“The lady’s daughter died drinking milk.”
-Old Indian Proverb
Today a woman has not conceived a child until she has decided not to abort it.
True, she may carry within her a mass of protoplasm with a unique chromosomal structure, exhibiting independent sensations, reactions, movement, and will; but there can be no question of this being a human being until, with godly power, she makes it so by her solitary word. To the relief, no doubt, of Justice Blackmun, who wrestled so vexingly with the question of when life begins, the answer has proved amazingly simple: When, like Darius lifting his golden sceptre to Esther, the gravid woman has signified her royal pleasure that the worthless intruder be not destroyed, at that very moment the mole, the tumor, the sticky mass of tissue becomes a radiant soul worthy of honor, medical care, and protection from nuclear power plants. But if she fails to lift the sceptre . . . her word of yea or nay is certainly hers alone, and if not divine, at least divinely powerful. And because it is exactly her right to privacy that is deemed so deep, so all-conquering, so crucial to her humanity that it surrenders into her hand the power of life and death over her most helpless dependents, it is correct in a certain sense to call her fiat a private choice. Nevertheless it is absurd to say that she chooses privately. Behind her solitary will stands a community, the great Leviathan of which she is a member; and just as the result of her choice will filter through and influence the whole body, so the moods and reflections of the whole body will reach down and affect her choice. It is impossible that it should be otherwise: That she is in the position to make the choice at all is an affair of the whole community, including the Supreme Court. Furthermore, she has been reared by the community, has read its books and listened to its gossip; she knows what her friends think and what the woman’s movement thinks; she has heard of doctors and seen children in the grocery store. We can be certain that she is not a Carthusian hermit, since unaided parthenogenesis is not characteristic of our species.
The advice, hints, and reflections of her community, then, make up the fabric of her choice. This is so in almost everything she does—the community is always ready to have its say—but never so quickly as in this gravest of all matters, the question of which of its members should live and which should die. No community is willing to allow murderers to stalk freely through it, but, curiously enough, every community seems to have certain killings on which it turns a blind eye. The one slayer puts himself outside the gates of the city; the other remains a respectable citizen. Our aborter belongs to this latter class; the choice to kill is less privately hers than the choice that motivated Cain. Of course it is hers in the end: We are equally children of Eve together, and the community does not require her to kill her offspring. But merely telling her that she may do so with impunity has an enormous and incalculable influence on her.
Consider this: Medea, to kill her children, needed a huge and passionate spirit, capable of deadly hatred for their father; she needed a wild and determined soul; she needed a great capacity for jealousy; she needed madness to spur her on. “One indeed, one of the women of old time I hear laid her hand upon her children, and the miserable woman flung herself into the sea because of the impious murder of her babes. What, then, what could be dreadful after this?”1
But to expose a weakly child on the hills of neighboring Sparta took no Medea, no great and mad soul. Every woman was capable of this act because it was a matter of public policy.2 In Carthage the sacrifice of perfect male babies was considered a worthy and acceptable appeasement of their god.3 In India the suffocation of girl-babies was deemed by certain Rajputs an economic necessity because of the crushing expense of the weddings given by custom for high-caste women. Though the Vedas condemned it, public opinion sanctioned it, not as right in principle but as expedient and necessary.4
These deeds were not done by Medeas—they were done by ordinary fathers and mothers given heart for the killing by the approval of the collective spirit around them. So with our prolicides5 today. They are not spectacularly wicked souls, filled with divine madness. On the whole, as we all admit, they are perfectly ordinary and trying to be if not good, at least acceptable. They kill because no one they know calls it killing. Hence the great souls in our community are the ones who confront their Down’s Syndrome babies and hang on. The ones who give up and kill them without ever facing them are neither great nor rare.
The community has explained abortion to its members as a form of triage. Triage is a grading of evils, a choice between damnable things. Even Good Samaritans must exercise triage at an accident scene where, for example, a schoolbus has gone over a cliff. If there are twenty injured and dying children it is manifestly impossible for one person to help them all. Some may be safely left without help; some must be abandoned to die. Triage is the choice of whom to help, whom to leave, whom to abandon.
This is how abortion appears to its friends in our community. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need abortion (when will they invent the perfect birth control?), but since nothing is perfect abortion is an indispensable back-up tool. Without it we are cursed with a Bridge of Sighs from which suffering pregnant women leap to their deaths. We have grinding poverty, with too many mouths to feed; we have horribly deformed children with unbearable needs and no compensations; we have the mental insanity of rape victims carrying around the burden of unspeakable crimes against their bodies; we have children barely pubescent, incapable of motherhood but about to become mothers anyway. Against the weight of these horrors we have only the value of a few cells, hardly anything at all. No one claims that abortion is wonderful, but isn’t it better than the alternative?
Experience confirms that the reasons are often more trivial. “I don’t feel ready for a child.” “I don’t want to fall behind in my career.” “I already have two children.” “I don’t want this child.” (Imagine complacently suffocating a newborn child for such a reason.) Yet even here the community treads gently. It is deemed a rudeness to question the intensity of someone’s suffering. Truly indeed, as we ought to remember with humility, principles are easiest when they are not put to the test (and every day we pray not to be tried too hard). “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”6 Only the stony-hearted or self-righteous, with their feet solidly on the ground, will question the sincere sense of trial and necessity that impels someone to do something which, after all, costs money, hurts, and is fraught with the danger of nagging doubts and regrets.
Nonetheless we may question the collective spirit of the community which sets the threshold of unendurable suffering so low while offering no support to those who really suffer and want to hang on. Just as the Rajputs truly suffered economic hardship from rearing their girl babies, and could not see any way out but by killing them, so members of our community suffer mental hardship from carrying their babies to term and are truly blind to any other choice but killing. All but the large and eccentric souls are willingly enslaved to custom and community opinion.
In our collective body, to bear and rear children is now often considered trivial and even degrading work; it has become our custom to find our satisfactions outside the home, and we talk of being “trapped” by our children. How incomprehensible this would be to communities which consider their children to be that for the sake of which all else is done! How incredible to the Hebrew who sang that children are like arrows in the hand of a warrior: “O the happiness of the man who has filled his quiver with these arrows!”7 To Hannah, to Mary, being a childless woman would be like a dry river or a cold sun. But we have turned their songs into empty babble.
Nowadays there is even a sense of shame about being pregnant, especially among women with more than one or two children. Young parents announce the good tidings of great joy with some bravado as if they are outfacing the world’s tacit disapproval. There is a general feeling in the air that having babies is irresponsible, like pet owners refusing to have their dogs and cats neutered.
In this atmosphere abortion has become more than the acceptable, if hard, choice. It tends to become a positive duty with a good countenance. There is no shame in admitting to an abortion (imagine, however, saying at your next party: “I saw that my newborn baby was going to take up too much of my time, so I sliced her in pieces and swept her up with a vacuum cleaner”). Abortion bears a certain glow of strength, liberation, bravery about it. We speak about it as if it is best even for the children who die. It is a social necessity as well; otherwise the greater need for welfare payments, school lunch payments, medicare payments, and all those other payments would certainly crush the collective body. In fact we have gone the limit of piety and discovered that abortion is the most loving thing we can do for our children: better not to see the sun at all than see it through a curtain of tears, poor toads. Like the Indian mothers who wept as they smeared poison on their breasts for the child to suckle, we bravely grit our teeth as we offer up our own children to the knife or the bath of acid, convinced that we can do nothing else.
Can we do nothing else?
When anyone talks about changing the spirit of the community that makes abortion so feasible and so glorious, the first thing he usually means is to change the laws. And of course the first rebuttal eagerly advanced is a vivid picture of a nightmare of illegal abortions. To make this mode of killing against the law will not suppress it but only make it unsanitary, and the blood of thousands of hemorrhaging and infected women will be held to our account.
This rebuttal is partly true and partly not true. Not true because to make a thing illegal is always a step towards suppressing it. Even a law imposed from without can help to end an evil, just as, for instance, the law imposed by Britain on the Rajputs preserved the life of many girl babies in the north of India.8 And a law can also be a clear announcement of what is acceptable behavior and will have a significant influence over those who are more led by, than leaders of, the community.
But of course it is also true that abortions will not stop just because they are illegal, since lawbreakers are always with us. Just as people continue to beat their born children, they will continue to kill their unborn. By the nature of things an unborn child is the most dependent of all creatures: He needs someone else to supply him with not only food and warmth, but breath itself—“My more than meat and drink, / My meal at every wink”9—the oxygen without which he is within minutes the mere mass of cells that his killers have named him. By the nature of things he is dead without his mother and if she repudiates him, what is he to do? And what law can restrain a mother who is bent on repudiating her child? Only the most severe laws, the most vigilant eavesdropping and strict restraints could keep alive beings so frail and so unloved.
Thus a change in the law is not enough but must go along with a change in the spirit of the community, so that the members come to see that killing is not the best way of coping with infants, and so that they look back to the barbarian time of abortions with the same shudder with which we look back to the time of the burning babes in Carthage.
There was a concept in Roman Law called boni mores, which is defined as the restraint by public condemnation of the ruthless and unnecessary exercise of a legal right. Thus, for instance, the paterfamilias could legally kill any of his dependents who annoyed him but boni mores kept him from doing so.10 The same weapon can be used against abortion while laws are slowly being changed, declared unconstitutional, and changed again.
Thus the attitude of the community can be a buttress against sufferings caused trivially, and even against those caused by graver problems. We can usually bear what our collective body thinks we can bear. One example is the sufferings of women during labor and childbirth. Scarcely a generation ago our doctors worked so hard to relieve that suffering that they produced the Twilight Sleep; nowadays, a woman who has to be anesthetized for a forceps delivery feels that she has been cheated out of a tremendous experience. What has changed? Not the fierce sensation of uterine muscles tightening: only now we call them contractions and then they called them pains. In fact, with the whole support and approval of the community backing her up a woman in labor can sometimes not only endure but transcend pain, even to the stage of ecstasy.11
If public opinion would no longer call children “the products of conception” but regard them as “living flames,” how many would fall before the blade of a curette?
Even now, in fact, there are arbiters of boni mores at work restraining people from this ruthless and bloody legal right. The nation has a conscience; there are bystanders who are appalled and ashamed, and they leaven the whole lump. The proof is that women who have abortions weep, suffer depression in cycles, form groups to suppress their guilt feelings, have emotional traumas during subsequent childbirths, get angry with “society” for making abortion a harder experience than it need be, and write manifestos announcing that in a “society we can all live with” they (1) would not have to make hard decisions and (2) would feel no worse about abortion than about an operation to remove a mole.12 These women suffer from the condemnation of those who find abortion wrong; there are also women who are helped by the encouragement of those who find childbirth right: who speak up, volunteering to adopt; who help buttress the building, making suffering not only bearable, but transcendent. Two groups come to mind: “The Farm” in Tennessee, which not only offers to raise unwanted babies but also promises to give them back when the mother finds her circumstances improved;13 and one of the most heart-stopping anti-abortion groups in America, a group of parents of spina bifida babies who implore the parents of unborn spina bifida babies not to kill them and promise if necessary to adopt the new children themselves.14
Amid this great cloud of witnesses is also the silent testimony of every person who finds it a good thing to be merciful to those in her power. Such private witness complements public action. To keep our conscience keen, to publicly condemn (and thereby restrain) this legal right, to turn the spirit of the community, Congress could enact and the President proclaim a national day of mourning for ten million children slain. On one day a year let us wear black armbands and announce for all to hear that killing babies does not advance the public good.
1. M.A. Bayfield, ed., The Medea of Euripides, re-issue (London: Macmillan, 1902), p. 99, note to 11. 1282-1290.
2. “A Spartan’s discipline began at birth: male babies were submitted to inspection by the authorities and, if fit to live, they were allowed to do so. If unfit, they were exposed to die on the wild slopes of Mt. Taygetus.” Aubrey de Selincourt, The World of Herodotus (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), p. 119.
3. “A striking discovery in Carthaginian archaelogy has been that of a sacred enclosure . . . In it were found thousands of urns containing the burnt bones of children.” B.H. Warmington, Carthage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 158. “The efficacy of the sacrifice is proportional to the value of the victim . . . The mol’k, a holocaust of children, was thus the perfect form of Punic sacrifice.” Gilbert and Colette Charles-Picard, Daily Life in Carthage, tr. by A. E. Foster (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 66.
4. “A man must marry his daughter or incur an earthly and eternal penalty that few will face. He can rarely marry her without paying a dowry so large that it strains his resources; to which must be added the costs of the wedding—costs so excessive that, as a rule, they plunge him deep into debt . . . A girl child in the Hindu scheme, is usually a heavy and unwelcome cash liability. Her birth elicits the formal condolences of family friends. But not always would one find so ingenuous a witness as that prosperous old Hindu landowner who said to me: ‘I have had twelve children. Ten girls, which, naturally, did not live. Who, indeed, could have borne that burden! The two boys, of course, I preserved.’” Katherine Mayo, Mother India (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1927), pp. 131, 69.
5. The act of prolicide is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the killing of the offspring either before or soon after birth.
6. Gerard Manley Hopkins, sonnet (“No worst, there is none . . . ”), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 100, II. 9-11.
7. Psalm 126:5, as translated in The Psalms: A New Translation from the Hebrew (New York: Paulist Press, 1968).
8. “In India, measures against the practise [of female infanticide by the Rajputs] were begun towards the end of the 18th century . . . The chiefs residing in the Punjab and the trans-Sutlej states signed an agreement engaging to expel from caste everyone who committed infanticide, to adopt fixed and moderate rates of marriage expenses, and to exclude from these ceremonies the minstrels and beggars who had so greatly swollen the expense. According to the present  law, if the female children fall below a certain percentage in any tract or among any tribe in northern India where infanticide formerly prevailed, the suspected village is placed under police supervision, the cost being charged to the locality. By these measures, together with a strictly enforced system of reporting births and deaths, infanticide has been almost trampled out; although some of the Rajput clans keep their female offspring suspiciously close to the lowest average which secures them from surveillance.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. “Infanticide.”
9. Hopkins, “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe,” Poems, p. 94, II. 11-12.
10. For an excellent description of the power of custom and public opinion to restrain the legal right of the paterfamilias, see W.G. deBurgh, The Legacy of the Ancient World, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1947), especially ch. 7.
11. See the accounts of childbirth in Ina May Gaskin, Spiritual Midwifery, rev. ed. (Summertown, Tenn.: The Book Publishing Co., 1977).
12. These are reactions to abortion which have come to my own notice. Similar reactions are described in The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves, rev. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), especially in the personal accounts of ch. 11, “Abortion.”
13. “The Farm” is a large commune outside Summertown, Tennessee. Its chief midwife (who is also the wife of the Farm’s founder and spiritual leader) is Ina May Gaskin, whose book Spiritual Midwifery ends with this message: “Don’t have an abortion. You can come to the Farm and we’ll deliver your baby and take care of him, and if you ever decide you want him back, you can have him.” (Gaskin, Midwifery, p. 448.) They send this statement to women’s health clinics where it briefly competes with the pro-abortion propaganda posted on the walls.
14. For a description of the development of tests to detect spina bifida, the implications for an increase in abortions, and the efforts of the Spina Bifida Association to counteract this, see Gina Bari Kolata, “Prenatal Diagnosis of Neural Tube Defects,” Science 209 (12 September 1980): 1218.
* * * * *
Susan Austin, now a grandmother, lives with her husband in New York City. This article was first published in the Fall 1982 issue of the Human Life Review.