While it is a self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including the right to life, what is self-evident in the technical philosophical sense is not always readily assented to, or immediately obvious. In many ways this is the story of debates throughout American history, and it is true today in the debate over unborn human life.
That truths are not obvious and are not readily agreed upon, however, is no reason to prematurely accept defeat and to compromise on the rights of others. That the unborn possess a right to life is not necessarily a truth obvious to all, but it is a truth. We must work to help others see it for the truth that it is. Doing so requires a full panoply of defense—intellectual, cultural, and legal—bearing witness to truth.
We thus cannot agree with Peter Steinfels’ judgment that because the pro-life conclusion is not obvious, the unborn must settle for less than equal protection under the law. Steinfels affirms, with us, that “from the very earliest stages of its life, the unborn offspring of human beings constitutes an individual member of the human species deserving the same protections from harm and destruction owed to born humans.”
But he adds that this conviction “is nowhere near as obvious as many of us who hold it suppose.” Steinfels reaches this conclusion while citing the book by Robert George and Chris Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, that one of us (RTA) helped prepare as his first job after college.
Growing up in the 80s and 90s, in the shadow of Roe v. Wade, we have never taken the pro-life conclusion for granted or as an “obvious” truth. So we aren’t shocked by Steinfels’ suggestion that
. . . we must admit that this latter perception is surrounded by a degree of ambiguity and by conflicting moral traditions and intuitions that makes any clear-cut consensus about it highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. That fact is what poses seemingly intractable problems for law and policy.
But a lack of “clear-cut consensus” need not pose “intractable problems.” It just means we have work to do. Steinfels concludes that prolifers “should strive for the legal protection of unborn life not from conception but from that point where not one but a whole constellation of converging arguments and intuitions can be brought to bear.”
Our ultimate objective, however, must always be the legal recognition and protection of the unborn from the moment of conception. Not because it is popularly agreed upon or currently politically feasible. But because of the truth of when life begins and of its moral value. At the moment of fertilization, a new and distinct human being comes into existence—someone who has inherent value and possesses a right to life.
The right to life is not only for the strong and powerful, the rich and famous, but for all human beings, including the weak, marginalized, and infirm—wanted or unwanted, born or unborn.
We have obligations to bear witness to this truth and to see it vindicated in law. This is not an issue where citizens or the government can pretend to be neutral. Either the unborn child is our neighbor, whom we have a duty to protect, or she is not.
That the pro-life movement has yet to achieve the legal protection of life from the moment of conception does not preclude it from pursuing the good work of an incremental approach to realizing that goal. Indeed, this approach has resulted in significant pro-life triumphs. Over the past decade, more pro-life laws have been passed than in the 30 previous years.
Almost a dozen states have passed restrictions on late-term abortions at 20 weeks—or five months of pregnancy. These laws not only defend the lives of children capable of feeling pain, but protect women from the devastating physical and psychological effects of late-term abortion. Some legislatures have also begun advancing prohibitions on sex-selective abortions, and still more have restricted abortion post-viability.
Parental involvement and informed-consent laws have had demonstrable impact on abortion rates in a number of states. And as the abortion industry moves to providing earlier abortions, [policymakers are protecting] women from unscrupulous uses of abortion-inducing drugs that can harm and even kill women.
The horrors of Kermit Gosnell’s clinic showed the nation the brutality of late-term abortion and made real the abortion industry’s intentional disregard for the safety of women. Requiring abortion facilities to meet the most basic standards and mandating that abortionists hold admitting privileges at nearby hospitals are regulations grounded in common sense that should receive support across the political spectrum.
The pro-life movement should continue to prudently advance a multitude of policies like these, not wavering on the truth for the sake of supposed consensus. We must continue seeking the laws that offer a better protection of life at this moment and developing policies that challenge the deadly precedents of Roe and Casey.
There is another important arena of pro-life activity in addition to legislative sessions and courtrooms, however. Perhaps the greatest witness of the pro-life movement today is in the individual conversations and support of expectant women and men in seemingly daunting situations. Today, over 2,000 pregnancy centers across the country provide counseling and medical services to women facing unplanned pregnancies, empowering mothers with life-affirming options. These centers provide medical testing, prenatal care, ultrasounds, and child-birth classes, among other medical services. Pregnant women or expectant couples who desire to parent can find material and emotional support. Birth mothers are educated on the beautiful choice of adoption and given resources to connect with families who stand ready to open their hearts and homes to children.
Well beyond the delivery room, pro-life religious institutions and private charities are helping provide the backbone of social services to women, men, and children in need. Faith-based organizations offer some of the best and most effective services to low-income families, from rehabilitation to education to healthcare.
This simple witness by a tireless pro-life movement in law and culture is largely responsible for reorienting the hearts and minds of an entire generation toward the dignity and worth of every individual—born or yet to be. The original champions of abortion-on-demand are no longer able to convince the rising generation that denying life to some will lead to greater happiness for others. Polls now indicate that roughly half of Americans identify themselves as “pro-life”—including most millennials like us. Even culturally, abortion has diminished. Movies like Juno, Knocked Up, and Bella all celebrate choosing life. “Pro-choicers” can’t even bring themselves to say which choice it is that they affirm; “abortion” has become an ugly utterance.
Despite the many victories in law and culture, challenges persist. An ever-encroaching government threatens to trample on conscience rights and further entangle tax dollars with abortion. Rapid advances in artificial reproduction and increased demand for surrogacy threaten not only the lives of human embryos, but the dignity and safety of women. And yet another Supreme Court term is coming to an end without the Justices reconsidering the long, deadly shadow Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton cast over law, medicine, and society.
These challenges, old and new, cannot be met with tiresome debates over whether we should publicly compromise on when life deserves legal protections. We cannot bargain with truth and expect to gain ground. We need to continue the prudent advancement of policies, litigation, and compassionate care that will hasten the day when every human being—from the moment of conception—is protected in law and welcomed in life.
- Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, where Sarah Torre is a policy analyst.
Originally appeared in the Human Life Review