Changing the rhetoric in the abortion debate

by Irene M. Lagan

Last Sunday was Respect Life Sunday. As I stood along Sunset Boulevard I thought how remarkable it is that so many university students are willing to stand up for life—especially on a Sunday afternoon when they could engage in any number of alternative activities that are far more relaxing and fun.

As I stood praying the Rosary with several others, I began to consider what it must be like to drive by and to see the street lined with people of all ages holding signs saying, “Abortion Kills Children.” I wondered what the effect, if any, the signs would have. What message would be heard? Surely, the message that we stand against abortion is one that must be pleasing to God, since we are trying to uphold and defend His beloved creatures. Yet, I began to wonder what effect such a sign would have on me if I had had an abortion and was well aware of the fact that I had taken the life of my own baby, especially if I were a non-Christian.

It seems that many, if not most, women who have abortions know that they are killing the children in their wombs. It is hard to believe that this is the case, since it seems to us obvious that if one were aware of the fact that she was actually killing her baby, she would surely not do it. However, it is a well known psychological fact that in moments of crisis or trauma, the human mind has an amazing capacity to shield itself from fully recognizing the implications of reality—as a measure of self-protection. And in this “abortion on demand” society, self-deception is made particularly easy for women who find themselves in a crisis pregnancy.

Imagine for a moment being raised in Steubenville in a poor home with little or no love, let alone a knowledge of Christ’s living presence among us. What if, in addition to being poor, your horizons, mental and physical, extended only to the familiar surroundings of downtown Steubenville and the mall? How many of us, without the material means of raising an unwanted child, and having little or no emotional, psychological or spiritual strength, would have the courage to call a help line and confide our trouble to a stranger? Even if the stranger promised to assist us through pregnancy with prenatal care and maybe even a place to stay, it would take enormous courage and strength to trust such a person and to risk losing what meager security and stability remains in our life.

Where would you or I turn, really? What would I do if I found myself in the terrible position that so many women find themselves in when they opt for abortion?

Few of us, I think, can really know the terrible devastating loneliness and deprivation of such poverty. The material poverty that we see is often combined with a spiritual and psychological poverty that many of us cannot fathom. And this scenario doesn’t even take into account physical or sexual abuse. We’ve heard “I was abused” so often that we are tempted to dismiss it as an empty excuse—“the boy who cried wolf” syndrome. But, unfortunately, many women are abused, and, though that doesn’t mitigate the objective evil of abortion, it may in truth lessen the culpability of those who commit it. It should certainly lessen the severity of our condemnation of them.

After considering what it must be like to be “on the other side of the sign,” and based upon knowing first-hand the situations of women who have had abortions, I began to realize that if I were a woman who suffered the effects of abortion, I would feel accused and alienated by the signs: “Abortion Kills Children.” And my tendency would be to avoid the people holding up the signs. The message would register as “you are a murderer, a baby killer.” That message would be true. But the crushing weight of the accusation on top of my already guilty conscience would be far too much for me to bear.

As a non-Christian, or simply without the conviction of Christ’s infinite love and mercy, where does one turn? None of us can bear the burden of his own sin. There is only One who is strong enough to bear that burden, and He is God. In His crucifixion and death, Jesus took upon himself all human sin and suffering. This means that He carried on His shoulders all those who are aborted, all those who choose abortion as a “way out,” and all those who perform, procure or advocate abortion as an an acceptable procedure.

As a Christian, I am grateful for the knowledge of Christ’s inexhaustible mercy and His love. As a Catholic, I am grateful for the Sacraments—for the knowledge that, no matter what crime or sin I commit, His grace is real, and His mercy is bigger than anything I may do.

It is an undeniable fact that abortion kills children. It is even more alarming that many individuals in the pro-choice movement are well aware of the fact that abortion kills children, and of the fact that these children are themselves often not the real victims of abortion. It would be difficult for me to believe that President Clinton, in upholding the veto on the partial birth abortion ban, is not fully aware that the result of this procedure is the killing of a baby. Even Bob Dole’s weakening of his position on abortion reveals that the real underlying issue is gross lack of respect for human life.

The abortion issue no longer centers on whether or not the fetus is a human life, but rather on justification for the killing of unwanted life. Last year an article entitled “Our Bodies, Our Souls” appeared in The New Republic. It was written by Naomi Wolf, a vocal pro-choice advocate. In the article, she suggested that the time has come for the pro-choice movement to “change its rhetoric.” Wolf states: “Clinging to a rhetoric about abortion in which there is no life and no death, we entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions…I will argue for a radical shift in the pro-choice movement’s rhetoric and consciousness about abortion: I will maintain that we need to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real death; that there are degrees of culpability, judgment and responsibility involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy; that the best understanding of feminism involves holding women as well as men to the responsibilities that are inseparable from their rights…” Wolf is essentially calling pro-choice advocates to face the facts: fetuses are babies and we are killing babies. This, however, is, in her view, a “necessary evil,” since “pregnancy confounds Western philosophy’s idea of the autonomous self.”

In light of the current situation, I would like to borrow Wolf’s idea, and urge pro-lifers to “change the rhetoric.” I do not suggest mitigating the reality, nor do I mean to say that the women who have abortions are not responsible for what they have done because of circumstances (although in some cases the full responsibility is not theirs.) But I do suggest changing our approach to the reality. Perhaps the element that is needed in pro-life advocacy is a more visible, tangible message of mercy so that our message is not one of judgment.

The most immediate victims of abortion are babies who are killed and the mothers who really don’t know any other way out that seems reasonable or manageable. Abortion is very readily available, and the myth that it’s over and done with in an hour is deceptive but powerful.

Perhaps in addition to “Abortion Kills Children” we could at least have signs which include phone-numbers for Project Rachel’s hotline, Mary Cunningham Agee’s Nurturing Network or Aim Crisis Pregnancy Centers. These at least would convey a measure of concern for those who have had abortions. Women who are considering abortion may be moved to reconsider. Even signs that simply say “Respect Life” or “Adoption, the loving option” might be just as effective in conveying the pro-life message.

Those who have suffered the effects of abortion, if won over, can become the most powerful pro-life advocates. Bernard Nathanson, the ex-abortionist, is one example. There are many, many others—mostly women who have been victims themselves—who can become powerful pro-life advocates, if we who are Christian and know the reality of Christ can make a stronger effort to temper our rhetoric so as to encourage others to seek His mercy.

The article by Naomi Wolf, the legalization of partial birth abortion, the laws making protesting outside abortion clinics more difficult, all point to a terrible reality: many pro-choice proponents admit that abortion kills, and they are finding new ways to rationalize and justify their position. It seems that we who are pro-life must also reach deeper into our own souls in our stand against abortion.

Irene Lagan is a student in the MA Philosophy program.