At last month’s 45th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., what little coverage the event received was largely focused on remarks by President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan. But another speech, delivered on the same morning by Utah senator Mike Lee, offers a fuller picture of the moral vision driving today’s pro-life movement and creates a stark contrast with the evasive rhetoric favored by advocates of abortion.
In the speech, Lee anchors his case for defending unborn life in the Declaration of Independence, which affirms that simply being human guarantees legal protection to any individual. Lee is a Christian and agrees with Thomas Jefferson’s claim in the Declaration that all people are “endowed by their Creator” with the right to life. But he stresses that Christians and nonbelievers alike have used this same definition of human equality to extend rights to all people.
Like much of today’s pro-life rhetoric, this approach makes the case against abortion in rational terms. By and large, pro-lifers do not demand that the public embrace an explicitly Christian worldview, or ask for any special protection for unborn children. Rather, we ask only that our country’s common moral principles be extended to every living person, and we challenge proponents of abortion to prove why they ought not be.
As it happens, few proponents of abortion are up to this challenge. Instead of addressing the question of whether abortion is right or wrong as pro-lifers routinely do, the vast majority of pro-choice supporters merely argue that abortion is necessary — they treat the moral question as a puny afterthought.
The Women’s March in Washington, D.C. — conveniently scheduled each year right up against the March for Life — provides a great opportunity to observe the evasive tenor of most abortion advocacy. In her brief remarks at the first Women’s March in 2017, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards used a variety of names to characterize her organization’s work. We heard that Planned Parenthood protects women’s “right to control their own bodies,” offers “reproductive health access,” and affirms “reproductive and gender equity.” Meanwhile the word “abortion” appeared only once, just after the usual rote insistence that it be “safe and legal.”
Even more telling was Richards’s quotation from Hillary Clinton, which she placed at the climax of her remarks: “Women’s rights are human rights.” Taken on its own, the point is indisputable and noble: Women’s health, safety, and aspirations warrant protection wherever they’re threatened. But coming from the head of the nation’s largest provider of abortions, the insistence that women’s rights are human rights serves a different purpose. Without making an explicit case for abortion, or directly confronting the arguments of pro-lifers, Richards and her allies seek to entirely shield the practice from criticism by placing it in a pantheon of other, uncontroversial rights.
If you claim that abortion’s necessity is self-evident, like food or shelter, you don’t have to actually defend its morality.
This masking strategy is reflected in the very structure of the Women’s March, where demands for unlimited access to abortion appear alongside pleas for education funding and more dignified office conduct. But even many people who deem abortion defensible do not see unburdening oneself of a child as just another basic need. Describing abortion in this way allows advocates to avoid confronting both their opponents and the gravity of the act itself. If you claim that its necessity is self-evident, like food or shelter, you don’t have to actually defend its morality.
In avoiding the moral debate around abortion, pro-choice advocates undermine the usual cliché that restricting abortion imposes private moral views on an unwilling public. In fact, pro-lifers like Senator Lee are much likelier than their pro-choice peers to actually address abortion by using rational argumentation, based on a clear moral question about when life begins. By contrast, the pro-choice line of argument — insistence that abortion is key to women’s autonomy — entirely avoids the question of life, foreclosing any opportunity for public debate.
Of course, there are many defenders of abortion who are more than happy to publicly say that unborn children don’t deserve the right to life. These people tend to fall into two camps, however, far outside the political mainstream.
One group is the radicals — advocates so zealous for the cause that they’re willing to shed the niceties of earnest political dialogue. Members of this camp could be spotted bearing crude signs among the Women’s Marchers, protesting the March for Life with slogans such as “F*** Fetuses.”
The second camp consists of public intellectuals who tackle the morality of abortion head-on — renowned professors Steven Pinker and Peter Singer are leaders of the charge. This group of abortion advocates — whom pro-choicers might call “useful atheists,” to adapt a Lenin construction — are certainly more dignified than their protesting peers. But the coarseness of their actual views repels audiences quicker than any profanity.
From the perch of academic tenure, Pinker and Singer soberly argue what most defenders of abortion ostensibly believe: that the value of human life is bound up in our abilities, making unborn children no more inherently valuable than any other random clump of cells. The problem comes when the professors and their ilk actually dare to continue the argument to its logical conclusion, suggesting that infants and many handicapped people are dispensable by the same standard of utility. In other words, they go so far as to advocate killing disabled newborns. Between that chilling pronouncement and the shrieks of the radicals, it’s no wonder that the pro-choicers often steer clear of the unavoidable implications of their own views.
In the long run, opponents of abortion should be glad of this rhetorical divide. Texas state senator Wendy Davis’s stand against abortion restrictions in 2013 may have gone viral for its panache (the pink sneakers were a clever touch). But without facing the moral question at the heart of abortion, words like Davis’s are much likelier to rally the existing pro-choice troops than to actually persuade. By contrast, words like Senator Lee’s, which directly address the question of unborn life, are drawn from a sturdier tradition and have the power to hit home. This power, based in vivid moral clarity, has allowed the pro-life movement to continue unwearied for decades, against the stated odds.
— Mene Ukueberuwa is an assistant editorial-features editor at the Wall Street Journal.