Life in the Marketplace of Ideas
Turning the Tide in the Abortion Struggle
On one level, the reasons for this change are demographic. The World War II generation was generally uncomfortable with abortion, but their children, the Baby Boomers, were far more pro-choice. At one time it was assumed that Americans would grow, inexorably, more and more comfortable with abortion—yet it hasn't worked out that way. While those over 65 are still strongly opposed to abortion (over 6 in 10 declare it "morally wrong," according to a Marist survey in 2010), Baby Boomers' views have softened. Actually, 51 percent of boomers view abortion as wrong. Fifty-eight percent of Millennials (aged 18-29) and 60 percent of Generation Xers (30-44) say that abortion is morally wrong. When the rise of pro-life generations is added to the influx of Catholic immigrants, the great majority of whom are conservative on social matters, the stage is set for a second great awakening of the pro-life movement in America.
Why are younger Americans more pro-life today? The crusading feminism that caught up so many Boomers has run out of momentum. Yet there are two other reasons: technology and the truth.
In 1973, Justice Harry Blackmun appealed to ignorance to justify the decision in Roe. At "this point in the development of man's knowledge," he wrote, we can "not resolve the difficult question of when life begins." If it could be determined that the fetus is a living human person, he said, then the case "collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment."
Morally, this is an atrocious argument. We cannot determine conclusively whether or not abortion kills a human being—so we should allow it? Should we not go to extraordinary lengths to avoid what might take an innocent human life? It's also a tough argument to justify genetically and biologically, since in 1973 we already knew enough about conception and fetal development to conclude that the "fetus" is certainly alive, certainly human, and quite probably a "person" in every morally meaningful sense. Convenient though it is to believe otherwise, there is no magical transformation that occurs in between the womb and the world outside that suddenly confers "personhood" upon the child.
Yet ignorance on "the difficult question of when life begins" is an even tougher sell now. Today's younger generations have grown up with breathtaking images and videos of babies developing and maneuvering within the womb, media that are spread around the world and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. It's all but impossible to watch an ultrasound video of an abortion and not concede that it takes a life, and the more honest supporters of abortion "rights" will admit as much. I'll return to the logic of the pro-life argument in the next installment in this series, but the point for now is that medical research has provided us with a clearer understanding of fetal development and just how early the heart begins to beat (18 days from conception) and brain waves can be detected (6 weeks). Seven weeks from conception, the "fetal tissue" is sucking its thumb.
The new pro-life activists also use technology to record conversations with abortion hotlines, to videotape visits to abortion offices, and to show the moral corruption that follows when the sacredness of life is denied. Then they employ the power of the internet, new media, and social networking to spread the word. Although their methods are certainly open to critical assessment, ask yourself: Don't you wish that Live Action had sent a hidden camera into Kermit Gosnell's baby charnel house years ago?
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.