“Science is giving the pro-life movement a boost,” Emma Green wrote at the Atlantic last week, and in one very important sense she is right. Scientific discovery in recent decades has indeed bolstered the central and most important tenet of the pro-life movement, namely that the unborn are human beings from the very moment of conception onward, and abortion kills them. Only fools and Planned Parenthood executives are capable of denying this now.
But in a larger sense the pro-life embrace of “science” is a misguided one, chiefly because it takes what is and should be a strictly moral question and turns it into a far more complex and vulnerable one. That’s not to suggest scientific inquiry is somehow hostile to the pro-life position; indeed, it can be entirely useful as a “bridge to [the] moral imagination,” as Notre Dame professor O. Carter Snead told Green. But the principal question of abortion is not scientific — it is moral and ethical.
For their part, pro-choicers seem happy to frame their pro-abortion arguments in terms of combative, adversarial science. Last year’s proposed federal 20-week abortion ban, for instance, generated no small amount of outraged responses: Vox trumpeted that the bill was “basically relying on junk science;” Jessica Valenti, in the Guardian, called it “complete junk science;” the Chicago Tribune called it “flimsy;” Mic called it “pseudoscience;" QZ called it “fake science.” And so forth.
This is a prime example of the media’s taking an altogether normal thing — scientific debate and disagreement — and turning it into highly effective agitprop for the pro-abortion cause. There is actually compelling evidence that unborn humans can indeed feel pain at 20 weeks, but that was lost in the overwhelmingly negative coverage surrounding the bill.
This type of discourse ultimately distracts from the animating principle of the pro-life movement, a principle grounded firmly in morality. There is a currently fashionable belief that science per se is the arbiter of everything that could possibly matter. But we forget that there are countless things — ethics, love, friendship, virtue, decency, pleasure, joy — that, while in some cases scientifically quantifiable, are not properly judicable by the scientific method.
The morality of abortion is similar. Yes, there is good evidence that 20-week-old fetuses can feel themselves being ripped apart limb by limb, and this counts as a strong argument against abortion. But the pro-choice crowd is so rabidly fanatical about abortion that it is unlikely this fact will make any difference at all. To take one small example, Hillary Clinton, a rather garden-variety pro-abortion Democrat, supports abortion up until “the very end of the third trimester,” which is to say directly before birth.
If the archetypal feminist pro-choicer is fine with ripping nine-month-old babies apart while they’re still alive, do you think she will be moved by arguments about 20-week-old fetal pain?
In other words, a more forceful and elemental case against abortion is necessary. There is, to be sure, some space for scientific debate as it applies to abortion; it is good, in any case, that all the facts be on the table. But the argument is more basic than that. We know the cold, hard facts: Human beings are human beings from the moment of conception onwards, abortion kills human beings, and thus abortion is gravely and manifestly wrong. Compelling science aside, we should be prepared to always make the case against abortion based upon the horrifying and self-evident reality of what it does to the most vulnerable among us.
Daniel Payne is a writer based in Virginia. He is an assistant editor for the College Fix, the news magazine of the Student Free Press Association. He blogs at Trial of the Century.
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