This essay is adapted from a speech delivered January 25, 2020, at the first annual meeting of The David Project, a new pro-life organization whose members represent every Ivy League campus.
Who are the true radicals of our time? Not sexual revolutionaries—ever since Obergefell, they have become as unremarkable as rainbow flags. Neither is the abortion-euthanasia juggernaut radical—not anymore, and not for a long time. Cheerleading for Roe and the rest, like other forms of vice-signaling, is endemic in polite society.
No: The authentic radicals today are those who reject these contemporary orthodoxies for an older, less mechanistic, more robust view of the human person. We live in a culture of diminution, in which the idea of humanity itself continues to shrink, and in which the circles of those we care for continue to implode. Given the challenges of addressing this culture, consider these six rules pro-lifers should use to blaze a way forward.
Rule #1: Whenever possible, attend the annual March on the Mall.
Sounds quotidian, doesn’t it? You likely checked that box this year, for the first or tenth time. Possibly, you wondered in private whether pro-lifers might do something better with our time. But not only should you go out of your way to appear again next year; you might also add annual attendance to your permanent to-do list.
First, nothing illustrates the difference between the pro-life position and the pro-abortion position more than the visual evidence of the March for Life. The activists who march on Washington demanding ever more abortion are a grim lot. The spectacle is sepulchral: Women, many of them past childbearing age, marching to annihilate pregnancies they will never know again. Leaving aside the moral point, these advocates possess a mercilessly picayune and crabbed anthropology—and it shows.
The March for Life, by contrast, is buoyant, full of camaraderie, and young. The pro-abortion media missed exactly this point in their coverage of the Covington Catholic story: Many thousands of high school students from all over the country attend the March for Life, year in and year out. The opposing marches feature few high school students or children—in part because the pro-abortion side deems children negotiable. Attending the March regularly underscores that contradiction between the pro-life and pro-death camps—and we will never know who might be swayed to the pro-life side on account of it.
Attending the March also witnesses in another way. A priest friend once told me about another priest who was in the habit of protesting outside an abortion factory in Maryland every Saturday morning. One weekend was bitter cold. Snow began falling. No one else showed up. The priest felt despondent. But he knelt in the snow for a while anyway, wondering why he wasn’t home and warm.
Only later did he learn that a young woman inside the abortion mill, waiting for her procedure, had looked out the window and seen him praying in the snow. And she had a moment of recognition and epiphany. She thought, that priest is kneeling in the snow, and he doesn’t even know me or what I’m carrying; if it means so much to him, a stranger, how can I go through with this? She left the building, and went on to have the baby—all because of his witness. Few such stories are recorded, but they are no less part of our human tapestry for that reason. Everyone at the March for Life is a potentially unsettling witness, a human sign of contradiction that can save lives.
Rule #2: Understand the question the pro-abortion side will ask. That question is, why do pro-lifers only care about people before they’re born, not after?
Of course, most people ask that question in bad faith, for polemical rather than constructive purposes. But pro-life radicals should think about it anyway, and turn it to constructive purposes of our own.
This gambit calls for pro-life radicals to demonstrate their bona fides. Maybe that proof of good faith is something as practical as volunteering as a Big Brother or Big Sister, or in other programs that aim at lifting up the lives of throwaway children. Maybe the answer can be found in other forms of outreach—such as ameliorating the devastation brought on by the opioid epidemic, which has stranded hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers; or spending time among those at the other end of time’s telescope, especially in nursing homes or hospitals; or applying your talents and skills in the poorest parts of the planet, where life is said to be cheap—yet remains sacred.
Or maybe your pro-life answer could take a different, utterly unanticipated form. Several years ago, I met a young man whose life was changed by watching the scene in his local college bar—where he saw bartenders, paid by men on the side, slide the occasional date-rape drug into a young woman’s drink. That man ended up so righteously moved by what he saw, so convinced that it was incumbent on him to do something about it, that he founded an organization to fight human trafficking around the country.
The point is simple. The same culture that has enshrined abortion on demand abounds with other practices steeped in cruelty and degradation and decadence. We must also repel these related evils that occur outside the womb. So be part of that good fight—and know that you will stymie your opponents in the abortion debate by connecting the dots between what we owe to the unborn, and what we owe to the riven children and teenagers and abandoned elderly with whom we share the same irreducible ties.
Rule #3: Know who else is on your side.
You don’t have to be a card-carrying Thomist to understand a few big things: life is good; the cavalier trashing of life is wrong; it is unjust for the strong to engage in violence against the weak.
These few big things continue to reverberate throughout non-religious circles, including in popular culture and other precincts considered hostile to a gospel of life. Consider the 2017 song “River,” written by Eminem and performed by Ed Sheeran. In it, an enraged and wistful man reflects on his role in aborting “our unborn child.” Or consider that New England Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson, a pro-life father of seven, is currently producing a documentary about abortion called “Divided Hearts of America.” Unease about abortion—even outside religious circles—remains palpable today. And it will be palpable fifty or a hundred years from now, for the simple reason that the uninstructed human heart knows abortion to be wrong.
Gandhi is another example for the pro-life cause. No one can accuse the famous apostle of non-violence of carrying water for the pope or Christianity. Yet his fealty to peaceful protest also extended, naturally, to abortion. Gandhi took on none other than Margaret Sanger. When Sanger traveled to India to preach to the Indians that they ought to have fewer babies, Gandhi patiently explained to her that not everyone thought that more brown people was a problem—especially brown people themselves. Gandhi remains a model of how to act in opposition and never surrender the high ground. Learn from the Mahatma’s example.
Rule #4: Use the morality of the animal-welfare movement.
As a vegetarian who has written for years about the connections that ought to exist between the pro-animal and pro-life movements, I understand the resistance to such linkage, and I do not believe there is a Kantian moral case here—i.e., vegetarianism/veganism is not a pro-life “must.” But concern for animal welfare—as distinct from the more philosophically problematic issue of animal “rights”—is potentially the pro-life movement’s friend. And there is one way to make that connection without any controversy at all: science.
The more researchers learn about animal life, the more intensely social and familial that life is revealed to be. One need not embrace moral equivalence to acknowledge this much: Animals are more like us—in their social organization, learning patterns, and inescapable need for others of their kind—than scientists previously understood.
Why does this matter to the pro-life cause? Because it is a way of connecting moral dots—especially for secular people who have never given abortion a second thought. The truth is: We would never run the radical experiments we are running on ourselves on other animals. If scientists busied themselves aborting unborn elephants, unborn dolphins, or unborn gorillas, the outcry from the species Homo sapiens would be prodigious.
And rightly so. Most people understand intuitively that interfering en masse with these creatures in such a perverse way would violate some kind of substratal norm, and amount to at least some kind of injustice. It seems to be one of our shortcomings as a species that we are less assiduous about applying these same truths to ourselves. As in so much else relating to the pro-life movement, by invoking animal welfare as a parallel track of some sort, we are calling on our fellow human beings to expand their hearts, rather than contract them.
Rule #5: The environmental movement and the pro-life movement should be allies.
This related point is also not well understood—in part because of some environmentalists themselves. Unfortunately, the branch of the movement that is ascendant today claims that human beings are the problem—that people should not have children, say, because every human who comes into the world expands the collective carbon footprint. This is a pernicious claim.
First, in identifying humanity itself as the problem, this line of thought overlooks the fact that only humanity can manage environmental problems. Estimable though they are otherwise, the elephants and the squids and the orangutans are not going to help us here. The scientists humanity needs in the future will come from our own ranks. Killing them in the womb won’t help. Neither will preventing their existence in the first place.
Second, we should call out the rank misanthropy at the center of the extremist environmental claim. Self-hatred is unattractive. It is also a bad argument, because it is not an argument at all; it is a sentiment, and a narcissistic one, oddly enough. No one ever seems to think there are too many of himself or herself—only that there are too many other people.
This, again, is not logic, but cant. Arguing that people are the planet’s problem is like arguing that the problem with student loan debt is the existence of students. That may be true, in a tautological sense. But it tells us nothing about how to address the problem of debt. And the misanthropy of environmental extremism tells us nothing about how to make life better for actual creatures on this planet.
But real environmentalism and concern for ecology—real interest in the organic, the local, the unpolluted, the effort to live peaceably in the natural order—is no enemy to the friends of life. It is, in fact, a potential traveling companion. And we should hope that when today’s misanthropic, millenarian environmentalism finally exhausts itself with its anti-anthro-anthropology, it will be replaced by a truer and more consistent version of solicitude for the environment—one in which the human ecosystem itself resumes center stage.
Rule #6: Play the “woman card”—in the right way.
One of the most heinous consequences of abortion on demand is sexism. I am referring to gendercide, the deliberate destruction of humans in the womb because they are female. This practice, a revival of established Roman custom, can now be found across much of the planet—wherever sonogram machines reveal a baby’s sex, and wherever there is a preference for sons over daughters.
When you encounter sparring partners who cannot fathom why anyone would oppose abortion, ask these questions: Is gendercide morally defensible? If it is, why? If abortion on demand is pro-woman, how does that notion square with the reality that it has resulted in wiping many potential women out of existence? Doesn’t that practice reinforce male dominance? Is feminism really nonchalant about domestic violence in the womb, committed disproportionately against unborn females?
As you review these six rules, consider one final point about their application. Some of you might ask: How often must I engage in this fight? Where to draw the lines?
Know that there is no such thing as a moral imperative to pick every battle, every time. There is scant need to take up residence at the nearest coffeehouse, ready to trap passersby over their kombuchas in a conversation that goes nowhere.
At the same time, remember that today’s pro-life radicals have an obligation not only as radicals, but also as thinkers. You have one overriding obligation: to refuse to participate in other people’s lies, to deny those lies an iota of credibility. (Hat tip, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.) This question is a matter of prudential judgment, one which will put your studiously honed critical skills to consequential use.
These six rules illustrate the new radical facts of our time. It now falls to you, the new radicals among us, to apply them to the transformation of an American order profoundly troubled and scarred since 1973—but one that still struggles, even today, toward redemption.
Mary Eberstadt is senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and author of Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.