The Long March—and Its Victories

Michael Novak

Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Editor’s note: this article by the founder of Crisis first appeared in the March 1993 print edition of this magazine.

More and more, through deception and euphemism, the American people are being led by their government into the primitive and barbaric practice of abortion. They are being led to think of abortion as a moral good, a civil right, and a form of political progress. All of these pretenses are without exception contrary to truth. Abortion is not a moral good. Pace the courts, it is not a true, only a fraudulent, civil right since it violates the fundamental social compact. In that compact, according to Hobbes and Locke, every individual gives up the freedom to kill for personal purposes; in exchange for the individual’s renunciation of violence, the state pledges to use its monopoly over lethal power to protect even (and especially) the weakest and most vulnerable individuals.

Finally, abortion does not represent political progress; it signals political decline. For the first time in the history of these United States, a generation has narrowed the circle of those it recognizes as endowed with the inalienable right to life. Every generation previous to our own had included the unborn under the protection of the laws. Our generation has cast them aside, quite literally, on rubbish heaps. Let future generations judge us. Let them write that we were barbaric; they will hardly dare call us civilized.

Let future generations show photographs or videotapes demonstrating just how the unborn are today put to death in the wombs of their mothers: by slicing knife, suction pump, head-crushing clamps, acids, and other grisly means. Let them build museums if they dare to the actual refinements of our so-called “clinics.” Our own generation cannot bear to face what we are doing. We will not hear of it. Our television will not show it. The grisly work of abortion is done, can only be done, out of sight, out of mind. Our generation is too sensitive to witness what it does to its helpless ones—but not too sensitive to do it. If one day we become the generation most held in contempt, we shall richly deserve it. Our unwillingness to speak honestly about our deeds will condemn us.

The death toll in the 20 years since Roe v. Wade is (up till 1988) 23.6 million and, at approximately 1.5 million per year since, now at least 29.6 million. That is a number equal to 11 percent of the living population: Dead. Gone. Day by day during 1993, the oldest among these 29 million would be celebrating their twentieth birthdays. Some would be in college, some in the military, some working and getting ready to start families of their own. This huge cohort is one of the main reasons why, after the “baby boom,” there is a “baby bust.” The 29 million aborted ones aren’t here to laugh and love and argue with the rest of us.

They are in truth, a silent generation. Silent as a tomb.

About 20 million of these missing ones were white, about ten million black. Since the number of currently living blacks is 31 million, the missing 10 million represents an enormous loss for, without abortion, America’s black community would now number 41 million persons. It would be 35 percent larger than it is. Abortion has swept through the black community like a scythe, cutting down every fourth member.

This dreadful devastation has been wreaked upon the black community by pro-abortion forces, a hundred of whose rudest activists formed a wall to block the March for Life on January 22, until the police pressed them to let the peaceful marchers through. Blind to the work of their own hands, the pro-abortionists chanted this disgusting doggerel:

Racist! Sexist! Anti-gay!
Born-again bigots, go away!

Racists! It is not the marchers for life who have encouraged ten million abortions in the black community. It is not they who led the chanting for the Grim Reaper.

And weigh for a moment that line, Born-again bigots. Bigotry against born-again Christians is the last respectable bigotry in America. It is indulged in almost every night on television and in countless movies. The devout Christians of the Bible Belt are constantly and endlessly ridiculed by those who affect to be their superiors. They must be weary of such ridicule. As Cardinal O’Connor said at the January 22 rally on the Ellipse, “We”—speaking for all those subject to ridicule simply for being for life, we Jews, we Evangelicals, we Catholics, Orthodox, Presbyterians, and even Atheists for life—”We will not be intimidated.”

Nonetheless, despite our best efforts, as of the last official count, 1,641,000 abortions were performed during the 366 days of 1988. Most of the young women on whom these abortions were performed (928,000 or 58 percent) were 24 or younger. They were mostly schoolgirls; 406,000 or 26 percent were teenagers between the ages of 11 to 19. One does not like to think of starting out sexual life and motherhood with so brutal an experience.

Does a young woman forget her first abortion? Does she ever forget?

There are two victims in every abortion, read one sign in the March for Life: Mother and child.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all facts about abortion, however, is that 31.5 percent of all abortions, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, are to Catholic women. To be sure, a great many of these women are not “practicing Catholics” (certainly not so when consenting to this deed). Indeed, those who practice abortion are excommunicated by it—self-excommunicated, automatically.

Catholics have a habit, altogether proper, of identifying themselves as Catholics even years after they have stopped receiving the sacraments, recognizing full well that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” The imprint of baptism is indelible.

We each have sinned. No one is in a position to throw stones. Still, the entire American Catholic community must have a most uneasy and painful conscience about its failure to set an example in this crucial aspect of public moral life. We need to be better. We need to do more in our Catholic institutions to support young women in distress—and long before their distress arises. Every young woman needs to know of a place where she can bring a child to life rather than to death. Every Catholic campus and school and parish should support such places. That is what it means, in practice, to be “a life church.”

Though I have lived in Washington since mid-1978, not until this year had I actually attended the March for Life. I was always there “in spirit,” of course. (This is a little like saying that at the Incarnation Jesus did not actually come in the flesh but came among us “in spirit.”) I really dislike being a demonstrator. I have demonstrated in other causes, but only after overcoming fierce inner reluctance and distaste.

But I have long felt great sympathy with these marchers; they are like the people I grew up with and like the parishioners from around the country that I have met: plain, ordinary, humble, good folks, with all their faults and limitations—and also all their daily heroism and aspirations.

I wonder how the “M & B” crowd in [Clinton’s] cabinet could possibly understand them—Zoe Baird at $630,000 per year, Robert Reich at $540,000, no one at less than $100,000, several at far more than a million. But M & B (“money and brains”) is a Wall Street Journal category meaning more than money; it means a passport heavily stamped with foreign entries, an expensive foreign car, a knowledge of wines, an impressive high-level résumé, a sophisticated set of values, a degree or two from the Ivies and a certain ontological weight, so to speak, in the world of symbols and ideas. M & B means sharing a culture in which being anti-abortion is akin to zealotry, and being opposed to gays in the military (or seeing homosexual behavior as a sin) is clear evidence of bigotry.

The people in the March for Life live and breathe and move in another culture—once the mainstream culture of America, but now being shunted aside as an unwanted counterculture. They wear (as one can see with one’s own eyes) plain American clothes from K Mart, WalMart, Penney’s, and Sears. They carry plastic this and plastic that. Not only are they the “forgotten Americans” lionized in the recent presidential campaign, they (and their beliefs) are openly despised by the M & B crowd.

Many of these good people have been marching for 20 years now. They come by bus or train or car. Few are Frequent Flyers. They have a right to be tired. Knowing how they are perceived and even lied about by the press, they have a right, too, to feel discouraged. If they do, they do not show it.

No historian will be able to write that all Americans of our generation were asleep, when the nation turned away from those majestic words of Thomas Jefferson about “the Right to Life.” No one will say that all Americans went quietly into that dark night, descended without protest into barbarism, or accepted morally the clinical “procedure” of abortion. These marchers have saved the honor of the United States.

They constitute the largest pro-life movement in the civilized world. Future generations will celebrate them as heroes in our time, prophets of a deeper reverence for universal rights, and forebears of a wiser civilization to come. The sophisticated patrons of the atrocities of the abortion clinics will be wondered at, since 1.6 million deaths per year had not been enough to awaken their revulsion. How will historians explain this?

Abraham Lincoln once argued against Stephen Douglas that it is not right for states to vote pro-choice, when that choice entails depriving human individuals of the free disposal of their own lives. Arguing the same principle, the Marchers for Life have already won great victories. Like Lincoln, they have had to bear discouraging defeats. Like Lincoln, they have had their share of generals—in their several religious establishments—who seemed afraid to fight and to win. Like Lincoln, they have endured. They have kept the principles of Life before their eyes. They have trusted in the glory of the coming of the Lord. He has trampled in the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. The Battle Hymn of the Republic belongs to them. It sings in the tramping of their wearing steps.

I wish, if I might make a wish, that next year the “marchers will begin from the Jefferson Monument, for their cry is Jefferson’s. I hope that next year their march will pass by Lincoln’s Monument, for their capacity for suffering and long endurance is his, and their arguments are his. (Even the architecture of those monuments is theirs. They are the heirs of the Greco-Roman-American philosophia perennis, that long-lived “public philosophy” of which Walter Lippmann wrote.) They belong to Jefferson and Lincoln. For any liberty of choice that disrespects the right to life of others is no true liberty. Such “choice” is unworthy of America. It shames a people claiming falsely to be free while denying that freedom to others like themselves.

Pro-life people see in the victims of abortion what they themselves once were: they cannot kill these other selves without denying the principle on which their own safety is founded.

Before the awful clarity of this powerful moral argument, their opponents already have retreated. Very few people today can stand before the public, and say with straight face, that they are in favor of abortion; can describe in vivid detail what actually happens to human flesh and blood when the “clinical procedure” of abortion is performed, and say that they approve of it. Most abortion advocates have retreated to a second line of defense, borrowing the rhetoric that in economics and every other phase of public life they resolutely mock and abhor—the rhetoric of “free choice.”

Robert Reich, for example, writes scathingly of the “myth” of individualism, responsibility, and self-reliance in the economic realm, as do most statist liberals today. But these are not liberals. They are impostors who oppose free choice in smoking, in cutting down trees, in books to be assigned to grade school students, in the selection by parents of schools to which to send the tax dollars assigned for their own children’s education. These are, in every matter, our own “soft totalitarians.” Their dream is to “educate” the rest of us to their beliefs and valuations. Only when it comes to killing children in the womb do they use the language of Reaganomics.

Abortion advocates are forced to employ an illegitimate principle that is not theirs and which they do not elsewhere hold, because the Marchers for Life have made it impossible for them to hold themselves before the public as advocates of bloody abortion in itself. Abortion advocates are pro-choice because they cannot be fully and frankly and in exact detail pro-abortion.

This is the great victory won by 20 years of marching for life. No one should underestimate its public value. Without it, the nation would simply have “put this issue behind it” after the ipse dixit of the Supreme Court in 1973. (During 1992 in Casey, the Court was still pathetically pleading with the country—or at least with what it called its “thinking citizens,” presumably its M & B crowd—to do this.) The Marchers for Life have not allowed the country to act in blindness, without full and fair public deliberation, without argument, without attention to the barbarous “clinical procedures” so glibly recommended.

To the tired veterans of the March for Life, that 20-year-long march and counting, the entire nation, and all our posterity, are much indebted. God bless them every one!

A second modest suggestion for the marchers next year is that they invite the best-known leaders of the evangelical churches, especially Billy Graham, so that the latter might also play leadership roles. The evangelical leaders should speak—and could attract their own legions of constituents. In many states around the country in which Catholics are not numerous, evangelicals cast the largest share of votes for life. More than the press would like to admit, it is the 30 million born-again Christians and other associated evangelicals who form the main body of those who recognize in abortion a violation of the Holy Scriptures and of Jeffersonian rights, both. It was a surprise and a modest disappointment to discover that this year’s March for Life was so predominantly Roman Catholic—according to the Post poll, 65 percent.

The March for Life is already ecumenical; many Protestants and Jews take part. Still, if the numbers of others grew proportionately to those of Catholics, the March could be far larger. It needs to reach out broadly with open hands; it needs the skillful leadership of our Protestant brethren, especially from the nation’s South and West. Such devoted leaders were often our greatest allies in the battle against communism when some of our sophisticated friends in the mainstream churches would rather have been caught dead than anticommunist For their service to our Lord, they have won the honor of being hated.