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Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation

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... we can take Reagan's words and restate them emphatically: "The question today is not when human life begins (as that has been shown), but, What is the value of human life?"


In 1983 President Ronald Reagan on the 10th anniversary of Roe v Wade published a short tract called "Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation." Regan's arguments are worth revisiting in light of the recent videos of Planned Parenthood.

In case you have been asleep the last few weeks, or, much the same, avoiding reality by immersion in "reality TV," undercover investigators calling themselves the Center for Medical Progress have released five videos so far showing Planned Parenthood (PP) medical personnel haggling over terms for the sale of body parts from abortions.

Two facts leap out about the videos. First, the entity which is aborted (let's use that language) has well-developed though small human organs -- a liver, a kidney, eyes, a brain. Blobs don't have organs, and these are not the mother's organs (which makes irrelevant the fact that she wanted to donate them). Second, the Planned Parenthood workers talk about these tiny humans with chillingly inhuman language: "I'd say a lot of people want liver. And for that reason, most providers will do this case under ultrasound guidance, so they'll know where they're putting their forceps. The kind of rate-limiting step of the procedure is calvarium. Calvarium -- the head -- is basically the biggest part."

(Side-comment: if sting operations, undercover journalism, and spying are not inherently wrong, then we cannot say -- as some well-meaning Catholic observers have wanted to say -- that these investigators did something morally wrong.)

Obviously the real issue is not whether PP broke laws about the sale of body parts -- although one does expect eventually illegal action by organizations dedicated to grossly immoral action, and practically speaking PP becomes vulnerable to attack if it broke the law. Rather, the situation is like the Infant Born-Alive Act, which requires doctors to try to save any baby born alive during an abortion. That Act was important not so much for the number of abortions it affected (very few) but because it raised by implication the question: "So you mean abortions can kill a living baby?" Similarly here: blobs of cells don't have hands and legs, livers, eyes, a brain and a heart. The videos make undeniable that abortion destroys human beings. And some people might have continued to deny that before.

Which brings us to President Regan's tract. He wrote it in a different time, when abortion-on-demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy (the legal situation then as now) was viewed as a gross mistake, imposed by a handful of justices on a court, contrary to the deepest instincts of the country, which could potentially be reversed by a Human Life Amendment, or the appointment of a couple of justices with the right philosophy of jurisprudence.

Hence, the title of the tract: the "conscience" of the country are its principles, and the main principle of the U.S., found in the Declaration of Independence, is that every human live has intrinsic dignity, and his life is inviolable. Reagan calls this principle "the sanctity of life," contrasting it with the idea that we can be selective about which human beings we value or not, which he calls the ethic of "quality of life."

For Reagan, the American people embrace this principle, and they only need to know what abortion is, in order to reject it. The abortionist, he says, does know what abortion is: "The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother's body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being." The American people do not know this so well, although they are inherently pro-life: "As a nation today, we have not rejected the sanctity of human life. The American people have not had an opportunity to express their view on the sanctity of human life in the unborn. I am convinced that Americans do not want to play God with the value of human life. It is not for us to decide who is worthy to live and who is not. Even the Supreme Court's opinion in Roe v Wade did not explicitly reject the traditional American idea of intrinsic worth and value in all human life; it simply dodged this issue."

But after the PP videos, this benefit of the doubt that Reagan was willing to grant us cannot be claimed any longer. Now all of us, like the abortionist, know what an abortion is. Thus we can take Reagan's words and restate them emphatically: "The question today is not when human life begins (as that has been shown), but, What is the value of human life?"

Everything hinges on how we respond. In effect, do we still have a conscience as a nation? Will the incident be swept under a rug, buried under a mass of silly distractions? Is our conscience too darkened now?

If so, what would be the consequences? Reagan concluded his tract by linking the sanctity of life to freedom: "Abraham Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some men could decide that others were not fit to be free and should therefore be slaves. Likewise, we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide."

One wonders: Are the PP videos something like a last chance to repent before a definitive reduction of our freedoms?


Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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