This essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 5 Issue 5 — April 2017.
I think I’m not alone among pro-life advocates, in that people sometimes ask me, “Why only abortion? Why do you advocate on this issue only?” When pro-choicers ask me that question, it often takes the form of “Why don’t you talk about the problems of women?”
My first reply might be that I do not in fact ignore other issues. I have done a lot of pondering about the miserable treatment of women throughout most of history, in most of the world, and I have even ventured to write about a pro-life feminist approach toward rectifying all of that. I volunteer for an organization that works to lift people out of poverty.
Most of the pro-lifers I know actually do approach abortion with a holistic view of the world. But it is true that some of us, including me, do also spend a disproportionate amount of our advocacy time focused on the abortion issue specifically.
For me, this is because I feel that the pro-life cause, much more than any other cause, can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness that will uplift us morally in how we respond to all issues, not only the abortion issue.
As Javier Cuadros wrote:
Science is a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper. . . . As the observations multiply . . . it is typical that the original appearances . . . are shown to be incorrect. The reality is different. . . . This is why I have always been puzzled about the reluctance of scientists to apply the same program of investigation to the nature of the human embryo. Are human embryos men and women and thus entitled to the inalienable right to life and respect for their dignity and physical integrity, or are they not? Here, many scientists . . . are for applying the simple criterion of appearances. No, [embryos] are not men and women, they say, because they do not look like a person. Agreed, they do not look like a developed human being. But the earth looks like it is stationary. . . . shape does not make a human being. It has been shown that the most fundamental element of the presence and identity of a human being is the existence of [complete human genetic information] . . .
Most people in the world, if we may indulge in broad strokes, have one of these two perceptions of the early unborn: 1) either they feel that the early unborn is not possessed of the moral value of other human beings because it doesn’t look like most of the human beings we know (or doesn’t seem quite as bright as most of the human beings we know, or some such criterion); or 2) they feel that the early unborn does have the same moral value as the other human beings we know because the genetic information it possesses has set it on an inexorable path – a path such that it will soon enough be a human being similar to others we know (if only somebody doesn’t kill it first).
And I think that among those who hold the second category of perception, there are also some who got there without an understanding of DNA and chromosomes. They got there simply by pondering deeply over some such thought as this: “A human life is one seamless process that has to start somewhere, and how can it be expected that it won’t start extremely small?”
Now, can we call either of the two perceptions better than the other? Well, the first perception is like a still picture. It is a perception of the organism as if it were frozen in time. The second perception is of a process. If you kill a small clump of cells lacking, perhaps, even a beating heart, it is correct to say that you are killing an organism whose life presently has little value; and that therefore the organism itself would – if no future lay ahead of it – have little value. But it is also correct to say that you are depriving that organism of the complete human life which has started in it as a process. We cannot deem that either perception is more scientific than the other. But obviously the perception of the process is a more complete perception.
The perception of the process is not necessarily more scientific, but it is more complete. It is richer. I think that perception helps explain the joy that we see on the faces of “the pro-life generation” at the March for Life and on almost every campus in the country. So for me, it reflects the higher consciousness that I spoke of above, a more evolved consciousness. It reflects a forward evolution in a person’s inner world. It reflects an expansion.
When Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage in 2012, after sixteen years in politics, he famously described that pivot of his as “an evolution.” Well, Mr. Obama, that’s great! Evolution is a liberating experience. Any one person’s moral evolution surely has wonderful consequences for us all. And now, Mr. Obama – and Hillary Clinton, and Cecile Richards, and Gloria Steinem – you have a chance to go on evolving, to evolve still more. Wouldn’t it be great to do so? The path is before you. We’ll all be cheering you on.
Though not wishing to minimize how big an evolutionary step it was for straight people to come to perceive gays as fully human, I think that coming to perceive embryos as fully human will be an even bigger step. It will also be a bigger step than coming to perceive other races as fully human, or other genders as fully human, or the differently abled as fully human. Why? Because – to get back to Cuadros above – gay people, and people of other races and genders, and the differently abled, look like persons. We can “apply the simple criterion of appearances.” Urgent though it is to advocate the causes of refugees and earthquake victims, at least society may be able to see them as human beings without our help – not so, it seems, for the unborn.
Moreover, let us remember Martin Luther King’s observation that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Unlike other groups that have won society’s respect, the preborn do not themselves strike the least fear in the hearts of those who would mistreat them. If rights are to be secured for them, it will be the first time in history that rights have been secured for a human group who could not fight back somewhat, or at least clamor shrilly. So coming to truly perceive the unborn as fully human, though completely in accord with science, will be a grander mental achievement than in the case of other groups. This last frontier of civil rights will be the most difficult. But by the same token it will represent a more significant expansion of consciousness.
A pro-life position taken on this basis will mean a greater connectedness with our origins and hence a greater connectedness with the universe. This connectedness will certainly spill over into all our activities and all our decisions. It will be a big evolutionary step, a step to what I called above “a higher human consciousness that will uplift us morally in how we respond to all issues, not only the abortion issue.”
I also said, however, that “the pro-life cause, much more than any other cause, can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness.” The cause may seem clearly to be a way in which that higher consciousness gets expressed when one already has that consciousness, but is the cause also a vehicle for creating such a consciousness in those who don’t yet have it?
It is natural for the mind to try to confine one’s human family to a small circle. We fear having to care for people, or kinds of people, outside that circle. Our mental walls constructed around that circle, however, get smashed when confronted by facts that are incompatible with such encirclement, or confronted by incompatible, yet persuasive, viewpoints coming from people who command our respect. The smashing of our mental walls is an uncomfortable experience, a disturbing experience, but once one manages to grasp the idea that a human life is one seamless process, and hence equally valuable at all points in time, it is an idea that becomes very persuasive. It is a more complete view than to perceive the organism as if it were frozen in time. Moreover, once we include within the circle of our family people we had formerly excluded, we emerge with fewer fears than we had before. In this way also our minds expand. Thus the pro-life cause can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness, and thus this, to me, is the issue to focus on.
People whom we do not respect, however, are unlikely to persuade us. Among other things, pro-life advocates who are to be persuasive must be people who truly have that expanded vision – which cannot be said of all pro-life advocates. I think that many religious people who are originally pro-life by virtue of rote religious doctrine later become prompted by their doctrines, or by other forces, to do some deep thinking of their own, and develop that expanded vision. But those who came to a pro-life position out of rote religious doctrine alone (without further reflection), not to mention those who came to it out of political opportunism, will not have that vision. Only those who genuinely have it will be able to articulate it in a way that touches non-believers; others may even create a big backlash among skeptics.
A few years back John Koenig coined the word “sonder,” a noun whose definition begins, “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own . . .” It is the ultimate sense of human connectedness, and as the founder of Life Matters Journal has pointed out, it is a state of mind out of which consistent pro-life behavior in all one’s actions must inevitably flow. I think that activism on behalf of the unborn can do more than anything else to further this outlook in the human race.
Now I have said a lot about establishing in people’s minds the perception that the unborn is a full-fledged member of our human family. But by now some will be asking, in order for the pro-life cause to prevail, will such convincing alone be sufficient? What about the bodily-rights position, which concedes for the sake of argument that the unborn is indeed fully human, yet claims a right to kill it nonetheless? But I think that the understanding that the preborn is a full-fledged member of our human family is, in fact, virtually sufficient. It seems to me almost always that those who concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is truly a human being, yet claim a right to kill, make that concession only for the sake of argument. Very few of them – perhaps only Naomi Wolf and Camille Paglia – have made that concession in their hearts. I think that almost anyone who really sees the unborn as our little sisters and brothers, will quickly dig a little deeper and discover the weaknesses in the bodily-rights argument.
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Some future posts:
A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature
Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party
The Motivations of Aborting Parents
Why Remorse Comes Too Late
The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill
Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation
The Woman as Slave?
Abortion and the Map of the World