Plumbline Author: Michael Gerson
Date: May 28, 2012
Topic: Human Dignity and the Progress of the Pro-Life Movement
One of the most divisive public debates of the last few decades has concerned abortion. But recent polling confirms an interesting trend. A Gallup survey finds 50 percent of Americans now identify themselves as “pro-life.” Just 41 percent regard themselves as “pro-choice,” an all-time low in Gallup polling. In addition, the number of abortions in America is at its lowest level since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.
Americans remain deeply conflicted on this issue, even sometimes in their own minds. Many would permit some abortions and forbid others. But the overall direction in public sentiment has been favorable to the pro-life cause.
I’d suggest a number of reasons. The first is technological. Increasingly vivid sonograms have revealed the undeniable humanity of a developing child. Nearly every parent now begins their child’s scrapbook with a photograph taken before birth. The tiny profile is clear, distinct and individual. It is harder to dismiss the value of a human being with a face you recognize.
Second, the pro-life movement has shifted its strategy, at least on the national level. Instead emphasizing support for a constitutional amendment against abortion—a highly unlikely outcome—pro-life advocates have successfully pushed for legislation against partial-birth abortion as well legislation that protects children who are born alive after an attempted abortion. These incremental measures gained broad political support. They also educated politicians and citizens about the reality of later term abortions, which involve gruesome acts of violence and sometimes closely resemble infanticide. A principled incrementalism has been an effective pro-life strategy.
Third, the tone of pro-life argumentation has shifted over the decades. Instead of leading with moral judgment, many pro-life leaders and politicians have adopted a language of moral aspiration. They have talked of expanding the circle of legal inclusion and protection to include the weakest members of the human family—the unborn, the severely disabled, the elderly and dying. They have argued that the vulnerable have a special claim on our sympathy, that they should be welcomed in life and protected in law.
This appeal to the protection of human dignity is powerful in America. And it stands in stark contrast to utilitarian arguments in medical ethics, which involve the power of the strong to exploit the weak or to end their lives. Pro-life arguments have a natural resonance in a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with an inalienable right to life.
For those of us who regard ourselves as pro-life, there is much work to be done. And public policy may never yield an ideal result. But the four decades since Roe v. Wade have shown that that the principle of human dignity still has defenders. And with the right strategy and spirit, the defenders of human dignity are making progress.
—Michael J. Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics.