Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

does "pro-life" mean anything at all?

Pro-life leaders and the pro-life movement are not responsible for George Tiller's death. George Tiller was a mass-murder and, horrifically, he reaped what he sowed.

- Randall Terry, Operation Rescue

First of all, just let me say that I believe all life is sacred. Until the mid-1990s I even called myself pro-life. But in 1993 I moved to Wichita and saw how militant were some of the pro-life activists there, I found it difficult to identify myself using that label — at least without serious qualifications.

Real-Life Stories

Shortly after I moved to Wichita, something else happened: I came into contact with someone who had had an abortion at age 17. She didn't defend it as a personal choice. She didn't think of the baby as nothing more than a lump of tissue. To her the abortion was a personal tragedy, but she remained staunchly pro-choice. She insisted that families, and not the government, were the best equipped to make this choice, even though she had regrets about the decision her parents made for her.

I began to see the entire "abortion issue" in a new light. It's not about killing babies as a matter of convenience, as some pro-life advocates have suggested. It's not about being selfish vs. treating the unborn baby as a human being. The decision to have an abortion is not something to be taken lightly.

But what I realized more than anything else is that the mother's life is also precious. That's what gets lost in the pro-life rhetoric about "baby killers" and the "American holocaust."

The Questing Parson tells about his family's heart-wrenching choice:

I couldn’t talk to my daughter, Leon, because she’d gone into a coma. And nobody had a clue what was going on. She was four months pregnant, Leon, four months. The hospital Chief of Staff was a friend o mine so my daughter was getting some exceptional attention. Still no one knew what had caused the seizure or the coma. But it was clear she was deteriorating rapidly. It didn’t take much to realize what the wrinkled foreheads of the doctors and nurses and their averted eyes meant.

At some point, Leon, that famous neurosurgeon came and sat down with my daughter’s husband and the rest of us. He admitted he still didn’t know the cause of her coma, but he said he wanted to try something, a treatment with some drug. He explained the risks to my daughter to us and quickly added it was the only thing he knew to try. And then he informed us the drug would kill the baby.

Now I want you to fully understand, Leon, that my son-in-law did what I was screaming inside myself for him to do when that doctor presented him with a choice. He chose life, Leon. He chose my daughter’s life. I want you to clearly understand that when it came to making the choice, it was my son-in-law’s choice, not yours.

In the end, Leon, the doctor was right and the doctor was wrong. The drug did work. But the baby lived. She lived, Leon, despite all the medical people said, she lived. That’s why she was named ‘Faith.’

And the fact that Faith is the bubbly precious child she is today does not change the fact that the choice that was made was made.


Dr. Warren Hern, an abortion provider, gives the statistics on late-term abortions in a letter to the Washington Post:

Third-trimester abortions are extremely uncommon; fewer than 600 are performed per year. This irrefutable fact is documented by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), the institution acknowledged by the Centers for Disease Control as having the most complete information on abortion practice. When Richard Cohen wrote in a June 1995 op-ed column that “just four one-hundredths of one percent of abortions are performed after 24 weeks,” and that “most, if not all, are performed because the fetus is found to be severely damanged or because the life of the mother is clearly in danger,” he was absolutely correct.

The National Right to Life Committee has a different take on the numbers.

There is no evidence that the reasons for which late-term abortions are performed by the partial-birth abortion method are any different, in general, than the reasons for which late-term abortions are performed by other methods -- and it is well established that the great majority of late-term abortions do not involve any illness of the mother or the baby. They are purely "elective" procedures-- that is, they are performed for purely "social" reasons.

Oddly, both sides get their statistics from the same study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. The discrepancy between the two is the ambiguous phrase "late term." The NRLC considers all abortions after 16 weeks to be late-term. By that time, it's getting hard to hide the pregnancy. The baby is about to begin a growth spurt, and the mother will soon feel the baby moving inside her. But at this stage the baby is not yet able to survive outside the womb, and won't be until about the 23rd or 24th week.

Dr. Hern is looking at third trimester abortions, those done after more than 26 weeks. By this point, the baby is not only swimming around the uterus, but also listening to sounds that penetrate the womb. If the mother goes into early labor at this stage, there is a change the baby may survive.

Since the vast majority of late-term abortions are performed between the 16th and 22nd weeks, the NRLC is correct in its breakdown of the reasons for late-term abortions. But the reasons for aborting a 26-week fetus are very different from the reasons for aborting a 16-week fetus. For abortions from 23 weeks into the third trimester, Dr. Hern's statistics are accurate.

By the time the baby is viable, very few parents choose an abortion. When they do, it is nearly always because something has gone terribly wrong.

Logical Consequences

Fifteen years ago, after former pastor Paul Hill shot and killed Dr. John Britton, Michael Kinsley wrote a Time Magazine editorial arguing that Hill, unlike many pro-life leaders, was at least being true to his beliefs:

After all, the practical effect of such actions is not merely to put one baby killer out of business but to chill the entire practice of abortion in America. Surely during the real Holocaust it would have been "justifiable homicide" to kill a German camp guard, if that would have slowed the feeding of the gas chambers.

Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Magazine says the same thing today:

We accept that when the law is powerless, people are entitled to kill in order to prevent other murders--had Tiller whipped out a gun at an elementary school, we would now be applauding his murderer's actions. In this case, the law was powerless because the law supported late-term abortions. Moreover, that law had been ruled outside the normal political process by the Supreme Court. If you think that someone is committing hundreds of gruesome murders a year, and that the law cannot touch him, what is the moral action? To shrug? Is that what you think of ordinary Germans who ignored Nazi crimes?

The murder of abortion doctors is the bitter fruit of three decades of pro-life organizations referring to abortion as the "American holocaust." If you're convinced that a doctor who performs abortions is a mass murderer, and you see no legal means of bringing him to justice, then you will probably have no ethical qualms about killing him.

When a group of prominent German citizens hatched a plan to assasinate Adolf Hitler, they did so because they believed that killing him would prevent future deaths. When the United States made the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they did so because they believed that it would end the war quickly and prevent an even greater loss of life. When Caiaphas agreed to send Jesus to Pilate for execution, he believed it would be better for one man to die than for the entire nation of Judea to be destroyed by Rome.

Regardless whether any of these analyses were correct, they were rational. So it's not surprising that the pro-life movement has spawned a handful of vigilantes willing to kill one person to protect many.

The Value of a Life

But it doesn't need to be this way. While I agree that every life is precious, I don't think it follows that every life is to be equally valued. And I would argue that this view is even biblical.

I've seen Leviticus 27:2-7 trotted out in several places this week.

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When a person makes an explicit vow to the Lord concerning the equivalent for a human being, the equivalent for a male shall be: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary shekel. If the person is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five to twenty years of age, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and for a female the equivalent is three shekels of silver. And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the equivalent for a male is fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels.

But even more relevant to the issue of abortion, I think, is Exodus 21:22-25.

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

According to this, the pregnant woman is clearly more valuable than the unborn child. This suggests, it seems to me, that when a family is facing a difficult pregnancy that could potentially harm or kill the mother, there is justification for choosing her life over that of the developing baby. Either way, it must be a difficult, painful choice to make.

We can do better than to resort to name-calling. We can do better than to casually toss around comparisons to Nazi death camps. I suspect that nobody ever wants to have an abortion. I suspect that doctors who perform late-term abortions aren't doing it because of a hatred of Fetal Americans.

Dr. Tiller, in fact, appears to have been very attuned to his patients' emotional needs. His list of post-abortion services includes, among other things, the following:

  • Viewing or holding your baby after delivery
  • Photographs of your baby
  • Baptism of your baby, with or without a certificate
  • Footprints and handprints of your baby

These aren't the sort of things people do with a lump of tissue, and they are not the sort of things a physician would encourage if he were trying to diminish the worth of the dead child.


So what can I say? I still believe in the sacredness of all life. Somehow, though, I find myself more in sympathy with those who identify as pro-choice. More and more I wonder if "pro-life" means anything at all.

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