It’s amazing the difference a name makes. On one day this past week, nearly a hundred endangered elephants were killed and around 3,000 abortions were performed in the United States alone, and we were unfazed—but the killing of Cecil the lion broke our hearts. He wasn’t just any random lion. He was Cecil. Mere lions (along with chickens, cows, lambs, and pigs) are killed, but Cecil was murdered. We love the lion that was named Cecil. We feel as though we knew him.
The abortion industry knows very well the difference a name can make. In a recent New Republic article, Dr. Jen Gunter informs us that despite all appearances to the contrary, the Center for Medical Progress did not catch Planned Parenthood in the act of selling baby parts. No, not at all: Apparently, the tissue specimens in question are just the “products of conception.” Tissue and products, yes, but never a baby. You see, it’s all fine as long as you use the right words.
She continues, “In utero, i.e. during pregnancy, we use the term “embryo” from fertilization to ten weeks gestation and “fetus” from ten weeks to birth. The term baby is medically incorrect as it doesn’t apply until birth. Calling the tissue “baby parts” is a calculated attempt to anthropomorphize an embryo or fetus.”
Wait, what? A calculated attempt to anthropomorphize human beings? Dr. Gunter reminds me of Wile E. Coyote right after he runs off a cliff. Just keep peddling in the air, don’t look down! Just keep saying, “fetus, fetus, fetus.” It doesn’t matter that “fetus” is Latin for “offspring.” The meaning doesn’t matter: The word itself is magic. Any word would do, as long as it sounds scientific and isn’t “baby.”
For Dr. Gunter as, I imagine, for the abortionists at Planned Parenthood, people gain value just as Cecil did. They gain the right to life only when they are named and known. Merely being alive, possessing human body parts and unique and irreplaceable human DNA does not confer any value or dignity on you whatsoever unless you are wanted, loved, known, and named. From this perspective, the little hand you can see in the Petri dish in the first video from Center for Medical Progress is not a reason to cry out in horror. What we’re seeing there is like a chicken breast in the grocery store, tissue from an unnamed, unloved, and therefore merely material thing, appropriate for harvesting and selling.
It is important that religious people learn to argue against the manifest evil of abortion on purely secular, rational grounds. We must take care to explain the medical and scientific fact that embryos and fetuses are human beings and the necessity of recognizing the intrinsic value of all human life. We must also provide real support to women and children so that unplanned pregnancies can be faced without the fear and desperation that leads to the abortionist’s office. Yet perhaps what we most need to do now is to proclaim a truth that is unavoidably, unapologetically religious: Every single human being, from the moment of his or her conception, is known, loved, and named. It’s not the rational arguments that make me feel sick watching the videos of abortion doctors munching salad and sipping wine while talking about crushing skulls, or that make me weep at the sight of that “tissue.” It’s that I see those little ones just as Jimmy Kimmel sees Cecil, or just as I see Cecil for that matter. I see them as known and loved.
We are not hypocrites because we cry over Cecil while ignoring the killing of other animals, some of them more endangered than lions. We are all wired to value the lives of the beloved more than others, and there is no shame in doing so. Utopians from Plato to B.F. Skinner have distrusted this aspect of human nature and have planned societies in which communal childrearing would serve to replace our intense love of our own children with an impartial love of all members of society. Yet there is no such thing as an equal and abstract love for all humanity, any more than there is for all animals. All love is concrete. Even God’s love is concrete.
We won’t manage to respect all human life by straining to love all of humanity. The point isn’t that we should love the unnamed and the unloved as much as we love Cecil. It’s that everyone is loved and named, even those whose parents don’t want them and can’t bear to love them, and whose lives the rest of us don’t deem worth living. Even before each and every one of us emerges from the womb and gains official “baby” status, we are already known, named, and loved; as in Isaiah 43:1, God says to us, “I have called you by name, and you are mine.” You can call them fetuses if you want, Planned Parenthood, but whatever you call them, they are each named, loved, and known, and no part of them should be for sale, ever.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.