When you want a good illustration of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the ‘Banality of Evil,’ use this video as Exhibit A.
On December 21, 1970, the Supreme Court struck down an attempt by Congress to lower the voting age to 18 in Oregon v. Mitchell.
On July 1, 1971, the 26th amendment was ratified, enshrining a voting age of 18 in the United States Constitution.
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court declared genocide on unwanted children in the womb in Roe v. Wade.
Forty years later, Roe’s principles are still sound Constitutional law.
This Tuesday, we commemorate the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies in American history. Even if a right to life amendment had been passed almost immediately, thousands of babies still would have been legally killed in the brief interim, and Roe would still be a disaster worthy of our collective memory as Americans.
But there is another, far greater, far grimmer, and far more heartbreaking tragedy we must remember tomorrow: the four decades between 1/22/73 and 1/22/13. It is one thing for nine judges to make a ruling on a single day. It is quite another for hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens to go on killing for scores of years without ever realizing their own iniquity. All nine men who gave Roe life are now dead. And of course, they’re no longer needed – millions upon millions of average men and women are willing and able to keep it alive forever. And just today, one of their own was inaugurated for a second term as President.
One feels like Phil Connors from the movie Groundhog Day. “I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it’s always February 2nd, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Every day we wake up, we’re always right here, in a nation that delights in euphemistic child-killing, and it’s always January 22nd, and there’ s nothing we can do about it. Phil Connors eventually made it to February 3rd. I don’t know if America has the heart and soul left to ever make it to January 23rd.
In truth though, we also must remember the very little known fact that January 21st wasn’t all that different. Legal abortion did not have its genesis in the judiciary, but owes its existence to the legislative branch – the branch of the people. In the late 1960s, before courts had even hinted at a Constitutional right, states began making children of rape and incest legitimate objects for execution. Then in 1970, four states legalized abortion on demand – one by popular referendum.
Critically, the law in New York allowed for non-residents to obtain abortion. In all 50 states, all that legally stood between an unwanted child and death was the cost of travel to New York. Did Americans care? No, they were too busy with important issues like the right of 18 year olds to vote. In the grand scheme of things, the only real effect of Roe was to eliminate the possible need for interstate travel. Once again, Americans did not care. They were more caught up in the heart-wrenching spectacle of a hotel break-in. And even after Watergate finally, mercifully ran its course, Americans found plenty of other distractions over the next four decades.
And so, Americans have never seen fit to abolish abortion. Congress has never even come close to voicing disapproval of our legal genocide. The same body that can muster almost unanimous displays of support for an inanimate piece of fabric (the American flag) and a rote and dessicated collection of words (the pledge of allegiance), turns out to be too hard hearted to give actual people – actual children – the time of day. In this, Congress well reflects the will of the people.
At this point, it seems the only thing which will stop 40 years from becoming 50, 60, and then 70 is the collapse of the nation altogether. Back in the 1800s, the arc of history favored the slavery abolitionists. The arc of history is not on the side of the abolitionist today. Forget the polls you’ve found. Take note only of heavily conservative Indiana, which rejected a Senate candidate who dared to believe that all life deserved to live. Or remember Mississippi, the highly religious state which could not bring itself to declare that life began at conception. Or simply remind yourself of who was inaugurated as our president today.
Those who claim the United States is a Christian nation have no shortage of evidence in their arsenal. Do not the very coins we carry in our pockets say “In God We Trust”? Does not our pledge to the flag contain the words “One Nation, Under God”? Did not the Declaration of Independence close by asserting “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence”? Does not Congress open each day with some minister offering prayer before God? Did not even public school commence with prayers until the Supreme Court controversially ended the practice in the 1960s? On all counts, the answer is a resounding yes.
But does any of this make us a Christian nation? Hardly. One doesn’t need to read much of the Bible to understand that God cares little about a nation’s public declarations of faith, and more about the way the nation’s citizens actually live their lives. As Christ said of Israel, He would say of America: “these people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” Legal abortion is perhaps the most visible way in which Americans fail to live as a godly people, regardless of what our coins and pledge attest.
The National Prayer Breakfast, held annually in Washington DC, is one of the more grotesque examples of empty god-talk to be found in America today. Inoffensive, but pious-sounding generalities are the norm at the breakfast. Occasionally though, the organizers accidentally invite someone who gives a good speech. Perhaps most famously, Mother Teresa forcefully condemned abortion in 1994, and just last year, Evangelical author Eric Metaxas did so as well.
One day, I found a transcript of the 1973 prayer breakfast in an old issue of the Congressional Record. It was held on February 1, just ten days after the Roe ruling. And five days after the cease-fire in Vietnam. And two days after Senator John Stennis (D-MS) was non-fatally shot. As one might expect, the latter two events were the ones on the mind of the breakfast participants. Then, as now, the massacre of the unborn was out of sight, and out of mind. And so, with a false air of piousness, the breakfast proceeded.
Nixon aide Ann Armstrong gave the opening prayer. Then Representatives Al Quie and John Myers made some forgettable statements. And then, who should give the Old Testament reading, but Harry Blackmun!!! Yes, Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe, was there before a large crowd of professed Christians, reading from Isaiah 40. And what a passage to read! Isaiah 40 is one of the most powerful statements of God’s absolute sovereignty over humankind. “He reduces princes to nothing,” read Blackmun, “He annihilates the rulers of the world.” Was the same man who just decreed that unwanted babies were to be annihilated now daring to cast himself as a devoted servant of God?
Next up was Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR). In the months to come, he would strongly advocate a right to life amendment to the Constitution. He had a unique moment in history to speak truth to power – to really give Blackmun the words he deserved at that moment. He had a chance to direct the attention of everyone to the legalized genocide which Blackmun had begun a week and a half ago. And as Hatfield spoke, that seemed a real possibility.
“If we pray to the Biblical God of justice and righteousness,” he told the breakfast, “we fall under God’s judgment for calling upon His name but failing to obey His commandments. Our Lord Jesus Christ confronts false petitioners who disobey the word of God when He said “why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do the things I say?” God tells us that acceptable worship and obedience are expressed by specific acts of love and justice… Today our prayers must begin with repentance.”
But then, as Hatfield continued on, it became clear that he had the Vietnam war in mind rather than Roe. He was going after Nixon rather than Blackmun. For all his insight, Hatfield had sadly gotten swept up with the Nixon hatred of the day, and failed to address his excoriation toward the man who most needed it. Still, edit out a few references to the war, and the speech holds up well today. “Those who truly follow Christ,” he pointed out, “will more often find themselves not with comfortable majorities, but with miserable minorities.” Or again, “Lives lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ at this point in history may well put us at odds with the values of our society.”
None of the other speakers after Hatfield said anything of note. Mere meaningless civil religion. Forty years later, legal abortion still exists, and so does the National Prayer Breakfast. Apparently, many self-professed Christians in Washington continue to believe that God can be fobbed off by an annual spectacle of vacuous spirituality. In truth, as all but the most willfully blind can easily discern, God is not mocked; whatever a nation sows it shall reap. In four decades, America has sown the blood of 55 million children. Is it any wonder that we have reaped another term for Obama?
If any researcher out there is thinking about writing the definitive work on the history of abortion, don’t bother. It’s already been done. Joseph Dellapenna’s massive, and exhaustive work, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, is unlikely to ever be surpassed. Thirty years in the making, professor Dellapenna seems to have read virtually every published work on the subject, as the vast blizzard of footnotes attests. Don’t let the combative title fool you – this is a scholarly masterpiece. Dellapenna, far from being a pro-life zealot with an ax to grind, is in fact a pro-choice Unitarian.
The main myth that Dellapenna seeks to dispel is the ubiquitous claim that abortion was not illegal at common law in the United Kingdom, and then in America. In fact, Dellapenna shows, abortion was considered illegal from the dawn of English law right on down to the 2oth century. The most fascinating disclosure in the book, however, comes in the first few chapters. This is the historical phenomenon of widespread infanticide and abandonment.
Before early pregnancy tests, anesthesia, or the discoveries of Lister and Pasteur, abortion was anything but an ordinary and safe procedure. After carefully reviewing the historical record, Dellapenna concludes that before about 1800, only the truly desperate would even attempt abortion. The practice did not become common, even illegally, until the 19th century, when medical advances made it mostly safe for the mother.
And before then? Most women facing an unwanted pregnancy went ahead and gave birth. But after that, all bets were off for the newborn baby. If the baby was unwanted, there was a good chance he or she would be immediately suffocated or drowned, or else abandoned to die. Dellapenna shares some shocking statistics which show how common these practices once were. A mere 200 years ago, dead babies were occasionally found on the streets of London, or at the bottom of public toilets. In France, the the phenomenon was even more pronounced.
Laws were passed. And then, in the 19th century, as if by magic, infanticide and abandonment suddenly started fading away as social problems. But, of course, they had not really faded away. Only now the babies were being killed by illegal abortion rather than illegal infanticide. A century later, infanticide remained illegal, but the western world began warming up to abortion.
The lesson of history is that death always finds an outlet. Today, of course, death is easier than ever. Pregnancy can be detected unfathomably early, and new human life can be aborted out of existence before it assumes an even remotely human shape. A vast realm of euphemistic terms like fetus, embryo, and parasite are available as well. The usually unstated assumption of the abortion debate is that abortion would certainly be unacceptable if everyone could agree that it was a baby being killed.
But all the talk of fetuses, and personhood, and bodily autonomy ultimately turns out to be a smokescreen. They turn out to be not true justifications, but the lamest of excuses. Before abortion was medically feasible, babies were still killed, and worse yet, they actually were, indisputably, real babies – persons, separate from the mother. Abortion does not exist because infanticide is out of the question given human nature, abortion exists because it’s so much more convenient that infanticide.
One of the principal functions of the state – possibly the principal function – is to bridle human nature. We make and enforce laws against theft, abuse, and murder because we know full well that we will inevitably gravitate toward those sins in the absence of some authority. True, death always finds an outlet, but at least the outlet is not gilded by public at large. And that is why the legalization of abortion is so tragic. Death no longer needs to even search for an outlet. We are no longer ashamed of human nature, but openly celebrate it. And though we do not realize it, we tacitly admit that it was wrong to stigmatize those who killed and abandoned their children so many centuries before.
Many weeks back, I sat by a window, vacantly gazing out, when suddenly an insect flew straight into a large spiderweb nestled in the window’s lower left corner. A few seconds later, to my horror, a large spider crawled out of the shadows, and began making its way across the web toward the struggling insect. With only seconds to spare, the insect managed to extricate itself from the web, and flew away. The spider glumly marched back into the shadows.
Right then and there, I silently offered up a prayer of joy – thank you God, for even the smallest of mercies. And yet, in this moment of unexpected happiness I also closed the curtains, and walked away from the window. I knew that, though this insect had been saved, others would not be. For every creature that flies free, rescued from danger, there are many more who do not escape the spider in the shadows.
A prominent American magazine recently declared that advocates of legal abortion have been “losing” ever since the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. The pro-life blogosphere has been happily abuzz over this article, and taken it as a sign that the long term war looks favorable for our side. Russell Moore was one of the few voices to offer a more pessimistic take, to which I have little to add. Moore rightly admits that there are real reasons for happiness. Whether because of ultrasounds, crisis pregnancy centers, lack of taxpayer funding, protests outside clinics, or any number of other strategies, thousands of mothers have chosen life. Those lives are not trivial. Like a butterfly, escaping from the spider’s web, each one is an occasion for rejoicing.
But the spider in the shadows remains. I live in a country where, at this very moment, any woman at all can go into a medical facility, and have her own son or daughter put to death, without any reason at all. It has been this way for 40 years. More than 50 million times in those four decades, women have elected to exercise this right. Most frightening of all, We the People have ultimately decided that this state of affairs should stay undisturbed. For every life saved by the pro-life movement, so many more are snuffed out, and there’s no end in sight. What the Supreme Court made a right in the alleged land of “liberty and justice for all” has become so deeply embedded that making abortion illegal again has become unthinkable.
And so we do not dwell much on abortion, and go about living our lives. Even those of us who know abortion is murder. What else can we do? Thinking about the spider too much will drive you insane. But refusing to think about it can be equally dangerous. Underestimating a nation’s collective capacity for evil only leaves us less prepared when something even more wicked than abortion really starts to catch on. We continue to call America a great nation even with legal abortion. What about legal infanticide, or legal genocide? When these come, will we also put them out of our mind, and keep reciting “with liberty and justice for all”? Will we one day be reduced to rejoicing when protestors convince one mother to not exercise her legal right to put her two year old to death?
These are not pleasant questions to think about, but a 40 year anniversary is as good a time as any. Over the next several days, I hope to take a hard look at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. And whether there’s any possibility of a happy end when the spiders are no more.