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Language Games: Abortion & the Things We Cannot Say We Do Not Know*

Friday, July 18, 2014

My wife was attended to by the nurse and made comfortable.  It's strange how the first thing you notice when the cover is pulled back is how the belly button protrudes - being pushed out by the little one as he grows in the womb.

The gel was applied and that little wand waved across the tummy.  The machine warbled and the screen came to life.  My wife and I shared that expectant, excited look with each other.  We had left the oldest - right about a year old at that point - with a babysitter while we went to find out whether he would have a brother or sister.  The first time around I just wanted a healthy baby.  But now with a boy, I was rooting for another one.  Slap the bunk beds together and hand down the clothes; we would be set.

It's amazing how at moments like this you can read expressions you otherwise would never perceive.  My wife saw it first - that look on the part of the tech that says: "Hmmm, that's strange."

Of course, the tech didn't say that.  He didn't have to.


"Hang on, let me call the doctor.  He'll look and explain what he sees."

"Ohhhhhhh Kayyyy."

And that expectant, excited look we shared was suddenly gone.  Pursed lips, furrowed brows, and just a shared sense of foreboding - not quite panic yet - hung in the room.

The 'perinatologist' - an OB/GYN doctor specializing in high risk pregnancies - joined us and scanned my wife's womb.  He explained that what he was seeing could be one of two things:  It could be a part of the lung hooked up to the esophagus instead of the bronchial tree.  In this case, surgery at about three months could correct it.  Or it could be a cyst growing alongside the heart.

That would have been serious.  It could grow to the point it pushed the heart out of its proper place.  The possibility of that causing the death of the baby while still in the womb would be very real.  And if that happened, the remains of the baby could threaten my wife's life if not noticed and extracted in time.  We were not yet at the point of having to make a decision, but the possibility, under those circumstances, of terminating the pregnancy to mitigate that risk was broached.

The following two days were easily the worst of our lives.  We are an Evangelical Christian couple, both with seminary degrees.  We are active in our church.  While I would love for my friends at church, the faculty and my classmates at the seminary to all hold me in high spiritual esteem - at least as that is conventionally thought of in our circles - I would be lying if I did not admit that we thought "What if?" during those two days.  We even talked about funeral arrangements if we ended up faced with a tragic choice.

We consider ourselves tremendously blessed.  It turned out to be an extra lobe of lung hooked up to the esophagus.  Surgery at three months corrected the problem and that unborn child is now 14 and leaving a trail of smoke under his feet on the football field.

This is the context of the abortion debate.  This context is one of panic, worry and outright fear.  And sometimes the most crushing grief.  If we are not willing to enter into the real stories of our neighbors - stories of panic and worry like the one above; stories of heart-wrenching decisions and hearts shredded with grief, we simply have no business engaging in this debate.

And we cannot enter into these stories on the street corner with a picket sign in our hand.

The Supreme Court ruled recently on these protests.  While I will not call into question the motives of other conservatives who are compelled by their conscience to stand up for the rights of the unborn, I will point out here how the politicization of the issue tends to pull us away from the lives of our neighbors and toward the faceless abstractions of political arguments.  Even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recognized that the Roe v. Wade decision took the matter away from the electorate, who could have advanced women's rights in a more targeted way which could have enjoyed wider public support.   But as I have pointed out elsewhere and in my book, the next conservative generation needs to be able to look at us and see a good neighbor before they hear a good argument.

This does not mean I am OK, though, with some of how the 'pro-choice' side of this issue is argued.  But let me be clear: I do not really have a problem with my pro-choice neighbor who is active in the community to protect the relationship between a woman and her doctor from excessive government interference. My problem is with some of the 'language games' which are played with the humanity of the unborn child.  Here is what I mean:

After the meetings we have in our community groups here in Mira Mesa, we like to hit the local Irish pub and restaurant.  Now imagine this 200 years ago.  We are relaxing at the table over beers debating the issues of the day.  The 'liberal' Abolition movement is staging protests against slavery.  But I am among the 'conservatives' of the time, so I have my Bible out and am plying my arguments from this chapter and that verse as to why the African slaves are less than human and thus unfit for freedom.

What would we think today if we came across a group like that in the pub, actually having that debate?  I would hope the proprietor would summarily boot them from her establishment!

But why is this?  What is different now, 200 years later?  I will propose it is this: those things which are written on our heart overcame the 'language games' which were played with the humanity of black men and women.

Look at it this way: If you go next door and talk with your black neighbor, you simply cannot return to your home and claim you do not know you just spoke with a fellow human being.  There are things we cannot say we do not know - truths that have been written on our hearts.

Likewise, you cannot look at that sonogram - especially today's 3D version, like the one at the top of this post - and claim you do not know you are looking at a fellow human being.  The language games which were played 200 years ago were despicable then; they are no less despicable now.

Justice Ginsberg's perspective on this is fascinating, and should be read and thought through carefully by conservatives.  She argues that the issue at hand is specifically women's rights - to what degree does the government have the authority to insert itself in the decisions made between a woman and her doctor?  But Roe v. Wade was more broadly - and unfortunately, according to Ginsberg - about a supposed right to privacy.  Conservatives call for an overturning of Roe v. Wade - a call in which I join.  We sometimes want to think, though, it is that simple.

But as neighbors in a community I am compelled by the worst two days of my life to tell it to you straight - it is not.  An overturning of Roe v. Wade would rightly return the issue to the electorate - us as neighbors.  But it would then fall to us to find that proper balance between recognizing the human dignity of the unborn child and the human dignity of the young woman.  It would be an immensely difficult process, one that likely would result in maddening moral contradictions.  But we simply have to be prepared to do more than march on a street corner.

I am optimistic, however, about this issue.  Gallup reports that Americans are increasingly pro-life.  But it is important to understand why - and it is not because we are winning the debate.  It is not because we have better arguments.  It is because the 3D sonogram is doing for the unborn child what the TV did in the 50's for the African-American population.  Back then, just by virtue of its novelty, we were glued to the TV.  And we saw the evils of racism and segregation for what they were.  But more importantly, we saw the human dignity of the African-American population in the face of this evil.  It became impossible to turn away from the TV and continue with the despicable language games which were played to deny the humanity of our black neighbor.

Likewise you cannot turn away from the 3D sonogram and continue with the despicable language games which are being played to deny the humanity of the unborn child.  These truths are written on our hearts - they are the things we cannot say we do not know.

But I am quite certain I have neighbors who will find themselves where my wife and I found ourselves.  And many will be faced with the choice from which we were spared.  While I want our laws to reflect a culture which cherishes life, I can relate to my neighbor who campaigns to ensure the relationship between a woman and her doctor is not unduly infringed.  If we see the human dignity of the unborn child, we cannot turn from the human dignity of the young woman.

And this means the abortion debate needs to be more than just clinic protests and faceless, nameless, abstract arguments. We can either be the 'expert in the law' or the 'neighbor' in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  If we choose a good argument before being a good neighbor, I imagine we might be satisfied with the rightness of our arguments - as Jesus said the expert in the law was.  But his argument, although right, was not quite up to the hope he was seeking.

Or we can choose to put being a good neighbor ahead of making a good argument, and make this issue about the lives of our neighbors.  We must enter into their stories with a patient and sympathetic insistence that we are talking about the lives of two fellow human beings.

* I owe this phrase to an excellent book by Professor J. Budziszewski.

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