Losing 25 Years of the Pro-Life Movement

By Michael Barnett

The standard claim currently made by pro-lifers who oppose the human personhood movement is that if any legal measure recognizing the personhood of all human beings—from the beginning of their biological development—reaches the Supreme Court, this would set back the pro-life movement by 25 years. If it is possible for a single Supreme Court decision to set the pro-life movement back a quarter of a century, then the pro-life movement in this country has made no progress at all.

The success of a movement, as the word itself implies, is measured by the amount of people it moves and how far it moves them.  If I inspire one person to go from being radically pro-abortion to being radically pro-life, I’ve fully impacted one person. If a commercial moves a million people to be slightly more pro-life, then it has perhaps done the equivalent of moving 100 people to change their views entirely.

To argue that the Supreme Court has complete control over the success or failure of a movement is to say that the movement has done nothing but focus on nine people. What if those nine people were suddenly a different nine? Using this “logic,” perhaps the entire movement, until that point, would have to be considered a waste.

Fortunately, the pro-life movement has not actually focused on the nine Supreme Court justices and has rejoiced at the realization that most Americans are at least nominally pro-life. Even those pro-lifers who are so upset about personhood measures recognize that the primary value of incrementalist efforts to regulate abortion is their potential to create converts to the pro-life position by forcing people to examine false assumptions about the nature of abortion.
Laws in a democracy are meant to reflect and enshrine culture, not create it. However, if the federal government has become a means of controlling people, a strange elitism is turning our representative democracy into a totalitarian regime. Such control itself would naturally contradict the pro-life movement, because a representative democracy, wherein the population governs itself, is based on recognition of the dignity of the human person. And our ultimate goal as pro-lifers is not necessarily to overturn Roe v. Wade, or to merely end abortion, euthanasia and other offenses against human dignity. Our ultimate goal is to fix the core problem, which is a deep disrespect for humanity itself. Granted, restoring our culture’s recognition of human dignity would mean the enactment of laws outlawing abortion and enshrining human rights, but those are means, not ends.

Even more important is to realize that to lose sight of restoring recognition of human dignity is to fail to lead. Leadership is hard, but the test of a leader is their ability to present an inspiring vision and to convince others to strive to achieve that vision. The hardest part is promoting belief in that vision and in the possibility of achieving that vision. To believe that human beings can learn to respect one another and not view other human beings as mere instruments of their own self-centered pleasure might be seen by some as a vision that is absurdly unrealistic to achieve. Yet, to deny this goal is to deny the dignity of the human person. If it is impossible for human beings to respect one another, then we have no dignity at all. Thus, unless we profess the fullness of our goal, we deny it entirely.

This argument is now often portrayed as pragmatism versus idealism. An opponent of the personhood movement might say, “While what you say is right, it isn’t possible or will be slower than a more incremental approach to ending abortion.” They might even say that it is impossible to achieve these ideals. In doing so, they ignore the fact that forsaking ideals is surrendering the core of what makes us human. Previously, in our society, it was illegal to have an abortion. Clearly, then, upholding human dignity is not impossible and human persons are capable of respecting others. Therefore, it is merely a matter of time and influencing others before what might currently be deemed impossible becomes a reality. For example, we could claim that it is impossible for a hypothetical person named Sally to visit the moon. In fact, Sally can visit the moon; she just needs time, energy and maybe some help from Richard Branson

Further, if denying our goal even slightly causes us to deny human dignity, then pragmatism becomes the ideal. Consider this commentary by Jeff Schweitzer on the passage of a fetal pain bill in Nebraska, published by the far-left Huffington Post blog site: 

If abortion opponents use pain as the threshold for deciding when abortion is acceptable, then they must agree that all abortions prior to the threshold of pain are no longer in dispute. If not, why use pain in the discussion at all? If abortion prior to pain is unacceptable, what use is pain then as a measure of when abortion is acceptable (if never)?

Setting abortion at the threshold of pain perception also has another important implication. With pain now in the mix, the idea of "personhood" for a fetus must also be abandoned. Think about it: you cannot argue that a fertilized egg deserves all the rights of a fully-formed adult when you agree an egg can be aborted because an egg cannot perceive pain. Can't have it both ways.

So I say we call the bluff. With Nebraska's precipitous action we reduce the abortion argument down to one single question: at what developmental stage can a fetus experience the sensation of pain? Unintentionally the Nebraska lawmakers created the formulation that before pain perception, abortion is always OK; after, only under tightly prescribed circumstances. Let us all agree then, using this logic from the Nebraska law, that abortion prior to the day that a fetus can feel pain is never again to be questioned. No more legal challenges or legislative roadblocks to any abortion prior to pain perception.

Schweitzer, an ardent abortion proponent, is making my argument for me. As soon as we deny that our goal is the full recognition of human dignity, we deny human dignity itself and, in this case, deny the humanity of people who don’t feel pain.

Alternatively, a good law would legislate that all medical procedures must not unduly cause pain to any human beings involved, including but not limited to preborn human beings. Such a law clears the threshold of being valid regardless of abortion or other attacks on the dignity of the human person and doesn’t reinforce decriminalized abortion.

Promoting human dignity is also pragmatic in “progressive” settings. Imagine me being on a college campus where I approach a student, saying, “Hi can I ask you a quick question?” They respond, “Sure.” I ask, “Are you pro-life?” Immediately there is a stock reply from at least 60 percent of such students. Their minds are already made up about this. They have been force-fed information either in favor of or opposed to abortion since the moment they were was born; in the case of those who support abortion, ironically, it starts after not being aborted themselves.

Fortunately, most freshmen are pro-life. Unfortunately, most seniors are pro-abortion, as a result of numerous situational and academic experiences.

Now, imagine instead that I ask the student, “Do you think all human beings deserve basic rights?” The few students whose nature doesn’t compel them to say yes immediately either say yes eventually, don’t understand the question because the answer is seemingly too obvious, or realize that their normal Friday night activities might contradict human rights. Yet, what is important here is not that we received a yes or then obtained a petition signature from them. What’s important is that we radically altered the debate.

No longer is the person thinking of abortion in terms of radicals, religious zealots or political biases; they are now thinking strictly in terms of principles, of right and wrong apart from considerations of utility. Now they are also thinking in terms of the scientific fact that, upon penetration of an oocyte by a sperm, there is a new human being

Finally, a vision that inspires billions is the greatest achievement any movement can have, because the movement’s vision is what inspires people to give time, money, energy and other sacrifices, other acts of love. The more loving the vision, the more you can exchange it for acts of love from others. So the only question left is what is more loving, what is more inspiring:  promoting the dignity of the human person or merely arguing against abortion?

Michael Barnett is American Life League’s director of leadership development and its LiveCampus college outreach program.