Leaders of the pro-choice movement know that they are losing ground – if not in the policy or practice of abortion, then at least in the public debate over its nature, which is a good first step for pro-lifers.
Gone are the days when someone can keep a straight face while referring to an unborn child as “just a clump of tissue.” In a world of 3D ultrasounds, greater understanding of DNA, sophisticated pre-natal surgeries, and prospects for an ever-younger age of viability outside the womb, the idea that an abortion is anything other than the taking of a fully human life is increasingly untenable to all but the most zealous. In response to these developments, however, the pro-choice movement is quietly changing the landscape of the conversation and reframing the issue in their favor. This is happening on two fronts – at the earliest stages of pregnancy and shortly after birth. If the pro-life movement does not soon counter these tactics in an insistent and widespread manner, the ensuing loss of political and legal progress will be overshadowed only by the loss of life.
First, “abortion” itself has been subtly but rapidly redefined by the media and political figures to no longer refer to the termination of the entity that results from fertilization but to the termination of a pregnancy. This alone is not a major shift in phraseology but the definition of pregnancy, in turn, has been finessed to apply only when an embryo has implanted into the uterine wall, rather than at the moment of conception which typically occurs a few days prior. These definitions make sense in the pro-choice mindset where pregnancy exclusively concerns a woman; but for those who are pro-life and believe that life begins at conception and that pregnancy is (at the very least) about a woman and her child, the results of this linguistic sleight of hand are devastating. Countless untold abortions are induced by drugs in the days between fertilization and implantation and people, whether pro-life or pro-choice, are left in the dark as policymakers, pharmaceutical advertisers (such as those behind the claims in Plan B commercials), and statisticians carry on with the notion that such occurrences are simply not abortions and, hence, not even up for discussion.
By blinding people to the fact that these abortions are even taking place, the culture of death takes on an even more inconspicuous disguise. For just as the violence of abortion in general is easily ignored because the victims are unseen and unheard, the violence of pre-implantation abortion is being pushed under an additional layer of invisibility and denial. This has very real implications for the future of the pro-life movement in both law and politics. The unfortunate norm is now such that any mention of abortion in law or public discourse is assumed to not cover termination of the unborn who have not yet implanted into the uterine wall. So, for example, any provision in federal legislation in which funding for elective abortion is restricted is interpreted to not address abortions, induced by drugs such as Plan B, that occur between fertilization and implantation. Those instances may thus remain fair game for federal funding or subsidies unless very specific definitions are drafted to state otherwise. Relatedly, to some public officials, the acceptability of the Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate depends on the dubious principle that life begins at implantation rather than conception. Additionally, when one truly considers non-implanted human embryos to be fully human beings, there are negative but oft-ignored implications for the practice of in vitro fertilization, namely in the treatment of unused embryos.
Suffice it to say, if the pro-life movement is going to succeed in changing the laws of the United States to respect all human life, from conception through natural death, it will ultimately (if not all at once) need to clearly address all types of abortion.
It should be clearly noted, in light of common claims, that Plan B is not completely like RU-486 or surgical abortion, which specifically target an implanted embryo or fetus. It is, however, somewhat analogous to discharging a firearm upon a dwelling place – there might be no one home, the discharge might not result in death, and it might only be intended to deter entry rather than cause death; but the act is of such a dangerous nature that it should be avoided by one who does not wish death to occur. This conclusion can only be reached, however, when pro-life advocates reassert their position that life begins at conception and refuse to let pro-choice messengers dictate a new definition in which being pro-life means believing that life begins only at implantation.
There is a sad but telling irony in the pro-choice community’s support of pre-implantation abortion. One argument commonly employed in support of abortion, in its general sense, centers on the fact that the unborn are utterly dependent on their mothers for survival before the age of viability. This state of dependence is made manifest by an embryo’s attachment to the uterine wall, the yolk sac, and, later on, to the umbilical cord. For the zygote freely floating for a handful of days after its conception and before implantation, however, there is no such physically solid link. In a way, though certainly still dependent on the mother’s body, the young zygote is more independent than he or she will ever be during the rest of the pregnancy. Yet, strangely, it is during this very same time period that the pro-choice camp argues that termination amounts to even less than an abortion, both medically and morally.
Editor's note: This column is the first of two pieces on "Pulling the carpet out from under the pro-life movement." The second half will be posted Nov. 14, 2013.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.