Politics & Policy

Celling & Building a Culture of Death

Life and death at Harvard.

At Harvard, one can easily develop a skewed perspective on political reality amidst the hegemonic fog of left-liberal campus ideologies. For example, on crucial life issues such as embryonic-stem-cell research, campus “dialogue” is largely determined by the monolithic enthusiasm of the deans and faculty for, say, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), launched last spring, which is busily developing stem-cell lines by destroying human embryos. It is telling that, in the wake of HSCI’s opening for business, Harvard faculty members hosted not a single public forum to engage the pressing ethical issues to which the rest of the nation–and the rest of world, given the U.N.’s new resolution recommending a ban on all forms of human cloning–seems very much alive.

As a pro-life student on campus, I could rest content with the fact that Harvard is way out of step with the rest of the country on all such issues. But I also know that Harvard wields great power in public-policy debates. In February, Harvard scientists lobbied heavily with Massachusetts legislators and testified at a state senate hearing on this very issue. Many in the statehouse are committed to actively partnering with HCSI and other private research and biotechnology enterprises.

Harvard’s power also extends greatly, if not so evidently, into abortion politics. In particular, Harvard Law School produces a large number of lawyers each year who go to the federal bench and state judiciary systems, and also into legislative politics and other forms of legal activism. And this year, partially in reaction to the election, the abortion lobby has seen renewed life on campus. Many young lawyers are committing themselves to the cause of “reproductive rights,” with some planning career strategies for years down the line.

This renewed commitment to abortion rights occasioned the first national conference of Law Students for Choice (LSFC), which was held at Harvard the weekend of February 5. As many as 200 young women (and a smattering of men) from law campuses around the country arrived in Cambridge to consider “New Visions, New Voices for Reproductive Justice,” to network for jobs, and to strategize for the pro-choice movement. Free of schoolwork that weekend, I went “undercover” to hear what ideas were being tossed about by these sharp young lawyers and speakers from organizations such as the ACLU, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Strategizing for abortion

The next generation of abortion-rights lawyers is searching furiously for new strategies in the face of significant pro-life gains on the state and federal level.

For example, an entire panel at the conference was devoted to making the “reproductive rights” platform more palatable to Latina women in the U.S. Panelists suggested that the “rights” language does not work well among Hispanic women, many of whom see it for what it is: code for abortion on demand. They encouraged a shift in presentation that takes seriously Latina cultural priorities–often faith-based–and treats abortion not as a conversational centerpiece but as one of many “health” options that should be available to women.

At times, attendees seemed conflicted in their message. Given the chance to show a new pro-choice face through a panel concerned with forced sterilization in China, many of the students seemed plain bored by the fight for women’s rights to give birth in such countries. Talk of China seemed a mere distraction from the main message. Telling in this regard was a report from a young lawyer about the success of an ad campaign in the men’s magazine Maxim. Apparently, many in the next generation of abortion-rights activists have no problem pandering to young men’s desire for easy, guiltless sex to help secure public opinion in favor of abortion rights.

The conference’s main focus was on the pressing judicial, legislative, and lobbying work that needs to be done. “It’s lawyers who are going to make this happen,” Harvard’s LSFC president said of defending and expanding abortion rights. Louise Melling of the ACLU pointed specifically to parental-notification laws on the state and federal level. She attacked bills pending in Congress such as the Child Custody Protection Act and the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act as putting undue “psychological stress” on teenage girls seeking abortions without any parental involvement.

Another issue firing up the conferees was the increasing number of state legislatures considering “religious refusal” allowances for pharmacists who do not wish to dispense or stock emergency contraception (EC). The pro-life movement has increasingly identified EC as simply another form of abortion: Taken after a sexual encounter, it is designed to dispel any fertilized eggs–i.e. new human beings–from the mother’s womb. Of course, the women at the LSFC conference deny that EC is akin to abortion. They believe that the American public is with them on this issue and would be amenable to the argument that “religious refusal” laws regarding EC which do not cover, say, male enhancement drugs such as Viagra would be sexually discriminatory. They also believe sexual-discrimination suits on these and similar grounds will carry weight in the courts to overturn future “religious refusal” statutes.

Fetal and embryonic rights

There was palpable animus shown toward any and all legislation regarding the fetus as entitled to legal protections. Melling attacked the Laci and Conor Peterson Act and all laws that allow prosecution for homicide if an unborn child is killed during a violent crime: “I care about someone losing a pregnancy,” she said, “but we don’t want to give the fetus a new status under law.” Also discussed was the Fetal Pain legislation pending in both houses of Congress, which would require women considering abortions to sign a statement acknowledging that, at 20 weeks, the unborn child will experience great pain during an abortion. The legislation would give mothers the option to anaesthetize the fetus. Rachel Laser of the National Women’s Law Center and Julia Ernst, aide to Rep. Louise Slaughter of the congressional pro-choice caucus, insisted that Fetal Pain legislation will bring undue emotional pressure to bear on women considering abortions. It is simply “offensive” to women, they argued, that Congress would take sides in the “controversial, scientific debate” over fetal pain.

The question of whether the abortion lobby should be concerned with fetal pain was not raised. Nor did the panelists address the humanity or personhood of the unborn–except to dismiss the thought as a trope of “anti-choicers.”

The LSFC women were apparently unfazed even by recent popular trends against partial-birth abortion. “We LOVE Stenberg v. Carhart!” exclaimed the young and smartly dressed Laser with a cheery smile. Stenberg is the 2000 Supreme Court decision that overturned a Nebraska statute banning partial-birth abortion, a practice which the late pro-choice Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan described as indistinguishable from “infanticide.” Laser’s exclamation was received warmly by the audience, demonstrating that the new generation of pro-choice lawyers has no moral compunction even about the most barbaric abortion practices. Rather, they are driven by one aim: to protect abortion-on-demand to the exclusion of any popular deliberation over the status and rights of the fetus at various stages of pregnancy.

The Harvard university and medical-school officials who launched the Harvard Stem Cell Institute last year demonstrate the same unwillingness to engage in debate over the rights of the unborn. In a recent public appearance, Douglas Melton, director of the institute, made light of ethical concerns about the humanity of human embryos. He actually laughed at images of embryos experimented with and destroyed in Harvard’s laboratories.

Another chilling moment took place at a Harvard Law School talk this past fall, when Glenn McGee, a noted bioethicist from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, gleefully marveled at the “interesting” ethical implications of the half-human “things” already being created in laboratories in California and elsewhere. The law students present hardly blinked, interested mainly in the legal strategies the “ethicist” had to offer for bypassing pro-life legislation on the issue of cloning and embryonic-stem-cell research.

Glimmers of hope

While this picture of America’s leading university seems bleak, there are some bright lights shining through the Cambridge fog. There are active pro-life student groups in many of Harvard’s schools. And a growing number of Harvard students–many of them in the medical school, the school of public health, the law school, and the college–have been signing onto petitions protesting the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and, just this past week, protesting the Massachusetts state senate’s push for embryonic-stem-cell research. Without a unifying campus organization and without faculty members willing to speak out publicly against the destruction of human embryos (Mary Ann Glendon of the law school is always the noted exception), it is difficult to know how many Harvard students are on board with the pro-life movement on this issue. Certainly, though, there is a significant minority of students, forming a sleeping giant of sorts–pro-life medical students, lawyers, and others are graduating Harvard each year steeled and tempered by the campus atmosphere, and deeply committed to aiding the pro-life cause in various capacities.

There are also pro-life discussions and symposia. Recently, young lawyer and mother Erika Bachiochi, editor of the recent book The Cost of ‘Choice’: Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion spoke powerfully at Harvard about the pro-life movement’s authentic commitment to women: It embraces them as women, not by attacking their fertility or their natural orientation toward children as barriers to professional or social equality.

A former pro-choicer, Bachiochi spoke for the coming generation of pro-life women and men. She offered a view of human freedom–embracing of the gift of human life–that has incredible potential to overthrow the monopoly pro-choicers have had over the word “freedom” in the public square since Roe. Is a woman truly free when she is required, by emotional, economic, professional, or social circumstances to discard the life growing within her? Or does she exhibit greater power–truly human power–when, despite the suffering involved, she performs “the act of one free to be the all to another”: giving life to her child and heroically sacrificing a bit of her cherished “autonomy” for the sake of one more defenseless than herself?

A similar argument can and should be developed by pro-life students in the academy in the fight for embryonic human rights. We might take our cue from a remarkable thing that happened at the Massachusetts statehouse stem-cell hearing the morning of February 16. Legislators were brought nearly to tears by the testimony of Patricia Payne of Connecticut–a frail woman, a former dancer, shaking in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease, who declared, “How I want to relieve my suffering, but my suffering isn’t the real issue! The real issue is what we are being asked to do in the hope of relieving our suffering. In embryonic-stem-cell research, an embryonic human being is sacrificed in order to get a hold of embryonic stem cells. I don’t want to see cures, even a cure for my terrible disease, to be obtained by destroying a fellow human being at the earliest and most vulnerable stage of their existence.”

Mrs. Payne’s moral courage points to the awesome power of the human spirit to affirm freely the sacred dignity–the infinite good of human life–even amidst great pain. Self-sacrifice in defending even the most vulnerable among us–despised as mere clumps of cells–does not stand in contradiction with human freedom but rather exhibits its true heights. True freedom has the power to embrace every person as sharing in the same dignity, and it shows itself most profoundly in enduring pain for the sake of others, showing that even great suffering cannot defeat it.

Bronwen Catherine McShea, a 2002 graduate of Harvard College, is a student at the Harvard Divinity School.


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