My good friend Gregory P. Koukl, one of the most gifted minds in the pro-life movement, often tells the fictional story of a father who, while his back is turned, hears his teenage daughter ask the question, “Daddy, can I kill it?” Koukl then asks his audience, “How should the father respond to his daughter’s query?” The audience, in every venue at which Greg has told this story, answers, “He should ask her, ‘What is it?’” Although largely untutored in the subtle distinctions of moral philosophy, the audience members understand at a visceral level that the permissibility of killing another being depends on what it is and whether the killing is justified. It really matters whether “it” is a cockroach, the girl’s infant brother, or an enemy soldier in combat.
The pro-life movement, from its very beginning, has seen this moral truth as the one strand in the tapestry of republican government that, if removed, will inevitably lead to an unraveling of the understanding of ourselves and our rights that gave rise to the cluster of beliefs on which the rule of law, constitutional democracy, and human equality depend. The pro-life cause, in a sense, then, is not really about abortion, but rather, about who and what we are. It is a movement that makes the argument that the project that began in the Enlightenment—having its metaphysical roots in the biblical notion of the imago dei (image of God)—that provided the intellectual scaffolding for the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, can be, and ought to be, extended to include the true wideness of our human community, that is, to include the unborn.In this timely volume, Back to the Drawing Board, released for the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Teresa Wagner has assembled an impressive collection of pro-lifers from a wide range of professions across the political and religious spectrum. Each of the authors, in his or her own way, reflects on the pro-life movement’s past, its future prospects, and what sorts of strategies might result in demise of Roe’s regime. There are 28 contributors to this volume, many of whom are well known and have made important and lasting contributions to American politics, law, and policy. These contributors include Richard John Neuhaus, Terrence Jeffrey, Jack Wilke, Bernard Nathanson, Paul Weyrich, Chris Smith, Joseph Sobran, Phyllis Schlafly, Howard Phillips, James Dobson, Nat Hentoff, Daniel Lapin, Judith Reisman, Charles Donovan, and Austin Ruse. The essayists deal with a wide range of topics including Supreme Court jurisprudence, political strategy, policy assessment, the role of religious belief, personal testimony, the effect of abortion on women and the wider culture, and analyses of contemporary culture and film.
What stands out about these essays is the spirited way in which the authors offer their arguments, some of which are critical of positions held by other authors in the same volume. There is a refreshing candor in these essays that one rarely finds in the public square, especially among political types who often see transparency as a sign of weakness rather than strength. I believe what accounts for this is the purity of the pro-life movement’s cause. Unlike other political advocates—e.g., lobbyists for the abortion industry—pro-life proponents, as Neuhaus points out in his essay, are part of “a movement for which so many have given so much, with no personal stake in the outcome, other than knowing that they did the right thing.”
Wagner offers this outstanding collection as a pro-life self-assessment of where the movement has been and where it may be going. In that spirit, I would like to offer my own analysis by engaging two issues addressed in the book by different authors: (1) the wisdom of pro-life incrementalism; and (2) the bad consequences of abortion on women.
One of the perennial issues among pro-lifers is whether one is justified in promoting some legal restrictions on abortion that are short of the types of laws that pro-lifers would like to see. Although some of the essayists see real value in an incremental pro-life strategy, others do not. Schlafly, for example, voices her displeasure with pro-life leaders who have exhibited a “spirit of compromise” and cites as an example of that spirit the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, the brainchild of the inestimable Hadley Arkes and recently signed into law by President George W. Bush. The Act requires that any child who survives an abortion be immediately accorded all the protections of the law that are accorded all other postnatal human beings. Although it is, in the words of Arkes, a “modest first step,” it is not an insignificant one. For it affirms that an abortion entails the expulsion of a being who, if she survives, should receive all the protections of our laws. But this, of course, raises an awkward question for abortion-choice supporters: what is it, then, about that vaginal passageway that changes the child’s nature in such a significant fashion that it may be killed without justification before exit but only with justification post-exit? The act puts in place a premise that elicits questions that lead one back to the most important question in this debate: who and what are we? Apparently because the act does not forbid all abortions all the time, Schlafly believes it has no value in advancing the pro-life cause. But, as should be obvious, she is mistaken.
Because many abortion-choice supporters maintain that abortion is good for women, some of the essayists advance arguments that conclude that abortion has negative physical and psychological consequences for women who procure abortions, e.g., increased risk of breast cancer, guilt, and depression. These writers seem to be saying that the only way to persuade the general public, as well as the courts, that abortion is a serious moral wrong—that ought to be restricted if not completely banned—is for the pro-life movement to show that many women significantly suffer as the result of the process of choosing as well as undergoing an abortion. Although such a strategy is now the rage among pro-life policy wonks, there are good reasons to call it into question. After all, from a strictly moral point of view, abortion is not a serious moral wrong just because the woman endures psychic and physical hurt as a result of having an abortion. For many abortions do not result in such suffering to the women who have them, and clearly no pro-lifer would want to say that those abortions are morally benign. Therefore, to offer consequentialism as a strategy for pro-life victory is to concede the first premise of the abortion-choice movement: the self-interest and well-being of an autonomous adult (in this case, the pregnant woman) trumps any other interests. It seems, therefore, counterintuitive for the pro-life defenders of the consequentialist strategy to want to provide a cultural environment hospitable to the moral primacy of consequentialism.
Although most commentators trace the public debate over abortion’s permissibility to that fateful day in 1973, the philosophical and juridical presuppositions that made abortion a constitutional right, as a number of contributors to this book point out, were firmly entrenched in the elite culture that had been clamoring for a right to abortion since the mid-1950s. Consequently, the right-to-life movement, as it was called in the mid-1970s, got a late start. Nevertheless, it has left an indelible mark on American culture and has for the most part forced its opposition to employ euphemisms (“product of conception” instead of “unborn human being”) and empty libertarian platitudes (“pro-choice” and “reproductive liberty” instead of “pro-abortion” and “abortion rights”) rather than engage the most important question in this debate: who and what are we? Consider Hollywood’s most recent abortion-choice films: “If These Walls Could Talk” and “The Cider House Rules.” In neither case did the film’s script seriously engage the pro-life arguments, as contributor Barbara Nicolosi points out in her outstanding essay. These were the Left’s best cinematic defenses of abortion-choice, and they said nothing to rebut the pro-life case. In fact, they pretended the case did not exist. It is no wonder then that pro-lifers make up a larger percentage of the public than they did at the time of Roe. When abortion-choice advocates offer nothing new or creative in reply to their opposition’s strongest arguments, and when they have a virtual monopoly on the communicative means by which to make their case, they have implicitly acquiesced to their own intellectual demise. Therefore, the pro-life movement has done incredibly well given the influence, cultural status, and financial and institutional resources of its opposition.
The ethical climate of America, and the world, has changed since 1973. The debates over partial-birth abortion, stem- cell research, and human cloning in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 21st century have served to underscore that the question that is often skirted by jurists, politicians, and professional bioethicists—what is the scope of the human com-munity?—can no longer be ignored. After all, if Christopher Reeve is identical to his embryonic self, then we are no more justified in killing an embryo in order to acquire its stem cells so that Mr. Reeve may walk again than we would be in stealing Mr. Reeve’s eyes so that Stevie Wonder may see again. The contributors to Back to the Drawing Board are asking their fellow citizens to reacquaint themselves with the principles on which such moral judgments are based, principles on which all our liberties are ultimately grounded.
Francis J. Beckwith is a Research Fellow in the James Madison Program, Princeton University. As of July 2003, he will be Associate Professor of Church- State Studies and Associate Director in the J. M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies, Baylor University.