Abortion and the Failure of Imagination
A friend of mine recently had a baby who was born with a hearing problem. She tells the story that someone, after finding out that the young girl was hearing-impaired, said, matter-of-factly, “They can screen for that now, you know.”
That’s right, a hearing problem. One that is entirely treatable with hearing aids. They ‘screen’ for that.
I am simply baffled by such statements. How do you tell a mother holding her beautiful daughter that modern technology could have saved her the hassle?
When I was trying to express my dismay to my wife she said something quite insightful. It is easy to think of the person who made the comment as simply callous, perhaps even evil, but it is usually much more true that they have simply made a mistake of the imagination (in the very literal sense). They aren’t imagining that they have suggested killing the poor girl with the hearing problem. They imagine that they are killing some other abstraction in order that this same little girl could be born a few months later, this time without the attendant medical issue.
I went to a pro-life talk the other night, and the speaker told a story about a law professor who supported abortion but who had adopted a little girl shortly before abortion became legally available in the US. When she pointed out to him that, had he had his way, his little girl would not have been born, he simply replied that, “Then we would have adopted someone else.”
The follow-up, predictably, was a sarcastic “Now, how would you like having him for a father?
To those of us who know what abortion is, it is easy to go along with such statements and be horrified at the moral degradation of our opponents. We can gasp and shudder, but I don’t think we’ll get far in the public argument if we don’t realize that this man is probably not cruel and callous; he simply suffers from a failure of imagination.
To him, as well as to the person who suggested screening out babies with hearing disabilities, not-yet-born babies are an abstraction; indeed, as much of an abstraction as not-yet-conceived babies. To them, aborting an ‘imperfect’ fetus is the same thing as trying not to conceive while on medication that could harm the baby’s development.
I don’t have a lot of ideas off the top of my head for correcting this failure of imagination, but I do think that being aware of the way pro-choicers are thinking can only help our cause. Demonizing the opposition rallies the troops, but it rallies them on both sides. Trying to talk to them in language they can understand is much more difficult, but much more useful.
(On the subway in Toronto, there are adds done by PETA that put a puppy next to a chicken and say, “Why love one and eat the other?” There is significant text on the posters detailing the social and intellectual prowess of chickens. Maybe we need a full-scale public education campaign about the reality of the life of an unborn child. If I recall correctly, one of the amazing things about chickens – something that would presumably keep us from killing them – is that they begin bonding with their mother before they hatch!)
During question period at the pro-life talk the other night, someone floated the old pro-choice canard: “If killing a baby in the womb is the same as killing, say, a 35-year-old,” she was asked, “aren’t you also against condoms and the pill?”
Now there is a straightforward answer here, as far as I can tell: preventing a life is not the same thing taking one that exists.
But the waters got muddied. Why? Because the speaker took the opportunity to explain all the problems with condoms and the pill. Their lack of effectiveness. Their link with an abortion mentality. The abortifacient qualities of some contraceptives.
Now all of these are legitimate topics of discussion. I think it is essential that we speak clearly in the public square about the problems of contraception. But this was not the best place to do it. It gave the impression that preventing a life and taking a life were the same kind of moral act.
Worse, it perpetuated the failure of imagination at the root of the question. It is fine to decry the evils of contraception, but in order to deal clearly with the problem at hand, that issue needed to be bracketed so as to address the question in a way that spoke to the mindset of the questioner. That questioner, like the law professor and the screening promoter above, was already viewing abortion as preventing a life (rather than taking one) and therefore morally different than killing a 35-year-old. Telling him about the evils of contraception just reinforced this confusion.
I attempted to shed some light on the topic by suggesting that the question about contraception could be rephrased. If preventing a baby was to be compared with abortion, one way to look at it without having to deal with the various problems of condoms and the pill would be to ask, “If you are against killing 35-year-olds and unborn babies, are you also against people not having sex?”
As far as I can tell, that is a slam-dunk. Clearly people aren’t required to have all the sex necessary to make every potential baby. Surely, I thought, this highlights the difference between preventing a life and taking a life.
The speaker didn’t see it this way. Because I was revisiting the question of the pro-choice questioner, I was immediately seen as the enemy. What followed were some confused and, frankly, angry questions directed at me that seemed to have my admission that abortion is murder as their goal. When I gladly acknowledged that abortion was murder, the speaker seemed a bit lost. Why would someone who thinks abortion is murder be supporting the pro-choice position? Was I one of those evil people who knows that abortion is murder but is too blind to see that this requires our legislating against it?
If the pro-choice imagination has failed to grasp the reality of abortion, and replaced it instead with abstractions, here was an example of the pro-life imagination doing the same.
The reality was that I was on the speaker’s side, that I was trying to help the pro-life cause by giving a more coherent answer to the pro-choice questioner. As far as I could tell, getting to a more coherent answer required rephrasing the question so that what was really at issue (the moral difference between killing a baby and not conceiving one) could be seen clearly despite the presence of another serious moral issue (that of contraception).
The abstraction was that anyone who asks questions that imply some lack in the pro-life response is pro-abortion.
If we are to succeed in making abortion illegal, we must first succeed in altering the discourse that surrounds the issue. Firmly entrenched in that discourse is a failure of imagination. We need to figure out a way to help pro-choicers imagine reality as it is. Babies with hearing problems are still babies. And they are the same babies before and after their birthdays.
We also need to figure out a way to help pro-lifers imagine that their fellow pro-lifers who want to help the movement by clarifying its objectives and refining its practices are not the enemy.
I am not saying that these failures are morally equivalent. Surely not seeing murder as murder is the greater evil. Nevertheless, if both of them are contributing to the perpetuation of the status quo on abortion, and I think they are, they both need to be eliminated, root and branch.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.