The Rhetoric of the Abortion Debate

With the passing of Roe v. Wade’s 41st anniversary, various Christian sites have been offering pieces on abortion—the continuing, incremental struggle to see progress on a state level, the fruits of activism in the trenches, and more. My favorite by far is Owen Strachan’s inspiring, convicting piece on how he personally became an engaged participant in the pro-life battle. There have also been various discussions on rhetoric and strategy. Abby Johnson’s data on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of holding graphic signs outside a clinic is particular interesting.

One article I read recently actually dates back to May of last year. It was featured on the site Christ and Pop Culture, where I contributed a piece of my own some time back. The title was “How I Changed My Mind About Abortion.” While the article made good points about how abortion springs from a broken view of sexuality and harms women instead of freeing them, certain lines and phrases niggled and nagged at me.

On the one hand, the author, Julia Herrington, is refreshingly candid about the balancing act of pro-life feminism. She writes:

Secretly, I’ve always felt that abortion wasn’t ideal and maybe not even right. But it’s complicated to believe that when you’re a feminist, and it’s certainly not something you profess publicly. Who am I to presume to know what is right for another woman? Am I, as a feminist, willing to assert that abortion isn’t right? Would I not be robbing women of authority over their own personhood, something women have fought arduously for, for far too long? A year ago, I would have rather been caught barefoot in the kitchen, in an apron with red lipstick on my mouth, baking for all the boys, a caricature of the “problem without a name” rather than to be found in close proximity to the pro-life camp.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be surprised that when the light bulb finally came on for her while working at a Pregnancy Resource Center, it was still filtered through a feminist lens: “As I considered these issues in the last year, my perspective changed dramatically because I determined that abortion does not actually benefit women.”

What is missing from this picture?

I’m not saying there is nothing in this piece to acknowledge the humanity of the unborn. I’m also not denying the need for a conversation about the larger issues of gender and sexuality that surround their mass slaughter. Herrington correctly points out that these things are inseparably linked. By encouraging young couples to embrace sexual responsibility, we are encouraging God’s design for healthy procreation. We also recognize that abortion is a brutal suppression of God’s design for womanhood, and thereby the exact opposite of “liberation” for a woman. At the same time, I take issue with Herrington’s thesis that we must constantly find “new” ways to engage in the abortion debate. This implies that “old” ways are somehow outdated, or at most “other good arguments” rather than the best. Presumably this would include arguing straight from the status of the unborn child as an innocent human being. It also implies that the concept of being pro-baby and pro-woman is somehow fresh. I can’t help wondering how old Herrington is, because the Reagan generation could tell you that “love them both” rhetoric goes a long way back.

I suppose I find the repeated emphasis on how we look or how we present ourselves to the pro-choice side to be rather dull, wearying, and ultimately beside the point. Certainly, if there is some highly specific and non-essential tactic that we can prove has back-fired (like the signs outside the clinics), we should take that data into account. But when we’re talking about what we believe and why we believe it, there’s no reason to shove personhood arguments to the back of the bus, and plenty of reason not to. Frankly, most pro-choicers are going to laugh and scoff us out the door no matter what argument we choose to make. So why not just acknowledge that the argument from the child’s innocent personhood is far and away the best argument, in fact the only argument needed to show why abortion is wrong? Why not acknowledge that if you were ambivalent about abortion until you had a brain-wave about what it did to women (not to a baby) the problem was with you and not the argument? Certainly, God has granted us the natural light to see all the cracks in the mirror that this act of human sacrifice engenders. But the heart of it all is the human sacrifice.

I sometimes think that while some prolifers’ hearts are in the right place, what they really need is a good punch in the gut. Their sense of horror needs to be properly sharpened and refined to the point where they will never again use the words “thoughtful, reasonable” and “pro-choice” in the same sentence again. Herrington didn’t use that phrase, but I came across another article from that same outlet that did. This different author (also female) was castigating a trashy new reality show that plays a teen mom’s abortion for entertainment. While she rightly expressed disgust at the crass exhibitionism of the thing, she couldn’t resist making a point of saying that “pro-lifers and pro-choicers” could agree that the show was bad. After all, she intones with numbing naivete, pro-choicers believe abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” (For Hillary Clinton told me so! Also, I need to look up the word “irony” in the dictionary!) Yes, she lectures, “thoughtful” people on both sides can acknowledge that abortion is a “weighty” issue, a “complicated” issue deserving “careful” treatment. With the minor difference that pro-choicers prescribe child murder as the treatment.

This can’t be over-emphasized. This can never be hammered home hard enough. The naked horror of what the pro-choicer is actually saying must be clearly defined and brought into the light. I wonder, if we simply replaced “abortion” with “infanticide,” would the article’s author suddenly have a different feeling about it?

In all our rhetoric about abortion, let us never concede to the pretentious nonsense of the word “complicated.” Let us not even concede as far as the word “tragedy.” Let us never concede that there can ever be a “thoughtful” way to advocate the taking of innocent life. And however deeply and widely we explore the consequences and causes of abortion, let the horror, the horror of newborn bloodshed be first in our hearts, first in our minds.

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