Here are some of the things you are not supposed to compare to abortion:
Slavery. That’s because slaves were human, and even though the law treated them as property, the truth of their separate and sacred identity was obvious to the naked and uncompromised eye.
The Holocaust. That’s because Hitler’s victims were human, with infinite gifts that elevated civilization, even though the laws — both expressed and implicit — treated them as lesser beings. Their humanity was evident.
Sharia. That’s because women in the Islamic world are human, with unique potential (including the ability to give and nurture life), and even though certain Muslim teachings punish them for the power of their — of our — biology, their value is clear to poets, painters, soldiers, children and God.
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You are not supposed to compare abortion to any evil act that enslaves and debases people, even when these acts were once sanctioned by law (and are still sanctioned, in the case of Sharia.) It is too uncomfortable an analogy to say that some laws allow us to ignore the obvious, that humanity exists above and beyond the jurisdiction of men.
That is what Jim Crow did, and the Nuremberg laws, and systems that allow for the stoning of women who disobey their fathers. That is what we fight against with our civil rights crusades of all colors, creeds and canons. We pride ourselves on doing the right thing, and sewing up the tears in the cloth of justice.
Except when it comes to abortion. Then, we delight in the dark magic of the law, which can turn truth into fiction, and clarity into confusion. Before Roe v. Wade, even those women who desperately sought out places to terminate their pregnancies knew in their hearts that the procedure they were hunting would end with at least one death. We talk about back alleys and bloody hangers and shift our sympathy to unwilling mothers, but at least back then there was a visceral understanding that abortion killed a baby. It wasn’t a “fetus.” It wasn’t an “embryo.” It wasn’t, most offensively, “a mass of cells.” It was a future president, scientist, baker, lover, priest, Nobel Prize winner or nondescript taxi driver. It was unwanted, but it had an identity. The women who had those abortions in shame and subterfuge knew what they were doing, even though they went ahead with it for their own reasons.
But Roe v. Wade gave them permission to pretend that they weren’t killing anyone, that the thing that they were removing from their wombs was not human at all. The law told us that we could erase the traces of that thing in the same way that the waves cancel out our footprints on the sand and, poof, it would disappear. “It” was not human. Slaves were not human. Jews, women, not human. The laws are powerful things.
Sometimes, though, they can be turned around and used for actual justice. They can undo what has been done in a misguided attempt to placate a loud and politically favored group, and for a brief moment, shame us into looking at the truth. That is what more than 120 Pennsylvania legislators did this week when they passed a House bill that would ban all abortions after the 20th week, with some exceptions for medical emergencies. Most abortions occur well before the fifth month, and the ones that occur in the last trimester are usually performed because of medical emergencies and anomalies. Since the bill would still permit abortions in many of those circumstances, there should be no significant impact from a logistical perspective.
But there is indeed an impact from a moral perspective. The legislators voted to restore some sanity and clarity to the abortion debate. Unlike those who use the ridiculous euphemisms of “reproductive health” and “choice” and “equality,” the men and women who voted in favor of the bill were willing to acknowledge that the creature in the womb has its own inherent dignity, something that eight male justices were unable to extinguish in 1973 even though they used the “penumbras” of due process and privacy like a huckster uses shells in a shell game.
Of course, this bill will have a hard time becoming a law. I’m reminded of that cartoon character from 1970s-era series “Schoolhouse Rock,” the sad little bill who sits on Capitol Hill waiting to become an actual law. It may have passed overwhelmingly in the House, but it still needs approval in the Senate. Even then, Gov. Tom Wolf has indicated his intention to veto any ban, which makes sense because he owes the abortion rights crowd that put him over the top in the gubernatorial race. Still, given the composition of the Legislature, there’s a real possibility that there’s enough support for an override.
Even if there isn’t, though, something important has happened. People of courage stood up and said “No, we’re not going to pretend anymore.” The House members who voted in favor of a ban, which would prevent the dismemberment of developing babies, were willing to do what the abolitionists did, what the good silent Germans didn’t and what we in the West have had a problem with because we don’t want to offend Islam: tell the truth about what is happening to human beings. They have listened to the science, drowned out the rhetoric from the abortion rights activists and focused, narrowly, on a practice that is just one more shameful act of dehumanization.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.