What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 27-28.

[Symposium Contents]

George McKenna

It is hard to find many encouraging prospects for the culture of life in the new century. The culture of death seems to be on a roll.

In 1973, after Roe v. Wade was decided, pro-lifers predicted that the right to kill unborn children would turn into the right to kill already-born children and other vulnerable people. The reaction, from their opponents and from the press: "Oh, come on!" It took twenty years for "Oh, come on!" to become "Why not?" They started pulling out plugs on respirators in 1976, and in the 1980s they started pulling out feeding tubes. In 1987 a North Dakota court declared that even spoon-feeding is "artificial and intrusive." In the 1990s the culture of death made the next big leap: to the act of neo-infanticide that is partial-birth abortion.

Then, in 1996, two U.S. Appeals Courts, one in California and one in New York, struck down state laws banning euthanasia. (The appeals court in California explicitly confirmed the "slippery slope" predictions of abortion opponents by basing its decision on the "compelling similarities between right-to-die cases and abortion cases.") The Supreme Court reversed the two decisions, but the majority opinion left the door open to future claims, and a series of concurring opinions, adding up to a majority, outlined circumstances that would justify a constitutional "right" to die with the help of doctors.

The state of Oregon hasn’t waited for the courts. In 1994, 52 percent of Oregon voters backed a measure allowing physician-assisted death. California and Washington voters had turned down similar proposals, but this one was sold to the public as ultra-cautious: physicians could only prescribe, not administer, the drugs; the drugs were only for patients with six months or less to live; and the patients had to request them three times.

We know what happens to these guidelines. The Netherlands—the North Star of the right-to-die movement—began physician-assisted suicide fifteen years ago with guidelines like Oregon’s, and virtually every one of the guidelines has been violated with impunity. At least one out of five so-called assisted suicides in Holland is involuntary (called "termination of the patient without explicit request"). That seems to be the direction we’re heading.

Is there any reason to hope that things can be turned around? Well, consider this statement: "Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid." Abraham Lincoln wrote it in 1855 as he reflected on some discouraging developments, including the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had opened the western territories to slavery. Slavery was spreading like a cancer (a "wen," Lincoln called it). Yet, within ten years, the whole damned thing was gone. Even before the terrible war, even by 1860, it had been shaken to its foundations by acting men and women: by ministers, novelists, newspaper editors, "conscience Whigs," and by Lincoln himself.

The present "progress in degeneracy" is as rapid as that of slavery in 1855. But the death culture has the same vulnerability as the slave culture: just about everyone knows that it is wrong. In his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln kept probing the raw nerve of slavery: "The real issue in this controversy—the one pressing upon every mind—is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong."

And so today: Even most pro-choicers know that killing innocent people is wrong. The mutterings of conscience can be heard not only in the public’s responses to polling questions but in the embarrassed, euphemistic language used by abortion advocates: abortion is "reproductive choice," abortion clinics are "women’s clinics," unborn children are "products of conception," and so on. Consider the New York Times’ struggles to avoid saying "partial-birth abortion." First they called it "a rarely used procedure," until they found out it wasn’t rare; then it was "a procedure known officially as D & X," until they found out that "D & X" was not in the medical literature but was just made up by its inventor; now they call it "a type of late-term abortion." That a newspaper that prides itself on its lucid English should resort to such weirdly elliptical language shows that something is troubling its editors.

It is getting so hard to deny the humanity of unborn children. Remember when pro-choicers used to call them "blobs of tissue"? Ultrasound pictures have retired that expression, and fetology keeps giving us astounding new information about their mental and physical activities in the womb. It may be just because of all these developments, because the perceived line between the unborn and the newly born has thinned into nonexistence, that the most hardened pro-choicers are tempted to go all the way to infanticide with Peter Singer.

My hunch is that most in the abortion movement will not. But, speaking as someone interested in political change, I don’t much care which way hard-core abortion advocates go. They are a distinct mino rity. The majority of Americans belong in the "mushy middle," allowing women to have a "right" to abortion while agreeing that it is wrong and should be limited.

Eventually, as Lincoln said of slavery, it will be all one thing or all the other. Right now the death culture seems to be winning. But history is not like astronomy; we are not passively watching the inexorable movement of things. Human beings act into history, nudging events into surprising tangents. Suppose a candidate in a general election were to say: "The underlying division in this campaign is between those who regard abortion as a wrong, and would limit it, and those who do not look upon it as a wrong and would tolerate its extension." This might or might not help the candidate (I think it would) but it would certainly blow away much of the smog that has obscured public thought on this issue. And, once people start thinking, all bets are off.

The rest of us, the nonpoliticians, have our own role to play. Like those in the 1850s who refused to stand back and watch the "progress in degeneracy," we must act into history. In his 1947 novel The Plague, Albert Camus wrote of what had to be done "by all who, while unable to be saints, but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers." Reaching out to the ambivalent majority, getting it to think, and getting its support for feasible measures that will stop the further spread of the abortion culture and put it in the course of ultimate extinction must be on the agenda of healers in this new century.

George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy (McGraw Hill).