The Oxford English Dictionary defines “humanize” as 1) “to make more humane” and 2) “to give a human character to.” When we say, “Abortion-rights advocates often dehumanize the unborn,” we use a negative form of sense 2 to mean that they take human character away from the unborn. In this essay I will use “humanize” in both senses, but mainly in sense 1, “make more humane.”
My generation of Americans can be credited with having made itself into something more humane and more human – with having undergone, in a relatively short time, a moral and empathetic change. In the 1960s, it humanized us (those of us who were white) to come to see other races as fully human; it humanized us (those of us who were men) to come to see women as fully human; and it humanized some of us Americans to come to see the Vietnamese as fully human. A decade later, it humanized us (those of us who were heterosexual) to come to see homosexuals as fully human. And around the same time, it humanized those of us who were able-bodied to come to see the differently abled as fully human.
For succeeding generations, such inclusive attitudes came more easily, since much of such attitudes was inherited from the opening up that had already occurred. Empathy even became mandatory, and the term “politically correct” came into existence.
Nothing could be more obvious than that humanity has consistently evolved in the direction of increasing inclusiveness. And it is obvious to me, from my own experience and from what I have seen take place in the people around me, that the benefits of this inclusiveness have not been a one-way street.
One need not believe in God to appreciate the psychological wisdom of the Golden Rule in Christianity and of teachings of altruism and service-mindedness in other religions and philosophies. Some of our species have long understood the futility of seeking happiness in objects and in tangible rewards, even the most tangible mental rewards such as the admiration of others. As a species, we have gradually been learning that happiness for an individual involves identification with something greater than oneself.
Science may now have caught up with traditional wisdom in this area and may begin to take the lead. As the abstract of a 2008 psychology study said These findings recommend just the opposite of the “corrosive . . . social atomism” Tanner Matthews identified, in the January 2015 issue of Life Matters Journal, in one noted abortion apologist.
The above are just some hints that I feel help to explain my own empirical observations: the more of the human race that I, and people known to me, have included in our mental family, the happier we ourselves have become as a result.
Obviously we as Americans, not to mention we as a global society, still have a long way to go in terms of real inclusiveness of all the groups I have mentioned above. But it is clear to me that we have made progress and that the momentum is in the right direction.
Painfully, however, almost left out in the march of such progress has been one big human population: the unborn. Historically, they seem always to have been second-class citizens, at best. Even many pro-lifers, even today, seem to save most of their outrage at abortion for those of the unborn who are pain-capable or viable. Even whatever progress toward acceptance there has been for the early-term unborn has been met by a fierce reactionary onslaught in some small but perhaps growing circles, mainly in the United States.
Human Life as One Seamless Process
I will say something about that reaction, but first I would like to point out that most dismissiveness toward the unborn does not stem from any conspiracy at all. I think it is quite natural. Again I look at myself. I’ve tried to remember – and really can’t remember exactly how I thought of the unborn when I was young, but I do remember having the idea that there were a lot of kindly doctors around who were quite ready to solve someone’s problem, so therefore abortion must be completely okay (though illegal, at that time). And after I read The Population Bomb, I felt quite urgent about controlling, or better yet, reducing, population, and I’m sure I must have thought of abortion as a very good thing. I’m sure that the unborn seemed insignificant to me. Neither in the 1960s nor maybe even in the 1970s did I begin to think of the unborn any differently than that.
If a small embryo were to remain just as it is, frozen in time, we would have to say quite fairly that its life would not have much value. And it doesn’t really matter exactly when I began to see an embryo as anything other than such a snapshot. But after however many years of thought and meditation, experience, and a smattering of scientific learning, the following idea finally became a reflexive understanding for me, and not just an abstraction: “A human life is one seamless process that has to start somewhere, and how can it be expected that it won’t start small?” I came to see the unborn primarily as a process and only secondarily as a snapshot of a particular moment.
Both ways of looking at the unborn are scientifically useful for different purposes. It is not science, but only pre-logical intuition, that can certify as more morally relevant the perception of the embryo as a continual and relentless process, minute by minute, toward a fullness of human experience whose value no one will contest. This is the perception, in other words, “The child is father to the man” – and thus a person. But it would be a scientific statement (about my own subjective experience) to say that I feel larger myself for having embraced that group along with other human groups.
To quote another proverb here, I think that the single biggest source of the whole avoidable-abortion tragedy that is going on, and therefore also of the whole abortion conflict in society, is summed up by “Out of sight, out of mind.” To care about the unborn, the unborn must first seem real to us, and how can they seem real when our five senses help us so little? It is difficult to know what the first thoughts about and perceptions of the unborn might be on the part of very small children. How they perceive the unborn must depend a lot on the depictions they hear from their parents, which must in turn vary widely. We sometimes hear of things that small children do or say, when their mothers are pregnant, that seem to show a surprising connectedness with the unborn, a connectedness that we could even interpret as being based on identification – the born child having been so recently in the same position as its sibling. But if that connectedness was a reality for me personally when my younger brother was inside my mother (which I don’t remember), I certainly lost it later on. So I’m guessing it’s common either to lack that ability to connect, or to lose it later in childhood. Wordsworth described the fading of a kind of magic as a child grows: “Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy.” If, in the absence of a positive vision instilled by the parents, or a special intuition, you just showed a child a life-size model of an embryo a few millimeters long, with a tail, I think the child would not be impressed.
Certainly we do not start out in life with either the scientific knowledge or the cognitive equipment to see the unborn in terms of the information that is in their genes and the process of change that that information drives. Moreover, I think I was not unique when young in wanting to find some kind of permanence in the world. I have been learning extremely slowly that my body and my friendships and my favorite food products must all change, and still haven’t learned all such lessons yet. So regarding the unborn, I think we must certainly start out with a strong bias toward the snapshot model as at least part of our mental mix. Naturally it might take years to come to “see” a being whom we can’t literally see, as the first requisite step in the process of a human life.
The Wall Street Journal has found that “. . . attitudes about abortion and politics are subject to change with age and experience, and usually in a conservative direction.” (Personally I hope that that is true about abortion but not about all politics.)
Other variables being equal, a pregnant woman must innately have a much better sense than most people of the humanity of what is inside her. Even then, however, I think that that sense can be very limited without further thought, experience, and so on. Many of the post-abortive women whose stories of regret I have seen or heard have said that the unborn seemed inconsequential to them at the time. Later they decided that it had been a person after all.
The Dehumanizing Reaction
All this has just been to make clear the natural difficulties of seeing an early unborn child, in a reflexive and intuitive way, for the human being that our educated intellects actually know it to be. But in addition to those natural difficulties, there has also been the reactionary backlash that I mentioned above. In the cases of all the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, also, forces of reaction not surprisingly arose to protect certain interests.
Here we have to distinguish between a valid acknowledgment of legitimate interests, and propaganda. There is no denying that the interests of the unborn may come in conflict with the interests of some of the born – particularly, of course, the women who carry them – and no denying that to protect their most vital interests, the born may sometimes have the right to kill the unborn. But even if we are in conflict with some other party, it would not be intellectually honest to allow the conflict to affect our evaluation of the other party’s humanity.
The temptation to do so would be understandable, however. Here let’s reflect that even before Roe v. Wade, it was clear to some that, with the US Supreme Court holding sway, abortion rights would need to hinge on the lack of personhood of the unborn. So any initiative to establish the humanity of the unborn came to be resisted from the beginning through a concerted effort to dehumanize them (using here the negative form of sense 2 of “humanize”). Author and abortion-rights advocate Naomi Wolf admitted this 20 years ago, and went on to try to pinpoint the origins of that reaction:
Unmentioned by Wolf, but perhaps still more effective in dehumanizing or simply erasing the unborn, were cunning bits of socio-linguistic engineering that assured women that only one “body,” theirs, was involved in any abortion.
All that was 20 to 50 years ago; now (Wolf’s plea for honesty having failed to make a dent in most of her colleagues) it is practically the stock-in-trade of the most vocal of the pro-choice side (for instance, those we are likely to meet in online discussions about abortion) to speak of the unborn as “parasites,” “tumors,” “intruders,” or even “rapists.” One would get the impression that the unborn babies of the world were on the march, trying to destroy civilization as we know it. If these abortion-rights advocates do not always paint the unborn as that marauding horde, at least they carry dismissiveness to comical extremes (the comical nature not being entirely deliberate). Britain’s Julie Burchill wrote: And America’s Amanda Marcotte wrote:Wolf, above, showed how the origins of deliberate dehumanization of the unborn could be traced to the fear of fetal personhood on the part of pro-choicers in the 1960s and 1970s. But the pro-life movement did not cease its efforts after the 1970s. The pro-choice side has continued to get a lot of pushback from the pro-life side—and rightly so; I think that that pushback should only increase. But it was predictable that there would be a process of conflict escalation, and such a process probably explains the level of dehumanizing rhetoric that we are seeing now. I think that the pro-choice side wouldn’t have taken their rhetoric to such extremes if their agenda had not met resistance in the first place. In other words, the pro-choice extremes are to an important extent a by-product of the pro-life pushback. Reasonableness is one of the casualties of war, particularly when one starts to lose.
But whatever the origins of the dehumanization we are witnessing, what will be its effects on its agents? If, as I have argued, the process of including different groups in our human family brings greater happiness for those who include, what will be the psychological effects for those who deliberately exclude and dehumanize? Wolf again provides valuable comments: Feeling that the unborn are fully human does not necessarily mean that it is immoral ever to kill them, and even if it is immoral, that doesn’t show that it should be illegal. Virtually all who call themselves pro-life would agree that a pregnant woman should be allowed to have her child killed if the risk to her own life reaches a certain level. But Wolf may be one of the few people who really embody another principle that many pro-choicers will agree with abstractly – the principle that even if the unborn are fully human, that per se doesn’t disallow a woman from aborting for the sake of her career, or her education, or even simply because she does not want to be pregnant.
Why do I call Wolf “one of the few” who really embody that principle? Certainly there are many who say, “Even if the unborn are fully human, a woman should be allowed to abort for the sake of her career, or her education, or anything at all.” We are all familiar with the bodily-rights argument, which tries to show that even if the unborn is a person, a woman should have an absolute right to refuse to let it use her body.
But I say Wolf is “one of the few” because she really seems to feel that the unborn is a person. Whereas virtually all, I think, of those many who use the bodily-rights argument, concede only for the sake of the argument that the unborn may be a person, but do not really feel it. I have debated many advocates of bodily rights, and I’m convinced that what truly underlies the artfulness of their arguments is not the logical strength of the position, but the fact that they do not think it’s a person. I think that if they really related emotionally to the unborn as their little sisters and brothers, their minds would quickly be flooded with good counter-logic against that argument of theirs. In practice as opposed to principle, the mere humanity of the unborn is convincing enough to lead to rejection of abortion rights.
Elsewhere I have thought as best I could about the bodily-rights argument, and in the end I support unborn child-protection laws. I mention this because the question of my views on law naturally comes up if I mention law at all. But the way I really need to approach law here is in relation to one of my main themes, our perceptions of the unborn.
One might say, even if unborn child-protection laws are justified in spite of bodily rights and so on, why enact laws that will be messy and difficult to enforce and widely violated and save only an uncertain number of babies? One answer is that I think that laws protecting the unborn, by their presence or their absence, are very important in relation to our perceptions of the value of the unborn. Rebecca Haschke does pro-life outreach on college campuses. She explains the effect on our thinking that the legality of abortion can have:Her words were borne out by this example: In 2005 the Los Angeles Times interviewed patients at an abortion clinic. “She regrets having to pay $750 for the abortion, but Amanda says she does not doubt her decision. ‘It’s not like it’s illegal. It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong,’ she says.”
At a pro-life conference in Orange, Calif. in September 2014, the president of the National Right-to-Life Committee remarked, “We often hear, ‘If it hadn’t been legal, I wouldn’t have done it.’”
Above I said, “Feeling that the unborn are fully human does not necessarily mean that . . . it should be illegal.” Again, the legality of abortion does not technically say, “The unborn have little value,” but I think that in practice it does say that. And the illegality of abortion would send the message that the unborn are fully human.