The movement against partial-birth abortion had, from the beginning, two kinds of pro-life supporters. Both sides agreed that an advantage of choosing this aspect of the abortion issue was that here, at least, there was some reasonable possibility of success. But one group was drawn to the issue because of its powerful presentation – magnification, if you will – of the universal principles that are necessarily involved in any abortion. The other group was drawn to it for the largely opposite reason that it offered an opportunity to be successfully “pro-life” while remaining a comfortable distance from those pesky moral principles. Partial-birth abortion is immediately recognized as horrifically evil – which means that its opponents don’t have to say why it is wrong. The attempt to say just why it is wrong seemed, to this group, a dangerous thing. Universal moral principles, once cited, can be hard to contain, and the time was not deemed right for further exciting agitation on the entirety of the abortion issue. The obvious and palpable evil of partial-birth abortion – as effectual infanticide – made opposition to it safe ground for some who had no intention of accepting a real and probing moral debate about the underlying nature of abortion itself.
This division explains why, even during the peak of pro-life confidence on the partial-birth abortion question, an uneasy silence often reigned around the question of the larger strategy. Was opposition to partial-birth abortion a first step toward victory, or merely a bit of defensive trench-building by an army resolved to stay where it was?
The same division among pro-lifers appears to be developing around the “Born Alive Infants Protection Act of 2001,” on which the House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to hear testimony this past week. The law would make it a federal crime to kill or allow to die those children who are born alive after an attempted abortion. The House version of the bill included a set of “findings” – explanations of the bill, its purpose and principles. This document laid out clearly that the reason for granting legal protection to all children born alive is because they are co-equal members of the human species, full bearers of the intrinsic dignity that the principles of the American regime recognize in all persons.
Here is a great opportunity for moral clarity. With such a document making these arguments in the legislative record, Congress and the nation won’t be obliged to supply their own understanding of the reasons that killing living and born children should be illegal. Apparently, however, the Republican leadership has decided that it would be impolitic to state openly why we shouldn’t kill living and born children, and that the bill has a better chance of success in the Senate, or of a larger margin of victory in the House – passage there seems assured in any case – if the “findings” and their awkwardly direct speech about the intrinsic and universal dignity of human offspring are left out.
Why is direct speech about human dignity awkward? I’ll bet you can guess. It’s because those members of the pro-abortion lobby who understand the power of principles see that any statement in law of the reasons that it is wrong to kill infants will leave, shall we say, a pregnant pause in the debate about abortion. No one, in stating the reasons that it is wrong to kill an infant, would consider it crucial to the evil of the act that the infant has been born. Killing children is wrong because of what children are, and because of Who made them. The act of killing a child can only be deemed “rightful” by a naked assertion that the right of the stronger is the ultimate moral principle. Accordingly, such an act, so considered, repudiates the claim of each and all of us to rights grounded in human dignity and equality, as opposed to the so-called “right” of the stronger. Who can deny the force of this reasoning, or who would dare deny the truth of its premises? And note well, none of this makes any reference to the fact that the children we know we shouldn’t kill happen to have emerged into the light of the day from the sacred protection of the womb.
This means that any honest statement of the reasons we all know it is wrong to kill infants will be a fairly clear indictment of abortion as well. A bill clarifying the right to life of children born alive will, accordingly, be a naturally powerful move in the larger argument against abortion. If political discourse is still possible on such matters, here is a clear path of argument. We ask first, of our well-intentioned fellow citizens, if they agree that the killing of born infants must be illegal. We ask, second, if they will join us in an expression of the reasons that such killing must be illegal. And there we pause, albeit briefly, to let the implications of this argument and of its natural extension to all human offspring sink in. Then, with the principle of human equality and dignity re-established in the law, we can and should go on to propose that there is really no way to avoid extending that principle to the unborn as well as the born.
This is an honest path, and true. It is the path of those who seriously intend to see whether an appeal to the American sovereign – the people – on the matter of abortion is possible. It is a strategy of making the easy argument not because one can rest comfortably in an easy victory, but precisely because it is a good beginning to the argument that is being resisted.
If the pro-life community has a strategy consonant with the political regime under which we live, that strategy must involve the simple act of reminding this people of its deepest principles, and showing them that those principles are inconsistent with the practice of abortion. Marginal and specific progress in restricting abortion or preventing its expansion to infanticide are certainly good in themselves. But if such efforts intentionally cut themselves off from the opportunity to make the fundamental point of principle that can alone lead to a national resolution in favor of life, what follows? Then the American pro-life movement runs the risk of a tragic inversion of what Lincoln understood to be the strategy of the Founders for the elimination of slavery – placing it “in the course of ultimate extinction.” Pro-life progress that is won at the price of avoiding the implication that all human life must be protected is not real pro-life progress at all. Rather, such a strategy places the pro-life movement itself, in Lincoln’s words, “in the course of ultimate extinction.”
It is important that grass-roots pro-lifers understand what is at stake in the different approaches the supporters of this bill will take. It is not enough simply to insist that babies who survive abortion receive the full protection of the law. We must insist as well that our law acknowledge openly that this full protection is due them because of their intrinsic and equal dignity as human beings. And we must welcome the implication that this argument applies to children even younger than newborn. If we reflect for a moment upon the example of the Declaration of Independence, we will remember that sometimes even self-evident truths need to be declared.