About three weeks ago, twelve boys and their soccer coach were discovered to have been trapped in a cave in Thailand by the rushing waters of the monsoon season that had just begun there. The people of Thailand quickly assembled a team of experts from around the world and worked feverishly to save the boys and their coach. It was reported this morning that all thirteen had been successfully extracted from the cave. Only one person died, an expert diver who, while attempting to rig the equipment needed to get the boys out, ran out of oxygen and could not be revived. The world news agencies mourned his passing. It was a glowing tribute to Thailand’s commitment to life, and the American press joined heartily in that tribute.
And yet. In the past year, thirty-three thousand people died in the United States from gun violence. Eighty-eight thousand died from alcohol abuse. Almos5t five hundred thousand people in the U.S. died from smoking. Most shocking of all, twenty-one thousand (21,000) people in the world die every day from starvation. All of this is not to consider how many people die every day of drug overdose and how many people die or are wrenched from their homes and their countries from military attacks.
I understand what the literal meaning of the term “pro-life” is, and I greatly admire and respect anyone who is able to truly pursue a life committed to the idea. I struggle mightily, however, with the apparent hypocrisy of those who claim to be pro-life for the purposes of outlawing all abortions but who tolerate, and even support, the promotion of guns, alcohol and tobacco and who would reduce or even eliminate the spending of American funds to fight off starvation and disease around the world. For those who do so, “pro-life” is no more than a meaningless, political slogan.
I am not “pro-life” in its literal sense. I understand that we, individually and as a nation, have only limited funds to distribute to those in need. In a perfect world, we would be able to use those limited funds to eliminate these needless deaths. It is not a perfect world, and so we must reason about how many deaths we should allow. That sounds terrible, but it is exactly what we must do. Justice demands it, and honesty requires that we talk about it.
So let us talk about, let us have a rational discussion about, abortion. First, is that which is growing in a woman’s womb human? Of course it is. No one stands in a birthing room wondering whether the woman is about to give birth to a chicken. It follows from that simple observation that abortion is the taking of a human life.
Next step. Are there occasions where justice requires the taking of that human life? That is a difficult question, and it requires reasoning just as difficult as the gun debate and the starvation debate and the alcohol, drug and tobacco debates. My answer is: yes. My reasoning is that there are occasions where we must choose one life over another. If two people are drowning, and you can only save one, you will have to choose one life over another. So, for instance, if you are a doctor, and you are faced with a choice of saving the infant’s life or the mother’s, you must choose one life over another.
Final step. Who should be given the power to choose whether to have an abortion, to take the life of the child growing within that womb? This is the real, the key, the absolutely most difficult question. Should that decision be in the hands of a judge? Of a doctor? Of a police authority of some kind? Or how about putting the decision in the hands of a religious figure of some kind?
We are now at the heart of the decision in Roe v. Wade, and we have also arrived at the key moral question we must all face in taking a position on abortion. If you truly, honestly want to outlaw abortion on the grounds that all life is sacred, you need first to consider whether or not you will be consistent in holding that incredibly difficult and honorable position. Will you oppose all war? Will you oppose the proliferation of guns? Will you ask the government to increase its spending on the rehabilitation of addicts and its contributions to the sick and starving of the world? If so, I applaud you, and I apologize for my own weakness in not being able to be so strong personally. If not, then you are a hypocrite, and your arguments are worthless.
If, on the other hand, you accept the fact that killing other humans, or allowing their deaths, is, sadly, a necessity, then you must choose who it is who should decide whether an abortion is permissible. The Supreme Court has said, essentially, that it is the woman who should have the power to make that decision, at least to the point that the child would be able to survive on its own.
So, the issue is clear, and I hope my point about it is clear. Argue about abortion, and about guns and about addiction and about war and about starvation. But argue honestly. Slogans are not arguments. True, real, honest arguments face problems squarely and painfully. Real justice, the real, reasoned distribution of our limited assets among a multiplicity of valid claims, is at one and the same time the most difficult thing and the most important thing we as a people have to face. But for all our sakes, let us in fact face it.