John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
In his Oct. 27 New York Times editorial “Why I Am Prolife,” Thomas Friedman paints an ugly, implausible caricature — of his own view of the world. Is it really possible that a public intellectual believes he can cancel out support for the intentional killing of inconvenient pre-born babies by favoring measures like smoking bans or carbon-trading?
The term “pro-life,” like its counterpart “pro-choice,” denotes one of the governing values that stand in tension in arguments over abortion: One side favors the sanctity of life, the other of choice. It’s laughable for advocates of legal abortion to skip lightly over the death of more than 1 million American children every year, then claim that they’re the “real” pro-lifers because they favor more prudent policies on public health, crime or ecology. Paul Ryan might as well say he’s more pro-choice than Thomas Friedman because he favors greater consumer choice through deregulation or parental choice through tuition tax credits.
We aren’t playing a game here. We are arguing over the meaning of human life and liberty. The pro-choice position implies an absolute legal autonomy over one’s body — which, if it were applied consistently, must allow for the sale of human organs, prostitution, the use of addictive drugs and even the abolition of minimum wage laws. (Who is the federal government to tell me I can’t swing a hammer with my own arms and back for less than $7.25 per hour?)
Conversely, the pro-life position would dictate that every human life, beginning with conception, really deserves the protection of law. The political “crime” that certain pro-life politicians have committed by honestly facing the rape exception is this: They were too principled. You might say they are like those few abolitionists who damned the Emancipation Proclamation because it did not free all the slaves. Say that they’re overreaching courage and being reckless.
What you can’t say is that they’re not really pro-life because they don’t want to regulate the size of soft drinks in New York City. Not if you really take human life — or women’s choice — with moral seriousness. Pro-lifers believe that regard for human life must start with the basic, Mosaic commandment “You shall not murder.” A state that allows the innocent to be killed for any reason conceals a cancer at its heart — like ancient Rome’s embrace of infanticide. It was Jews and Christians who started to rescue exposed infants at Rome’s walls, who over centuries shamed a heartless Rome into banning this practice.
The pursuit of the good life and a just society begins with a vision of human dignity; it is from this elevated view of every human being — not just the rich or the powerful — that other crusades against injustice began. We reject slavery, forced marriage, religious intolerance, segregation and sexism not because they are ugly or unpopular. Each of these abuses was quite widely accepted among the “smart set” in its day, and the people who first opposed each evil were tarred as bizarre extremists. But these human evils — and those that will rise up to face us in our biotechnology future — are worth making oneself unfashionable by fighting them.
The legalized abuse of one innocent person threatens us all. On a gut level, each of us knows that he or she is no different from the slave who is being flogged, the civilian killed by a drone, the kulak in a gulag, or Anne Frank hiding in her attic. We might try to fend off this inconvenient truth; whole societies have worked to dehumanize those minorities who blocked the collective will to power.
Today, when sexual liberation is part of our governing creed, unborn children are the speed bumps we’d rather flatten. As society ages, our targets will include the elderly and the handicapped. In every war in history — including our War on Terror — civilians in enemy countries have crowded this tragic list. If you want an organization that takes on all the challenges to the sanctity of human life — from poverty to prison abuse and war — look at (Bella executive producer) Jason Jones’ I Am Whole Life, which organizes grass roots initiatives on each of these life issues.
It’s easy to see the sanctity of my own life, and of my family’s. What’s harder is to recognize is the same dignity in folk who look strange, live differently or stand in the way of my wishes. That’s when the vital force of human selfishness grabs hold of the rest of the brain and begins to manufacture excuses, exceptions and sophisticated rationales. But all of them boil down to nothing more than “might makes right.”
There’s a growing crack at the base of the pro-choice worldview. How can our choices about our bodies be inviolable, when our lives themselves are not? Why is our sexual autonomy sacred, when our very birth into life isn’t? The autonomy some would make sacred can only grow in the soil of human dignity. Either we are productive animals, who can be culled at need (see China’s one-child policy) or else we are dignified creatures whose free choices matter because they’re part of something greater: of the highest value on earth, which is human life.