Tribalism: A Major Obstacle for Building Bridges

Posted on April 17, 2018 By

by Rachel MacNair


Rachel MacNair

Two media personalities, one right-wing, the other left-wing, have recently been in the public eye for their comments on abortion. Writer Kevin Williamson has been in the news because he was hired by The Atlantic and then, before starting, was dismissed because of abortion-related comments. Also, John Oliver in his comedy show, Last Week Tonight, did a segment on crisis pregnancy centers. Coming from differing views on abortion, both men’s behavior illustrates what David Brooks has called tribalism. In psychology we refer to this as ingroup/outgroup dynamics.


Right-Wing: Hanging Mothers?

Kevin Williamson, a long-time columnist for the National Review, recently lost an opportunity to be a regular columnist for The Atlantic because of his views on women who have abortions. In a Tweet, now deleted, Williamson apparently said that both doctors involved in abortion and women who had abortions should be hanged. He said something similar in a podcast.

Williamson was placed for adoption, so he’s one of the millions of people who could have been aborted and weren’t. Abortion survivors of this kind might well have emotional reactions as they identify with the baby they once were – that’s one of the many horrific outcomes of mass feticide. But it contradicts the general view of pro-life activists, and thereby misrepresents the movement to outsiders who don’t know this. The title of the podcast episode, after all, is “Everyone Hates Kevin – Again.”

I wrote a blog post about why it is that we pro-lifers in general don’t favor punishing women for getting abortions, with added consistent life insight (Who the Law Targets).

This recent news brought to my mind my personal experience when I met Kevin Williamson, which illustrates the point of how “tribalism” works as an obstacle.

Immediately after the 2016 election, I went on two seminar cruises, each one of an opposing “side” – one with liberal The Nation magazine and the other with conservative National Review. A story I haven’t before told about the National Review cruise concerns the session they had on abortion. Here, only pro-life views were presented. Unlike every other session, the introducer did mention a caveat that they knew not everyone in the audience agreed with the pro-life perspective. Indeed, my assigned roommate was pro-abortion and argued the issue with me.

They had originally had a panel of three that included Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life. But she was offered work on the Trump transition team that was meeting right then, so they needed a substitute.

Well before the session, I saw Ramesh Ponnuru, who’s a writer and senior editor on their staff. He was delighted to see me again; he remembered having invited me to speak many years before at Princeton University when he was a student there and I was president of Feminists for Life of America. I offered to take Charmaine’s place on the panel for the session. Ponnuru said that seemed like an excellent idea to him, and he would ask other staff about it.

They didn’t take me up on the offer. With an all-male panel, they used Kevin Williamson instead.


Top left: Kevin Williamson. Top right: Ramesh Ponnuru. Bottom: Charmaine Yoest

As I sat in the audience, I was antsy, knowing the answers I would have given had I been up there. Answers I knew were more effective with the audiences I speak to. Given that not everyone in the audience was pro-life, and that many who were pro-life weren’t well-versed on the topic and needed those better arguments for their own discussions with friends, a good presentation was really needed.

Here we have a case where a woman with expertise, who could have been replaced with another woman with expertise, was instead replaced by a man who is not as well versed in the usual pro-life arguments. While I may be in the pro-life “ingroup,” which is why I hoped my offer would be accepted, I’m not in the conservative “ingroup.”

 Left-Wing: Let ‘em Lie!

 I like watching John Oliver. I normally watch every segment of his I can on the web (I don’t have cable). But I must admit I didn’t watch the segment on crisis pregnancy centers, broadcast April 8, 2018. I had read a news story on it, and I knew I’d never be able to enjoy watching Oliver again if I saw that segment. The premise of it was that Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are allowed to lie, and do lie. If they say something, such as that there’s a link between abortion and women later developing breast cancer, then to Oliver’s mind, the fact that they said it must mean it’s a lie. Some “pro-choice” organizations, after all, have said that the abortion/breast cancer link is not so, and therefore, to Oliver, it’s not so.

John Oliver

John Oliver normally goes after the people who are dishonorably making money or are otherwise callous or violent to vulnerable people. This is why I like watching him. The idea that he has flipped that ethic upside down in this CPC segment has clearly not occurred to him. This is another example of ingroup/outgroup tribalism at work.

I keep up with several late-night comedians; it helps me deal with political stresses, as long as they stay away from the topic of abortion. But I do observe that they make frequent use of cuss words. John Oliver especially has a constant stream of such words in his monologues, at least one per paragraph, even when there’s no connection with what he’s saying. Indeed, there are times when the simple use of such a word brings a round of laughter.

Being someone who’s been known to privately use cuss words myself – especially at my misbehaving computer – I don’t really have an ethical objection. And of course the Consistent Life Network wouldn’t even think of having a position on merely vulgar (not violent or bigoted) language.

But it does strike me that his frequent use of such words further shows this problem: he’s not trying to persuade anybody that doesn’t already agree with him. Even if only a small portion of people he’s talking to find such words offensive, if he’s trying to persuade these people, why use such words?  Their very use implies he has contempt for them. Trump voters, especially evangelicals, have noticed this sense of contempt aimed at them, and have responded accordingly.

I think one reason the words are used so much is that the cuss words help define the ingroup. Just using them, even out of any context, is seen as funny for that very reason – giggling in the camaraderie of being us rather than them.

This goes with the prejudicial remarks Oliver made about good people trying to help pregnant women, people who aren’t merely talking but putting in the hard work that’s called for by their principles. From the perspective of Oliver and much of his audience, such people are them, not us.

The Dove Needs Two Wings to Fly

This all goes to illustrate two points we in the consistent-life-ethic movement have been making for years:

  1. The us/them view (or ingroup/outgroup dynamic) has to be taken into account when figuring out strategy, because it’s always been one of our major obstacles – the very concept of bridge-building is meant to counter it.


  1. As I explain above for both the right and left, the groups who regard themselves as being on different “sides” are hurting their own causes by insisting on sticking only with their own ingroups. Persuasion of other groups suffers.

Fortunately, that problem can be lessened over time. After all, Ramesh Ponnuru expressed that he would have been happy to have me present to the National Review audience. And some of those late-night comedians do occasionally treat unborn children as humans (see, for example, Conan O’Brien “Fetus at Large,” Part 1 and Part 2; Seth Meyers as we mentioned on his current show and on Saturday Night Live, videos unfortunately no longer up).

So, while we’ve known all along that this us/them mentality is a major problem, we’ve also seen over and over again that it’s an obstacle that can be surmounted.


See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.





How Euthanasia and Poverty Threaten the Disabled

Posted on April 10, 2018 By

by Sarah Terzo

This is Part 2 of 2. Part 1 was How Ableism Led (and Leads) to Abortion


Sarah Terzo

Now that abortion has become entrenched in our culture, people are pushing for legalizing suicide. Currently in the United States, usually if someone wants to commit suicide, the police can be called. Suicidal persons will be interviewed. If mental health workers fear they’re in danger of suicide, suicidal persons will be hospitalized. They won’t be released from custody until they can convince mental health professionals they won’t commit suicide. However, in other countries, a suicidal person who is also disabled or chronically ill might be treated very differently.

Countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands allow euthanasia or assisted suicide for people who experience incurable, unbearable suffering, including mental suffering. Such laws enable the suicides of people with physical and mental disabilities. People have been killed or assisted in killing themselves because of conditions such as combined deafness and blindness; autism; and alcoholism. A study documented 37 cases in the Netherlands where people with mental health problems were enabled to commit suicide after refusing treatment that could have helped them. People with disabilities or other severe health problems are being assisted in dying rather than living.

The United States hasn’t yet reached this point, although seven states and the District of Columbia allow assisted suicide for people diagnosed with terminal illnesses. Such laws devalue the lives of one particular class of ill person, but don’t yet go as far as certain European laws.

I might not currently qualify for assisted suicide because my illness—rheumatoid arthritis—is not terminal (though it can lead to premature death). However, people with my condition and other disabilities have been victims of illegal assisted suicides in the United States.

Jack Kevorkian

Jack Kevorkian, known as Dr. Death, helped as many as 130 people kill themselves. Some were terminally ill, but others had chronic but nonfatal conditions. One woman had my diagnosis – rheumatoid arthritis. Despite killing 130 people by assisted suicide over the course of his career, Kevorkian served only 8 years in jail. Would a person who killed 130 able-bodied people get off so lightly?

Another disturbing sign is how the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), a suicide prevention group, now accepts the legitimacy of assisted suicide for the terminally ill. It takes a disturbingly vague stance on more permissive assisted suicide laws. AAS released a paper last fall declaring that “legal physician assisted deaths should not be considered to be cases of suicide.” Therefore they wouldn’t work to prevent it.

The paper does a poor job of explaining why only some suicides should be prevented. It gives 14 reasons assisted suicide differs from the types of suicide they work to prevent. Some of these seem to be arguments for making legalized suicide more readily available: “Suicide in the conventional sense often involves physical self-violence . . . [physician-assisted suicide] is intended to provide the physically easiest, least violent, least disfiguring, most peaceful form of death an already dying person could face”; “The legal status and consequences of the two acts are different”; physician-assisted suicides “do not incur the sometimes substantial forensic and other costs that suicides do . . . They do not invite dilemmas of publicity.”

Arguing that assisted suicide is less violent and involves less red tape resembles the argument that abortion should be legal because of the risks posed by illegal abortions. The point about forensic costs is especially striking – it doesn’t concern the well-being of the suicide victim, but the convenience to society.

AAS also argues assisted suicide is a rational choice for people with terminal illnesses. This argument devalues the lives of the people for whom suicide is considered rational. They aren’t given the same type of suicide prevention services others receive. Moreover, even the comparative narrowness of this argument, which limits allowable suicide to people with terminal illnesses, is qualified or diluted elsewhere.

Although AAS focuses on US law, it acknowledges the more permissive European assisted suicide/euthanasia laws and doesn’t clarify whether it agrees with them. It’s not clear whether the AAS supports assisted suicide for non-terminal patients. The paper doesn’t say whether such laws go too far.

At one point the paper comments that US law denies assisted suicide to people with depression or other mental health issues and allows that in such cases “traditional suicide prevention services and treatment for depression may well play a role.” Elsewhere, however, in distinguishing assisted suicide from more conventional suicide, the paper notes that while certain European laws allow suicide for “unbearable suffering in intractable mental illness” they at least require “heightened scrutiny.” Setting aside the questionable nature of the “scrutiny” in countries such as the Netherlands, this alleged distinction implies that the AAS thinks assisted suicide for mentally ill people is acceptable—or at least is ambivalent about it. This attitude undermines the whole goal of suicide prevention for which the AAS allegedly exists.

All these conditions—laws allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide, especially the permissive laws in places such as Belgium and the Netherlands, the lax treatment of Kevorkian, and the acceptance of assisted suicide by a supposed suicide prevention organization—show how the lives of disabled and nondisabled people are not valued equally.

From the website of Not Dead Yet (

Disabled people are vulnerable to being coerced into suicide. Many disabled people fear being a burden to others (of the 1,275 people who have died through assisted suicide in Oregon, over 40% cited “Burden on family, friends/caregivers” as being a concern). They know their disabilities can make life harder for the people who love them. They know their medical care is costly.

This fear affects me in my own life. As someone with bipolar disorder, I’ve been fighting suicidal feelings since I was 16. The knowledge that from some people’s perspective my suicide should be aided, not prevented, because of my disability makes it harder.

The threat of assisted suicide, and the gradual expansion of its use, is just one side of the danger facing the disabled. Disabled people also face the danger of falling into ever-deeper poverty. Supporting oneself isn’t easy for a disabled person: in fact, one study estimates that about 10 years after the onset of a chronic, severe disability, a disabled person’s average earnings decrease by 76%. In the United States, disabled people who’ve never been able to work, can—if they can qualify—get a stipend from the government of between $700-1,000 a month through Social Security. This is nowhere near enough to live on in any part of the United States. If the disabled don’t have family or friends that can take care of them, they have to rely on social programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and rental assistance just to survive. If you count SNAP recipients between the ages of 18 and 59 who have a disability—including those who don’t receive disability benefits—they add up to about 28% of all recipients. For men and women too disabled to work, there are no other options. In the United States, people with disabilities are at least twice as likely to live in poverty as able-bodied people.

Because of high health care costs, even disabled people who work often cannot make enough money to afford treatment for their medical conditions. Without a full-time job, health insurance is hard to come by, so many disabled people rely on Medicaid. One medication I take, only one out of 15, costs $40,000 dollars a year. Very few severely disabled people could earn enough money to pay for a medication like that. I therefore have to rely on the government through Medicaid.

Dependence on all these different forms of government assistance—disability benefits, SNAP, rental assistance, Medicaid—makes the disabled vulnerable to the cuts in these programs that some politicians pursue. If politicians succeed in cutting food stamps, rental assistance, and other social programs, these cuts would disproportionately hurt the disabled. Many disabled people would be thrown even deeper into poverty; some may lose access to housing.

Another harm to disabled people is the stigma attached to receiving government benefits. Even though the structure of our society makes it impossible for most disabled people to survive without government programs, disabled people (as well the able-bodied poor) are made to feel deeply ashamed of their dependence. All too often, people are judged by wealth or productivity, rather than their basic humanity. Disabled people sometimes internalize this stigma. It’s a common cultural narrative that a person must be productive enough to survive without outside support. One way to help the disabled is to counter this narrative when and where it occurs.

Ableism is on both sides of the political spectrum, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. Ableism can take the form of support for abortion, euthanasia/assisted suicide, or denying support to the disabled. Defenders of life should oppose ableism no matter who is promoting it or what form it takes.


For more of our blog posts from Sarah Terzo, see:

Abortion Doctor Says: We are the Executioners

The Vital Need for Diversity

Healing for the Perpetrators: The Psychological Damage from Different Types of Killing

How Ableism Led (and Leads) to Abortion

For another post on euthanasia, see:

Figuring out Euthanasia: What Does it Really Mean?

See the list of all our blog posts put in categories



disability rightseuthanasia

Eugenics in Roe v. Wade

Posted on April 3, 2018 By

by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the book The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics, pp. 151-153.


The 1973 Supreme Court decisions that ended all legal protection of unborn children were based on eugenics. Despite that, comments about the decisions usually focus on privacy and women’s rights, not on eugenics. So we should look carefully at the ways in which eugenics shows up in the decisions.

(1) The appearance of eugenics in the abortion decisions that is easiest to see is the reference in a footnote to Buck v. Bell, the 1927 case that opened the floodgates for sterilizing people who were considered to be unfit. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court said that the Constitution protects a “right to privacy” and that the decision to have an abortion is an exercise of this right. But, the Court stated, the right to privacy is not absolute; it can be limited in some cases, such as vaccination and sterilization. So the abortion decision was not about women’s rights; it cited a case permitting forced sterilization.

(2) The abortion decisions were written by Justice Harry Blackmun. His approach to abortion follows the lead of Glanville Williams. Glanville Williams, who taught law at Cambridge University, was a member of the Eugenics Society. In 1954, the Eugenics Society voted to support the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA), which set out to remove legal restrictions against abortion. Williams became president of the ALRA from 1962, and was successful within a few years; the British law was changed in 1967.

Harry Blackmun

The longest part of the decision written by Justice Harry Blackmun was his history of abortion laws. This is not a bizarre approach, but it is not the obvious approach either. If it was his intention to discuss abortion at length before examining the case that had come to the Supreme Court, he could have written about the development of the child, or about the methods of abortion, or about various birth control methods. He decided to dwell at length on the history of abortion laws. This is noteworthy, because this is the approach taken by Glanville Williams, in his book The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law, which Blackmun cited.

A startling aspect of Roe v. Wade is its insistence that laws against abortion are recent. But this view is taken from Glanville Williams. Williams wrote: “It is not generally realized that this rule is not older than the beginning of the last century.” Blackmun wrote: “It perhaps is not generally appreciated that the restrictive criminal abortion laws in effect in a majority of states today are of relatively recent vintage.”

The Hippocratic Oath is a stumbling block for historians who want to argue that only Christians oppose abortion. Williams and Blackmun deal with the Hippocratic Oath in different ways. Williams, incredibly, simply skips over it; he quotes Hippocrates on some other matter, but does not mention the Oath. Blackmun addresses it, but finds a way to set it aside. He explains that it represented a minority view among the Greeks, but was later taken up by Christians.

(3) Most importantly, the whole idea of humanity accumulating over time, from zero person at conception through various levels of value in each trimester up to 100% person at birth, is eugenics. The idea of evolution through stages from insignificance to humanity is pure eugenics, based on Darwin’s theories. The whole trimester scheme in Roe v. Wade, with different rules at three stages in pregnancy, is blatantly arbitrary, and that has always struck pro-lifers as a fatal flaw in the decision. But eugenicists are not bothered by arbitrary decisions, since their view is that rights are invented by society, by a social contract based on consensus, not given by God.

Eugenics devalues humans by rating people on a sliding scale. There are different sliding scales, but they all dehumanize vulnerable people and justify various crimes against humanity. The eugenics in Roe v. Wade is not a sliding scale based on racism; it does not assert that whites > yellows > reds & browns > blacks. And it is not a sliding scale based on IQ testing, placing the highly intelligent over the normal, the normal over morons, and morons over imbeciles. It is like the sliding scale in evolution, from protozoa to vegetable life to animal life to mammals to primates to savages to civilized mankind.

Roe v. Wade reflects a belief in the idea that each individual passes through developmental stages that imitate evolution: egg and sperm become a zygote, which becomes a blastocyst, then an embryo, then a fetus, then an infant, then a child, then an adult, then an old person, then a corpse. Of course each person goes through different stages in life; the critical question is whether the person’s worth also rises and falls. The 1973 decisions on abortion reflect the idea that size and weight and complexity— and value and rights—all accumulate gradually.


For more excerpts from this book, see:

Plato’s Words about Eugenics

The Jukes and Kallikaks “Studies”

Sterilizing the “Unfit”

Post World War II Eugenics

For more of our blog posts on racism, see:

Historical Black Voices: Racism Kills 

The Poor Cry Out for Justice, and We Respond with Legalized Abortion (Graciela Olivarez)

More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting (intersectionality)


eugenicsRoe v. Wade

How Ableism Led (and Leads) to Abortion

Posted on March 27, 2018 By

Sarah Terzo at the March for Life

by Sarah Terzo


Part 1 of 2; Part 2 is How Euthanasia and Poverty Threaten the Disabled.  

To be truly pro-life is to value all human beings. People are valuable not because of what we can do but because of what we are: human beings. For pro-lifers, people are not judged by how attractive they are, how wealthy they are, or how useful they are to others. People have inherent worth.  This is the core of the pro-life message.

We live in a culture that does not value the preborn. It also does not value the disabled.  In fact, a desire to eliminate disabled people was a driving force behind abortion even before Roe v. Wade.

Before the 1960s, the majority of Americans opposed legalizing abortion. This was clear in opinion polls. But the movement for abortion legalization got an enormous boost from two events:  the Sherri Finkbine case in 1962 and the German measles outbreak of 1964.

Sherri Finkbine was the host of the popular children’s show Romper Room. She was pregnant and suffering from morning sickness and insomnia. To treat her ailments, her husband brought a drug back from overseas – the drug thalidomide, which had not been approved in America, and gave it to her. Months into her pregnancy, Finkbine found out about the terrible birth defects that were caused by this drug, such as missing and misshapen limbs, and other health problems.

At the time, abortion was legal only to save the life of the mother. In practice, however, hospitals sometimes approved abortions for other reasons. Sherri Finkbine applied for an abortion at a local hospital, and her abortion was approved and scheduled.

To warn other women about thalidomide, Finkbine gave an interview to a newspaper about her situation. When the story ran, the hospital, fearing bad publicity, canceled the abortion.

What happened next was a media frenzy. Newspapers publicized how Finkbine, this beloved figure, was being forced to carry a horribly deformed child. She was portrayed as the innocent victim of cruel anti-abortion laws. Abortion-legalization activists used the story to drum up support for abortion. After Roe v. Wade was decided, lawyer Sarah Weddington, one of the pro-abortion attorneys who argued Roe, would say to Finkbine: “It’s a privilege to meet you. If it hadn’t been for you, my job ten years later would have been much more difficult.” (quoted in Patricia Myers. “Shades of Gray.” Phoenix, October 1989, pp. 40–45)

Finkbine ended up getting her abortion in Sweden. According to Cynthia Gorney, who wrote a book about the history of abortion in America: “when Sherri Finkbine was asked afterward what the Swedish doctors had said about her abortion, she said they had told her that deformities were present and that ‘baby’ was not the best description for what she had been carrying. It was better to think of it, Mrs. Finkbine reported the doctors having explained, as a growth.” (Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, p. 51)

The disabled baby was considered less than human by the doctors who aborted him or her (no sources I found bothered to document the child’s sex.)

Shortly after the Finkbine case, an epidemic of German measles in 1964-1965 led to the birth of disabled children throughout the United States. German measles, otherwise known as rubella, was a relatively mild disease in adults. However, pregnant women who contracted it often had babies with disabilities. Babies born to mothers infected with rubella developed heart defects, deafness, and intellectual disabilities.

The connection between rubella and birth defects was discovered in the 1940s by Australian ophthalmologist Norman Gregg, who openly promoted abortion for pregnant women infected with the virus. Leslie J. Reagan, author of Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America, states: “German measles was crucial for bringing out the public discussion of abortion and propelling the early abortion rights movement…. [It was] the opening that made it possible for women, and men too, to talk about the validity of this procedure and the necessity of making it legal.”

Pro-abortion activists capitalized on the fears of pregnant mothers who wanted healthy, normal children. These activists framed abortion as a medical issue, necessary to ensure that babies were not born disabled. In this way, abortion supporters used ableism to make abortion more palatable to the public, promoting the claim that it was better for a baby never to be born than allow him or her to be born with a disability.

Abortion supporters are still using ableism to promote abortion. An Episcopal priest recently said that abortion should be legalized in Latin America because of the Zika virus. Since the Zika virus can cause birth defects, she argues, abortion must be legal. If it isn’t, women will be forced to “suffer the consequences of a disabled child with special needs” (Kira Schlesinger Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice, p. 8).

Today women are expected to have tests to determine if their children will be disabled and are often encouraged to abort if they are. In some cases, it’s said to be in the best interests of the disabled child. One article I read recently was about a woman whose child had kidney problems and may have needed a kidney transplant after birth. Rather than let her baby be born, and giving him medical treatment, the woman decided to do what she said was the most “humane” thing for him. She had him dismembered in a D&E abortion.

In a D&E abortion, the abortionist uses forceps to extract the child piece by piece, literally tearing him apart. The abortionist pulls off the baby’s arms and legs, tears apart the rest of the body, then finally crushes the baby’s skull to remove it.  It is a violent, gruesome procedure. Yet the author described the abortion of her son as an act of kindness.

Often, though, if we read the actual words of those who abort disabled children, the well-being of the child really isn’t the main concern. In some cases, a disabled child is just too expensive and inconvenient. Rayna Rapp, in Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: the Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America quotes some parents whose unborn children were being tested for Down Syndrome. They were waiting for their test results to come back. All of them intended to abort if the test was positive.

One woman said, “I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t be that kind of mother who accepts everything, loves her kid no matter what. What about me? Maybe it’s selfish, I don’t know. But I just didn’t want all those problems in my life.” (p. 138)

Another said: “It’s devastating, it’s a waste, all the love that goes into kids like that.” (p. 134)

A third said: “I think it’s kind of like triage, or like euthanasia. There aren’t enough resources in the world. We’d have to move, to focus our whole family on getting a handicapped kid a better deal… Why spend $50,000 to save one child?” (p. 146)

The mention of euthanasia is all too appropriate. The same ableism that often drives support for abortion also drives support for euthanasia and other measures that hurt the disabled.

Part 2 will address euthanasia.


For more of our blog posts on people with disabilities, see:

Women with Disabilities Speak

For more from Sarah Terzo:

Abortion Doctors: We are the Executioners

The Vital Need for Diversity

Healing for the Perpetrators: The Psychological Damage from Different Types of Killing

See all of our blog posts put in categories


abortiondisability rightseugenics

Post-World War II Eugenics

Posted on March 20, 2018 By

by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the book The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics, pp. 114-116.

The dominant figure in American eugenics after World War II was a complex individual, Frederick Osborn (1889-1981). He is credited with reforming eugenics, removing the taint of racism and putting the field back on a firm scientific footing. But during his “reform,” from 1947 until 1956, he was president of the Pioneer Fund, a secretive white supremacist group. So he did not oppose racism; he opposed open racism. His reform of eugenics, then, would disguise, not remove, the taint of racism.

Osborn was a Major General. But he never made much of his military rank after World War II, perhaps because he was a little uncomfortable holding such a high rank without ever seeing combat. He was in charge of boosting troop morale during World War II, and got his exalted rank by politics. He spent most of his life boosting eugenics.

In 1956, Osborn traveled across the Atlantic to give the annual Galton Lecture at a meeting of the Eugenics Society. The speech was later published in the Eugenics Review (volume 48, number 1, April 1956). His words were well received then, and remain fascinating today.

In the address, entitled “Galton and Mid-Century Eugenics,” Osborn stated his devotion to the cause. Galton had envisaged a movement to raise the average of human intelligence and character that would “sweep the world and make man at least the master of his own destiny on earth.” But it had not happened, and the movement was reduced to “a few small handsful of men in various countries . . . not influencing public opinion.” In fact, Osborn noted, “The very word eugenics is in disrepute in some quarters.” Despite these problems, Osborn affirmed that “I still believe in Galton’s dream.”

Then Osborn posed the key question: “What have we done wrong?” He was concerned because “we have all but killed the eugenic movement.”

It is hard to imagine such moral blindness. Speaking just a decade after World War II, when tens of millions of people died fighting the savagery of a master race ideology, is Osborn concerned about the deaths of the Jews? Is he sorry about what happened so that the Nazis killed the feebleminded? Is he ashamed of the role that eugenics played in Germany and Japan, churning out death for civilians? No, he is troubled because they had almost killed the eugenics movement.

So what went wrong, according to Osborn? He said that they had “failed to take into account a trait which is almost universal and is very deep in nature. People simply are not willing to accept the idea that the genetic base on which their character is formed is inferior and should not be repeated in the next generation. We have asked whole groups of people to accept this idea and we have asked individuals to accept it. They have constantly refused . . . they won’t accept the idea that they are in general second rate.”

As you try to understand why people may have been slow to accept that they were second-rate, keep in mind that Osborn considered the upper five or ten percent of the population to have the intelligence and character that the entire human race should have.

Osborn’s response to the challenge was a proposal he called “voluntary unconscious selection.” The idea was to alter laws, customs and social expectations, so that individuals would decide for themselves that they did or did not want to have children. The way to persuade people to exercise this voluntary unconscious selection was to appeal to the idea of “wanted” children. Osborn said, “Let’s base our proposals on the desirability of having children born in homes where they will get affectionate and responsible care.” In this way, the eugenics movement “will move at last towards the high goal which Galton set for it.”

Osborn’s speech shows that the eugenics movement was hurt, but not dead. They still held to Galton’s dream, they were trying to find new ways to achieve it, and they were still making plans.


For the other excerpts from this book, see:

Plato’s Words about Eugenics

The Jukes and Kallikaks “Studies”

Sterilizing the “Unfit”

Eugenics in Roe v. Wade


For more of our blog posts on racism, see:

Historical Black Voices: Racism Kills 

The Poor Cry Out for Justice, and We Respond with Legalized Abortion (Graciela Olivarez)

More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting (intersectionality)





Valentine Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

Posted on March 13, 2018 By

by Carol Crossed

These were remarks delivered by Carol Crossed at a February 18, 2018 event at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, a CLN member group.


This week is not only the birthday of Susan B. Anthony, but also the 200th birthday of her good friend Frederick Douglass.

Because of illiteracy, the birth dates of most slaves were not known by their families. And certainly not known by their masters. After all, as one slaver said, “Do we keep a record of when our cows birthed calves?” So Douglass knew 1818 was his birth year, but he did not know his date of birth. He chose February 14, since his mother called him “her little valentine.”

Anthony’s friendship with Douglass was portrayed on stage this fall in Rochester, NY. The performance was titled The Agitators. Colleen Janz [our executive director] and five of us on the Birthplace Museum Board of Directors attended the performance. We hung on every word.

Anthony broke with custom and tradition when she asked Douglass to give the eulogy at her father Daniel’s funeral in 1862. This was unheard of in the mid-19th century.

However, recent expansive research has given rise to questions about racism within the suffrage movement. The research is well founded to a limited extent. The Birthplace has a piece of ephemera depicting racial overtones.

Despite her friendship with Frederick, Susan was not exempt from contemporary accusations of racial bias. This primarily was because Susan opposed the 15th amendment, giving black men the right to vote. Her opposition was because voting rights did not expand to another class of human beings: She wanted rights [in the language of her day] for both the Negro and women, and would not go halfway.

Today this rift between feminists is seen in the pro-choice / pro-life divide. Pro-choice feminists want rights for women at all costs. Pro-life feminists see themselves as favoring universal rights, and refuse to deny the rights of what they consider another class of human beings. They do not want to go halfway.

Susan was the leader in this war of all or nothing: voting rights for all or voting rights for none. It was a racial split in the suffrage movement that lasted 22 years.

According to Elaine Weis, who has written about the anti-suffrage movement, this rift tried at the souls of Anthony and Douglass even after their deaths. In the final years of the passage of the 19th Amendment, their friendship was criticized by many who opposed suffrage and was used to attack Anthony in her grave. As a matter of fact, even before ratification, the first to call the 19th Amendment the Susan B. Anthony Amendment were not pro-suffragists, but the anti-suffragists, who wanted to taint the suffrage cause. They hoped that race connection, that friendship, would deter supporters of suffrage, particularly those representing the Southern states.

The connection even deterred many in the north, even in the city where Anthony and Douglass led their activist life, Rochester, NY. Yes, the state of New York voted for suffrage, but in the city of Rochester, suffrage was defeated. It brings to mind the old adage that a prophet is honored everywhere except her own home town.


Carol Crossed is President of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Board of Directors, and a Co-Founder of the Consistent Life Network.


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The Darkest Hour – “Glorifying” War?

Posted on March 6, 2018 By

by Rachel MacNair

All posts represent only the opinion of their authors. We pride ourselves on presenting a diversity of views, and opinions about movies are something people will have wide differences on. This is my own opinion – and only my current opinion at that, easily changed.



I recently wrote in Peace & Life Connections about how the best picture nominations for the 2018 Oscars related to our issues and mentioned that The Darkest Hour was in the “glorifying-war” category. This brought a couple of objections, on the grounds that, as Richard Doerflinger put it, the movie


portrayed the horrors of war and the horrible decisions they demand of national leaders pretty clearly.  The war in question (hardly a glorious one!) was launched by Nazi Germany against the world, and the film dramatizes a key moment when Hitler was about to take over almost all of Western Europe — and Great Britain had to decide whether to “negotiate” a deal with Hitler, which would have meant effective Nazi control of the country as the fate of France would show, or continue to resist invasion. In the middle of this dilemma is an immediate dilemma, whether effectively to sacrifice the lives of 4000 soldiers in order to save another 300,000 trying to escape from France before they are surrounded and massacred by the German army.  I don’t think anyone can watch the film and get the impression that this was glorious — it may be the best that Churchill could do in an impossible situation, but it evinces shock from other sympathetic characters and rightly so.

He later pointed out that in previous decades, a lot of the war movies, especially ones dealing with fighting the Nazis, could clearly be put in the category of glorifying war. They sanitize the violence, oversimplify, and make the victory look easier then reality would ever allow. I agree with him that anyone seeing The Darkest Hour would see it was far more mature.

I went to see it because I take an interest in good historical dramas, especially those close enough to what really happened to give some sense of what the experience was like. I especially like dramas that show what people were thinking and why. This movie certainly succeeded in doing that. And I think Gary Oldham deserved his Best-Actor Oscar win for portraying Winston Churchill. Playing actual historical characters is the most accomplished of acting skills, and he nailed it.

I’m going to offer three reasons why I (currently) think that the movie belongs in the “glorifying-war” category.

1. Portraying violence as complicated is a common way of justifying it.

Consider the case of abortion, as we often do when we connect issues of violence.

Parallel to the people who portray war positively and gloriously, as a way of turning boys into men and defeating the “bad guys,” there are people whose attitude towards abortion is “on demand, and without apology.” The very portrayal of it as a woman’s right badly oversimplifies the impossible situations pregnant women are sometimes put into.

But there are other abortion defenders who object to being called “pro-abortion” on the idea that nobody favors abortion; they only favor choice. These folks emphasize how hard it is to make the decision. Many understand how ghastly the reality of abortion is.

As with war, the group that understands things as complicated might be easier to talk into alternative methods of solving problems. So a case can be made that they’re not as bad.

But does handwringing about the violence make them any less abortion defenders? Not only do opponents of violence feel the same way about the candidate or group even if they acknowledge the complexities involved, but much more importantly, the victims are just as dead.

2. Showing how hard violence is means it requires more bravery and sacrifice.

Violence as an easy problem solver is different from violence as a difficult problem solver. When it’s easy and the “good guys” come out unscathed, then most contemporary viewers may well see that as playing at war, rather than really understanding what war is like. Portraying people in impossible situations makes the people who use violence more heroic (hence, glorious). Certainly, Churchill’s speeches in the movie were portrayed as noble speeches.

3. The very selection of the topic portrays how “necessary” war is.

The main reason I saw The Darkest Hour as glorifying war is that it showed the origin of a view that was common during the Cold War: that the depicted events demonstrated that “appeasement” doesn’t work and that therefore arms build-ups are necessary.

It’s true, of course, that appeasement doesn’t work — but pacifists at the time were arguing that this isn’t even what Chamberlain did. Chamberlain’s previous negotiation with Hitler bought time to build up arms, and building more arms is what Britain did. By the time Chamberlain made that deal, the situation had already gotten bleak.

The crucial thing about World War II is that there were so many opportunities to nip it in the bud long before it got to the point depicted in the movie.

Just portraying that time, when the available options were few and harsh, is taking the situation as a given. Therefore the protagonists are seen as brave. This interpretation doesn’t take into account all the previous actions that helped build up to the dire hour, actions and failures to act that were decried by pacifists at the time.

American political cartoon 1921

Most people watching this movie have no idea that this situation grew out of previous conditions that should have been better handled. Some people know about the problems of the Treaty of Versailles and other instances of excessive punitiveness towards Germany. Some people know about the times when the world could have stood up for the Jews early on and did not, thus emboldening Hitler. But those people did not learn about these things from watching this movie, and everyone else is left in the dark.

We have a movie with an entire focus on the events commonly cited to assert why arms buildup, including nuclear weapons, is needed. This is one side of the argument, a very conventional interpretation during the Cold War. The movie doesn’t let the viewer know that there even exists another side to the argument. We know that standing up against people like Hitler is necessary, but there’s no clue here that there’s any method to do so other than war.


See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.

For more of our posts commenting on movies or television dramas, see:

Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)

Mothers and Daughters

Three Nonviolent Lessons from Doctor Who

For more comments on war policy, see:

Rejecting Mass Murder: Looking Back on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Three Reasons for Opposing the US Bombing of Syria

Self-Defeating Violence: The Case of the First World War

War Causes Abortion

Using Empathy during a New Cold War



movie reviewwar policy

Three Nonviolent Lessons from Doctor Who

Posted on February 27, 2018 By

By Andrew Hocking of

Andrew Hocking



Andrew Hocking writes about spirituality in movies, TV, and books, frequently discussing politics and occasionally Doctor Who.




While television, and especially science fiction, typically glamorizes violence as a solution to problems, the titular Doctor in Doctor Who continually seeks peaceful resolutions and guides others to do the same. Viewers committed to a consistent life ethic can find inspiration in him, and everyone can learn key principles of nonviolence though his moral successes and even his failures.

The Doctor, a time-traveling alien who routinely changes his physical appearance (allowing for cast changes), regrets his actions between the “Classic Who” series (which ran from 1963 to 1989) and the new series, or “Nu-Who” (resumed in 2005).

During the interval, he fought in the Time War between his species, the Time Lords, and the genocidal Daleks. To save the galaxy from ongoing war, he destroyed both races, killing 2.47 billion innocent children. Since then, he helps others (including the audience) choose the nonviolent path:


“Because I got it wrong, I’m going to make you get it right.”

This quote appears in the series’ 50th Anniversary Special, in which (Spoilers!) we return to the Time War and the moment when the incarnation of the Doctor that fought in that war (the “War Doctor”) chooses to use the weapon called the Moment to kill all Time Lords and Daleks. He finds however that the weapon itself attempts to change his mind, connecting him with two later incarnations, the Tenth and the Eleventh Doctors, and a high-ranking military official on Earth, Kate Stewart. They find Stewart faced with a similar decision: whether to set off a nuclear weapon to destroy London but save the Earth from invasion by aliens known as Zygons. Three central themes flow from this situation.

1)      Identify with the Other

To foster peace, the Doctor(s) temporarily wipe Kate’s memory as well as the shapeshifting Zygon impersonating her. He comments, “The key to perfect negotiation… [is] not know which side you’re on.” Since neither knew if they are human or Zygon, they determine fair terms.

Doctor Who frequently emphasizes the message that we must identify with others and avoid an “us vs. them” mindset that dehumanizes people. The episodes “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” involve a corporation that, to save human lives while mining for acid, created “flesh” that can be reconstituted as avatar doppelgangers, or “gangers,” for the humans to control and work through. The Doctor believes the “flesh” might have awareness, and a solar storm removes any doubt, making the gangers completely autonomous.

As always, the Doctor exhorts everyone to work together, but they fear one another. The originals first refuse to acknowledge the personhood of the “flesh,” calling them monsters and mistakes that must be destroyed. While these episodes speak to peacemaking, they also reference abortion, as the originals dehumanize the gangers as only “flesh,” referring to individuals as “it” instead of “he” or “she.” Furthermore, they use a euphemism for killing, “decommission.” The Doctor rejects this: after one original kills a ganger, the outraged Doctor exclaims, “You stopped his heart. He had a heart! Aorta, valves, a real human heart!” Following his reasoning, the heartbeat of an unborn child is a powerful sign of life in the womb.

As the episodes continue, the originals and the gangers realize they think and feel like one another. One character laments the idiocy: “We’re at war with ourselves” (the realization we all need.) In seeing their common interests, they seek to help one another and find a win-win solution. In the end, the original who started the conflict seeks systemic change and justice for gangers.

In personal and political conflict, learn from the Doctor and seek to identify with others. Reject dehumanizing terms. How can you work towards the rights of others and yourself at the same time? Try the mental exercise of pretending your identity is wiped and you don’t know which side you are on. For instance, if you did not know if you would be the mother or the child, could you support legalized abortion?

2) Who do you want to be?

In the 50th Anniversary Special, the Moment asks the War Doctor if he’s willing to live with himself after killing two species and shows him his future regret. In this, we find a selfish but powerful reason for doing the right thing: to feel better about ourselves.

The question, “who do you want to be?”, however, asks more than “how do you want to feel about yourself?” Our choices transform us. In the episode “Dalek,” the Ninth Doctor discovers a Dalek who survived the Time War. In a panic, he immediately attempts to torture it to death. Later, even as the Dalek turns from violence, the Doctor still seeks to kill it. His companion asks, “What are you changing into?”

We must grasp the political ramifications of the question, “Who do you want to be?” because you are what you vote. The episode “Kill the Moon” addresses the topic of voting on matters of life or death. The Doctor’s companion learns Earth’s moon is actually an egg and the creature inside it is hatching, which might lead to the death of humanity. From the moon, the companion asks the world’s populace to vote—by turning their lights on or off—if she should kill the innocent life. While humanity unanimously votes to kill, she cannot do it herself. Our conscience appears more active in our direct actions than in our voting habits.

If you looked at your political stances, what kind of person are you? Could you personally do the actions you tell the government to do on your behalf?

3) Find the Nonviolent Choice

While people typically limit their options to passive surrender and proactive fighting, the Doctor exhorts us to proactively seek peace. In the two-part “Zygon Invasion / Zygon Inversion,” a splinter group of Zygons break the peace treaty signed in the 50th Anniversary Special. The Doctor gets Kate Stewart and the Zygon leader back at the negotiating table.

Is it naive to believe that peace is always possible? Though peacemaking is not guaranteed to succeed, neither is violence. At the negotiating table, both human and Zygon have boxes with two buttons that will either bring success to their race or destruction. They just need to press the right one. As the Doctor explains:

“This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought, right there in front of you. Because it’s always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who’s going to die! You don’t know whose children are going to scream and burn… How much blood will spill before everyone does what they always were gonna have to do from the very beginning. Sit down and talk!”

He continues to expose the naiveté that violence brings peace:

Doctor: “When you’ve killed all the bad guys, and when it’s all perfect and just and fair, when you have finally got it exactly the way you want it, what are you going to do with the people like you? The troublemakers. How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?

Zygon: “We’ll win.”

Doctor: “Oh, will you? Well, maybe. Maybe you will win. But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. So, come on. Break the cycle.”

Be a peacemaker in your personal and political lives. This requires hard work, determination, and creativity. Seek win-win solutions and support politicians willing to do the same. For instance, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we need leaders who will seek a just agreement that satisfies both sides. In responding to the violence of abortion, we can find policies that both support women in crisis pregnancies and their children.

Applying the Three Lessons

Returning to the Special, the three Doctors have the choice again: do they kill all Daleks and Time Lords? The Doctor’s companion, Clara, reminds him who he is, who he wants to be, and who he promised to be: a Doctor. They imagine the Time Lord children, afraid and suffering, and they choose to give those who they would kill a face. In hope, they determine to find a new path, rejecting violent or passive options. Working together, they save the Time Lords, and the aggressing Daleks destroy themselves.

How can you apply the three lessons in this essay to your political beliefs and actions? To personal interactions with others?

Let’s follow the Doctor’s example: identify with others, be the type of person you want to be, and strive for peace. Then, let’s help others do the same.



For more of our blog posts commenting on dramas, see:

Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)

Mothers and Daughters


See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.

movie reviewnonviolence

Sterilizing the “Unfit”

Posted on February 20, 2018 By

by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the book The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics, pp. 64-66


In the 1920s, eugenicists in the United States and elsewhere pressed hard for sterilization laws, to give physicians and the heads of institutions the authority to sterilize their patients, with or without their consent. With (and sometimes without) these laws, they sterilized tens of thousands of vulnerable people. Most of the operations were salpingectomies [cutting the Fallopian tubes] and vasectomies.

American laws permitting sterilization of the feebleminded began in Pennsylvania, in 1905. Fortunately, the governor vetoed the law immediately. But other states passed laws and began to implement them. The push for sterilization did not gain full steam, though, until after World War I. Then, with the IQ tests available, the mental health lobby began promoting eugenic sterilization. By 1930, 27 states had started sterilization campaigns.

Other countries that passed or at least debated similar laws included Britain, South Africa, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland and Sweden, Norway and Switzerland.

In the United States, eugenic sterilization continued for decades. In some states, laws permitted the operation, but few were done. Some states ended the practice. But by the mid-1950s, 27 states reported almost 60,000 sterilizations performed. California led the way, with . . . 19,985. More women than men were sterilized: 23,667 men compared to 35,519 women.

Buck v. Bell

The statistics do not show the inhumanity of the sterilization campaign. To understand what the eugenics movement did, it is important to look at specific examples.

One of the most destructive dramas in the eugenics movement played out in central Virginia. Virginia’s forced sterilization law was challenged in court immediately. The case involved a young woman named Carrie Buck, who lived in an institution for the feeble-minded near Lynchburg. The head of the hospital was enthusiastic about eugenics, and many women were sterilized there without their knowledge, let alone consent. The hospital decided to sterilize Carrie Buck openly, under the new law. There was a trial in Amherst, Virginia, and “experts” testified that she was feeble-minded. In fact, the experts testified that she was from a family of immoral degenerates. Carrie and her mother and her “illegitimate” daughter were all judged to be unfit.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision that opened the floodgates of forced sterilization and permitted 30 states to assault 60,000 people over the next 40 years. The key sentence in the decision was simple: “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” The Court voted 8-1 (with only Pierce Butler dissenting) to allow the states to sterilize the dysgenic.

Carrie Buck with her mother Emma Buck; her baby Vivian


Who were these “three generations of imbeciles”?

Generation of imbeciles #1.

Emma Buck was not a model citizen. She lived in Charlottesville, with no fixed address, and got in various kinds of trouble. At some point, social workers decided that the time had come to get her off the streets, and there was a hearing to determine whether she was feeble-minded. The hearing was little more than a formality, but it was still degrading. Her inquisitor tested her ability to carry out simple tasks by demanding that she pick up a book and deliver it to someone else in the room. She ignored this demeaning request. Her refusal—dignified or spunky or sullen, take your pick— was taken as evidence of feeblemindedness, and Emma Buck was locked up in a hospital near Lynchburg.

Generation of imbeciles #2.

Emma had three children: Carrie, Doris and Roy. Carrie became pregnant when she was a teenager, so the Commonwealth sterilized her. Doris was also sterilized, although she didn’t even know what they had done to her until a reporter showed her and her husband the hospital records decades later. Finally understanding why they had no children, she wept. Roy had three children, so the Buck family may have survived despite the grim determination of the eugenicists.

When the mother, Emma, was locked up, Carrie was placed in foster care in Charlottesville. Things worked passably until she became pregnant. Years after the event, when she had no reason to lie (although there was no way to corroborate her story), she said that she became pregnant when her guardian’s nephew raped her. Her guardian, whether or not he knew the father’s identity, was apparently mortified by her pregnancy and swept her out of society along with her mother. Carrie was institutionalized because she was pregnant, which indicated to some people that she was an immoral, feebleminded, syphilitic Jukes & Kallikaks epidemic in the making. After some years in the hospital near Lynchburg, she wangled her way out as a domestic worker, and made her way in the world. She married a local sheriff named William Eagle. After his death, she moved north to Front Royal, Virginia, where she picked apples and married Charles Detamore, an orchard worker. She did some cleaning and nursing. Her life was not extraordinary, but no one who knew her after she left Lynchburg ever considered her feebleminded.

Generation of imbeciles #3.

Carrie’s child, Vivian, was declared feeble-minded because she did not smile and coo at a social worker who visited her as an infant one afternoon. Vivian went to school in Charlottesville, and was a normal student. Despite her failure to coo as an infant, she was on the honor roll one spring. She died of the measles when she was eight.

Three generations of imbeciles: a street person who didn’t jump when ordered to do so, a rape victim, and an honor student.


For other  excerpts from this book, see:

Plato’s Words about Eugenics

The Jukes and Kallikaks “Studies”

Post World War II Eugenics

Eugenics in Roe v. Wade


For our post on the Buck v. Bell case in the context of other US Supreme Court decisions, see Our Experience with Overturning Terrible Court Decisions

See The Tragedy of Carrie Buck for our book review of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.




Amnesty International’s Blind Spot

Posted on February 13, 2018 By

by Julia Smucker

Julia Smucker

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International is well known for its advocacy on behalf of vulnerable and marginalized people around the world. Amnesty’s goal is a worthy one, and  many of its efforts are to be commended.  The organization’s laudable work in defense of human rights makes it all the more unfortunate that in recent years it seems to have fallen into an all-too-frequent dichotomy in today’s political climate, one that pits advocacy for a particular category of vulnerable human beings – namely, the preborn – against many others, and perhaps especially women.

In 2015, they launched a petition calling for what they termed a “life-saving abortion,” in response to a situation that was harrowing enough (which I addressed here) even without them suggesting that the mother’s life had been in danger (falsely, as it turned out). Now they’ve issued a similarly reflexive response to a proposed change to abortion laws in Poland.  The petition is briefly worded and designed to evoke automatic outrage, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that there are two major flaws in its assumptions.

First, the proposed bill that Amnesty is responding to is one that would remove the “fetal impairment” grounds for abortion as currently allowed under Polish law.  It’s unclear how removing these grounds would pose a risk to women’s health as the petition claims.  Furthermore, such a leap may easily distract from the implicit prejudice in using impairment as a determining factor in deciding whether someone’s life will have value.  The implications, especially in the context of human rights, should be particularly concerning for disability rights advocates.

Second,  there’s an implication that legal restrictions of abortion necessarily entail criminal sentences for women who obtain them.  Such an approach in fact garners little support, including among pro-life advocates.  CL board member Rachel MacNair addressed the question of who should be targeted by laws restricting abortion in a previous post, noting that the moral responsibility for abortion, as with other kinds of large-scale state-sponsored violence such as capital punishment and war, is shared by many.

Aimee Murphy, executive director of member group Rehumanize International, made the case in an October 2017 video for a restorative justice approach to abortion laws, explaining why she favors legal protection for preborn human lives and why this does not mean “punishing women who have abortions”:

Aimee Murphy

I think that our current model of justice, based on retribution and punishment models that see justice as a balance of harms, is actually contrary to human dignity…. If we seek to build a truly human-centered model of justice, a truly personalist model of justice, a truly pro-life model of justice, then our justice system should be restorative. Our justice system should seek to achieve three ends: firstly, to respect the inherent dignity of both the offended and the offender; secondly, to acknowledge the harm done; and thirdly, to make reparation for the harm done. We acknowledge that violence creates a rift between the offender and the offended, between the offender and the community. We should not seek to further disintegrate our human community through the continued harms against the offender for their violence, like the death penalty or incarceration or an eye for an eye. We should seek instead the reintegration of the offender to the community, to make our community as whole as is possible, to respect the dignity of all.

I support restorative justice models across the board, especially because our system of justice has currently led to inhumane and often racist structures of mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes. But I support restorative justice most particularly when faced with the case of abortion. As someone who was told at 16 that if I didn’t get an abortion my rapist would kill me, I understand that abortion coercion is very real on personal, familial, economic and societal levels. Those who have abortions are very rarely the sole guilty party.

When Amnesty calls for “a feminist response, working to … save women rather than harm them,” consistent-lifers can easily agree with this goal on the face of it, precisely because we believe that abortion harms women.  To save women and their children (before and after birth) means seeking to repair and prevent harm, to restore wholeness and to respect human dignity, both through outside-the-box approaches to the justice system and by going well beyond laws to support and empower nonviolent choices whatever the circumstance.


Editor’s Note: Back in 2007, the Consistent Life Network ran a petition drive and presented petitions at an Amnesty International conference in hopes of dissuading the leadership from moving away from abortion neutrality and adopting a new stance that abortion is a “human right.” When Rachel MacNair tried to pass out leaflets to conference-goers, she was forbidden to, and when she asked point-blank if she was being censored, the answer was a point-blank “yes.” The previous fall Amnesty had asked the membership to vote on this new stance, but the results of the vote were never released. At the 2007 conference it became clear that the stance had nevertheless already been adopted by the leadership.

 Click here for the full story and a list of abortion-neutral human rights organizations as alternatives for donations. 


See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.