By Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.
For every issue, it seems, there is always good news and bad news. For the pro-life movement, the good news is that the U.S. abortion rate has been falling for over a decade and, now, is at its lowest level since 1974.
The bad news is that, even at the reduced rate, a child is aborted once every 50 seconds and, despite a new pro-life Supreme Court, the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms swept away the pro-life majority in Congress, eliminating the prospect of legislation aimed at limiting abortion for the foreseeable future.
The good news is that a number of conservative states have passed or are considering bills protecting the unborn. The bad news is that the pink light that bathed One World Trade Center after the passage of New York’s Reproductive Health Act reflects a corrupted conscience unbothered not only by the abortion of full-term babies but by the termination of those surviving abortion.
And that brings us to public attitudes.
Many Americans who are conflicted about the morality of abortion—Christians and millennials, in particular—are less so about its legalization. In fact, public sentiment has remained fairly consistent over the last twenty years with a majority of people (59%), including 55% of Catholics and 44% of Protestants, favoring legalization in “all/most cases.” This has been largely due to the success of the abortion industry and its stakeholders in controlling the terms of the debate.
Early on, the pro-choice lobby pitched abortion as a constitutional right of individual privacy, then as an issue of sexual equality and reproductive choice (“My body, my choice”), all the while assuring that what was being destroyed was not a human being but a clump of cells, a mass of tissue.
It was only when the “news” of medical science gained currency—namely, that a genetically complete and unique human being was created at the moment of conception—that the rhetoric changed to “persons,” the category of beings entitled to rights by virtue of abilities possessed in a measure deemed sufficient by (pick one): the State, the physician, the mother, (?).
But as the abortion industry grew, something was happening in clinics across the country that signaled its inevitable downturn: Mothers were referring to the life within them as “my baby,” not “my fetus” or “my embryo.” Increasingly, women voiced misgivings, regret, and guilt over their decisions, experiencing the furies of what they knew to be true and what ethicist Jay Budziszewski says, “we [they] can’t know.”
The rhetoric of rights and choice, so effective in winning the battle for legalization, was losing the war against conscience. Fearing that a tsunami of guilt would send the movement back to the days of back-alley rooms and rusty coat-hangers, proponents scrambled to address the spiritual dimension pressing upon women.
As early as 1992, feminist writer Ginette Paris was calling for holy rituals. In her book The Sacrament of Abortion, Paris writes, “Our culture needs new rituals as well as laws to restore abortion to its sacred dimension, which is both terrible and necessary…a sacrifice…a sacrament for the gift of life to remain pure.”
To fulfill that “need,” the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice crafted a liturgy célèbre to affirm a woman’s “good and holy decision to have an abortion.” Following the form in The Book of Common Prayer, it is complete with Preparation, Invitation, Prayer, Reading, and Blessing.
As words like sin and stigma gave way to virtue and sacrament, operatives of the abortion industrial complex gained an elevated understanding of their roles.
Melaney Linton, president of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, called her work, “a sacred duty.” In 2009, Barack Obama told a group of Jewish leaders, “We [presumably, the state and religious progressives] are God’s partners in matters of life and death.” Abortionist Dr. William Harrison, the one-time OB-GYN of Hillary Clinton, claimed he was doing “God’s work.” And Dr. LeRoy Carhart—dubbed “The Abortion Evangelist” by Newsweek—boasted, “Abortion is not a four-letter word, I’m proud of what I do.” Now where have we heard that attitude before?
Indeed, inspired by the success of the gay rights movement, ethicist Jacob Appel called for an abortion pride movement. Concerning the familiar injunction of Proverbs 16:18, Appel explained, “the political and social reality today is that pride is a necessary prerequisite for acceptance and equality.”
With rhetoric reminiscent of Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Appel mused: “I dream of the day when women are not afraid to walk the streets with pins reading, ‘I had an abortion and it was the right decision,’ and when station wagons bear bumper-stickers announcing, ‘Thank me for having an abortion when I wasn’t ready to be a parent.’”
News to Appel: that day began with Planned Parenthood’s shameless “I Had an Abortion” t-shirt over a decade ago. Today, that initiative has a megaphone in the Shout Your Abortion Movement touted by Oprah’s O publication.
Lapel pins, bumper stickers, and wordy jingles aside, I dream of a day…
- When abortion is not rare, but non-existent.
- When “family planning” clinics go the way of drive-in theaters; and their practitioners, the way of keypunch operators.
- When every child is welcomed into this world, regardless of his condition or his parents’ preparedness.
- When a large family is praised and encouraged, rather than frowned upon because of its environmental footprint.
- When every child has a family with a mother and father to love him, care for him, and nurture him into healthy, mature adulthood.
That is my dream.
Given the current political and cultural climate, the realization of that dream will not come quick or easy. However, the challenges are the same that William Wilberforce faced two centuries ago in his fight to end slavery in Britain.
Twenty-first century abortion, like 18th century slavery, has the advantages of entrenched political interests, legality, prevalence, and public acceptance, not to mention the support of a billion-dollar industry. Both issues turn on the question of what makes a person a “person.” For slavery, it was skin color. For abortion, it is environment: Is the “thing” in utero or ex utero? Both are rooted in ideology, or a way of thinking about the world, shaped by multiple cultural influences.
Consequently, putting an end to abortion can never be accomplished solely through legislatures and courts. Criminalizing an immoral practice may make it rarer, but it will never expunge it from the cultural landscape. It is a principle that William Wilberforce knew well.
Wilberforce realized that the acceptance of slavery was, in part, due to a lack of social awareness, as the horrific conditions on slave ships and on the West Indies sugar plantations were unseen evils in the mainland and in the hallowed halls of Parliament.
A related problem was moral neglect.
At the time, Britain was in full retreat from historical Christianity. Pew and pulpit were marked by nominal-to-heterodox beliefs. Laity non-attendance and clerical neglect was widespread. The result was a “Christian” culture built on 16-hour work days in hazardous work conditions, pressed labor, child labor, and slavery—not to mention a society with record levels of crime, vice, poverty, and hunger.
Historian Alvin Schmidt notes that Christians who condoned slavery did so because they were either unaware of the scriptural injunctions against it or “knowingly ignored them.”
The same is true for abortion today. Many people whose thinking has been clouded by pro-choice rhetoric have never paused to ask, much less investigate, what really goes on in those “safe” and “sterile” clinics; nor have they stopped to consider the immediate and latent effects on the mother and the father, or the child who would have been.
There is also widespread ignorance on what the law does and does not permit.
It is surprising how many people believe that Roe v. Wade allows abortion only in the first trimester; or only for cases of incest, rape, or serious risk to the mother; when, in fact, the law permits abortion for any reason, or no reason, for a full-term infant up to the time its head breaks the plane of the birth canal. Against popular perceptions, Roe v. Wade is “abortion-on-demand” where even the ghastly and grisly practice of partial-birth abortion has become legal “sacred ground.”
Moral neglect is also a problem. Many Christians who have “bought in” to choice are either unaware or unconcerned about the biblical passages pertaining to personhood. They are equally uninformed, or dismissive, of early Church teachings against abortion and infanticide in times when such practices were culturally accepted and commonplace.
In fighting slavery, Wilberforce enlisted a group of like-minded friends—the “Clapham Circle”—well-positioned in British society to change the moral and legal climate. They succeeded in creating a groundswell change in public opinion that, sadly, took decades to be reflected in legislation due to political maneuvering and international distractions. Nevertheless, against personal discouragement and bad health, Wilberforce stayed the course for fifty hard-fought years, trusting God for the final victory.
On July 26, 1833, the Emancipation Bill was passed in England, ending its long, dark history of slavery. William Wilberforce died just three days later.
Likewise, in our time, the struggle to end abortion is the long game, one that requires a Wilberforcian effort by some modern-day Wilberforces.