The Claims of the Unborn

Participants attend the annual March for Life rally in Washington, January 19, 2018. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
The modern American mind rebels almost instinctively against obligations that are unchosen.

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we’re often asked to consider hypothetical cases. And I think they can clear up our thinking on the subject.

Imagine that advances in technology mean that any unwanted pregnancy in the future could be ended with a simple, non-violent outpatient procedure. Imagine that the conceptus could be exfiltrated from the womb in a matter of minutes, and placed in an artificial womb to develop. Imagine that this scientific breakthrough was accompanied by legal changes that made these children easy to adopt, for the long list of people hoping to adopt healthy infants. Perhaps subsequent health research would show that women who went with this option had better mental- and physical-health outcomes across the rest of their life compared with women who resorted to abortion.

If such a world came about in the next ten or 15 years, would we still have a demand for legal abortion? Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes. And it points to the biggest hurdle that anti-abortion activists must overcome.

If you could effectively make adoption safer and easier to effect than a chemical abortion or “emergency contraception,” you could reduce the overall demand for abortions. But it is very likely there would still be some abortions, and abortion would still have its apologists.

Because in many cases, the point of abortion isn’t just to end the inconvenience, embarrassment, or danger of a pregnancy; it’s not just to avoid the grave responsibilities of parenting a child. Instead, the purpose of the abortion is to completely extinguish the child’s moral claims on her parents.

What do I mean by that? From the very moment of conception, the child carries its own DNA structure, one that testifies to the identity of the parents. Normally it is this biological connection that assigns responsibility for the care, education, and development of a child to her parents. From the moment of conception in a “wanted” pregnancy, we hold parents responsible for doing what they can to safeguard and provide for their child.

Even if society sometimes accepts that some people are unfit to be parents, encouraging the adoption or fosterage of their children by others, we often find it impossible to discourage children in their curiosity about their origins, about the identity of their real parents. The child did not choose to be separated from them.

And parents who surrender their children in adoption often find themselves wondering about their children. They look back on their own lives, ones that perhaps became stable, and think about whether they made the right decision. Or even if not, they may still wonder and care about the fate of their children.

But abortion at least promises to end all of this before it begins. It promises to obliterate the child’s claims on the parents, not just by ending the life of the child but also by providing a cover story that it wasn’t a child, or at least wasn’t really alive. People sometimes convince themselves to abort their children because they believe the abortion can convince them of something else: I can’t live up to this. It never really happened. Or even, I have my own life to worry about.

We tend to think it is unfair to be responsible for something we didn’t consciously and in full knowledge choose for ourselves.

The modern mind, particularly the modern American mind, rebels almost instinctively against obligations that are unchosen. We tend to think it is unfair to be responsible for something we didn’t consciously and in full knowledge choose for ourselves. Abortion, and all the lies about human development and human nature that are used to sell it, are an attempt to relieve people of “unwanted” obligations. That is why, even when we do everything we can to relieve people of these obligations short of extinguishing the life of the child, some will still insist on abortion as a right.

In truth, every child’s life is so full of possibility and risk that no parents can hope to achieve the kind of full and conscious consent we so often demand elsewhere in our lives. To accept a child is to accept the limits of our own powers, and burdens we can’t properly measure. And we know that anti-abortion laws, and cultures that support family formation, can help people to reconcile themselves to what really has happened in their lives, and what may yet still. So we have a duty to continue supporting those laws, and creating that culture.

But the pro-life movement’s final work will necessarily involve helping us to accept not just the full scope of an unborn child’s life but to the full claims of life upon ourselves. We need to protect family life from the commercial logic that we accept in almost every other sphere of life. Our lives are not conducted by the rules and stipulations of explicit contracts. We are often called up to give much more than we want, and in turn we often get much more from life than we bargained for.

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