We Need to Talk

Yesterday, a close friend of a close friend of mine was told that his four-month old daughter, his only child, is suffering from a rare genetic disorder and will die, without possibility of reprieve, within the next few months.

As you can imagine, this news has shattered the baby’s parents, their extended families, and their friends around the world. 

I’ve been turning this situation over and over in my mind since I heard about it, so much so that I can’t seem to think about anything else. The awful particulars bring a whole slew of core issues into full relief, issues that are central to many of us here at Ricochet.

The illness this poor child is suffering from is detectable via prenatal testing. Had her parents known that she was doomed to a short, painful life, they would almost certainly have aborted her.

Now, before you rush to denounce the parents, I ask that you take a step back and consider how you might frame the pro-life position in a way that might justify what to them would have been an agonizing choice: the choice not to abort the child but to have her, aware that her life in its predetermined brevity and painful hopelessness would be a distilled essence of pure suffering. Simply saying, to paraphrase the pro-life line, that you’ve got a direct line to God and you know better than the parents do, and that they should — contrary to their hearts — inflict that predetermined suffering on the unborn child, just won’t do. It isn’t going to convince anyone of anything. On the contrary: such an argument would serve only to confirm the worst popular suspicions about the pro-life movement.

The antipathy goes both ways, of course. To the pro-life community, pro-choice advocates are profoundly selfish, placing their own desires ahead of the very existence of their offspring. But to the pro-choice community, the refusal to countenance abortion under even the gravest of circumstances is not simply an attack on a woman’s right of self-determination, but a variety of self-righteousness that enters into the territory of pure cruelty. You are heard to be saying that that child should be condemned to suffer and die, and her family devastated, because of your, and not their, religious convictions.

I know that on the pro-choice side (where I was raised), there is a whole spectrum of opinion and belief, some of which — perhaps a great deal of which — does in fact intersect on the hypothetical Venn diagram with the opinions and beliefs of pro-lifers. The issues at stake are incredibly polarizing, but neither side really is monolithic, and I believe (perhaps in vain) that it has to be possible to build a bridge between them. 

Let’s start by frankly addressing the stereotypes. To pro-lifers, pro-choicers are (best case) godless confused people, and (worst case) godless selfish sluts. To pro-choicers, pro-lifers are (best case) well-meaning God-fearers who don’t want their own deeply held beliefs defiled by the system, and (worst case) interfering, sanctimonious prigs who are determined to force their beliefs on others, no matter the pain they cause in the process. To pro-choicers, pro-lifers taint religious belief with their presumptuous certainty of God’s intentions. To pro-lifers, it is the pro-choicers who are presumptuous, daring to dispose of life as if it is their right: indifferent murderers. And if they can’t be bothered to see the error of their ways, their unborn children will in any case be defended.

This morning, when I talked with my good friend (a secular Jew), she told me that the only way she can find to accept the tragedy of that four-month old girl is to try to embrace the idea of progressive reincarnation: the notion that we must all keep returning to life again and again until we are released from human suffering to be with God. She is trying to believe, in other words, that the baby’s suffering is a necessary crucible through which she (and her family) must pass to liberate her into eternity with God. Perhaps, my friend said, that baby’s soul has been through many lives before, and this is her final hurdle before union with God. That would certainly make any human interference a grave error. But are these the terms in which pro-lifers generally think? Or does it come down simply to a refusal to, as it were, exceed our authority as human beings — that we just don’t have the right to extinguish that which God has created, under any circumstances?

This is such a difficult debate, but we have to have it. I know that on the pro-choice side, there is much squeamishness about the casual, almost self-congratulatory defiance with which so many women celebrate their right to abort their children. And I sense that on the pro-life side, into which I’ve been introduced as an adult, there is as much compassion for women as there is for the unborn. But for the most part, we’re all talking past each other (or only to our own side), offending one another with stereotypes and assumptions.

We have to do better. We have to talk.