When I was a child, I thought I could count the stars. I didn’t have the patience to do it, of course, but I figured that anyone with a good telescope and a lot of time on his hands could methodically tally them up.
It wasn’t until years later, as a grown man, that I realized the utter enormity of the universe and the futility of that pursuit. Galileo peered through a crude telescope and surmised there may be many thousands of stars; today’s Hubble-based research suggests the number is truly vast beyond measure, and likely well into the multiple trillions and beyond. The most amazing thing of all to my small mind is that many of the “stars” I dismissed as drab points of light weren’t stars at all, but entire galaxies, each comprised of as many as hundreds of millions of stars like our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
At the other end of the spectrum, a different instrument, the microscope and its high-tech progeny like the scanning electron microscope, have begun to reveal just how astonishingly complex are individual human cells, and how each kind is specialized to a particular function. Every one of the trillions of cells in your body manufactures thousands of proteins that regulate its functions, enabling it to accomplish its intended purpose.
These proteins also govern gene expression, the intricate system of switching specific genes “off” and “on” that enables the body to fight disease, pump blood, and fulfill thousands of other critical functions. Gene expression is also behind the development of a human being from the point of conception, growing a tiny human life in ways so complex and mysterious that we are only beginning to understand it. If we’re not too proud to admit it, the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. “Life is a miracle,” as the poet and essayist Wendell Berry insists, and every new discovery seems to confirm that.
The Argument from Ignorance
The argument for abortion seem like this kind of thinking to me—an argument from ignorance. Roe v. Wade came at the tail end of millennia of ignorance about human development. Before ultrasound technology, developing life in the womb was a black box, largely unknown and unknowable. It was nothing more than a “blob of tissue,” we were told, that didn’t even resemble a human being.
My childhood biology texts mirrored this presumption with Ernst Haeckel’s line drawings of fish-like human embryos to demonstrate that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—humans in the womb resemble “simple” evolutionary forms, then grow into more complex ones. Now we know this isn’t true in the least, but the myth persists.
I believe that’s why the “right” to abortion has never garnered popular support. It simply runs in opposition to the facts as we know them. No one seriously questions the principle that “separate is not equal,” first articulated by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; the equality of all persons, regardless of race, sex, or other characteristics just seems self-evident.
Yet Roe stands apart. Forty-four years after it issued from the pen of Justice Harry Blackmun, calls for its overturn have become increasingly louder, and the crowds flowing down Constitution Avenue for the March for Life each January only grow.
The Foundation for Legalized Abortion Is Fake Science
Roe v. Wade was heard twice by the Supreme Court, in 1971 and 1972. Between the two hearings, Blackmun spent part of the summer poring over medical texts in the library of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He emerged with a framework for his “right to abortion” in Roe. (The whole sordid story is told by Americans United for Life’s Clarke Forsythe in his outstanding book, “Abuse of Discretion.”) He didn’t know what he didn’t know, but he knew enough.
Armed with the “trimester framework” for prenatal development, Blackmun browbeat the Supreme Court into announcing a fundamental “right” to abortion. It was a right that had never been recognized in American or British common law, let alone enshrined in constitutional jurisprudence. To invent the right, he had to deny the humanity of the unborn by a simple reduction. It was now “potential human life,” a bit of epistemological sleight-of-hand that demoted human life and denied its essence.
Life in the womb, as we now know beyond serious doubt, is human life from and after the point of conception—an individual member of the species homo sapiens. Thankfully, the states can now acknowledge that truth to abortion-minded women, after two federal courts have upheld laws in Indiana and South Dakota that require abortionists to include it in their informed consent disclosures.
The Truth Is Undeniable
Contrast Blackmun’s euphemistic treatment of abortion in Roe with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s eyes-wide-open discussion of the horror of partial-birth abortion in Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the federal ban on the procedure. Kennedy began his opinion for the court with a gruesome but clinically accurate description of the partial-birth abortion procedure. In light of this reality, Kennedy said, the law furthered the government’s interest in preserving and promoting respect for life.
“Whether to have an abortion requires a difficult and painful moral decision,” Justice Kennedy said. “It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain of her unborn child, a child assuming the human form.”
By almost all accounts, we are winning the battle against abortion in America. Popular opinion has turned definitively against abortion on demand. A recent Marist poll reveals that the majority of Americans believe there should be major rollbacks on the gestational age abortion is allowed. The Washington Post recently factchecked as true the White House claim that only seven countries of 198 in the world allow abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation, like the United States, which allows it until birth.
Most importantly, the abortion rate—the percentage of pregnancies that end in abortion—is the lowest it’s been since before Roe v. Wade. The best way to continue to make headway in this fight is to help everyone, especially anxious mothers, understand what abortion does to real human beings, and to show them they have options.
As Justice Kennedy said in another case, defending the free speech rights of pro-life sidewalk counselors, “In a fleeting existence we have but little time to find truth through discourse.” Let’s take the opportunity we have right now, with the political forces in America aligned for life in a way they’ve not been in many years, and work to end abortion together.
Steven H. Aden is chief legal officer and general counsel of Americans United for Life.
Originally published in The Federalist, on October 16, 2017.