The Catholic Thing
Sex-Selective Abortions and the Twisting of Souls Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 05 June 2012

It was billed as “the most modest first step” in legislating on abortion: the bill to preserve the life of the child who survived an abortion. It finally passed in 2002 under the title of the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act.   

The partisans of “abortion rights” thought that it was part of a scheme to unravel those rights, as indeed it was. But the challenge to the defenders of abortion was to explain the principled ground on which they could justify voting against this move to protect a child born alive. 

The other side was persistently offended that we would dare raise that kind of question, or face them with a never-ending series of those questions. As they kept evading the main moral questions over the years, they would fall into the forms of argument that must have, as their purpose and effect, to undo the very act of moral reasoning. 

They were quite right that we were seeking to dissolve the sense of the “rightness” of abortion, working step by step. But even if that were the case, on what ground would they permit the killing of a child born alive?

We would indeed move step by step, and with each move we would ask the liberal side to honor the principles that they themselves had enacted into law. If it were wrong to discriminate against the handicapped, how could it be justified to kill a child in the womb with Down syndrome? 

With each move, with each posing of the question, the proponents of abortion would respond with rising anger: As they reasoned, abortion was in the interests of women and their reproductive health, and so each challenge simply confirmed for them the evil of those who would find a clever way to dispossess women of those rights.

That same outrage has flared again as the Judiciary Committee in the U.S. House has come forth with another one of those key legislative steps: the proposal to bar abortions based on sex. The idea of the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) has been around for years, and it has come back again this year owing mainly to the tenacity of Trent Franks (R-AZ) the chairman of the subcommittee on the Constitution, and his redoubtable, unsinkable counsel, Jacki Pick.  

The evidence has become overwhelming, from this country and abroad, that with the diffusion of ultrasonography – with the means of discovering the sex of the child in the womb – there has been a persistent inclination to prefer males and abort females. The result has been a massive skewering of sex ratios, with portentous effects.

    Indian women protest sex-selective abortion

Nicholas Eberstadt, who has devoted a career to demography, noted that “sex-selective abortion has assumed a scale tantamount to a global war against baby girls.” The situation has become so dire that India, Britain, and even China have forbidden abortions based on sex. But those laws are infirmly enforced, and the odd thing is that people have come to the United States to get late term abortions of this kind forbidden even in the East.  

We have seen feminist writers such as Ms. Mara Hvistendahl mapping out the severity of the problem, with an evident, felt sense of the “wrongness” of killing children in the womb because they are female. But instead of supporting the restriction of abortion, she rails against an obscure professor from Amherst College, whom she credits as the evil genius behind this step-by-step strategy. 

As we know, the liberal feminists in America will not countenance any move to bar an abortion based on the sex of the child. The reason is plain: To admit that any abortion could be judged as wrong or unjustified is to break through the legal wall that protects the right to order an abortion at any time for any reason. It is the beginning of the end, for it opens the legislative arena to all of those judgments reached by ordinary folk about the kinds of abortions that would be unjustified, and therefore rightly forbidden.

PRENDA was brought to the floor of the House on May 31, and once again the rituals of moral evasion set in: This was yet another move, we heard, to roll back that right to abortion. But how could it be in “the interests of women” to acquiesce in the killing of women on a massive scale? 

And yet put aside the “loss” now of millions of women in the world, and thousands in the United States: Why is it simply not wrong in principle to kill babies because they are female – regardless of how many people are doing it?  

Rep. Jerry Nadler and the Democrats insisted that the Republicans were hypocrites because they wouldn’t vote for other bills, with more liberal programs giving benefits to women – as though we had to purchase the right to bar the killing of women, at the cost of giving more patronage and payoffs to feminist groups. 

PRENDA received the votes of 226 Republicans and 20 Democrats; 161 Democrats and 7 Republicans opposed it. But for reasons we’ll have to explain at another time, the bill was brought up under rules that required a vote of two-thirds for passage. This was clearly a test run. But what it revealed again is the way in which souls have become twisted out of shape over the years as people have absorbed the rituals of evading the moral argument.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and the Director of the Claremont Center for the Jurisprudence of Natural Law in Washington. D.C. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Randall, June 05, 2012
"Souls twisted out of shape" - aptly put. As it happened to the Father of Lies, Satan, so it happens to his followers.

The darkness cannot stand the light. The light drives those living in darkness mad. And so more and more they end up talking nonsense. Just like in C.S. Lewis' "That Hideous Strength" where in the end evil's minions can only speak gibberish.

Let's continue with the power of the Holy Spirit to press the fight.
written by Grump, June 05, 2012
Brilliant analysis, professor, in exposing the real "war on women."
written by Ray Hunkins, June 05, 2012
A debt of gratitude is owed to the "obscure professor from Amherst" for his intellectual leadership of the right to life movement, in the fight for what is right. I have watched the company he leads grow to a battalion and then a regiment and soon to be a corps. The fight is being won but the moral lessons at issue must be taught and learned over and over again. A fight such as the Professor describes is never won and it is never over. It is only fought with varying success on the battlefield of public opinion.
written by Tony Esolen, June 05, 2012
We have seen the same hardening of hearts in all the debates concerning the sexual revolution. I haven't gotten hold of any transcripts of the arguments put forth in Griswold vs. Connecticut, but the formidable Robert George has told me that Connecticut's arguments against the legalization of contraceptive pills prescinded from a vision of the common good. That is, back in 1965 (?), it was considered a cogent argument if one said, "If we make this legal, we will help to destroy marriage and public morals." I believe that both sides accepted the cogency of the argument; the pro-legalization side denied that the harm would actually occur, so the dispute was on a matter of prudential judging of consequences, and not on the moral evaluation of those consequences. Now, however, that the consequences are clear, we shrug; we don't care. We are all-in, as the feminists are all-in on abortion.
written by Sue, June 05, 2012
" Why is it simply not wrong in principle to kill babies because they are female – regardless of how many people are doing it? "

I might ask, "Why is it simply not wrong to kill babies, PERIOD?!!!"

PRENDA is to abortion what the Missouri Compromise was to slavery - an excuse to avert from the rape of inalienable rights taking place.

More congressman might have voted for the equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation, had it been offered, than a mealy mouthed bill that implies that there may be *good* (or at least neutral) reasons to abort, if sex-selectino is a bad reason.

Incrementalists have had us Marching for Life nigh on 40 years, and all we got was the PRENDA Act.

written by Manfred, June 05, 2012
Dear Professor Arkes: My heart goes out to you! I attended a lectures in the late 1960s and +Fr.William Smith, then moral theologian at St. Joseph's Semimnary in Yonkers,foretold that with the Griswold v. Connecticut decision, the floodgates would open on all aberrant sexual behavior including polygamy and bestiality (stay tuned). You know, of course, that all of this could have been obviated with the use of excommunications, as then everyone would know that THE CHURCH TEACHING WAS SERIOUS. But no, the Govenrment was the Church's business partner as Cardinals Dulles, McCarrick and now Wuerhl warned. It gave the Church's charities billions of dollars a year and it therefore should not be opposed. After no excommunications have been issued AFTER FIFTY-FOUR MILLION ABORTIONS, do you think anyone cares about the "niceties" any longer?
written by Dave, June 05, 2012
Dr. Esolen: we do care; we are not all-in; but we are wrung out after decades of waging these battles and watching the bishops mainly stand by. I think Manfred addresses the issues well: there simply has been no ecclesiastical consequence for public dissent from Church teaching and so people no longer care. But the problem goes back farther, and is much further deeper, than the indifference to Humanae Vitae, an encyclical that would not have been necessary had the Church been preaching Casti Connubi. How gruesome to think that by aborting a girl, you also abort a future mother and stop her from bringing children into the world.

written by Hadley Arkes, June 05, 2012
I’d like to thank our readers who have written in today, and of course I was especially touched by the comments of Randall, Grump and Ray Hunkins writing early this morning. Tony Esolen and Manfred raised apt points in reminding us of Griswold v. Connecticut on contraception in 1965. But people may forget that even Justice Byron White, in his opinion concurring in the judgment, held out plausible grounds on which the community could still restrict access to contraceptives out of a moral concern—e.g. for minors. I’m afraid that Susan is confused about the Emancipation Proclamation—on its reach and its constitutional ground. But it may indeed be an apt example, though not of the point she had in mind, for that measure had a meaning that far exceeded its narrow legal reach. And in that respect it may well accord with the understanding of that step-by-step approach on abortion, planting premises and building upon them, and having an effect far beyond the legal reach of any one of these steps. But apart from that, I wonder if Susan misses the main point contained in her comment: Surely, she can’t doubt that the pro-lifers bringing forth PRENDA think that the killing of all innocent beings, including babies, is quite wrong. The rationale for focusing on the aborting of females is to force the liberal side to confront again the logic of their own principles—that the policies they push on abortion are at war even with the principles they themselves so earnestly profess. It is a case again of calling them to account, or to admit their own bankruptcy. Their response, as I sought to show, was to detach themselves ever more, and ever more shamelessly, from even the pretense of moral reasoning.

But a further thanks to Manfred for recalling our remarkable, late friend Fr. William Smith. Bill was a clear, penetrating writer on moral theology, ethics and public policy. His commentary on the theological/political views of the first Governor Cuomo may endure past the memory of Cuomo himself. But he was also the notable example of a rare breed: the priest as stand up comic. We miss him in so many ways.
written by Sue, June 06, 2012
I do understand that the Emancipation Proclamation did not cover all slaves - I used it, rather than the thirteenth amendment, to make a point because it is commonly accepted as the icon of slavery abolition.

PRENDA is no Emancipation Proclamation. The EP represented abolition of slavery up to a real political limit. It did not make a pretense of moral dudgeon over the enslavement of an arbitrary category, such as sex (or hair color).

Analogies only go so far and my point does not rely on the EP. I certainly do not doubt that the PRENDA protagonists think all abortions are wrong. However, public understanding of that truth is weakened by the incrementalist approach. What if Congress had abolished enslavement only if it was motivated by a preference for females (or males)? Apart from the difficulty of judging motives, where is the moral coherence in such an approach?

The 19th century was a wasteland of missed opportunities to abolish slavery, primarily because of the incrementalist implication that slavery by attrition was somehow always just around the corner. The 500,000 bodies dead from the Civil War rebutted that argument pretty effectively.

I do get that there is a big problem with the effects of sex-selection, seen mostly in Asia for now, apart from abortion - in the form of demographics. (This effect can also be seen in the arena of IVF.) Public awareness that abortions are taking place for such trivial reasons should help to mobilize support for abolition, and that is the fruit of Lila Rose's excellent work.

But it is a mistake to make discrimination, rather than the plain-spoken but powerful concept of life itself (which is underwritten in the Declaration as an inalienable right), as the vehicle. I think I have even read the Chinese government has been doing something to discourage sex-selection abortions - this does not make me sleep any easier. I do think for them, an advance would be to at least abolish coercion. But for us, we should accept nothing less than the abolishment of abortion that is our Declaration birthright.
written by Bill M., June 09, 2012
Professor Arkes, Can you please say something as to why the Republicans took up this bill under a suspension of rules, thus requiring the 2/3 majority? I have not seen an explanation as to why that was done, and if they knew they weren't going to get the 2/3, then it would seem to reflect rather poorly upon the GOP. Thanks.

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