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Culture

Backing Away from Science

2019 March for Life (Katie Yoder/National Review)

The March for Life made an interesting tactical choice this year, selecting “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life Is Pro-Science” as the theme for its annual march in Washington last Friday.

The theme was the culmination of a long-term effort to push back against the prevailing narrative of the abortion-rights lobby: that anyone who opposes abortion is “anti-science.” This was a much more stable refuge for abortion supporters at the time of Roe v. Wade than it is today, and both they and pro-life advocates know it.

As medical technology has developed over the last few decades, prenatal ultrasounds have enabled pregnant mothers to see their unborn children in the womb, often stretching or yawning or even sucking their thumbs; understandably, this technology has encouraged mothers to eschew abortion. Improved neonatal intensive care has pushed back the limits of viability to sustain younger and younger babies born prematurely, with fewer adverse effects. New research suggesting that fetuses develop the capacity to feel pain as early as 20 weeks’ gestation has provided a medical basis for 20-week abortion bans. The ability to detect a fetal heartbeat as early as five or six weeks into pregnancy has been another powerful tool for pro-lifers, forming the foundation for heartbeat bills, or six-week abortion bans.

These developments evidently are not to the advantage of the abortion-rights advocate. Defending a woman’s right to bodily autonomy can be a highly convincing means of advocating abortion, but the argument becomes more difficult to sustain in a world where technological advances steadily reveal that the unborn child inside a pregnant woman’s body is not “a clump of cells” but is, scientifically speaking, a living, distinct human being.

The ethical, moral, and political consequences of that fact — and what our public policy in turn dictates — are very much up for debate. But an increasing number of people are, at the very least, accepting this biological reality.

Consider a recent Marist poll, which asked Americans what they think best aligns with a scientific view of the human fetus. Only 35 percent of respondents said they think a fetus is “part of the mother’s body,” while more than half said they see the fetus as a unique life. And this view is clearly having at least some effect on their opinions about abortion. For instance, the same survey found that nearly 60 percent of Americans support banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, including 55 percent of those who identified as pro-choice and half of Democrats.

Perhaps this is why the New York Times published an op-ed on Tuesday titled “The Abortion Wars Have Become a Fight Over Science,” responding to the March for Life’s annual theme. The writer, a law professor, planted her flag on the equivocation that “science will not solve the abortion wars,” a sharp contrast to past decades of abortion-rights activism, which consistently asserted that science contradicts the pro-life worldview.

The op-ed is littered with half-hearted efforts to discredit pro-life claims without offering counter-evidence. But its most revealing feature is the author’s marked refusal to argue either that biology doesn’t allow us to know that the unborn child is a living human being with its own entirely unique DNA, or that, in spite of this biological fact, abortion is ethically acceptable.

This is, of course, the real division in abortion: whether the right to life of an unborn human being deserves greater protection than the mother’s right to bodily autonomy, exercised not only over her body but over the distinct body inside hers.

All too often, the most vocal supporters of abortion take refuge in euphemism and equivocation, refusing to acknowledge the scientific reality of fetal life, because to argue for abortion rights in the face of that reality is no easy task. Advances in science will only continue to make it more difficult.

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