Who is human?
Back in college I remember reading about how in certain societies throughout history (I believe in this case it was the Greeks) it was common for parents to abandon unwanted newborns, leaving them somewhere to die. It was so deeply troubling to me, and I could never figure out what was going on there: how on earth could this have happened?! I mean, I knew lots of people, and nobody I knew would do that! In fact, in our society you only hear about it in rare cases of people who are obviously mentally disturbed. How could something so obviously evil, so unthinkably horrific be common among entire societies?
Because of my deep distress at hearing of things like this, I found it really irritating when pro-lifers would refer to abortion as “killing babies.” Obviously, nobody around here is in favor of killing babies — and to imply that those of us who were pro-choice would advocate for that was an insult to the babies throughout history who actually were killed by their insane societies. We weren’t in favor of killing anything. We simply felt like women had the right to stop the growth process of a fetus if she faced an unwanted pregnancy. It was unfortunate, yes, because fetuses had potential to be babies one day. But that was a sacrifice that had to be made in the name of not making women slaves to the trauma of unwanted pregnancies.
I continued to be vehemently pro-choice after college, and though my views became more moderate once I had a child of my own, I was still pro-choice. But as my husband and I were in the process of exploring Christianity, we couldn’t help but be exposed to pro-life thought more often than we used to be, and we were put on the defensive about our views. I remember one day when my husband was in the middle of reconsidering his own pro-choice ideas, he made a passing remark that stuck with me ever since:
“It just occurred to me that being pro-life is being pro-other people’s-life, ” he quipped. “Everyone is pro-their own-life.”
It made me realize that my pro-choice viewpoints were putting me in the position of deciding who was and was not human, and whose lives were worth living. I (along with doctors, the government, or other abortion advocates) decided where to draw this very important line. When I would come across Catholic blogs or books where they said something like “life begins at conception, ” I would scoff at the silliness of that notion as was my habit…yet I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with my defense:
“A few cells is obviously not a baby or even a human life!” I would say to myself. “Fetuses eventually become full-fledged humans, but not until, umm, like six months gestation or something. Or maybe five months? When is it that they can kick their legs and stuff?…Eight weeks? No, they’re not human then, those must be involuntary spasms…”
I was putting the burden of proof on the fetuses to demonstrate to me that they were human. And I was a tough judge. I found myself looking the other way when I heard that 3D ultrasounds showed “fetuses” touching their faces, smiling and opening their eyes at ages at which I still considered abortion OK. I didn’t have any interest in reading the headlines at Lifesite. Babies — I mean, fetuses — seen yawning at 12 weeks gestation? Involuntary spasm. As modern technology helped fetuses offer me more and more evidence that they were humans too, I would simply move the bar of what I considered human.
I realized that my definition of how and when a fetus became a “baby” or a “person, ” when he or she began to have rights, also depended on his or her level of health: the length of time in which I considered it OK to terminate a pregnancy lengthened as the severity of disability increased. Under the premise of wanting to spare the potential child from suffering, I was basically saying that disabled fetuses were less human, had fewer rights, than able-bodied ones. It didn’t sit well.
The whole thing started to get under my skin. At some point I started to feel like I was more determined to be pro-choice than I was to honestly analyze who was and was not human. I started to see it in others in the pro-choice community as well. On more than one occasion I was stunned to the point of feeling physically ill upon reading of what otherwise nice, reasonable people in the pro-abortion camp would advocate for.
In reading through the Supreme Court case of Stenberg v. Carhart, I read that Dr. Leroy Carhart, an abortion advocate who actually performs the procedures, described some second-trimester abortions by saying, “[W]hen you pull out a piece of the fetus, let’s say, an arm or a leg and remove that, at the time just prior to removal of the portion of the fetus…the fetus [is] alive.” He said that he has observed fetal heartbeat via ultrasound with “extensive parts of the fetus removed.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which presumably consists of well-educated, reasonable, intelligent men and women, opposed this procedure. Not for the reasons I thought — because it was plainly obvious that this was infanticide in its most grisly form — but because dismembered babies inconvenienced their mothers, and it was better to kill them outside the womb in a procedure they refer to as “D&X”. In the College’s words in its amici brief:
D&X presents a variety of potential safety advantages over other abortion procedures used during the same gestational period. Compared to D&E’s involving dismemberment, D&X involves less risk of uterine perforation or cervical laceration because it requires the physician to make fewer passes into the uterus with sharp instruments and reduces the presence of sharp fetal bone fragments that can injure the uterus and cervix.
There is also considerable evidence that D&X reduces the risk of retained fetal tissue, a serious abortion complication that can cause maternal death, and that D&X reduces the incidence of a ‘free floating’ fetal head that can be difficult for a physician to grasp and remove and can thus cause maternal injury.
I read the Court documents from Stenberg v. Carhart in a state of shock. A few years ago a friend of mine had her baby very prematurely, and I had visited him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He was so beautiful, just like the full-term newborns I’d seen, only a little smaller. Seeing him and the other babies lying there so peacefully in their incubators (some of them with cute little notes written on their incubator tags like “Aiden — mommy’s big boy!”), I was overwhelmed with feelings of wanting to protect these precious, innocent little babies. I was thrilled to hear the my friend’s son and all the other preemies who were in the NICU at that time did survive and go home with their parents. So I found myself in a state of cold shock and disbelief that I was reading of people — not just fringe crazies, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and some Supreme Court Justices — casually speak about the inconvenience of the skulls and bone fragments of dismembered babies (“fetuses”) the same age as those babies in the NICU. The horrors continued when I read Gonzales v. Carhart [some excerpts here…warning: no photos, but the descriptions are extremely disturbing].
It took my breath away to witness the level of evil that normal people can fall into supporting. They were talking about infanticide, but completely refused to label it as such. It was when I considered that these were educated, reasonable professionals who were probably not bad people that I realized that evil always works through lies. I also took a mental step back from the entire pro-choice movement. If this is what it meant to be “pro-choice, ” I was not pro-choice.
Yet I still couldn’t quite bring myself to label myself pro-life.
I started to recognize that I was no better than Dr. Carhart or the concurring Justices or the author of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ brief, that I too had probably told myself lies in order to maintain my support for abortion. Yet there was something deep down inside, some tremendous pressure that kept me from truly, objectively looking at what was going on here. There was something within me that screamed that to not allow women to have abortions at least in the first trimester would be unfair in the most dire sense of the word. Even as I became more religious, I mentally pushed aside thoughts that all humans might have God-given eternal souls worthy of dignity and respect, because it got too tricky to figure out when we receive those souls, the most obvious answer being “at conception” as opposed to at some arbitrary point during gestation.
It wasn’t until I re-evaluated the societal views of sex that had permeated the consciousness of my peer group, took a new look at the modern assumptions about the act that creates those fetuses in the first place, that I was able to let go of that internal pressure I felt, and to take an unflinching look at my views on abortion.
The contraceptive mentality
Here are four key memories that give a glimpse into how my understanding of sex was formed:
- When I was a kid, I didn’t have any friends who had baby brothers or sisters in their households. One friend’s mom was pregnant when we were twelve, but I moved before the baby was born. To the extent that I ever heard any of our parents talk about pregnancy and babies, it was to say that they were happy that they were “done, ” the impression being that they could finally start living now that that pregnancy/baby unpleasantness was over.
- In sex ed class we learned not that sex creates babies, but that unprotected sex creates babies. After we were done putting condoms on bananas, our teacher counseled us that we should carefully decide when we might be ready to have sex based on important concerns like whether or not we were in committed relationships, whether or not we had access to contraception, how our girlfriends or boyfriends treated us, whether we wanted to wait until marriage, etc. I do not recall hearing readiness to have a baby being part of a single discussion about deciding when to have sex, whether it was from teachers or parents or society in general. Not once.
- On multiple occasions when I was a young teen I recall hearing girls make the comment that they would readily risk dangerous back-alley abortions or even consider suicide if they were to face unplanned pregnancies and abortion wasn’t legal. Though I was not sexually active, it sounded perfectly reasonable to me — that is how much we desired not to have babies before we were ready. Yet the concept of just not having sex if we weren’t ready to have babies was never discussed. It’s not that we had considered the idea and rejected it; it simply never occurred to us.
- Even recently, before our marriage was validated in the Catholic Church my husband and I had to take a course about building good marriages. It was a video series by a nondenominational Christian group, and in the segment called “Good Sex” they did not mention children or babies once. In all the talk about bonding and back rubs and intimacy and staying in shape, the closest they came to connecting sex to the creation of life was to briefly say that couples should discuss the topic of contraception.
Sex could not have been more disconnected from the concept of creating life.
The message I’d heard loud and clear was that the purpose of sex was for pleasure and bonding, that its potential for creating life was purely tangential, almost to the point of being forgotten about altogether. This mindset laid the foundation of my views on abortion. Because I saw sex as being closed to the possibility to life by default, I thought of pregnancies that weren’t planned as akin to being struck by lightning while walking down the street — something totally unpredictable, undeserved, that happened to people living normal lives.
Being pro-choice for me (and I’d imagine with many others) was actually motivated out of love and caring: I just didn’t want women to have to suffer, to have to devalue themselves by dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Because it was an inherent part of my worldview that everyone except people with “hang-ups” eventually has sex and sex is, under normal circumstances, only about the relationship between the two people involved, I got lured into one of the oldest, biggest, most tempting lies in human history: to dehumanize the enemy. Babies had become the enemy because of their tendencies to pop up and ruin everything; and just as societies are tempted to dehumanize the fellow human beings who are on the other side of the lines in wartime, so had I, and we as a society, dehumanized the enemy of sex.
It was when I was reading up on the Catholic Church’s view of sex, marriage and contraception that everything changed.
I’d always thought that those archaic teachings about not using contraception were because the Church wanted to oppress people by telling them to have as many kids as possible, or something like that. What I found, however, was that their views expressed a fundamentally different understanding of what sex is, and once I heard it I never saw the world the same way again. The way I’d always seen it, the standard position was that babies were a horrible burden, except for a couple times in life when everything is perfect enough that a couple might temporarily see new life as a good thing; the Catholic view is that the standard position is that babies are a blessing and a good thing, and while it’s fine to attempt to avoid pregnancy for serious reasons, if we go so far as to adopt a “contraceptive mentality, ” feeling entitled to the pleasure of sex while loathing (and perhaps trying to forget all about) its life-giving properties, we not only disrespect this most sacred of acts, but we begin to see new life as the enemy.
To use a rough analogy, the Catholic Church was saying that loaded guns are not toys, that while they can perhaps be used for certain recreational activities, they are always to be handled with grave respect; my viewpoint, coming from contraceptive culture, was that it’s fine to use loaded guns as toys as long as you put blanks in the chamber. Thinking of that analogy, expecting to be able to use something with incredible power nonchalantly, as a toy, I could see how that worldview had set us up for disaster.
I came to see that our culture’s widespread use and acceptance of contraception had led to the “contraceptive mentality” toward sex being the default position. As a society, we’d come to take it for granted that we’re entitled to the pleasurable and bonding aspects of sex even when we’re in a state of being vehemently opposed to the new life it might produce. The option of abstaining from the act that creates babies if we’re in a state of seeing babies as a huge burden had been removed from our cultural lexicon: even if it would be a huge crisis to get pregnant, we have a right to go ahead and have sex anyway. If this were true, if it was indeed a fact that it was morally OK for people to have sex even when they believed that a new baby could ruin their lives, in my mind, then, abortion had to be OK.
I realize that ideally I would have taken an objective look at when human life begins and based my views on that alone…but the lie was just too tempting. I didn’t want to hear too much about heartbeats or souls or brain activity…terminating pregnancies just had to be OK, because carrying a baby to term and becoming a parent is a huge deal…and society had made it very clear that sex is not a huge deal. As long as I accepted that for people to engage in sex in a contraceptive mentality was morally OK, I could not bring myself to even consider that abortion might not be OK. It just seemed too inhumane to make women deal with life-altering consequences for an act that was not supposed to have life-altering consequences.
So this idea that we are always to treat the sexual act with awe and respect, so much so that we should simply abstain if we’re vehemently opposed to its life-giving potential, was a totally new and different message. For me, being able to honestly consider when life begins, opening my heart and my mind to the wonder and dignity of even the tiniest of my fellow human beings, was not fully possible until I understood the nature of the act that creates these little lives in the first place.
The great temptation
All of these thoughts had been percolating in my brain for a while, and I found myself increasingly in agreement with pro-life positions. Then one night I was reading something, and a thought occurred to me, and from that moment on I was officially, unapologetically PRO-LIFE. I was reading yet another account of the Greek societies in which newborn babies were abandoned to die, wondering to myself how normal people could possibly do something like that. I felt a chill rush through my body as I thought:
I know how they did it.
I realized in that moment that perfectly good, well-meaning people — people like me — can support very evil things through the power of lies. From my own experience, I knew how the Greeks, the Romans, and people in every other society could put themselves into a mental state that they could leave a newborn child to die: the very real pressures of life — “we can’t afford another baby, ” “we can’t have any more girls, ” “he wouldn’t have had a good life” — left them susceptible to that oldest of temptations: to dehumanize other human beings. Though the circumstances were different, it was the same process that had happened with me, that happened with the concurring Supreme Court Justices in Stenberg v. Carhart, with the abortion doctors, the entire pro-choice movement, and anyone else who’s ever been tempted to dehumanize inconvenient people.
I bet that as those Greek parents handed over their infants for someone to take away, they remarked on how very unlike their other children these little creatures were: they can’t talk, the can’t sit up, and surely those little yawns and smiles are just involuntary reactions. I bet you anything they referred to these babies with different words than they used to refer to the children they kept. Maybe they called them “fetuses.”