How imbecilic must one be, I wonder, not to know when life begins? Even if one had slept through every high school biology class, somewhere along the line, surely, the facts of life would have intruded themselves. After all, human reproduction is not like astrophysics, the details of which only members of Mensa may know.
So, leaving aside the invincibly ignorant, the only plausible explanation for refusing to recognize the humanity of the unborn child is sheer obduracy—or, to give it a less technical term, hardness of heart, of which we’ve certainly seen countless examples since abortion became the law of the land.
In fact, the problem long antedates Roe v. Wade, as witness, for instance, the forty-plus references regarding hardness of heart found in Holy Scripture. Mark’s Gospel provides an ideal point of entry. There, in Chapter Three, we see Jesus entering a synagogue surrounded by the usual pharisaical suspects hoping to catch Him out. They are like fiends, eager to pounce the moment they spot the man with the withered hand whom Jesus wishes to heal—because, you see, it is the sabbath, which apparently prohibits even the least exercise of charity. Will Jesus set aside the usual strictures and go ahead and heal him anyway?
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Anticipating their every accusatory move, Jesus calmly asks, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” They refuse to answer, thus prompting Jesus to both anger and grief at their hardness of heart. But He will not be put off by them. So, He simply says to the man, “Stretch out your hand,” and He cures him on the spot, whereupon the enemies of Jesus go out and redouble their efforts to destroy Him.
It is not only men with withered hands that elicit the interest of Jesus, revealing the deep tenderness of His heart, which is the complete opposite of obduracy. Little children are constant objects as well of His compassionate concern. In fact, there is nothing Christ seems more determined to manifest than His attitude toward children, for whom the greatest possible preferential option is to be shown. “I assure you,” He says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). In other words, one cannot draw close to Jesus, in whom that very Kingdom has come to encamp about us, unless one is prepared to draw close to the children.
And are they not the poorest of them all, their lives totally dependent upon the suffrage of others? In fact, not since before 1973, when seven members of the Supreme Court pronounced them as non-persons, have they even had a right to be born.
And so, faced with a child one day in the street, we see the disciples, their attitude not altogether unlike so many today, mobilize at once to keep the child at bay lest he become an impediment to their plans. But Jesus sternly rebukes them, saying, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them” (Matthew 19:14). This is because, at the deepest possible level, which is that of God Himself, in suffering the child to come unto Jesus, we are in fact welcoming the Eternal Child, hidden away for all eternity in the bosom of the Father.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name,” says Jesus, “receives me.” And thus, to refuse and reject any child, however inconvenient or unwanted by us, is to say to God the Father: “I do not want your child, Jesus, who comes to me as my brother. Let me not suffer Him to come unto me.”
It is tantamount to telling God Himself that one would sooner have a millstone fastened round one’s neck, and thus be drowned in the depth of the sea, than to be forced to welcome new life into the world. But, of course, no one is forcing anyone to welcome new life, least of all God. He may solicit our love, but He will not coerce it.
But once life has begun, which is the fruit of a love affair ultimately begun in Heaven (“God was in love,” Fulton Sheen would say, “but he could not keep the secret: the telling of it was creation”), certain things ought to follow, chief of which is the right of the child to be born. And in any civilized society, the obligation to uphold that right is what distinguishes it from barbarism, where there are no rights to which the most helpless among us have recourse.
And isn’t that precisely the question we must now face? How civilized are we exactly? “A nation to be loved,” said Edmund Burke more than two centuries ago, “must be lovely.” And we seem to have largely given up on that particular project. “If a man says that extinction is better than existence,” writes Chesterton in the very first chapter of Orthodoxy, “or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking.”
When a society declares itself on the side of death, upending existence in favor of extinction, we have got to ask, “Are there no more ordinary people left?” What has barbarism got to commend, for heaven’s sake? Have we made up our minds about that yet? One would hope that there is still room to maneuver on that question, if only because the opposite of hope, which is despair, has literally only nothing to commend. And the fact that a majority of the same court that struck down the rights of unborn children nearly a half-century ago will soon issue a decision returning the question to the states gives some reason for hope.
Not an ideal outcome, to be sure, for those of us who, forty-nine years and counting, have not ceased to labor for full constitutional protections. But half a loaf is better than none. Even partial victories are worth pursuing, so long as the real finish line is kept in view. And the real finish line is nothing less than a society where no child is marked for destruction, but rather, is reverenced for no other reason than the fact that here is a life that bears the very image and likeness of Almighty God.
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