by Helen Alvaré
April 17, 1998
A few days before Christmas 1997, a reporter called me to solicit a reaction to Planned Parenthood's announcement of a new, very early abortion method. This procedure could be performed as early as 2 to 3 weeks after conception. My reaction was something like: "Leave it to Planned Parenthood to welcome the birth of Jesus with a new abortion method."
What was really going on was just another step in Planned Parenthood's continuing campaign to publicize early abortion. Planned Parenthood knows, and exploits, the fact that the public reacts to early abortion with less horror than later abortion. Its advocacy for the French abortion pill RU-486, as well as for abortifacient use of the cancer drug methotrexate, are also part of this campaign.
Closely related is Planned Parenthood's recent strident advocacy for "emergency contraception." This usually consists of very high doses of hormonal pills or of mifepristone (RU-486) given to a woman shortly after sexual intercourse. But "emergency contraception" is not ordinarily contraceptive; it acts more commonly as an abortifacient. This is because its primary action is to make the lining of a woman's womb (the endometrium) hostile to the developing embryo, causing it to die and be expelled from the mother. In some cases, if a woman receives "emergency contraception" just before ovulation, the hormones act to prevent ovulation, but this occurs only in about 20% of cases.
Unfortunately for the pro-life movement, the average citizen is not deeply moved by the difference between contraception and very early abortion. And polls do demonstrate greater opposition to later abortions than early abortions. What's a pro-life educator to do?
I believe there are a couple of promising options.
The first is an appeal to the human capacities for understanding, for imagination and for awe. The earliest stages of the development of an individual human life are amazing and fascinating in their own right. The genes of two persons blend unpredictably to create a new, genetically different individual. From our very first cell, our development proceeds in an organized fashion, as if possessed already of a sort of intelligence. The embryo "knows" which cells will become our body, which the placenta -- which cells will become our eyes, which our spleen. Even without faith in a Creator God, human beings can be brought to respect the awesome fashion in which each of us develops from a single cell. Just as it makes sense to say, "I was once an infant," it makes perfect sense for each of us to say, "I was once an embryo."
The second, and likely more powerful, way to confront early abortion, however, is through the eyes of faith. Our evangelization efforts must include our Christian teachings about God's creation of human life. As Pope John Paul II states in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life:
All human beings, from their mother's womb, belong to God who searches them and knows them, who forms them and knits them together with his own hands, who gazes on them when they are tiny shapeless embryos and already sees in them the adults of tomorrow whose days are numbered and whose vocation is even now written in the "book of life.
He continues by reflecting how all of Sacred Scripture shows such profound respect for human life, as the work of God's hands, that it "requires as a logical consequence" that the commandment "You Shall Not Kill" be extended to the unborn. How else, he asks, can one read the Psalms' references to God's love for human life in the womb? And how else to read the story of John the Baptist greeting his Savior while both were still children in the womb?
Out of nothing, God has made something, someone, and cares for his or her life. Jesus cared enough about our sick and suffering human bodies to heal them while on earth. And then, of course, he gave his very life for our salvation, body and soul.
In the face of such Scriptural messages, it seems truly petty to begin drawing lines between the first spark of human life and "older" humans. No doubt it is a mystery -- how God could possibly care about each and every one of us, from the moment of our first appearance to our very last breath. As G.K. Chesterton once said: "You matter. I matter. It is the hardest thing in theology to believe." Hard, but true.
(Helen Alvaré is Director of Planning and Information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC.)