily surrounds us, but abortion is one of those monumental issues of justice that comes along once in a lifetime. It is violence against children, a hideous act of poisoning or dismembering tiny bodies, then dumping them in a landfill or garbage disposal. Over 37 million children have died this way. We must respond, and as always this means giving practical help—building support services for pregnancy and adoption, as previous generations built leprosariums, hospices, and hospitals. It also means working patiently for legal justice, since the minimum purpose of law is to protect the weak from violence. To our great-grandchildren it will be obvious that this was the civil rights challenge of our time, and we will be judged for our response. If we are not moved when they’re killing children, nothing will ever move us.
I have some bad news: the abortion debate is over. I have some good news: it’s reemerging transformed. This moment of silence may have been necessary for hardened hearts to hear the whisper of conscience. Pro-choice leaders mourn that disapproval of abortion is rising, while their own troops are graying. The average member of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League is 55, while college freshmen have dropped their support for legalized abortion from 65% to 51% since 1990. A 1996 poll found those most likely to agree that “abortion is the same thing as murdering a child—a stunning 56%— are between the ages of 18 and 29. No wonder young people oppose abortion. Anyone under the age of 27 could have been killed this way. A third of their generation was.
The ”difficult abortion question“ was difficult because doing the wrong thing was overwhelmingly attractive. People longed to be in the pro-choice in-crowd and avoid pro-life stigma, and to keep abortion handy should they ever need it. Yet deep inside they knew it was wrong, and a rising generation—or what survives of it—appears ready to tell us so. Columnist Paul Greenberg put it best: ”Some questions will not be answered till they are answered right.“ That right answer gets clearer every day.