Reporters laughed. At her regularly scheduled Thursday-morning press conference as leader of the House Democrats, former speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked to explain the moral difference between killing “a baby born alive at 23 weeks,” as Dr. Kermit Gosnell did in his Philadelphia clinic, and “aborting her moments before her birth.” The question had come up because the House Judiciary Committee had just approved the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, sponsored by Arizona Republican Trent Franks, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but one that Pelosi answered with derision and evasion, dismissing the reporter, even excoriating him, for daring to be male while asking it.
“Schizophrenic subterfuge” — a phrase coined more than 40 years ago, in the run-up to Roe v. Wade — is a perfect description of that scene, in which a leading question of the hour is laughed off. Schizophrenic subterfuge is where too many Americans are today on the topic of abortion.
A 1970 editorial in the journal California Medicine explained that there was a “new ethic” invading medicine, ushered in by the sexual revolution. It was one that would require “a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices. It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected.”
That was not a pro-life screed but an objective observation from a position of bewildered surrender. Now we just seem, collectively speaking, to accept the subterfuge, to let ourselves manipulate language, using it like a drug to numb the pain, shutting down arguments, laughing off common sense. And this, just a week after a young pregnant congresswoman asked for prayers for a miracle in the face of an adverse diagnosis for her unborn child. We owe it to ourselves as much as to the lives sacrificed to our semantic gymnastics to ask: Does a baby, at any stage in its gestation, really have no value unless the mother wills it?
Eighteen years ago, Pope John Paul II saw how the poison was spreading and addressed it in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life): “Not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life.”
This Gospel of Life, he wrote, is “the splendor of truth which enlightens consciences, the clear light which corrects the darkened gaze, and the unfailing source of faithfulness and steadfastness in facing the ever new challenges which we meet along our path.”
His was a message of love for the world, seeking to rally an ecumenical community to build a culture welcoming and nurturing of life.
I thought of John Paul II and of all the evangelicals who joined in mourning his death while I was listening to Chuck Todd, host of a show for political junkies, The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Pro-lifers, he observed, used to be much better at talking about abortion in the political arena. He seemed to be both nostalgic and bewildered. Now, it could be said, and fairly, that it is only the pro-life missteps that are amplified, with just about anything else drowned out by the media as they side with the advocates of legal abortion. The media show very little interest in exploring the stories of sacrifice and grace and mercy that are the daily lives of those who work to serve women and men who might otherwise have no support when choosing life for their children. Still, Todd has a point.
I suspect Todd and I have different views on the issue. But unlike Mrs. Pelosi, who declared her views on abortion to be “sacred ground,” he probably sees that a bill seeking to ban abortion after 20 weeks — at which point a child would feel pain if a doctor dismembered him in a late-term abortion — isn’t the same as a bill banning abortion completely. That we work to save lives at that age in fetal surgery if the mother wishes it but otherwise feel free to end those lives for any reason — that is something we must urgently confront.
Implicit in Todd’s comment seemed to be, too, a sense of gratitude. It’s good to have people thinking about how to make the world more hospitable to life. “Anti-abortion” and “pro-life” are just words, but behind them are not just “no” to Roe but “yes” to practical help for life: crisis-pregnancy centers and adoption promotion, and welcoming arms. You don’t have to be a dedicated abortion opponent to see good there.
The ecumenical love for John Paul II had to do with the love with which he greeted fellow human beings, Catholic or not. People of all sorts loved him for leading with love even as he condemned evil — pointing to and modeling something better.
“When I have surgery, I stay with Jesus on the Cross. I pray in my heart for Mama, Dad, and Ben.” That’s six-year-old Grace Polvani, who, along with her older brother Benedict, has a genetic syndrome that keeps them in and out of hospitals. The two of them embrace life, understanding sacrifice to be a necessary and even redemptive part of it. “Choose to love,” their mother, Chiara Polvani, implores, as a key lesson she has learned from her children. “The idea of love is very distorted these days. I was taught that love is not infatuation, and, indeed, it is not. Love is sacrifice, and it is an act of will.”
Sacrifice “is what you’re in for,” Chiara said in a recent interview with the Sisters of Life, who run a mission for women who need help choosing life for their children.
Abortion is an act of violence of the most intimate sort. The more we accept it as “sacred ground,” as Pelosi put it, as some kind of sign of liberation, the more we fail to see the culture it ingrains, where men are disconnected — with no shame — from their children, where women submit to being used rather than cherished, and where babies — whom we know to be babies, not mere tissue or cells — are discarded. There’s an exploitation happening here, ending some lives and ruining others. A culture that would help us rise to challenges and make sacrifices has got to be a better choice. It’s about choosing love — in our own lives and in public policy.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.