The conviction of murderer Kermit Gosnell reminds us of the horror of cruelly mauling helpless young people to death, as Matt Franck argued here at Public Discourse last week. Yet the coverage of the event uncovered a revealing confusion on the part of the press—many accounts referred to the infants murdered by Gosnell as “fetuses,” unconsciously recognizing the continuity of life from one minute to the next, from the beginning to the end of the miracle of life.
Of course, in this second decade of the twenty-first century it is perfectly legal, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to kill a 168-day-old fetus, provided she has not yet emerged from her mother, but a moment after she does the legal panorama is transformed and snipping her neck to make her stop crying is defined as murder.
But how different is the child? What transformation has come over her in the half dozen or so sweeps of the second hand around the clock on the wall of the abortionist's abattoir that take her from unwanted appendage to little girl? While the legal code of Pennsylvania notes a cosmic difference, the ability of the small vulnerable child to feel pain, fear, or joy is the same—ten minutes before she is born the fetus is just as human as she will be ten minutes afterwards, yet the law is blind to this.
Why need the law be incapable of recognizing the humanity of all of us? Each of us passed through gestation and birth, each of us was human from the moment of conception. Each of us was already a person. Does the law’s failure to recognize this simple reality stem from the impossibility of writing clear legislation to protect new life? No. That's easy enough. When I was born out of wedlock to a vulnerable young mother in Maryland, a jurisdiction not known at the time for producing particularly enlightened legislation, the laws were nevertheless sufficiently grounded in reality that atrocities such as killing helpless young people were illegal, ten minutes before birth as well as ten minutes after.
The problem is not linguistic. Nor does the lack of sensible legislation stem from uncertainty. Jurors and courtroom observers in the Gosnell case were driven to grief and tears at the heartrending evidence of his heinous crimes. Thanks to ultrasound technology, we can see fetuses kick, squirm, and react before they leave the womb with virtually the same clarity as witnesses observed and recounted the slaughter of the innocents in Gosnell’s killing chamber.
It is neither the impossibility of writing clear laws, nor our inability to witness the nature of abortion that stops us from making it illegal. Instead it is the will to kill for convenience that drives some—let us refer to them as “birthers”—to sustain the fiction that human life begins at birth.
To be sure, the Supreme Court of the land, ruling in 1973, found that a parent’s right to privacy allowed one to kill one’s daughter right up to the moment of birth. But this was tantamount to judicial murder, and it remains so. If any were then uncertain about the grisly shredding of a helpless human being that takes place in an abortion, that tatter of ambiguity has long since been rent asunder by the increased viability of people at earlier and earlier stages of gestation, by the clarity of in vivo tomography and ultrasound images, and by simple common sense.
Would we tolerate a Supreme Court ruling that resulted in the killing of 1.1 million people every year, including disproportionately many girls and minority children? Would we shrug our shoulders and declare the question to be “above our pay grade”? Apparently yes, as this is precisely what our society is doing as it permits abortion with a cynicism so transparent it would have made Pontius Pilate blush.
Ten years ago the Supreme Court accommodated political pressure to rule in favor of a constitutionally protected right to gay sex in Lawrence v. Texas. In so doing the court reversed its nineteen-year-old ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick that the Constitution vouchsafed no such right. So much for stare decisis, the legal doctrine that holds that even flawed rulings should be left in place to provide legal certainty.
Yet it is exactly the stare decisis excuse for preserving the forty-year-old Roe ruling that “birthers” often raise when they sense that their other arguments highlighting the convenience of killing “inconvenient” human beings have worn thin. Faced with the political embarrassment of overturning Obamacare, Justice Roberts’s ruling in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius rewrote the law in order to avoid overturning it. Sufficient political pressure will change the Supreme Court’s misreading of the Constitution as mandating legal abortion, just as enough constituent pressure on Congress will lead to effective pro-life legislation.
It is past time we abandoned the “birther” myth that we are transformed magically through the process of birth from being tumorous growths within our mothers into fully human infants. The uncivilized confusion on the part of abortion advocates about whether newborns are fetuses or infants highlights the artificial nature of making birth the definition of humanity.
By abandoning its defense of helpless young people just before the moment of birth, society energizes those who favor killing the young, the helpless, and the infirm. Abortion advocates recognize that society is sanctioning barbarities as cruel and heartbreaking as the murders committed moments after birth by Kermit Gosnell, and they will continue to push for “euthanasia,” for “assisted suicide,” and for other forms of “post-birth abortion.” The rest of us need to highlight the humanity of all of us before we are born, and to insist that all humans, especially the most helpless among us, be protected for our entire lives.
John Londregan is a professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs of Princeton University.