There are competing values in the abortion debate, of course, and competing interpretations of the emotional and political contexts of the act, but at the core of the debate is not a question of opinion but a question of fact: What resides in the womb of a pregnant woman?
None of the other questions can be intelligently answered until that question is answered, and that question cannot be answered if we keep averting our eyes or hiding in the shadows of mysticism. And the very difficult questions attached to the debate — issues such as rape, incest, medical complications, and poverty — cannot be addressed until we have answered the fundamental question. A pro-life legal regime that makes exceptions for rape and incest surely would be preferable to the current open-ended abortion license, but it would be based on a contradiction. In fact, that position, popular though it is, invites the very critique that feminists would like to make. If we are going to protect unborn human lives, then we are going to protect them regardless of the circumstances of their conception. An ethic that makes exceptions because we find no culpability in the mother is uncomfortably close to the feminist caricature of pregnancy being used to punish women for their sexuality. If we have a human life at issue, then we do not permit it to be put to death for the crimes of others. We cannot ignore the ghastliness of a woman’s having to carry to term a child conceived in such conditions, but we cannot in good faith put that unborn child to death — not if we believe that an unborn child is what it is.
The Texas senate last week took a tiny step in the direction of civilization by voting to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation and imposing other restrictions. That vote did not take effect, because the actions of a mob disrupted the business of the legislature, and the vote was not recorded until after midnight, when the legislative session had expired. That was less of a loss for the pro-life cause than you might expect: The restrictions will no doubt be passed in a coming special session of the legislature, and they will no doubt be tied up in legal challenges for years or more. The delay, while unwelcome, is probably going to be trivial in real-world terms.
It would of course be better if Texas needed no such law. A law professor at Cornell points out that the United States has no specific law against cannibalism, and one has seldom been needed: We pass laws against things only when they are no longer unthinkable. What we do says a great deal about us, but what we are willing to do says more. It will take a more civilized people to render abortion unthinkable.
Encountering the architectural monuments and administrative sophistication of the Incans and Aztecs, the Europeans were confounded that such marvels could be done by cultures practicing human sacrifice. Huitzilopochtli may have faded away, but career, vanity, and sexual convenience are very much with us, and they, too, are jealous gods, who apparently insist on being served in the same way. The metaphysical explanations may be radically different, but the physical facts of the cases are not entirely dissimilar. If our descendents one day wonder that savages such as ourselves flew to the moon, it will speak well of them, even as they wonder that such brilliant engineers had so impoverished a conception of what it means to be human.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and author of the newly published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.