and the Conscience of the Nation
by Ronald Reagan
While sitting as the President of the United States,
he wrote this article shortly after the tenth anniversary
of Roe v. Wade.
But the consequences of this judicial decision are now obvious: since 1973, more than 15 million unborn children have had their lives snuffed out by legalized abortions. That is over ten times the number of Americans lost in all our nation's wars.
Make no mistake, abortion-on-demand is not a right granted by the Constitution. No serious scholar, including one disposed to agree with the Court's result, has argued that the framers of the Constitution intended to create such a right.
Shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision, Professor John Hart Ely, now Dean of Stanford Law School, wrote that the opinion "is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be." Nowhere do the plain words of the Constitution even hint at a "right" so sweeping as to permit abortion up to the time the child is ready to be born. Yet that is what the Court ruled.
As an act of "raw judicial power" (to use Justice White's biting phrase), the decision by the seven-man majority in Roe v. Wade has so far been made to stick. But the Court's decision has by no means settled the debate. Instead, Roe v. Wade has become a continuing prod to the conscience of the nation.
Abortion concerns not just the unborn child, but it concerns every one of us. We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life — the unborn — without diminishing the value of all human life. Many of our fellow citizens grieve over the loss of life that has followed Roe v. Wade.
Despite the formidable obstacles before us, we must not lose heart. This is not the first time our country has been divided by a Supreme Court decision that denied the value of certain human lives.
The Dred Scott decision of 1857 was not overturned in a day, or a year, or even a decade. At first, only a minority of Americans recognized and deplored the moral crisis brought about by denying the full humanity of our black brothers and sisters; but that minority persisted in their vision and finally prevailed.
They did it by appealing to the hearts and minds of their countrymen, to the truth of human dignity under God. Respect for the sacred value of human life is too deeply engrained in the hearts of our people to remain forever suppressed.
I have often said that when we talk about abortion, we are talking about two lives—the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child. Why else do we call a pregnant woman a mother?
I have also said that anyone who doesn't feel sure whether we are talking about a second human life should clearly give life the benefit of the doubt.
If you don't know whether a body is alive or dead, you would never bury it. I think this consideration itself should be enough for all of us to insist on protecting the unborn.
The case against abortion does not rest here, however. Modern medicine treats the unborn child as a patient. Medical pioneers have made great breakthroughs in treating the unborn—for genetic problems, vitamin deficiencies, irregular heart rhythms, and other medical conditions.
Who can forget George Will's moving account of the little boy who underwent brain surgery six times during the nine weeks before he was born? Who is the patient if not that tiny unborn human being who can feel pain when he or she is approached by doctors who come to kill rather than to cure?
The real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life?
The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother's body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being. The real question for him and for all of us is whether that tiny human life has a God-given right to be protected by the law— the same right we have.
What more dramatic confirmation could we have of the real issue than the Baby Doe case in Bloomington, Indiana? The death of that tiny infant tore at the hearts of all Americans because the child was undeniably a live human being—one lying helpless before the eyes of the doctors and the eyes of the nation.
The real issue for the courts was not whether Baby Doe was a human being. The real issue was whether to protect the life of a human being who had Down's Syndrome, who would probably be mentally handicapped, but who needed a routine surgical procedure to unblock his esophagus and allow him to eat.
A doctor testified to the presiding judge that, even with his physical problem corrected, Baby Doe would have a "non-existent" possibility for "a minimally adequate quality of life"—in other words, that retardation was the equivalent of a crime deserving the death penalty.
The judge let Baby Doe starve and die, and the Indiana Supreme Court sanctioned his decision.
The basic issue is whether to value and protect the lives of the handicapped, whether to recognize the sanctity of human life. This is the same basic issue that underlies the question of abortion.
Regrettably, we live at a time when some persons do not value all human life. They want to pick and choose which individuals have value.
Some have said that only those individuals with "consciousness of self" are human beings. One such writer has followed this deadly logic and concluded that "shocking as it may seem, a newly born infant is not a human being."
A Nobel Prize winning scientist has suggested that if a handicapped child "were not declared fully human until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice."
In other words, "quality control" to see if newly born human beings are up to snuff.
Obviously, some influential people want to deny that every human life has intrinsic, sacred worth. They insist that a member of the human race must have certain qualities before they accord him or her status as a "human being."
Events have borne out the editorial in a California medical journal which explained three years before Roe v. Wade that the social acceptance of abortion is a "defiance of the long-held Western ethic of intrinsic and equal value for every human life regardless of its stage, condition, or status."
Every legislator, every doctor, and every citizen needs to recognize that the real issue is whether to affirm and protect the sanctity of all human life, or to embrace a social ethic where some human lives are valued and others are not.
As a nation, we must choose between the “sanctity of life” ethic and the "quality of life" ethic.
America was founded by men and women who shared a vision of the value of each and every individual. They stated this vision clearly from the very start in the Declaration of Independence, using words that every schoolboy and schoolgirl can recite:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.We fought a terrible war to guarantee that one category of mankind— black people in America—could not be denied the inalienable rights with which their Creator endowed them. The great champion of the sanctity of all human life in that day, Abraham Lincoln, gave us his assessment of the Declaration's purpose.
Speaking of the framers of that noble document, he said:
This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all his creatures, to the whole great family of man.He warned also of the danger we would face if we closed our eyes to the value of life in any category of human beings:
I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?When Congressman John A. Bingham of Ohio drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee the rights of life, liberty, and property to all human beings, he explained that all are "entitled to the protection of American law, because its divine spirit of equality declares that all men are created equal."
He said the right guaranteed by the amendment would therefore apply to "any human being."
Justice William Brennan, writing in another case decided only the year before Roe v. Wade, referred to our society as one that "strongly affirms the sanctity of life."
Another William Brennan—not the Justice—has reminded us of the terrible consequences that can follow when a nation rejects the sanctity of life ethic:
The cultural environment for a human holocaust is present whenever any society can be misled into defining individuals as less than human and therefore devoid of value and respect.We must all educate ourselves to the reality of the horrors taking place.
Doctors today know that unborn children can feel a touch within the womb and that they respond to pain.
But how many Americans are aware that abortion techniques are allowed today, in all 50 states, that burn the skin of a baby with a salt solution, in an agonizing death that can last for hours?
Another example: two years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a Sunday special supplement on "The Dreaded Complication."
The "dreaded complication" referred to in the article—the complication feared by doctors who perform abortions—is the survival of the child despite all the painful attacks during the abortion procedure.
Some unborn children do survive the late-term abortions the Supreme Court has made legal. Is there any question that these victims of abortion deserve our attention and protection?
Is there any question that those who don't survive were living human beings before they were killed?
Late-term abortions, especially when the baby survives, but is then killed by starvation, neglect, or suffocation, show once again the link between abortion and infanticide.
Whether we are talking about pain suffered by unborn children, or about late-term abortions, or about infanticide, we inevitably focus on the humanity of the unborn child.
Each of these issues is a potential rallying point for the sanctity of life ethic. Once we as a nation rally around any one of these issues to affirm the sanctity of life, we will see the importance of affirming this principle across the board.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the English writer, goes right to the heart of the matter:
"Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other."I recently spoke about a young pregnant woman named Victoria, who said,
"In this society we save whales, we save timber wolves and bald eagles and Coke bottles. Yet, everyone wanted me to throw away my baby."She has been helped by Save-a-Life, a group in Dallas, which provides a way for unwed mothers to preserve the human life within them when they might otherwise be tempted to resort to abortion.
We should not rest until our entire society echoes the tone of John Powell in the dedication of his book, Abortion: The Silent Holocaust, a dedication to every woman carrying an unwanted child:
"Please believe that you are not alone. There are many of us that truly love you, who want to stand at your side, and help in any way we can."And we can echo the always-practical woman of faith, Mother Teresa, when she says,
"If you don't want the little child, that unborn child, give him to me."We have so many families in America seeking to adopt children that the slogan "every child a wanted child" is now the emptiest of all reasons to tolerate abortion.
We will never recognize the true value of our own lives until we affirm the value in the life of others, a value of which Malcolm Muggeridge says:
“. . . however low it flickers or fiercely burns, it is still a Divine flame which no man dare presume to put out, be his motives ever so humane and enlightened."Abraham Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some men could decide that others were not fit to be free and should therefore be slaves.
Likewise, we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide.
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