Years ago I saw a t-shirt for sale with the picture of an old, gray haired, African-American woman sitting on a stump and dressed in rags. She looked solemn but strong as she held an infant in her arms which was obviously no more than a few months old in development. It was easy to tell, despite the words that followed from her mouth, what was going on: this was a shirt addressing justice on some level. This woman had experienced something. She looked wise and, yet, not from opportunity but through suffering and experience. This shirt made you think. But the words, in case you missed it in the image itself, made it clear what was being conveyed. She spoke to the child that she held in her arms, “They also once thought that I wasn’t a person.”
I have often thought about this shirt and I wish I had bought it at the time since I haven’t seen it since. But the message conveys a question which most people today are willing to write off with an assumption at best. In a culture which considers itself progressive, advanced, and morally superior to its past, we have utterly failed to go back and address the very foundational question behind abortion: is this a person?
No doubt, some are going to jump up and say ‘Of course we have! We addressed this in Roe vs. Wade.’ And, yet, the court system is equally prone to negative social permeation as can be seen through American history in its denial of rights to all sorts of groups of people. But even if a handful on individuals are convinced that they have thought this issue out to its logical conclusion, society hasn’t philosophically, ethically, or scientifically. The notion that aborting a child in the womb is not a moral action is a cultural assumption pure and simple. In a culture obsessed with personal convenience, individuality, success, sexual liberation, and a tendency to relativize ethics in light of these and other obsessions, we don’t address the question either because we have already assumed the answer or because we insist that the question should be framed in another way (usually in the context of ‘woman’s rights’ which, by framing it that way, already presumes the answer to personhood).
I’ve studied history all my life. While I have focused particularly on religious history and specifically Judeo-Christian history in the Ancient Near East, I have studied history more broadly as well and one of the things that strikes me regularly is this: There has never been a period in the history of mankind where we haven’t denied one group of people the status of personhood. Never. And in most cases, this denial has been justified in the name of convenience for either one particular group of people or society at large.
One question that regularly goes through my mind concerning abortion is this: What if this is our modern day slavery? Or, if you like, our modern day racism, our modern day sexism, etc. Is it possible that in a hundred years we’ll see our current acceptance–and even celebration in many cases–of abortion as on par with the acceptance of slavery, or the acceptance of women as lesser than men? History is always looking backward and nobody can see the true nature of things while in the present moment. Think of all those times in your life in which you wish that you had the knowledge that you now have! History is similar. We routinely look back at both our minor and massive ethical failings and ask “How could we not see it then?” or “How did we let x,y, and z justify that position?”
What I wonder is if we’ll ever get to that point in our own history, where we’ll look back and ask how was it that we could abort 50 million children? I don’t know that we’ll ever get to that point, but it’s not because the assumption of non-personhood is inherently correct or because we are so progressed as a culture that we’ve got this one figured out. It is because for all our civil rights movements, it is always easier to deny personhood to the one who we can’t see, who can’t speak, can’t respond, and can’t defend oneself and because, like all of history, we find only afford the status of personhood so long as it doesn’t get in our way.
Listen, I am aware of some of the complexities surrounding abortion. But there are complexities in every ethical decision and the exception does not do away with the legitimacy of the question (i.e. ask a pro-abortion advocate if all the “difficult” scenarios went away if they would still be for abortion–most, I venture to guess, would say yes). These issues have been addressed numerous times and I will attempt to do so in another post. I am also 100% pro-woman and pro-choice for everything else which the feminist movement stands for. The question is not whether one is pro-woman or anti-woman. It is whether you are pro-abortion or anti-abortion. The question is not the right of the woman…it is the right of the child, and that distinction is critical to understand, despite the popular insistence that it is only a question of the former. I’ll deal more with this in another post as well. But for now the only two questions I want to ask are this: Are we positive the child is not a person? And if it is a person, how will history look back on the tens of millions we’ve aborted under a major cultural assumption.