Natural Law

What Does It Mean to Destroy a Fetus?

A pro-life campaigner carries a sign ahead of a referendum on abortion law in Wicklow, Ireland, May 8, 2018. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
In covering the story of Ulrich Klopfer, media resort to euphemisms that betray the barbarity of an act sanctioned by half of the country.

Confronted by the 2,246 fetal remains found on the property of the late Dr. Ulrich Klopfer, the pro-choice contingent might, I had hoped, finally wrestle with the gruesome and indefensible reality of the “medical procedure” they so champion.

I immediately thought of George Orwell’s “A Hanging,” an essay that has long held a profound, if morbid, charm. Orwell — writing sans pseudonym, as Eric Blair — purports to record a Burmese execution, describing the affair with deft and an almost sordid candor. He depicts the condemned’s resolute and unremarkable saunter as he prepares to ascend the gibbet: “He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees” —  Orwell, you’ll forgive, wrote this in 1931 —  “And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.” This last observation and its painful ironies — a man, mere footsteps from the gallows where he will meet his demise, making a deliberate effort to avoid a puddle — hit Orwell square, forcing him to make mental retreat from the clinical decorum of state executions:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working  —  bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming  —  all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned  —  reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone  —  one mind less, one world less.

I had hoped that someone would again consider Orwell’s “what it means to destroy,” but “to destroy,” instead of a wayward Burmese expat, the more than 2,200 preborn infants in Will County. The subject being destroyed, I thought, is far more sympathetic in the latter.

But epiphanic moments are not had without obstacle, particularly when decades of well-massaged narratives are at stake. Consider the New York Times’ 516-word (!) write-up, astounding as much for what it said as for what it didn’t. After a few paragraphs providing background information — indeed, there is no further mention of fetal remains after the story’s 180th word — the piece is an examination of ancillary questions about Klopfer’s licensure. The closing words, by intention or not, obscure the reason this is news at all: the extralegal mortuary he housed on his property. The Times first notes that Klopfer’s “license was suspended for failure to keep abreast of current professional theory or practice, according to Indiana state records.” Later, it adds that Klopfer “had a practice in South Bend, Ind., and was also licensed to practice in Illinois but his license to practice there expired in the 1990s, according to state records.” Finally, it parrots a report, by the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Ind., “that Dr. Klopfer received a six-month license suspension in 2016 after a hearing with the Indiana Medical Licensing Board.” A question begged but never asked: Why does the status of Klopfer’s medical license receive nearly the same amount of coverage as the thousands of corpses found on his property?

The piece ends with the words of the late Dr. Klopfer — the man on whose property, you’ll recall, police discovered the well-preserved corpses of more than 2,000 preborn infants — at a 2016 hearing:

“Women get pregnant, men don’t,” Dr. Klopfer said during the hearing. “We need to respect women making a decision that they think is best in their life. I’m not here to dictate to anybody. I’m not here to judge anybody.”

The story and its equivocal coverage tell us comparatively little about the moral demerits of Ulrich Klupfer. It speaks most pointedly about abortion itself — that the need that media feel to use such evasion and euphemism betrays the barbarity of an act sanctioned by half of the country. Known by all but never stated: These weren’t appendices or malignant tumors on the doctor’s property; they were unmistakably human corpses. This is the one fact in the story that cannot be stated plainly, lest one take Orwell’s transcendent step outside the banality of the moment to ask, What exactly is it I’m witnessing? Could it be that the standard canon of euphemisms — “women’s rights,” “reproductive health,” “choice,” “a woman’s body,” “bodily autonomy” — are just lies?

Whatever the latent symbolism in a Burmese expat avoiding a puddle as he makes his last 13 steps towards the gallows, it cannot touch the condensed symbolism of this story. The evasion of the media toward this depraved sight, of thousands of small children mummified in a man’s house like a bookshelved collection of tchotchkes, is itself a perfect simulacrum of abortion in toto.

All part, no doubt, of “what it means to destroy” a fetus.

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