by John Whitehead
Simply Asking Questions
Andrew Young, the civil rights activist, politician, and diplomat, was present in Selma, Alabama, during the “Bloody Sunday” violence of March 7, 1965. When hundreds of Black Americans and others tried to march for voting rights only to be beaten and tear-gassed by Alabama state troopers, Young helped the wounded and others retreating from the violence. He also faced the challenge of talking down people who wanted to respond with violence of their own.
As Young recalled,
[T]here were people who…started talking about going to get their guns. You had to talk them down…and you had to talk them down by simply asking questions,
“What kind of gun you got, .32, .38? You know, how’s that going to hold up against the automatic rifles and the 12-gauge… you know 10-gauge shotguns that they’ve got? And how many have you got? There are at least 200 shotguns out there with buckshot in them. You ever see buckshot? You ever see what buckshot does to a deer?” You know, and most of them had. And you make people think about the specifics of violence, and then they realize how suicidal and nonsensical it is…
I mean there were, in other situations, when people would really get bad, and we couldn’t turn them…we couldn’t physically restrain them, [and] we’d say, “All right, go ahead. Help yourself. Go ahead and… who are you going to kill first, you know? And what’s going to happen when you kill that one?” See? “Where are you going to go after you’ve killed two or three white folk?” See. “You got an escape plan?” Say, “Where are you going to hide? Where are you going to get money to live? Are you ready to take on an underground terrorism movement?” And you know, once they realized they hadn’t thought about even violence…and that what they were really doing was a kind of macho foolishness…they’d calm down.
But you… you see, we were convinced that violence was weakness, that violence wasn’t strength, and that violence was the surest way to get a whole lot of people killed.
I have repeatedly thought about Young’s story when I reflect on another infamous act of violence, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Specific, Practical Questions
Like most Americans, I watched with horror as the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I remember being very afraid, in the days that followed, about future terrorist attacks. I remember being very angry about the pre-meditated murder of 2,977 people. I also remember being uncertain about how best to respond to the attacks.
I wasn’t then (and still am not now) a pacifist, but I also wasn’t sure if the US invasion of Afghanistan that followed 9/11 was a good or just response to the attacks. I vacillated for months in my views. Then, I eventually settled on a generally supportive attitude toward the hawkish policies that the Bush administration pursued—which, I deeply regret to say, included support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many years would pass before I came to take a far more skeptical, nonviolence-minded view of American wars and military policies.
Looking back, some 20 years after 9/11, I ask myself what would have convinced me back then to take a different course. What would have persuaded me that war and a generally violent response to terrorism wasn’t wise? And I think of Young’s story.
I appreciate how Young and his colleagues asked specific, practical questions. Asking such questions about the response to 9/11 might have made a difference:
Will denying al Qaeda terrorists a base in Afghanistan really be that big an obstacle to their committing more terrorist attacks? Couldn’t al Qaeda establish new bases in other sympathetic or unstable communities—such as areas of neighboring Pakistan? What kind of longer-term responsibility in Afghanistan is the United States taking on by invading? What might the costs of such a responsibility be? If the policy is to stop further attacks by killing al Qaeda terrorists, does that mean also killing them in countries other than Afghanistan? What are the implications of such a wide-ranging license to kill? How confident can we be that those targeted in this way are really guilty of terrorism? These and similar questions were ones that deserved serious thought back in 2001.
Twenty years later, the price of the US response to 9/11 has been enormous. To highlight just a few costs, over 7,000 US military personnel and civilian Defense Department employees have been killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as related military operations.
Estimates of others killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars include over 1,000 allied military personnel; over 7,000 US contractors; and perhaps over 100,000 security personnel, over 200,000 civilians, and over 80,000 opposition fighters in the nations where these wars have been fought (these imprecise estimates might well understate the numbers of dead). Not all these people were directly killed by US forces, but US policy created the context in which they died.
What has all this loss of life achieved? Granted, no terrorist attacks on a scale comparable to 9/11 have occurred on American soil since 2001. Yet terrorist attacks and plots by people allied with al Qaeda or ISIS, or who have similar ideologies, have still occurred in the United States. Examples include the 2009 plots to bomb New York’s subway system and a Northwest airlines flight, the 2010 attempt to bomb Times square, the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, and the 2016 Orlando massacre. Almost 100 people have died from such attacks and that number could easily have been higher except for pure luck: the bombs on the Northwest flight and in Times Square failed to work properly.
The United States’ costly wars and counter-terrorism policies failed to prevent such attacks or near-attacks. In fact, these policies might have contributed to them: for example, the would-be subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Orlando killer Omar Mateen all cited US-sponsored violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere as justifications for their acts. Such a record is not very reassuring, especially given how much the anti-terrorism policies have cost Americans and many others.
Looking back, I cannot help but think that a more restrained, less militarized response to 9/11 would have been better. Such a response might have emphasized measures such as seeking to track down, arrest, and legally try individual terrorists; improving transportation security; and securing dangerous materials that could be used to make chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, so they couldn’t end up in terrorists’ hands. Such a response may have been equally if not more successful in preventing further attacks and have left far fewer people dead.
I wish I had thought harder about the practical questions of how to stop terrorism. I wish someone had pressed these types of questions on me as Young and others pressed questions on their colleagues in Selma.
Twenty years later, the anniversary of 9/11 is a time to mourn: to mourn all those killed in the September 11th attacks and the many people killed because of the responses to those attacks. The anniversary is also a time to resolve in the future to ask the hard, practical questions about responding to terrorism.
For more commentary by John Whitehead on historical events, see:
International panel. Left to right, clockwise: Luke Silke, Ireland; Maria Oswalt, moderator; Kristina Artukovic, Serbia; Stephanie Midori Komashin, Japan; Martha Cecilia Villafuerte, Ecuador
John Whitehead comments:
The Rehumanize 2021 Conference sessions on Global Perspectives on Abortion and on Nuclear Nonproliferation both touched on a common challenge for activists: overcoming apathy.
Kristina Artukovic and Stephanie Midori Komashin observed that in Serbia and Japan abortion is not a controversial topic. The practice is largely accepted, with little debate. Pro-life activism is minimal in both countries. Further, this indifference toward abortion is part of larger patterns. Kristina commented that abortion generates little debate in Europe generally. In Japan, Stephanie explained, indifference about abortion is consistent with a general apathy toward politics among young people.
Tim Wainwright sounded a similar note in his talk on working against nuclear weapons. In contrast to the vibrant, engaged anti-nuclear movement of the late 20th century, peace activists today struggle to generate interest in the nuclear threat (Tim’s comments here definitely echoed my own experiences).
Such apathy is disheartening, but it also has a hopeful aspect. A general lack of interest in certain life issues also means that defenders of life don’t have to face highly motivated opposition. For example, Stephanie observed that her pro-life activism generates very little active opposition in Japan. For my part, I have been somewhat heartened by how anti-nuclear activism hasn’t become a highly fierce, emotionally charged “hot button” issue. When people haven’t yet become deeply invested in an issue, they might be willing to listen to the pro-peace, pro-life perspective on it.
Julia Smucker comments:
The most striking presentation I heard at this conference was by Sabrina Butler-Smith, who shared her experience of being wrongfully convicted for the death of her child. Her descriptions of coerced confession, prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate defense demonstrated how skewed the US criminal legal system is toward finding someone to punish rather than finding out the truth. Parts of Sabrina’s story reminded me of similar ones recounted in Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about wrongful convictions and related issues.
Anita Cameron, director of minority outreach for Not Dead Yet, also spoke powerfully about the ableism that undergirds the push for assisted suicide, pushing back against the demeaning assumption that it’s better to be dead than disabled – a point that Beth Fox, another disability rights self-advocate, also added to in her breakout session that immediately followed Anita’s keynote.
I also found it refreshing to simply meet and reconnect with other consistent life advocates in the regionally-based chat session and virtual expo booths. This allowed us at least a small taste of the social dynamic of an in-person conference, an experience I hope we can safely return to sometime in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, I commend our friends at Rehumanize for putting together another full and dynamic online conference
For more posts on consistent conferences, see:
Intervention: What a Red Rose Rescue Reminds Us About Civil Disobedience in the Consistent Life Movement
by Sonja Morin
Susan B. Anthony being arrested for voting when female suffrage was not yet attained. Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes to support unjust war. Abolitionists flaunting the attempts of slave catchers to arrest escaping Black families. The sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches of the civil rights movement of the last century. Civil disobedience has long been an essential part of advocacy, especially in our country and for the consistent life movement.
Much of the pro-life movement has shied away from this type of action. My theory is that, due to the fragile state of our cause, many fear bad publicity. Regardless of the reason, civil disobedience is crucial to any social cause because it interrupts normalcy to draw attention to an issue that concerns the whole community. It makes the issue impact the individual, to the point where they are forced to confront its consequences and be encouraged to act.
An act of civil disobedience was undertaken on Friday, August 27 in Philadelphia at the city’s Planned Parenthood clinic. Red Rose Rescue was undertaking sidewalk advocacy. Participants offered the namesake flower to those going into the clinic, as a last effort to rescue them and their pre-born children from the abortion giant. The morning had been successful, with several patients turning away from the clinic to a life-affirming pregnancy resource center close by.
Since their actions were interpreted as an obstacle to Planned Parenthood’s business, workers summoned local police forces and a SWAT team to intervene. They forcibly attempted to remove the sidewalk advocates. One activist in particular, who still remains unnamed, did not want to comply with the orders. He successfully entered into the facility and locked himself in the men’s restroom. He was eventually arrested, but his entry closed the clinic for the whole day, halting all abortion appointments.
When I spoke with Terrisa Bukovinac, founder of Pro-Life San Francisco, who is an atheist and a staunch human rights advocate, she expressed how tense it was being on the scene that morning. The atmosphere was rife with anxious anticipation as to what was going to happen next. Planned Parenthood employees waited alongside sidewalk advocates, waiting to see what would happen, and if the facility would reopen that day. While there was some “heated discussion,” some productive conversation arose between the two camps.
Since that tumultuous Friday scene in Philadelphia, I waited to see if any media coverage would detail the event. I wasn’t surprised when I found only one local news article in response to the event, which didn’t cite the activist’s reason for entering the Planned Parenthood location, or acknowledge the fact that he posed no harm to anyone inside. What did stun me is the silence from most pro-life circles in response.
We should be celebrating! Several lives were saved that day, and parents were spared the pain of abortion. Employees confronted sidewalk advocates and were exposed to the truth. Planned Parenthood at large was reminded that their days will be numbered, as justice resets the recognition of all human life as having dignity in our country.
I decided to highlight this event, not only because of the good it accomplished, but as a reminder of what we as consistent life activists are meant to do. We are meant to intervene through civil disobedience, letting truth and human dignity guide our actions. Our advocacy is not just limited to an online presence or occasional conversation, but includes legitimate attempts in the public sphere to influence change.
May the efforts of the sidewalk advocates who were present at Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia inspire us on our continuous mission for the good of all human lives, and their protection from violence. Now, let’s move onwards in civil disobedience for the cause of civil rehumanization!
For a post on a similar action, see:
For more posts about nonviolent action, see:
Making a Nonviolent Revolution: Review of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know
Remembering Gandhi at 150: The Power of Nonviolence and Respect for Life
by John Whitehead
Nonviolent civil resistance helped change history 30 years ago this month. When a group of hardline communists within the Soviet Union attempted a coup in August 1991, they were met with significant resistance from other Soviet citizens, including both ordinary people and elites. The civil resisters ultimately prevailed over the coup plotters. The failed coup set the stage for the Soviet Union’s dissolution later that year.
The thwarted Soviet coup is an inspiring example of what nonviolent civil resistance achieved. Viewed three decades later, in light of subsequent, grimmer historical events, this episode also provides an occasion to reflect on what civil resistance failed to achieve.
A Fracturing Nation
The August 1991 coup and the resulting resistance were the climax of years of change in the historically repressive Soviet Union overseen by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1989, elections to a national assembly took place in which candidates not affiliated with the ruling Communist Party could run for office. These non-establishment candidates won a significant minority of seats. The following year, the regime moved further away from one-party rule by allowing greater freedom for non-Communist political parties to operate. Later in 1990, multiparty local elections brought more non-establishment candidates to power, including reformist mayors of the major cities Moscow and Leningrad. In June 1991, 80 million Soviet voters elected a new president for the most important Soviet republic, Russia. The winner was Boris Yeltsin, a former Communist turned regime opponent.
These changes were accompanied by greater popular willingness to challenge the Soviet regime. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people participated in an anti-government demonstration in Moscow in February 1990, the largest such protest in Soviet history. The protest may have influenced that year’s decision to allow for greater electoral freedom. A similar demonstration took place in Moscow in March 1991, in open defiance of a government ban and despite the presence of police and troops on hand to repress demonstrators. However, the protest occurred without violence.
Journalist Vitaly Korotich described the change taking place: “The people in this country have always been afraid of power . . . Now, maybe, the powerful are becoming a little afraid of the people.” (quoted in David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb, p. 222)
Popular resistance was met with violence elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Non-Russian Soviet republics that defied the Russia-dominated regime became flashpoints for conflict. In 1989, troops attacked a crowd of nationalists in Georgia, killing 19 people. In early 1991, government forces responded to independence movements in Lithuania and Latvia with violent crackdowns that left 20 people dead.
Faced with an increasingly rebellious, divided nation, Gorbachev compromised. He agreed to a new structure for the Soviet Union, in which the various Soviet republics would have more autonomy and those republics who wished to leave the Union altogether could more easily do so. A treaty establishing this new structure was scheduled to be signed on August 20, 1991. Then the coup intervened.
Coup and Resistance
Members of Gorbachev’s inner circle such as Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov formed a plan to take power before the new Union Treaty could be signed. Gorbachev was then away from Moscow on vacation; on August 18, the conspirators cut off his communication with the outside world and placed the Soviet leader under house arrest. Early the following morning, the conspirators broadcast a TV announcement of a state of emergency in the country. On Yazov’s orders, military units occupied Moscow, taking positions around the parliament, city hall, and TV and radio stations.
Resistance to the coup swiftly took shape, helped by the conspirators’ failure either to arrest all potential opponents or to gain control of all communications and media outlets. Yeltsin rushed to the Moscow parliament building and, together with other Russian politicians, issued an appeal denouncing the coup and calling for a country-wide strike. Yeltsin was even bold enough to venture outside, stand on one of the hostile tanks around the parliament, and declare “[W]e proclaim all decisions and decrees of [the conspirators] to be illegal…We appeal to citizens of Russia to give an appropriate rebuff to the putschists and demand a return of the country to normal constitutional development.” (Lenin’s Tomb, p. 466]
Russians of all kinds joined in the resistance. Tens of thousands of people gradually converged around the parliament, setting up barricades made out of debris. A printer’s strike at the newspaper Izvestia forced the paper’s management to print Yeltsin’s appeal. Some military units sent by the conspirators were met by people shouting “Don’t shoot your own people! Turn against your officers!” People brought soldiers food, flowers, and resistance leaflets.
The resistance wasn’t philosophically nonviolent. Many of those who defended the parliament carried weapons. Yet in practice the civil resisters remained largely nonviolent. (One notable exception was when a clash between demonstrators and a tank led to three protestors being killed; other protestors then set fire to tanks.) A line of women protected the parliament while holding a sign reading: “Soviet Soldiers: Don’t Shoot Your Mothers.”
Nadezhda Kudinova, a seamstress who joined the protestors, later commented, “The people in the [parliament] ordered us to step aside, not to jump on the tanks if they came . . . But we knew that if the tanks came, we would step in front of them.” Another woman protestor, Regina Bogachova, said simply, “I am ready to die right here, right on this spot. I will not move.” (Lenin’s Tomb, pp. 478, 481-482)
The stand-off dragged on for days. The conspirators faced the problem that they could prevail only by violently overrunning the resistance at the parliament. However, they couldn’t count on general support for such action: military commanders and even KGB officials expressed skepticism about the coup. They eventually decided to quit: on August 21, Yazov and the military commanders sent the troops in Moscow back to barracks. In the early morning hours, Kryuchkov called the parliament to say, “It’s okay now . . . You can go to sleep.” (Lenin’s Tomb, pp. 484-485)
Most of the coup conspirators went to prison. By December 1991, most Soviet republics had agreed to bypass any new Union Treaty and simply become independent nations. The Soviet Union ceased to exist by the year’s end.
At the time, all these events seemed a near-miraculous triumph for freedom and democracy over repression. Viewed 30 years later, the August 1991 coup and its defeat seem more bittersweet.
As president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin proved far less devoted to democracy and nonviolence than he had been as a rebel. A little over two years after facing down tanks in Moscow, Yeltsin would send tanks against the Russian parliament building he had once defended, now to crush his own political opposition. The 1990s brought terrible political and economic chaos to Russia. Meanwhile, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, moved early in his tenure to curtail independent Russian TV media. Putin’s 20-plus-year career as president reached a culmination of sorts earlier this year when he amended Russian law to allow him to continue as president until 2036.
Does this dismal history mean that the nonviolent civil resistance of 1991 was a failure? In one sense, the answer is clearly “no.” The civil resisters succeeded in their primary, immediate goal of thwarting the attempted coup. Their nonviolent resistance was likely far more effective, and certainly less bloody, than violent resistance to the coup would have been. Further, the persistence of repressive politics in the region indicates that more civil resistance, not less, is needed in post-Soviet nations.
Nevertheless, what recent history also suggests is that civil resistance by itself is not sufficient to bring justice and peace to a society. The possibilities that civil resistance opens up must be used wisely to build a new, stable, non-repressive political system. This requires activists to cultivate an additional set of political skills beyond mastery of resistance. In nonviolent resistance as much as violent resistance, one can “win the war but lose the peace.” The resistance of August 1991 thus is both an inspirational and cautionary tale for activists today.
For similar posts from John Whitehead, see:
Making a Nonviolent Revolution: Review of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know
by Rachel MacNair
See our previous Hollywood Movie Insights post, offering comments on several movies.
An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and winner of other awards, the story spans the life of an artist as a boy in Nazi Germany and a man in East Germany. He flees to West Germany right before the Berlin Wall was built. It’s of interest to history buffs and/or people interested in how art can be therapeutic to traumatized lives.
For consistent-lifers, its highly personal portrayal of the Nazi euthanasia program is shown as historically connected to war.
It’s also another film in which an abortion is inflicted on a woman who’s devastated about it. The abortion is performed by her formerly Nazi father, an ob/gyn, for eugenic reasons. He doesn’t think the baby’s father is worthy for his bloodline.
This theme of a coerced abortion as part of a sea of violence isn’t a common one in award-winning films or in Hollywood movies. But another example of a major studio film in which abortion was inflicted by men who see the woman as having no say is the Ides of March (see the third movie commented on in our previous post).
This is the story behind the official report on torture of prisoners of war under the Bush administration, with the euphemism “enhanced interrogation.” One point made crystal clear is how utterly wrong is the idea that violence, while regrettable, may be necessary to prevent greater violence in some circumstances. Building rapport with prisoners sometimes works as a way of getting information. Torture, on the other hand, always gets information that was false or already known.
Therefore, to make the case against torture as a war tactic, we need not rely entirely on the assertion that it’s wrong. It’s also demonstrated to be entirely useless.
A large company is poisoning the waters in the county where their employees work. The hero is a corporate lawyer who – knowing them as the neighbors he grew up with – takes the side of the poisoned.
That the poisoning is injuring unborn children is one of the shocking details of the callousness of the corporation. It has their pregnant mothers continue working in dangerous conditions. The mothers, of course, don’t know of the danger, but the corporate bosses do.
For more of our posts with movie reviews, see:
Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)
by John Whitehead
Paul Fussell, a literary critic and World War II veteran, wrote an essay in the 1980s with the arresting title “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” A passionate defense of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fussell’s essay is still sometimes invoked today by bombing supporters.
However, Fussell’s argument is seriously flawed—and notably similar to one used by advocates for abortion access.
Fussell’s argument resembles the standard defense: dropping atomic bombs on two cities forced Japan to surrender without a costly US invasion of Japan and thus ultimately saved more American and Japanese lives than were lost in the bombings. Bombing supporters emphasize the extreme violence of the US-Japanese war, US plans to invade Japan in late 1945, and the invasion’s probable high casualties. Many aspects of this defense are unsound, such as claims that more lives were saved in the long run and that this justifies indiscriminate bombing.
However, Fussell’s defense is fundamentally quite different from the standard version. The heart of his essay isn’t the total number of lives saved versus those lost but the experiences and attitudes of American troops. Fussell’s theme is the role of “experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views.”
For those combat troops who would have been involved in an invasion of Japan—and Fussell was one—the atomic bombings and war’s subsequent end seemed a reprieve from near-certain death.
Fussell quotes various combat veterans, but the essay’s most powerful passage is on his own reaction:
My division, like most of the ones transferred from Europe, was to take part in the invasion of Honshu… I was a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that [the invasion of Japan] would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all. (Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, p. 28)
Fussell contrasts his and other veterans’ combat experience with the lack of such experience among various critics of the bombings. Journalist Bruce Page was only nine years old in 1945, while historian Michael Sherry was “going on eight months old, in danger only of falling out of his pram.”
Even contemporaries who served in the military Fussell deems inadequately experienced, if they didn’t see combat. Historian David Joravsky “came into no deadly contact with the Japanese”; and veteran J. Glenn Gray “experienced the war at [headquarters] level.” The economist and bombing critic John Kenneth Galbraith “worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington” during the war, Fussell observes. He adds, “I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.”
The Experiences Left Out
The attitude toward the atomic bombings among veterans such as Fussell, who had already been through the horror of combat, is entirely natural and understandable. Had I been in their situation, I’m sure I would’ve had the same relieved reaction. I don’t condemn Fussell or other combat veterans, as people, for being glad for the war’s end and, by extension, for the atomic bombings.
However, I will critique Fussell’s essay for not being persuasive. I see three crucial problems with his argument:
First, Fussell assumes, almost without question, that the only options available for ending the Pacific War were either an invasion of Japan or atomic bombing. He largely doesn’t consider the option of the United States and Japan reaching some kind of negotiated truce.
Second, Fussell doesn’t consider that the combat troops’ understandable personal concern about what happened next in the Pacific in 1945 didn’t necessarily make them the best judges of the situation. Desperate, often traumatized, people with a significant personal stake in a situation don’t necessarily make the kind of careful, far-seeing decisions that should ideally shape foreign policy.
Third, and most important, Fussell’s argument from personal experience ignores a crucial set of personal experiences: those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s residents. For those tens of thousands of Japanese whom the bombings killed, maimed, or forever deprived of family members, “sheer, vulgar experience” provided a very different conclusion about the correctness of dropping the bombs. As one commentator observed, the “experience thing cuts both ways.”
I see no reason why the experience of Allied combat troops slated to invade Japan should trump that of the men, women, and children killed in the atomic bombings. Fussell laments that combat veterans who support the bombings “have remained silent about what they know.” Yet the voices of at least 100,000 residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have also been silenced, in a far more definitive way.
Granted, a bombing advocate could respond by arguing that a diplomatic resolution to the war was unrealistic; that a government’s first responsibility is to take care of its own people, including its troops; or that the bombings ultimately saved more lives than were lost. Whatever one thinks of such arguments, though, they make Fussell’s appeal to personal experience irrelevant. These arguments involve a dispassionate assessment of the situation, the kind of armchair theorizing that Fussell scorns when done by bombing opponents. The personal experiences of combat veterans, powerful though they are, don’t prove anything by themselves.
“No Uterus, No Opinion”
Fussell’s claim that only one group of people, those directly affected by an act of violence, can credibly make judgments on this act is similar to claims made by advocates for abortion access. While Fussell argues that only combat troops slated to invade Japan can speak with authority on the atomic bombings, pro-choice advocates sometimes argue that only women can speak with authority on abortion.
This is reflected in the slogan “No Uterus, No Opinion.” It’s reflected in the (highly questionable) claim that most pro-life leaders are men who will never be pregnant. Alesha Doan, a pro-choice public-affairs professor at the University of Kansas, comments that “I think [abortion] has been defined as exclusively a women’s-rights issue that therefore has to only be dealt with by women.” (Doan and other pro-choicers have even expressed concern about this attitude, in some cases because it alienates potential pro-choice male allies.)
Moreover, this pro-choice emphasis on experience could be taken a step further to exclude anyone who hasn’t been through a crisis pregnancy—much as Fussell rejects the perspective of troops who didn’t experience combat. The cartoonist Lynda Barry, who writes powerfully about getting an abortion amid dire personal circumstances, sounds a similar note as Fussell, writing of anti-abortion protesters, “Those people out there, they come from another world. They’ll never know what it means to come from our street.” (Harper’s Magazine, November 1992, p. 46)
However, the position that only women or only those who have faced crisis pregnancies can speak credibly on abortion has the same fundamental problem as Fussell’s position. This stance excludes the interests of other people centrally concerned with abortion: the children in the womb who are killed by it. Again, the experience thing cuts both ways. One could turn around the familiar slogan to say “No Threat of Death by Dismemberment, No Opinion.”
Pro-choice advocates could respond that a human organism in the womb doesn’t have the same rights as a pregnant woman. Or they could argue that the woman’s rights trump whatever rights the child in the womb might have. However, as with the atomic bombings, raising these types of arguments again moves us away from direct personal experience and into larger abstract issues that someone can analyze without having “sheer, vulgar experience.”
Personal experience certainly matters, especially in situations as serious as war or crisis pregnancies. People who face such situations deserve our utmost sympathy and support. Those of us who haven’t faced these situations – and never will – should be exceedingly humble and shouldn’t condemn people in these situations.
We also shouldn’t let our lack of experience lead us to abandon our own judgment or concern for the lives of all the people involved. Rather, we should apply ourselves to finding nonviolent responses to situations that are all too often dealt with through violence, whether from a suction machine or an atom bomb.
For more of our posts on the theme of men’s say in abortion policy, see:
For more of our posts on the theme on the atomic bombings and their aftermath, see:
by Julia Smucker
Editor’s Note: There are of course a wide variety of Christian perspectives, and we had a different one last week. We also welcome perspectives from a variety of religions, as listed at the bottom, and invite people to share theirs with us.
I am a baptized Mennonite and confirmed Catholic, and my thinking cannot be fully understood without reference to both traditions. I was raised with the strongest possible grounding in gospel nonviolence within the Anabaptist tradition (albeit its more culturally assimilated strain), and it’s still primarily from that perspective that I come to the CLE. I believed in the CLE long before I ever heard the term and would express bewilderment at different political camps being pro-life on some issues but pro-death on others. The full CLE in its broadest, most absolute sense has always been my understanding of what nonviolence means, as the full logical and moral extent of Christian pacifism. I love defying political stereotypes by telling people that I’m pro-life because I’m a pacifist.
The way I was taught nonviolence growing up tended to center opposition to war, largely for historical reasons, with opposition to all other violence as a natural extension. But I’ve always understood pacifism (especially in the Christian nonviolence tradition) as encompassing much more than opposition to war, just as being pro-life encompasses much more than opposition to abortion, neither of which by any means lessens opposition to both. I recognize a certain degree of subjectivity in what is emphasized and how, which may make me inclined to point out (despite my strong resistance to the ranking of issues) certain unique features of war: in particular, that it’s mass killing, the type of violence that kills by far the most people in a single occurrence – including unborn, elderly, and all stages in between – while other forms of killing such as abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty also kill large numbers of people in totality, but one at a time.
But every form of violence has certain features that are unique to it. So while my own personal commitment to the CLE arises most fundamentally from a broadly understood commitment to peace, I ultimately cannot believe any one form of violence is objectively worse or worthier of attention than all others. If every human life is truly inherently sacred, then the lives of those killed individually cannot be less worthy, nor their killings less a desecration of the divine image, than those killed en masse; the lives of those killed at any point after birth cannot be less worthy, nor their killings less a desecration of the divine image, than those killed by being torn from their mothers’ wombs; and so on.
I’ve had my share of frustration with some modernized Mennonites and politicized Catholic peace activists getting wishy-washy about abortion. The problem, though, isn’t people considering other life issues equally as important as abortion; the problem is people not considering abortion an important issue in the first place. There is no reason for its importance to be in any way diminished by the importance (yes, even the equal importance) of other life-and-death issues. On the contrary, reverence for life should be the rising tide that lifts the boats of all life issues together, all of them enhancing, not threatening, each other’s importance.
I also support the efforts of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative to nudge official Catholic teaching further along its trajectory toward embracing nonviolence more fully. But my greatest frustration has been just trying to get many lay Catholics on board with where the official teaching actually is.
Catholic social teaching (CST) includes a basic presumption against taking life, based on the principle of human dignity inherent in the imago Dei, with some fairly stringent (in theory, if not in practice) exceptions to that presumption, which have gradually narrowed throughout the development of CST. My hope is for those exceptions to continue to narrow to the point of disappearing altogether – ideally, even to the point that the Catholic Church becomes as well known for being a peace church as for being a pro-life church (without becoming any less well known for its pro-life stance, nor weakening it in any way; in fact, I believe a more robust and well publicized peace teaching would only strengthen the Catholic Church’s pro-life teaching).
A problem with exceptions for violence is that they easily become a de facto norm. Hence there are practicing Catholics taking active-duty military positions and training to kill on command with little or no room for moral discretion (despite that even just war theory makes clear that not all war killing is justified), or even being in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal for that matter, without any apparent sense of moral conflict. We sometimes hear prayers at the very altar of Christ’s sacrifice – the only sacrifice from which Christians of all nationalities truly derive their freedom – referring to the military as “protecting our freedoms,” without any sense of contradiction. I’ve expressed concerns in my parish about how prayers for the military are worded, which seemed to move the needle a bit, but those quasi-messianic tropes are tenacious creatures and will keep popping up like weeds without some badly needed catechetical pesticide soaking deeply and broadly into the soil of the Church Universal.
There will always be a need for particular people to focus on particular projects at particular times and places. Much good and necessary work is done by individuals and groups dedicated to promoting alternatives to abortion, war, euthanasia, the death penalty, gun violence, domestic violence, police violence, xenophobic violence and whatever other violence rears its head. It’s true that none of us can do everything, but that doesn’t mean each of us is limited to only one thing. We can all contribute time and talent to a particular project for which we see a particular local need, or for which we are recruited and/or have relevant skills to contribute, and then do the same for a different project as needs and possibilities arise. As long as various human needs and anti-human violence abound, various people will be needed personally prioritizing various kinds of work at any given time – and, hopefully, consistently opposing all violence, whatever they happen to be working on.
Just showing up to advocate on multiple issues can give us credibility across the board. A couple of years ago I attended a protest against the separation of families at the US-Mexico border, where I politely approached a woman who held a sign saying, “Where is the pro-life outrage?” I told her that I was part of the pro-life outrage (which her sign assumed would be absent), and she thanked me for being there.
My experiences and deep foundational beliefs lead me to consider all human lives as inherently worthy of protection, and all attacks against human life and dignity as equally worthy of opposing wherever they arise. For those who insist on separating one issue from all others – which seems to happen most often with abortion, whatever the reasons – I don’t know if my reasoning will be convincing. My conversations with people who take this view often leave me with the impression that they won’t be satisfied that I take the moral weight of abortion seriously enough unless I give all other life issues less moral weight in relation to it, and that saddens me. It saddens me because, while my mind has changed on large and small matters during my life so far, I can’t imagine changing it in the direction of becoming more favorable to violence. And since I am already absolutely, categorically opposed to abortion as a form of violence, the only way for me to give it preeminence among my own values over all other life issues would be to become less strongly opposed to other forms of violence. And that, for me, would be unthinkable.
For more of our posts from Julia Smucker, see:
For more of our posts from various religious perspectives, see
The Vital Need for Diversity / Sarah Terzo
The Early Christian Tradition / Rob Arner
Abortion and War are the Karma for Killing Animals / Vasu Murti
Why the Interfaith Approach is Important / Rachel MacNair
Breaking Stereotypes in Fearful Times / John Whitehead
Ancient Roots of the Consistent Life Ethic: Greece / Mary Krane Derr
by Father Jim Hewes
Editor’s Note: There are of course a wide variety of Christian perspectives, and we have a different one coming up for next week’s post. We also welcome perspectives from a variety of religions, as listed at the bottom, and invite people to share theirs with us.
I understand the Consistent Life Network as a whole prides itself on religious diversity, including atheists. In that spirit, I share this piece from my journey of faith. I know I’m in good company: Francis of Assisi, Franz Jagerstatter, Ben Salmon, Martin Luther King Jr., Dan Berrigan, Mother Teresa, and even Mohandas Gandhi, who was influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
During the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, one of my classmates in the seminary asked me: “Being a follower of the Lord, how do you find the justification for killing in Jesus’ life and his teaching?” This question troubled me. So I began to search the scriptures and was confronted by what I read.
I found these scripture passages quite challenging to my previous views. I began to think. “if you kill someone, how is it loving them or doing good to them, since you’re ending any chance they may have forever finding conversion and forgiveness?” If Jesus never harmed anyone (nor did his followers for the first three centuries of Christianity), how could I kill as one of His followers? Because life is God’s alone, each one made in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:26-27)
Jesus was steeped in the Jewish tradition; so in the Hebrew scriptures the prophets are constantly calling on the people of God to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien. The prophets’ voice doesn’t prioritize the farmer, the small-business merchant, nor even a single parent or elderly couple, although each of them is still made in God’s image and likeness and are infinitely precious to God. Rather, it’s the widow. who was vulnerable because she didn’t have a husband to protect her and provide for her in such a precarious time (since there was no safety net then). At the present time, pre-born children don’t have men to protect them and provide for them; since the Roe v. Wade ruling, men have been totally eliminated from the abortion decision. Aliens are that way because they’re not in their own terrain, but in a foreign place. Today pre-born children are not on their own “land” either, but in someone else’s territory, the most dangerous place on the planet, the mother’s womb. Orphans (mentioned over 35 times in the scriptures) are children who don’t have their mothers and fathers. Currently, pre-born children scheduled for an abortion have no mothers and fathers. They have been abandoned by them.
So, the widow, the alien and the orphan, because of their vulnerability, were continually given a special priority of care by God, through the prophets’ voice. This didn’t mean other sons and daughters of God weren’t loved deeply by God. God didn’t lessen the value of the lives of other human beings; God just made sure those who were the most unprotected and the most neglected were given extra special consideration and focus, so they weren’t ever overlooked by the faith community. Today no one is more at risk than pre-born children, so they deserve to have focus of paramount importance of concern. At the same time, they must be given care for their lives after being born.
More importantly, the Christian scriptures proclaim that Jesus is the “Way, the Truth and the Life.” Jesus is a clear way to navigate any dilemma we face. Jesus responded to the Pharisees when they tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to them, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 2:34-40) Jesus reiterates this linked order when he states: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”(Matthew 10:37)
In other words, there is no doubt Jesus puts the love of God first, even over one’s closest loved ones, one’s family (in my words a “preeminent priority”). But the love of neighbor is always linked to love of God and also a priority, which can’t be separated from the first commandment. John puts in this way: “We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (I John 4:19-21)
Jesus is not making the second commandment in competition with the first commandment, nor teaching that the second commandment takes a back-seat to the first. This is why God became human, to show God’s love for each and every one of us, especially the sinner, one’s enemy and the most vulnerable.
That’s why Jesus states the second commandment is like the first (but still is second). It also follows because of the linked connection: if abortion is truly a preeminent priority for a follower of Christ, one won’t really be credible if one doesn’t work against the other threats to those same lives outside the womb.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…… For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13). Jesus seems to be prioritizing one group of people, but that didn’t mean that the healthy and the righteous weren’t loved, nor were they disvalued by Jesus. Jesus came to redeem everyone for all time, willing to leave the 99 to find the one lost sheep.
In another place Jesus (who made the journey from conception to birth) states: “Anyone who welcomes one child like this for my sake is welcoming me. But if anyone abuses one of these little ones who believes in me, it would be better for him to have a heavy boulder tied around his neck and be hurled into the deepest sea than to face the punishment he deserves (Matthew 18:5-6, emphasis added). Jesus doesn’t say this about older teens or adults or the elderly, (who are also of infinite worth) but about those most defenseless. Today, those are pre-born children, who aren’t welcomed to live in the world for even one second.
Jesus words of the last judgement:
Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me. Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:41-45, emphasis added)
This teaching of Jesus states clearly there’s a difference or hierarchy in lives in those who are least and other human lives (some refer to this as a “Preferential Option for the Poor”).
I’ve been trying to make the case that pre-born children, although so precious to God (Psalm 139:13-14) for many years have been treated as the least ones because of their vulnerability, powerlessness, invisibility, lack of any voice, foundation for all other rights, heart of the family, enormous numbers killed. They’re also the poorest: no food, no drink, no welcome, no clothing, etc. ever given to them. They never see the light of day, not even for a brief moment.
It’s an undeniable fact that each day in our world 125,000 powerless pre-born children are killed, year after year This figure indicates protecting pre-born children from abortion is obviously not in any way or almost any place actually lived as a preeminent priority.
God’s ultimate revelation of all of this was the Word made flesh, Jesus becoming human. This is the infinite affirmation of each person’s worth (John 1:1-4). The very Word of God made that journey from conception to a zygote, to an embryo, to a fetus, to a neonate; each of these natural human transitions of life was an affirmation of the dignity every stage of our human journey, both before and after birth, because each human being’s origin and destiny is God (Jeremiah 1:5).
This fact alone makes us priceless, of infinite worth. In Jesus, God has given an absolute yes to the dignity and value of all human life. (John 10:10), from the beginning until the end (Romans 14: 7-8), because of our relationship to our creator, who gives each of us our very life (Matthew 10:30-31).
So it is my faith, through prayer and discernment, that draws me to the Consistent Ethic of Life. Jesus is the fullest and clearest revelation of not only who God is, but who we are meant to be, especially as voices for the helpless, voiceless, invisible pre-born children. It also means that after 52 years of working in this area, I’m still convinced that Jesus shows us the Way of non-violent love, where the most vulnerable are recognized as needing special attention, and at the same time, no one is ever excluded.
For more posts from Jim Hewes, see:
For more posts on a variety of religious perspectives, see:
by John Whitehead
The Biden administration’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2022 contains much to disturb peace activists. The budget continues the long-standing pattern of grotesquely large military spending, with $715 billion allocated to the Defense Department. Further, the budget specifically continues to fund lavishly the most extreme instruments of death, nuclear weapons. Peace activists need to work against this practice of wasting billions of dollars on such weapons.
Trends in Nuclear Spending
Spending on nuclear weapons has a long, dishonorable history. William Perry and Tom Collina, in their book The Button, estimate that during the Cold War arms race the United States spent roughly $10 trillion—or about $30,000 for every person in the contemporary United States—on nuclear weapons. More recently, massive nuclear spending has experienced a revival in the last decade or so.
In 2010, President Obama secured the Republican votes in the Senate necessary to ratify the START arms control treaty by promising to invest in maintaining and replacing the US nuclear arsenal. As the nuclear upgrade program continued, its costs rapidly increased. In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that this nuclear program would cost over $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continued and expanded the nuclear upgrade program, guided by the goal of countering Russia and China. Earlier this year, the CBO released a new estimate of nuclear costs over the next decade, saying that Defense and Energy Department nuclear activities would cost $634 billion over 2021-2030.
Current Nuclear Spending Plans
The Biden budget proposal doesn’t break with this spending pattern. The proposal calls for spending $43.2 billion on nuclear weapons in FY2022. Of this money, $27.7 billion will go to the Defense Department, with the remaining $15.5 billion going to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an Energy Department agency responsible for developing, producing, and maintaining nuclear bombs. The net amount proposed might be less than the Trump administration’s FY2021 request of $44.5 billion (although accounting differences make the two requests difficult to compare), but it is still a considerable sum for nuclear weapons. Also, some specific nuclear weapons-related activities will receive more funding than last fiscal year.
Certain nuclear activities funded by the Biden budget are especially notable examples of wasting huge amounts in pursuit of extreme destructiveness. The budget calls for building a new fleet of submarines, known as the “Columbia class,” to carry nuclear missiles and a new fleet of land-based nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The money to be allocated to building the submarines ($5 billion) and ICBMs (about $2.6 billion) is an increase over FY2021 spending on these programs.
The budget also contains funding for maintenance of the B83 nuclear warhead. The B83 is the most destructive nuclear bomb in the US arsenal, with a yield of 1.2 megatons, or about 100 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Obama administration planned to retire the B83, but the Trump administration decided to retain it and the Biden budget continues this policy. In fact, the FY2022 budget proposal contains almost $99 million to maintain the B83, more than triple the amount allocated to the bomb in FY2021.
Another part of the nuclear upgrade program is a plan to produce dramatically more plutonium “pits,” which serve as the cores of nuclear bombs. In the past, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the only facility capable of making plutonium pits, produced 31 pits between 2007 and 2013 and has not produced any more since. However, current plans call for creating a new facility, at Savannah River in South Carolina, to produce plutonium pits. This new facility, together with Los Alamos, is then expected to produce 80 plutonium pits annually by 2030. Plutonium-pit-related activities have received increasing funds over the years, with roughly $2 billion allocated for such activities in FY2022.
Wasteful and Dangerous Plans
Even setting aside moral objections to nuclear weapons, the nuclear planning reflected in the FY2022 budget proposal is highly questionable. The United States already is permitted 1,550 nuclear weapons under the START treaty, which is surely more than enough to “deter” an adversary. US policymakers could and should seek to reduce the nuclear arsenal to a still lower level. In this context, creating the capacity to produce nuclear weapons at a rate of 80 every year is senseless. Maintaining a megaton-level nuclear bomb is similarly redundant and unnecessary: far less destructive weapons are terrifying enough.
Further, building new land-based ICBMs presents problems even beyond redundancy. Land-based nuclear missiles, being stationary, are vulnerable to being destroyed in another nation’s nuclear attack. As Perry and Collina have pointed out, this vulnerability increases the danger of nuclear war. Should the president receive warning of an incoming nuclear attack on the United States, he or she would have only minutes to decide whether to launch the land-based missiles in retaliation, before they’re destroyed by the incoming attack. This situation creates a huge incentive to make fateful decisions quickly, without determining if the situation is a false alarm. Accidental nuclear war may well be the result. The goal should be to retire land-based missiles, not to build a new fleet of them.
At best, current nuclear weapons spending will waste billions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. At worst, such spending will perpetuate a nuclear arms race that may end in global catastrophe.
Trying to Restore Sanity
The FY2022 budget proposal may be merely the result of bureaucratic inertia, and the Biden administration may change course once it has completed its own nuclear policy review. Peace activists shouldn’t count on this, though.
We need to push back against continuing the grotesque spending on nuclear weapons. American citizens should contact the president by phone or email, as well as their representatives in the House and Senate. As Congress is currently also considering whether to retain the Hyde Amendment and other restrictions on abortion funding in the FY2022 budget, this is a good opportunity to link these issues. Appeals to curtail spending on both nuclear weapons and abortion may get members of Congress’ attention while also breaking through the usual ideological stereotypes. We need radical reductions in the amount of money being spent on methods of killing.
For more of our posts on nuclear weapons, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons
For more on the Hyde amendment:
by Acyutananda (see author’s blog)
Of all the consistent pro-life policies or political positions, I have always chosen to focus my own efforts most on the anti-abortion position. This is partly because numerically legal abortion normally accounts for vastly more human-rights violations than say, capital punishment or unjust war. It is also because only anti-abortion philosophy necessarily brings out consciousness as the basis of human value.
Establishing the importance of consciousness is necessary for effective philosophical anti-abortion apologetics. Many people may agree on the general importance of consciousness. However, they have to be convinced that some of their convictions, particularly their conviction that killing innocent born human beings is normally wrong, depend on a usually unarticulated belief that what is wrong about killing is the fact that doing so deprives those born human beings of their future conscious life. And this is often hard for people to see, resulting in a daunting disadvantage for the pro-life side.
That a zygote or early embryo is indeed a full-fledged member of our human family, in the only way that is morally relevant when abortion is considered, can be convincingly shown by an argument focused on consciousness that is usually attributed to Don Marquis, although the essence of the argument has been present for a long time in Indian philosophy. It may also have been stated perfectly, 60 years before Marquis was born, by pro-life feminist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to declare her candidacy for the US presidency:
We are aware that many women attempt to excuse themselves for procuring abortions, upon the ground that it is not murder. But the fact of resort to this argument only shows the more palpably that they fully realize the enormity of the crime. Is it not equally destroying the would-be future oak, to crush the sprout before it pushes its head above the sod, as it is to cut down the sapling, or to saw down the tree? Is it not equally to destroy life, to crush it in its very germ, and to take it when the germ has evolved to any given point in the line of its development?
I also once tried framing the argument in a way that I think was effective for some people.
(I should mention that another argument, focused on human membership in general and not necessarily on consciousness, that seems to have convinced many people of the humanity of the unborn, is the equal-rights argument used by the Equal Rights Institute.)
But to an important extent, these arguments require very careful presentation and depend for their impact on very careful thinking by those who hear them. And they take a while to sink in. I feel that for a normal mind that is a blank slate on this issue, there is nothing obvious about the humanity of the unborn.
Even a pro-life person commenting under a recent Secular Pro-Life blog post wrote, “life at conception sounds strange.” It surprised me at first to hear that from a pro-lifer, since the reality that a human life begins at conception is a fundamental tenet for our side. But then the reality of a human life at conception (or rather, the reality that this life has status as a full-fledged member of the human family) sounded strange to me also until I had thought about it quite a bit.
Here is a comment by Javier Cuadros on the power that “original appearances” have over the minds of people and even of most scientists:
Science is a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper. . . . As the observations multiply . . . it is typical that the original appearances . . . are shown to be incorrect. The reality is different. . . . This is why I have always been puzzled about the reluctance of scientists to apply the same program of investigation to the nature of the human embryo. Are human embryos men and women and thus entitled to the inalienable right to life and respect for their dignity and physical integrity, or are they not? Here, many scientists . . . are for applying the simple criterion of appearances. No, [embryos] are not men and women, they say, because they do not look like a person. Agreed, they do not look like a developed human being. But the Earth looks like it is stationary. . . . shape does not make a human being. It has been shown that the most fundamental element of the presence and identity of a human being is the existence of [complete human genetic information]
Once we realize that a single-celled organism is a full-fledged member of our human family, a belief that there should be legal protections normally follows. But if that realization really does take quite a bit of thinking for many people, that puts the pro-life side at a tremendous disadvantage. That the pro-life side has nearly been able to overcome that disadvantage is a real tribute to the resolve of pro-lifers and to the human love for the truth. But the disadvantage remains, so that we have won over neither the culture nor the law.
Pro-lifers recognize this disadvantage. For many pro-lifers, their go-to attack on Roe v. Wade is to point out that it does not prohibit late-term abortions. They know that only a developed fetus is likely to win much sympathy from those who have not spared time for deep thinking.
Let’s think in more developmental terms about how this situation arises. What would children’s perceptions of the unborn be, once they learned simply that people start out in their mommies’ tummies, if those children were otherwise uninfluenced by their parents, teachers, etc.? What would the most naive perception be, and how susceptible to change is it (I think very susceptible) once they start hearing pro-choice slogans and pro-life slogans, once they learn a smattering of embryology, see an ultrasound of their younger sibling, etc.? This is all very deep and complicated, and calls for a lot of research. But some things seem clear enough:
Religious pro-lifers may grow up with a kind of rote belief in the humanity of the unborn, but probably sometimes as well a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with the unborn that is instilled by their parents. And some people born into a religious pro-life family eventually think deeply and do their homework and come to a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that is not just rote.
I believe that anyone who thinks deeply and does their homework will eventually come to a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with the unborn, if the development of that sense does not come in conflict with some hardened ideological commitment. But it is normally a small minority of people who think deeply and do their homework. If a person neither thinks deeply and does their homework, nor receives pro-life training from their parents, I think the default will be for most people always to feel that the unborn are insignificant. After all, the unborn are out of sight, and even if we could see a small clump of cells, the genetic information driving the growth of those cells would be beyond our normal senses. Cuadros explained this well above.
Few people will seriously undertake “a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper,” either scientifically or philosophically, so I think most people, dependent as we all are on our five senses and normally lacking deep thought, will tend to feel that the unborn are insignificant, making the contest of images a daunting struggle for the pro-life side. Or at least, most people’s thinking will be inchoate and therefore malleable and suggestible. If people’s minds are malleable, are their minds more likely to be influenced by the “precious human life” side of the debate, or by the “brainless clump of cells” side?
Well, many people have strong selfish reasons to adopt the “brainless clump of cells” perception and become pro-choice, whereas hardly anyone has strong selfish reasons to adopt the “precious human life” perception and become pro-life. There is nothing tangible to gain from coming to the defense of those who have nothing and cannot come to our defense in turn. So an accumulated power of human selfishness helps the pro-choice side that does not help the pro-life side.
The ranks of pro-lifers also wane because of the strong trend in the West for people to lose their religious beliefs. If they lose those beliefs, they will lose as well any perception of the unborn that they had acquired purely as rote belief.
As people age they become more pro-life, presumably because they have had more time to think about it. But by the time they become pro-life through aging, they may have few years left as voters and as role models.
These are the daunting demographics that explain why a correct view struggles so much to become a winning view. For the cause of the unborn to have any chance, we must educate day and night. Perfectly convincing arguments are available, but they are not arguments that can be downed just like a soft drink. To have any chance, we must educate, educate, educate.