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Cleverness Not Required
If there is a more relevant poster child for the self-confident, narcissistic, postmodern personality than the pilot of a single-seat modern fighter airplane, I am not sure who it would be. There are exceptions to this generalization of course, but I was not one of them. So, it was with the related air of invincibility that I strutted into a hangar in Cherry Point, North Carolina after a training sortie in 1987 and was met by my squadron Operations Officer. “Bob,” he said sternly, “you need to call your wife. No debrief, no shower. Just go call her. She’s pretty upset about something.”
My pregnant wife had an appointment with her doctor earlier that morning but it never occurred to me that that might have anything to do with her call. When she answered the phone she was a blubbering mess. Through tears and sobs I got the message: “There might be something wrong with the baby.”
Over the next several days we learned all about the indications of the Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) test which triggered the alarm. We were warned that our baby’s high AFP level could point to any of several severe abnormalities including: abdominal wall defects or neural tube defects like spina-bifida, and anencephaly. Finally, we were sent to the only military facility in our area that could provide a Level II Ultrasound – the Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. It was during that ultrasound that the technician maneuvered the equipment into position for a perfect, left-side profile view of our first baby. Neither of us will ever forget the moment.
He was sucking his thumb, his right hand curled into a ball. But just as the picture came into focus, he began to open and close his fingers. Our view from the side made it look like he was waving – like he was telling us that everything was going to be OK. At least that is how we took it.
Afterward, the doctor leaned forward on her stool and looked us in the eyes. “As best as we can tell, the ultrasound seems to be normal, but it is not definitive. All the risks we talked about are still there. So, you need to make a decision about whether or not you want to continue the pregnancy.”
The image we saw on the screen that morning was obviously a baby. Neither of us could have justified ending that baby’s life, even if it meant that we were committing ourselves to the possible agony of dealing with the short, painful life of a severely deformed infant, or the challenge of lifelong care for a physically and/or mentally handicapped child. Though the decision we made was final, in the weeks and months that followed I was haunted by the weight of it. The same question kept replaying in my head, “What if the baby hadn’t waved?”
For years I lived with the unresolved conundrum that I could never justify our decision based on such an obvious coincidence as the well-timed wave of a baby’s fingers, no matter how emotionally convincing it may have been. But neither could I muster a reasonable argument in defense of that decision. For the first time in my life I was confronted with the realization that I had never engaged my mind in even the most cursory reasoning about the reality of abortion.
My wife and I were products of highly ethical Christian homes. It was for that reason, and that reason alone, that we never seriously considered the possibility of not “continuing the pregnancy.” We had been immersed in an upbringing where the existence of objective truth and a normative understanding of right and wrong were simply assumed. Living in that kind of environment, we would never have contemplated doing otherwise. Moral people just didn’t kill innocent babies. When that is your outlook, an emotional response is all you need.
Unfortunately, the probability that such an environment is a prevalent one is becoming more and more remote these days. We certainly cannot assume it. No matter what their upbringing, a great majority of those in our culture are floating adrift in a sea of every kind of relativistic thinking. “That may be true for you, but it’s not for me.” “Who are you to judge?” “Don’t try to impose your moral standards on me!”
We are surrounded by several generations of adults, young and old, who have unquestioningly accepted a relativistic mindset wherein moral reasoning is considered the quaint practice of a less tolerant time. It is within such an environment that the merchants of death thrive. It is only within a world like this that a renowned philosopher like David Boonin could consider a memorable moment just like the one my wife and I experienced that day in Norfolk, Virginia – and come to such a gruesomely opposite conclusion.
Gazing at still photos of his son Eli at various stages of his life, Boonin refers to a sonogram image of him that he keeps in the top drawer of his desk. The photo, taken 24 weeks before Eli’s birth, confirms for Boonin that “… there is no doubt in my mind that this picture shows the same little boy at a very early stage in his physical development. And there is no question that the position I defend in this book [A Defense of Abortion] entails that it would have been morally permissible to end his life at [that] point.”[i]
People who think like Boonin influence our culture in insidious ways. They include folks who spend hundreds of pages in the books they write attempting to convince us that there is a difference between a human being and a human person. They include philosophers like Princeton University’s Chair of Bioethics at its Center for Human Values, Peter Singer, who believes that “… it can be morally permissible to kill infants; that some animals have a greater claim to our protection than [infants] do; that sex between humans and animals is morally acceptable so long as it does not cause the animal pain or harm; [and] … that the traditional view of the sanctity of human life is obsolete.”[ii]
Philosophers like Boonin and Singer may not be household names but their worldview has seeped into the very foundations of our most elite institutions of higher learning and from there into the unquestioning ethos of our world. The lines of reasoning they come up with to uphold these kinds of views are intricately detailed, meticulously constructed arguments that are not for the faint of heart and there is only one reason they offer them. They mean to condone the “right” to practice abortion or engage in embryo-destructive stem cell research by creating an ethical atmosphere in which limitless human autonomy is the paradigm and the high-sounding promises of what we can do through science become equivalent to what we should do. Their goal is to convince us that any “thinking person” should see their nuanced points of view.
And it works.
After all, this is a culture that gives no quarter to any restriction on one’s personal autonomy. That being so, the arguments have been effective within a society bent on embracing any justification for pursuing its own self-absorbed ends – a society eager to listen to whatever its itching ears wants to hear.
But it occurs to me that the average person, looking at their offspring’s sonogram on a computer screen, has never even heard these arguments and will, in all probability, never have occasion to consider their finer points or realize that they have been swayed by them. Indeed, these kinds of justifications for abortion would never have occurred to the likes of my wife and me in the winter of 1987, and they wouldn’t occur to almost anyone else now. Even so, when human autonomy and moral justification intersect, the result is a passive acquiescence to the vision of the anointed that leads us toward the least painful solution to our problems.
Ignorance of reality is bliss.
If someone like me can be so easily swayed to reject abortion by the coincidental movement of an unborn baby’s fingers, they can be just as easily swayed by emotional appeals to the opposite view.
My contention is that, minus the extremely rare exceptions of those with improperly functioning minds, every person on this earth carries with them a moral imagination that is an undeniable aspect of their humanity. That being true, it is a simple task to shock that imagination, with a jolt of logical thinking, into a confrontation with moral clarity. The goal of LTI is to deliver that shock in a winsome, attractive and convincing way that unveils the plain and obvious truth behind every issue we take on. We do it all the time and the response we get is always similar, “I’ve never heard it put that way before.”
But make no mistake – our tactics are nothing clever. Our case does not require specialized education or deep reflection. It does not rely on some intricately woven line of reasoning meant to slither its way through multitude of nuanced philosophical or scientific trivialities. We don’t have to play those kinds of games, even though our case is strong enough to stand up to those kinds of objections. The case for life is elegant in its simplicity and direct in its appeal to what normal people already know but may never have been led to recognize or consider for themselves. It is everyman’s argument, so clear and concise it can even be delivered by someone like me – or you.
For the record, the baby that triggered the chain of events described above was born in April of 1988. He was the oldest of what became five sons but he was the only son for whom we ever received the results of an AFP test. My wife refused to submit to them after our experience. Far from being born without a brain, Robby grew up to be a highly intelligent, confident and successful young man. Next May he will graduate near the top of his class from one of the finest universities in America.
My motivation to commit to the mission and vision of the Life Training Institute rests partially on the unacceptable notion that we have no idea how many babies just like Robby will never have the opportunity to accomplish what he has accomplished because their lives ended in a disposable bio-hazard bag at an abortion clinic. I cannot live with the idea that someone just like me would make the opposite choice simply because I never made the effort to educate them about the truth-soaked realities that undergird the pro-life position.
I am no bioethical expert. I am not a trained philosopher. But that’s the point. My hope is that my unexceptional background can confront some folks with the realization that they too have been intellectually disengaged from the reality of abortion, and that they too can admit that they are ill-equipped to articulate it. I hope to stir people who are just like me to embrace and promote what is so clearly and unarguably the morally superior position that LTI defends.
This is not a topic to be left to the high-sounding but vacuous arguments of the intellectual elite. It is a cause that every one of us can grasp, knowing that we stand on a solid foundation of truth that is not swayed by emotional appeals or the chicanery of those who go to such great lengths to undermine it. I cannot hope that someone’s baby will wave to them at just the right time. I cannot allow that others would be left to rely on the same shifting sand on which I stood when I was in their position. I cannot go on being a passive spectator or an insufferable complainer about an injustice I have no intention of confronting.
Our case is easily made. We just need to go make it.
[i] Robert P. George & Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2008), p. 113-114.
[ii] Ramesh Ponnuru, The Party of Death (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2006), p. 175.