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Marching for and talking about life

Elliott Pearce | Sunday, January 27, 2013

This weekend, hundreds of Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff demonstrated their opposition to abortion by participating in the March for Life in Washington. More than 400,000 others joined them on the March. Whatever one thinks about the pro-life/pro-choice debate, no one can deny the March for Life made a strong statement that a broad coalition of Americans wants to end the practice of abortion in this country. Though I support their efforts, I did not join that group of students and faculty in marching for life. I did this partly for selfish reasons: I did not want to sacrifice two nights worth of sleep and many hours of potential homework time for the cause. Some activist I am. I also stayed home from the March for another, more legitimate reason. I believe there are many other ways those who are pro-life can engage the rest of America in a conversation about this practice. I am going to discuss a few of them in this article in the hope both the students at Notre Dame who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life can continue the conversation and learn how to better care for human life in all of its stages.
The conversation about abortion, insofar as it is illuminating and productive, centers around the question of when the fetus becomes a human person. Almost anyone would agree it is not right for a parent to kill their baby because he or she does not want to take care of it or feels he or she cannot. Those who are pro-choice, however, think the fetus is not a baby, but merely a lump of tissue that can be removed with no more consequence than an appendix. When does this lump of tissue acquire personhood and all the protections it entails?
I believe almost anyone who gives the question some thought, even those who are pro-choice in most circumstances, would say a fetus is a person at some time before it is born. The threshold of viability is currently around 23 weeks, or a little less than six months, according to the March of Dimes. If a baby were born at six months and survived, is it any less of a person than one born at eight months or nine months? If a six-month-old baby outside the womb is a person, one who lives inside the womb is a person, too, because personhood does not depend on one’s location or mode of sustenance, especially when the “non-person” unborn could likely adapt to the born person’s state and survive. Even before a fetus becomes viable, though, it begins to display many human characteristics, such as the possession of recognizable limbs and organs and the performance of behaviors like yawning. It may be hard to argue a blastocyst is a child – though I will do it all day long if you want me to – but it’s much easier to argue one shouldn’t kill something that opens its mouth and yawns.
What implications does this have for the conversation on abortion? Those who are both pro-choice and pro-life could agree to restrict abortion in the second and third trimesters, both for the sake of protecting what is more clearly a person and preserving the health of the mother, which can be threatened by invasive late-term abortions. This conversation has already born fruit in the form of the 2003 ban on partial-birth abortions, and could bear more in the future with a ban on dilation and evacuation, another late-term abortion method. Similar conversations could also lead to better enforcement of laws prohibiting minors from getting abortions without parental consent, and enactment of these laws where they are lacking.
If pro-life activists want to achieve their ultimate goal of making abortion not just illegal but acknowledged by all as morally wrong, they must engage their opponents in productive conversations that affirm what people from different sides can agree on before hammering away at points of difference. This approach will not only lead to the enactment of beneficial legislation, as it already has. It could also lead people to consider the other side’s position more favorably and bring them closer to finding and embracing the truth – the whole truth – together. Pro-choice activists have taught the pro-life community to care about mothers affected by abortion in addition to the children, about other human persons whose lives are threatened after they are born and about the circumstances that cause people to consider abortion. What else will we learn, and teach, if we continue this conversation? Only God knows.