More than 25 years after the legalization of abortion in the United States, a certain numbness has settled in. The brutality behind every abortion, which used to shock, now draws a collective yawn from the culture at large. Recent examples are abundant.
When it first broke upon the scene, partial-birth abortion provoked disgust and disbelief, even among self-described “pro-choicers.” Descriptions of the procedure broke through the elite media's attempts to suppress them, via C-Span and a massive public education campaign by the Catholic Church and others. But abortion advocates immediately and steadily challenged every partial-birth ban passed at the state level. Over time, media coverage of the abortion lobby's largely successful litigation strategy began to replace plain talk about partial-birth abortion itself.
Talk of crushed infant skulls has been replaced with language about “attacks on women's rights and Roe v. Wade.” Pro-abortion lawyers coolly predict that all partial-birth bans will be struck down on “summary judgment” (a decision without a trial, based upon the law alone, the facts not being in any dispute). Legal opinions talk of these bans as “undue burdens” on women and “threats” to “abortion providers.”
So where did helpless human infants go? The rhetoric has rendered them invisible.
Also, like a ban on partial-birth abortion, the proposed federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act has the potential to render unborn children visible. And abortion advocates have reacted similarly. In place of this proposed law, which would acknowledge a second victim when a pregnant woman is hurt, they have proposed a substitute bill in which — voila! — the baby magically disappears. Interrupting the mother's “normal course of pregnancy” is the crime, and the mother is legally counted as the only victim.
Finally, you may remember the flap over the Canadian hospital that delivers genetically imperfect babies and leaves them to die without care. At first, the story provoked real horror. But that quieted when the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons released the findings of its investigation into the matter: What the hospital is doing is exactly what is allowed in its own internal guidelines for “genetic terminations.”
Say what? Are we expected to draw comfort knowing that some cold internal protocol is being followed — and just wipe from our minds the excruciating pain and suffering of unaided infants left to starve to death?
You got that right.
The question for people of faith who see through these atrocities is: How do we break through the numbness that allows people to perpetrate such gross inhumanity against the meekest and most vulnerable of God's children?
There are some possibilities. First, take the appropriate, educational use of pictures. Abortion advocates lament that, while they've got “choice,” we've got babies. Experts hired by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League fret over ultrasound pictures as a threat to legal abortion. Weekly, newspapers trumpet breakthrough technological tricks for making babies. The latest involves removing and freezing a woman's young ovaries and reimplanting them later, even after menopause, to restore fertility. In other words, babies are still a big draw.
But one caution here. Whether we're displaying beautiful pictures of living babies, or ugly pictures of aborted babies, pictures ought never be used in an offensive, attacking fashion. Rather, after preparing the viewer, we need to use images educationally, and even, ideally, with love for the viewer — in other words, with a burning desire to share the truth.
Closely related is another strategy that requires a loving intention. I was recently reading a parenting guide that teaches parents how to “reinforce” good behavior in their children by attentively complimenting and rewarding it. The book notes a study showing that the person in a family who gets the most reinforcement for good behavior inevitably gives the most. Loving, in other words, begets loving.
The Church knows this from countless stories — or rather the same story told over and over — in our post-abortion reconciliation programs. Before the abortion, so many women are not lovingly counseled about the child within. Afterwards, regularly abandoned by the child's father, they deny their pain. Many become vociferous advocates for abortion, all the while hating themselves. But with the assistance of loving counselors, they learn to see again. They see their child and learn to accept love from him or her, now in heaven. They see their own goodness again. Reinforced in their understanding of God's love for them, for every human life, they are able to see and love others, including the child they helped destroy.
There is a lesson in this for all people of life. We can help a numb nation again see the faces of the children destroyed by abortion at a rate of 4,000 every day, and the faces of their pained mothers as well.
Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.