Eighteen years ago, when all-purpose leftist Barbara Ehrenreich announced in the New York Times that her “one regret” about her abortions was that “they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks,” I thought we had hit the bottom when it came to the coarsening of American debate on these questions.
Now, however, comes word from America’s most prestigious medical school that the president of its Medical Students for Choice chapter is bringing a “birthday cake” to class on January 22 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Barbara Ehrenreich might have done something as grotesque as that on purpose. Given the deadening of sensibility that Roe has engendered, I think we can be reasonably sure in this case that the student in question is completely oblivious to the ironies involved in making a birthday cake the centerpiece of her celebration. For what, she would ask, does Roe have to due with birth and life? Roe has to do with choice, and with “a woman’s right to choose.” Period.
Thirty years after Roe, the pro-life movement has some cause for satisfaction. The abortion issue has not been “settled,” as pro-abortion opponents insist it was, by Roe v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court decisions; indeed, there is no more unsettled issue in American public life than the abortion issue. The new Congress is arguably the most pro-life since Roe, and working with a pro-life administration, should make some advances in rebuilding the legal framework of the hospitable society in the next biennium. More and more young people are becoming pro-life advocates; the activist hard-core of the pro-abortion world is aging. Most importantly of all, who knows how many innocent lives have been saved by the care for women in crisis that the pro-life movement provides?
Yet, as we approach Roe’s thirtieth anniversary, we should admit that, at the level of public policy, the movement hasn’t changed much of anything. Pro-life legal and political advances have been at the margins of the issue (important as working those margins is, and will remain); Roe’s provision for virtually unrestricted abortion remains set in legal concrete. Why has this happened? I think it’s in large part because we in the pro-life movement haven’t changed the terms of the debate by demonstrating that abortion is the great civil rights issues of our time, not merely a matter of personal, private “choice.”
The science is with us; no one with an elementary understanding of human embryology can possibly deny that the product of conception is a human being. Genetics also confirms what we know from basic logic: nothing that will become a human being was ever anything other than a human being, and nothing that is not a human being is capable of becoming a human being. As they made pluperfectly clear in the last election, the pro-abortion forces are the genuine radicals in this matter, unwilling to compromise even when the issue is indisputably one of infanticide (as in partial-birth abortion); being that far out on a limb is usually a bad place to be in American politics.
And yet “choice” remains the magic word that effectively cuts off debate on the core question. Until that changes, pro-lifers will continue to lose the main contest, even while winning a few more arguments on the margins.
This past October, an African-American Catholic, running for statewide office in a liberal state, was getting hammered for his pro-life stance. He asked a priest, a friend, how he should respond; the priest said, “Just say you’re a Catholic and you’re upholding what the Catholic Church teaches.” That’s not what I would have told the candidate. I would have suggested that he say, “I’m pro-life because I’m a forty-five year old black man who is able to run for this office today because of the courage of the civil rights pioneers of the Fifties and Sixties. Protecting the right to life for all the vulnerable is the great civil rights issue of this time. That’s why I’m pro-life. That’s why you should be, too.”
When that becomes the talk, the pro-life walk has a real chance.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.