Our Collective Responsibility to Protect the Unborn

A decade ago I was in graduate school studying international political economy and development, an interdisciplinary course meant to prepare idealistic young Americans for careers in relief organizations and international institutions. The horrors of Srebrenica and Rwanda didn’t seem as distant then as they do now, so genocide—alongside the awfulness of economic globalization—was a hot topic for discussion. An academic literature had developed on the subject. Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide was on every professor’s syllabus.

Power, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was surely right: genocide is a hellish problem that has been with humanity at least since the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C, and probably longer. Yet everyone in my graduate program seemed to be in remarkable agreement on the solution. Whenever and wherever a mass atrocity took place, the “international community” had an absolute moral duty to intervene to save innocent lives. If such intervention meant violating another state’s sovereignty, well, so be it. There is, as they say in Turtle Bay, a “responsibility to protect.”

I think of the phrase often, especially when the abortion wars get hot—as they have these last few weeks. We who hope to see an end to legalized abortion in our lifetime must suffer being called uncaring monsters, punishers of women, bullying fundamentalists—and worse—by those who take the opposite position. We call ourselves pro-life, because that seems both adequate and pithy, but the term doesn’t quite capture the fullness of how we see our mission. It’s more accurate to say that we see our efforts in terms of a responsibility to protect the innocent lives that are daily sacrificed on the altar of choice.

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This is a responsibility that can’t be ignored. To do so would be monstrous. Just as my graduate school classmates viewed turning away from the pleas of the powerless in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur as an unforgivable dereliction of moral agency, so too do pro-lifers view failure to protect and defend life as cowardice in the face of evil. Protectors—that’s how we view ourselves. That’s what motivates us, and protecting the innocent is a noble motivation. The pro-lifer’s goal is not to punish or stigmatize or shame, but rather to protect.

The parallels between the pro-life mission and the idea of a responsibility to protect are too delicious to ignore. According to the U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, the international responsibility to protect vulnerable populations is supported by three conceptual pillars: (1) States bear primary responsibility for preventing genocide; (2) The international community has a responsibility to encourage states to fulfill this responsibility; and (3) The international community can use “appropriate means” to stop genocide, up to and including “collective action,” which is U.N.-speak for military intervention.

It’s easy to see how the translation works. Simply swap the word “mothers” for “states,” “abortion” for “genocide,” and “pro-lifers” for “international community” and you get something that looks like this: (1) Mothers bear primary responsibility for protecting their children from arbitrary death; (2) Pro-lifers have a responsibility to encourage mothers to bring their babies to term; and (3) Pro-lifers should do everything they can to ensure that unborn babies aren’t slaughtered, dissected, and sold for parts.

It’s a simple analogy, really, and something everyone in my graduate-school class would have had no trouble accepting. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes—these things offend the soul in a visceral way. But while genocide may be a problem from the netherworld, its practical motivations are almost always explainable in the political language of this world.

Every tin-pot dictator who has incited his followers to genocide has had an internally consistent story to tell about why it was necessary to put the enemy to the knife. Such stories can be quite convincing to those predisposed to believe them. But to those not bound by blind loyalty, genocide’s depravity is self-evident. Innocent people should not be marked for death because of who they are, where they were born, the color of their skin, or the religion they choose to practice.

This, in almost precisely corresponding terms, is the animating principle of the pro-lifer. Abortion is an unambiguously wrong action, so acting to prevent it is a moral obligation. The child of a poor woman, the child of a single woman, the child of young woman, the child diagnosed with genetic abnormalities, and, yes, the child conceived in rape, all have a right to live. And, given the legality of abortion in our country, all have need of a protector.

None of this is to say that pro-lifers should do like the international community and grant itself the right to use “collective action” to force an end to the practice of abortion. That would be taking the analogy a bit too far (and, in actual fact, military interventions to prevent genocide almost never happen). But it wouldn’t hurt for the pro-life community to remind itself at periodic intervals that its motivations are pure and that it does indeed have a duty to write, march, advocate, and agitate on behalf of the innocent and unborn.

Without that reminder, it can be all too easy to succumb to the pessimistic assumption that abortion has always been with us and always will be—that it’s just a problem from hell.

(Photo credit: Vista, California protest, August 3, 2015; Mike Blake / Reuters).


  • Matthew Hennessey

    Matthew Hennessey is a writer from New Canaan, CT, and a graduate of Hunter College and Fordham University. You can follow him on Twitter @matthennessey.

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