Something out of the ordinary happened this past week. On Saturday, over 10,000 people walked the streets of Rome in defense of children in the womb. Italian lay people have organized a march for nine years now, and it grows – despite no support from the Italian bishops – including the pope.
On Friday, Francis did encourage members of the Catholic Medical Association to “defend life,” though so vaguely that you couldn’t tell whether he was talking about abortion, euthanasia, immigration, climate, poverty – or all of them (more of this below).
But as usual no Italian bishops participated in the Marcia per la Vita– they’ve been saying that they don’t want it to be seen as only “Catholic,” though why is not clear. And that they prefer to work through elected officials rather than public protest (though they seem to support other public demonstrations, e.g., on immigration and poverty, and don’t have any natural partners in government now that the Christian Democrats have splintered). Italian television, accordingly, didn’t even mention the march occurred.
The lone Italian prelate in the past, Archbishop Viganò, was missing, for good reasons.
None of this was out of the ordinary. And neither, basically, were the large pro-life marches in London last week and Ottawa. There are marches in many other countries in Europe and Latin America as well, though we rarely hear about them outside of the Catholic press, and not very much even there.
No, the real novelty is that Alabama essentially banned abortion last week with a bill that was passed by the legislature and signed into law by governor Kay Ivey who, like large numbers of women, believes abortion is the taking of innocent human life.
Numerous states have now passed law restricting abortion, so we’re about to see a titanic battle in the Supreme Court – and American society.
Pro-abortion commentators are worrying about a reversal of Roe v. Wade, though the swift discrediting of the Center for Medical Progress’s videos showing Planned Parenthood selling fetal body parties suggests that it’s still easy to gaslight the public about such matters. (Remember when Groucho Marx’s line – “Who you gonna believe, me or your own lying eyes?” – was a joke?)
But pro-lifers too are nervous, several wondering whether such “extreme” legislation makes it easier for courts to strike down such measures.
In any case, we’ll shortly know whether our legal system is entirely captive to anti-scientific ideology or still capable of rational moral debate. The Supremes may only send questions on abortion back to the states, where – as Justice Antonin Scalia often argued – it belongs, since the Federal government has no constitutional jurisdiction over such matters. The fundamental right to life will probably be addressed, if ever, further down the line.
But there’s reason for hope here.
Abortion supporters are beginning to deploy arguments that may delay but will not dispel the main question. Some states, for example, have tried to draw a line at the point where the fetus has a detectible heartbeat or some other biological marker.
A writer in the Washington Post this weekend elaborated on a new formula now appearing everywhere from Hollywood to Manhattan; “Lest I be chastened for daring to humanize an embryo, let me state for the record that the correct term for ‘heartbeat’ is ‘fetal pole cardiac activity,’ because at six weeks, said embryo doesn’t have a cardiovascular system and, therefore, no fully formed beating heart.”
Valiant effort, but if people – and the courts – start to pay attention to such details, we will inevitably have to decide, “So when do we have enough ‘fetal pole’ motion and vascular system to call what’s going on simply a heartbeat?” It’s not long after.
Similarly, as even outlets like The New York Times have been conceding for more than a decade, there is rudimentary brainwave activity detectible about as early as “fetal pole” motion – not a developed brain of course, but by ten weeks an articulated brain is forming.
These defenses of early abortion will look increasingly weak as people (and courts) look more carefully. Is there anyone who thinks that as science advances we will discover less rather than more complexity and activity in the early embryo? I’d be nervous, too, about the science if I supported abortion.
The Church – and especially the Vatican – should get squarely behind this burgeoning pro-life pushback. Commentators recognize that the radicalism of new abortion laws in New York, Virginia, and Canada have provoked the current reaction.
And anyway, protecting human life in the womb has been and remains the central human-rights question of our time.
Respect for human life is never merely a numbers game. But we need to find ways to take proper measure of the horror. For instance, authorities estimate 2241 people died crossing the Mediterranean illegally from Africa to Europe in 2018. In an average year, on the U.S. border, there are usually 200-400 such deaths.
So some simple math: 2241+400 (to take the high estimate) = 2641. Abortions in America are at a low point, “only” 652,639 in 2015 (though this is clearly an undercount since California and other states don’t report abortions to the Centers for Disease Control).
That’s 1788 per day. So every two days, the abortion body count exceeds the migrant deaths for a whole year. Planned Parenthood alone does almost 1000 abortions per day.
No one really knows global numbers, but a good estimate is 16 million abortions a year, roughly 44,000 per day. If that many innocents were dying while migrating or in a repressive regime or owing to racism or some climate shift or even in a war zone, the world would be – rightly – in an uproar.
Yet very few people, even those who say they believe abortion wrong – even high Church officials – seem much moved. If you are truly convinced that abortion is the destruction of innocent human life, there’s no excuse for passivity in the presence of such massive, casual, brutal carnage.
We’re all going to need to learn to debunk terms like “fetal pole cardiac activity” and whatever other rationalizations will be coming now. But this is a new and special moment when some real change seems possible. And we – Church leaders, laity, all people of good will – have to seize it, if we don’t want history to say that we did nothing while millions of innocents were being slaughtered.
*Image: Visitation by Tanzio da Varallo, c. 1627 [Church of San Brizio, Domodossola, Italy]