For years, pro-life activists have been pointing out that the “pro-choice” ideology is a scientifically illiterate and incoherent philosophy that defies everything we know about the pre-born human being developing in the womb. In fact, while abortion activists tried (and try) to portray the coming of legalized feticide as a victory of enlightenment and liberation over the religious values of the Dark Ages, this is simply a historical lie. As I lay out in Chapter 5 of my 2016 book The Culture War, abortion laws were actually first brought in not in response to theological discussion, but a concerted push by doctors after new discoveries about the human being in the womb at the end of the 1800s illustrated that stronger protections were needed for these human beings.
That is why the abortion debate often seems so schizophrenic. Pro-life activists point out that abortion is a gruesome and violent procedure—while abortion activists attempt to instead talk smoothly about “reproductive rights” and “women’s healthcare.” We know what the child in the womb looks like, and we know that by definition the manual removal of that child must be ugly and violent—but yet, that discussion and that truth often remains muted. But some mainstream media sources are beginning to notice—and a fascinating article titled “Science is giving the Pro-Life Movement a new boost” in The Atlantic is one example:
The first time Ashley McGuire had a baby, she and her husband had to wait 20 weeks to learn its sex. By her third, they found out at 10 weeks with a blood test. Technology has defined her pregnancies, she told me, from the apps that track weekly development to the ultrasounds that show the growing child. “My generation has grown up under an entirely different world of science and technology than the Roe generation,” she said. “We’re in a culture that is science-obsessed.”
Activists like McGuire believe it makes perfect sense to be pro-science and pro-life. While she opposes abortion on moral grounds, she believes studies of fetal development, improved medical techniques, and other advances anchor the movement’s arguments in scientific fact. “The pro-life message has been, for the last 40-something years, that the fetus … is a life, and it is a human life worthy of all the rights the rest of us have,” she said. “That’s been more of an abstract concept until the last decade or so.” But, she added, “when you’re seeing a baby sucking its thumb at 18 weeks, smiling, clapping,” it becomes “harder to square the idea that that 20-week-old, that unborn baby or fetus, is discardable.”
Which is precisely the case, and precisely why the “pro-choice” worldview relies on abstractions. They would like to discuss “choice,” but abortion activists would very much like to avoid discussing what it is that is being chosen. To see a developing child on an ultrasound or a sonogram and then to imagine an abortionist disposing of that child is to suddenly realize that abortion is a profoundly moral issue that cannot be excused by making the obvious but irrelevant point that abortion is a “choice” (so is almost every decision people make.) But with the place science now holds in our increasingly secular society, abortion activists are discovering that they don’t have much to work with:
Scientific progress is remaking the debate around abortion. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the case that led the way to legal abortion, it pegged most fetuses’ chance of viable life outside the womb at 28 weeks; after that point, it ruled, states could reasonably restrict women’s access to the procedure. Now, with new medical techniques, doctors are debating whether that threshold should be closer to 22 weeks. Like McGuire, today’s prospective moms and dads can learn more about their baby earlier into a pregnancy than their parents or grandparents. And like McGuire, when they see their fetus on an ultrasound, they may see humanizing qualities like smiles or claps, even if most scientists see random muscle movements.
These advances fundamentally shift the moral intuition around abortion. New technology makes it easier to apprehend the humanity of a growing child and imagine a fetus as a creature with moral status. Over the last several decades, pro-life leaders have increasingly recognized this and rallied the power of scientific evidence to promote their cause. They have built new institutions to produce, track, and distribute scientifically crafted information on abortion. They hungrily follow new research in embryology. They celebrate progress in neonatology as a means to save young lives. New science is “instilling a sense of awe that we never really had before at any point in human history,” McGuire said. “We didn’t know any of this.”
In many ways, this represents a dramatic reversal; pro-choice activists have long claimed science for their own side. The Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy organization that defends abortion and reproductive rights, has exercised a near-monopoly over the data of abortion, serving as a source for supporters and opponents alike. And the pro-choice movement’s rhetoric has matched its resources: Its proponents often describe themselves as the sole defenders of women’s welfare and scientific consensus. The idea that life begins at conception “goes against legal precedent, science, and public opinion,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of the abortion-advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a recent op-ed for CNBC. Members of the pro-life movement are “not really anti-abortion,” she wrote in another piece. “They are against [a] world where women can contribute equally and chart our own destiny in ways our grandmothers never thought possible.”
Illyse Hogue, by the way, makes that point in complete opposition to accepted scientific consensus. There is no embryologist who cannot tell you when a unique, living, whole human being’s life begins, and there is no medical textbook that says we do not know this fact. The entire reproductive technology industry is based on our knowledge of when life begins—even the fact that we refer to a “twelve-week fetus” or note the duration of a pregnancy indicates that we know when that human being, and when that pregnancy began. When Hogue slips in that this fact defies legal precedent, she is cleverly insinuating that our scientifically illiterate abortion legislation is proof that we don’t know when human life begins—but that is because those laws are in contravention of the scientific consensus, not a confirmation of it. The same is true for her sly reference to public opinion—the reason so many people are not aware that life begins at conception is because people like Hogue and organizations like NARAL have made it their business to launch massive campaigns of confusion and misinformation. If people were to know that abortion kills a human being, many more would oppose it. And that is why Hogue lies. More from The Atlantic:
In their own way, both movements have made the same play: Pro-life and pro-choice activists have come to see scientific evidence as the ultimate tool in the battle over abortion rights. But in recent years, pro-life activists have been more successful in using that tool to shift the terms of the policy debate. Advocates have introduced research on the question of fetal pain and whether abortion harms women’s health to great effect in courtrooms and legislative chambers, even when they cite studies selectively and their findings are fiercely contested by other members of the academy.
Not everyone in the pro-life movement agrees with this strategic shift. Some believe new scientific findings might work against them. Others warn that overreliance on scientific evidence could erode the strong moral logic at the center of their cause. The biggest threat of all, however, is not the potential damage to a particular movement. When scientific research becomes subordinate to political ends, facts are weaponized. Neither side trusts the information produced by their ideological enemies; reality becomes relative.
I defy any pro-choice activist to watch the entirely of National Geographic’s documentary Inside the Womb and still remain insistent that pro-life activists are creating a fictitious reality. More:
When Colleen Malloy, a neonatologist and faculty member at Northwestern University, discusses abortion with her colleagues, she says, “it’s kind of like the emperor is not wearing any clothes.” Medical teams spend enormous effort, time, and money to deliver babies safely and nurse premature infants back to health. Yet physicians often support abortion, even late into fetal development.
As medical techniques have become increasingly sophisticated, Malloy said, she has felt this tension acutely: A handful of medical centers in major cities can now perform surgeries on genetically abnormal fetuses while they’re still in the womb. Many are the same age as the small number of fetuses aborted in the second or third trimesters of a mother’s pregnancy. “The more I advanced in my field of neonatology, the more it just became the logical choice to recognize the developing fetus for what it is: a fetus, instead of some sort of sub-human form,” Malloy said. “It just became so obvious that these were just developing humans.”
Malloy is one of many doctors and scientists who have gotten involved in the political debate over abortion. She has testified before legislative bodies about fetal pain—the claim that fetuses can experience physical suffering, perhaps even prior to the point of viability outside the womb—and written letters to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Her career also shows the tight twine between the science and politics of abortion. In addition to her work at Northwestern, Malloy has produced work for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a relatively new D.C. think tank that seeks to bring “the power of science, medicine, and research to bear in life-related policymaking, media, and debates.” The organization, which employs a number of doctors and scholars on its staff, shares an office with Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent pro-life advocacy organization.
“I don’t think it compromises my objectivity, or any of our associate scholars,” said David Prentice, the institute’s vice president and research director. Prentice spent years of his career as a professor at Indiana State University and at the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group founded by James Dobson. “Any time there’s an association with an advocacy group, people are going to make assumptions,” he said. “What we have to do is make our best effort to show that we’re trying to put the objective science out here.”
This desire to harness “objective science” is at the heart of the pro-science bent in the pro-life movement: Science is a source of authority that’s often treated as unimpeachable fact. “The cultural authority of science has become so totalitarian, so imperial, that everybody has to have science on their side in order to win a debate,” said Mark Largent, a historian of science at Michigan State University.
It is also helpful to realize the impact that the cognitive dissonance of pro-abortion medical professionals has on them. In Chapter 3 of my 2017 book Seeing is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion, I detailed, using their own words, the impact of the abortion procedure on abortion industry workers. Some of them openly confess that the sight of little severed arms and legs conflict with their ideology of “choice”—others admit that the faces of those who have been aborted return in their nightmares and skirt their dreams. More:
Pro-life optimists believe those biases might be changing—or, at least, they hope they’ve captured the territory of scientific authority. As the former NARAL president Kate Michelman told Newsweek in 2010, “The technology has clearly helped to define how people think about a fetus as a full, breathing human being … The other side has been able to use the technology to its own end.” In recent years, this has been the biggest change in the abortion debate, said Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life: Pro-choice advocates have largely given on up on the argument that fetuses are “lifeless blobs of tissue.”
“There had been, a long time ago, this mantra from our friends on the other side of this issue that, while a little one is developing in its mother’s womb, it’s not a baby,” she said. “It’s really hard to make that argument when you see and hear a heartbeat and watch little hands moving around.”
Ultimately, this is the pro-life movement’s reason for framing its cause in scientific terms: The best argument for protecting life in the womb is found in the common sense of fetal heartbeats and swelling stomachs. “The pro-life movement has always been a movement aimed at cultivating the moral imagination so people can understand why we should care about human beings in the womb,” said Snead, the Notre Dame professor. “Science has been used, for a long time, as a bridge to that moral imagination.”
Now, the pro-life movement has successfully brought their scientific rallying cry to Capitol Hill. In a recent promotional video for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, Republican legislators spoke warmly about how data helps make the case for limiting abortion. “When we have very difficult topics that we need to talk about, the Charlotte Lozier Institute gives credibility to the testimony and to the information that we’re giving others,” said Tennessee Representative Diane Black. Representative Claudia Tenney of New York agreed: “We’re winning on facts, and we’re winning hearts and minds on science.”
Not everyone will be swayed by scientific evidence concerning pre-born human life in the womb, of course—and some will shrug off the violence as a necessary part of a society where unplanned pregnancies are frequent. But an entire generation has grown up with certain assumptions about abortion that can be profoundly challenged when they are confronted with the truth about the baby’s in-utero development as well as the inherent violence of the abortion procedure. This evidence can go a long way towards changing our culture’s moral intuitions and swaying them towards the pro-life position—and it is the task of the pro-life movement to present that evidence as consistently and compellingly as possible.