JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–With each year’s passing of the Roe v. Wade decision permitting abortion on demand in America, it remains the case that one of the most dangerous places to be in our land is inside a mother’s womb. This is precisely the opposite of how things should be, and shows that our concern for human life in this nation remains selective at best.
A bit of history is in order. Surely there has never been a time when unwanted pregnancies did not occasionally end in the destruction of the unwanted child. Every society in every era has sought ways to regulate sexual expression so as to limit the number of such tragic occasions.
That is, until the advent of the sexual revolution and the birth control pill in the 1960s. For the first time, a civilization experimented with freeing sexuality from most of its historic constraints and allowing unfettered sexual choice, based on the illusion that “foolproof” methods of birth control would prevent unwanted pregnancies — and that sexual liberation was a major advance in the human condition.
The result was a rapid rise in unplanned pregnancies and a consequent rapid rise in the demand for abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The convergence of sexual liberalization, the secular feminist movement, the growing demand for abortion and the ideology of autonomy and self-fulfillment created a political “perfect storm” ending in the abolition of many states’ limits on abortion by Supreme Court fiat in 1973.
The court’s carefully drawn scheme — in which the state reluctantly permits abortion but its interest in fetal life grows proportionately more compelling as pregnancies progress — ended up being overrun both by medical technology and by the demand for abortion. Today abortion ends roughly 20 percent of all pregnancies, destroying some 1.3 million developing babies each year in America. Abortion is now treated as a fundamental human right, especially a fundamental women’s right, and there is no sign whatsoever that a change is in the offing from Washington.
Far-seeing critics expressed concern at the time that routinely permitting the legal killing of human life in the womb would generally weaken respect for life. Nearly 30 years later, it seems that Americans still do respect the rights and the lives of able-bodied adults. The possibility that assisted suicide for the old and the sick might become a standard practice also has been fought off (except in Oregon, where it is permitted).
But for the unborn, who lack the ability to stake a claim to their rights in our rights-oriented society, the situation remains grim. It is not just that so many never see the light of day because they are aborted. New fronts have also opened in the battle for the life of the unborn and the unwanted.
The current struggle over embryonic stem cells is one of these fronts. The discovery that human embryonic stem cells show promise in reparative therapies has created a mad rush to gain access to them. Initially the source of such cells was going to be aborted fetuses; then it was frozen embryo leftovers from in vitro fertilization; now some are saying that only cloning will do. This is a fight that will not go away, and those concerned to prevent the commodification of human beings need to remain opposed to creating and destroying human embryos.
Perhaps even more insidious is the fact that the historic line between abortion and infanticide shows more than a few signs of being breached. The Born-Alive Infants Protection Act languishes in Congress despite being passed by both houses two years ago. Its main intent is simply to protect children who survive unsuccessful late-term abortions. It might also prevent the horrendous practice of “live-birth abortions,” in which babies with Down syndrome and other “defects” are simply left to die in hospital nurseries.
The Bible calls the people of God to act as a voice for the voiceless and a refuge for the defenseless. Our nation’s unborn and unwanted wait for our response.
Gushee is the Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy and senior fellow with the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership at Union University, Jackson, Tenn.