Though it may seem like it's been around a lot longer, the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday was declared by President Reagan in 1984, eleven years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand. In the ensuing years of this observance, the science surrounding the issue of abortion has changed considerably, but the emotions have not. To understand why, it's important to understand the ideological progression of this moral norm. As one author and professed noted, contributions from Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Christian sources expanded this idea in Western culture.
Much of the history of the past two centuries has involved the expansion and enriching of the concept of life’s sacredness in various forms. It has expanded in that the logic of every human life has demanded universal application—to religious minorities, women, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor and property-less, the disabled, and so on.
At one level, the Roe v. Wade decision represented an attempt to value the sanctity of women’s lives by providing a legal freedom that some believed was necessary to protect it. Thus the most charitable reading of that decision was that it was an effort to stand in continuity with the trend toward the expansion of human dignity, in this case on behalf of women.
For those of us who believe that decision was wrong, we still face the task of showing not just that Roe opened the door to the mass destruction of developing human lives in utero, and that this assaults life’s sanctity. We must also show why Roe does not succeed in advancing the sanctity of women’s lives, and must offer both on-the-ground and legal alternatives that can do better.
Abortion was and is valued by supporters because it is seen in the continuum of the long march for women's rights. While I support many of those rights, I cannot say that pitting the life of an adult woman against her unborn child is a step-up in that progression. I urge pro-abortion supporters to study and know the ideas of people like Margaret Sanger, who purported to advance the cause of women but actually held to the Nazi idea of eugenics that some lives are worth more than others. This is why less than 100 years after Sanger began her crusade for women's reproductive rights, somewhere between 100 and 166 million girls worldwide are missing due to female gendercide, largely because of sex-selective abortions. The terrible irony is that abortion did not ensure that the lives of women were more valued after all.
When Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, the scientific argument in favor of it was based on the issue of "viability." Until a certain stage in the pregnancy, the fetus was seen as just an undeveloped blob of tissue and not a viable life. But even as that argument was being made in the early '70s, the ultrasound machine was being developed and our ability to actually see the wondrous development of human life undercut that argument. In fact, that development led to the famous conversion of an abortionist, a doctor who later made a film showing an abortion on ultrasound called Silent Scream.
With scientific advances like ultrasound technology and prenatal medicine, viability today is a medical collision course where doctors find themselves intervening to either create or save one fetus and then aborting another of the same fetal age. The only determining factor is whether the pregnant woman values or wants that life or not, a position akin to other abuses in history.
Therefore, as a culture we have not really made the progression in human rights that we believe we have.
Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, since the declaration of Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in 1984, the ethics surrounding sanctity of life have only gotten more complicated. As one bioethicist told The New York Times, "In an odd way, having more choices actually places a much greater burden on women, because we become the creators of our circumstance, whereas, before, we were the recipients of them. I’m not saying we should have less choices; I’m saying choices are not always as liberating and empowering as we hope they will be."
Though it may seem that the bitter disagreements surrounding this topic will never end, I see that some of the underlying assumptions for abortion have been challenged over time. Therefore, as some of us will acknowledge Sanctity of Human Life Sunday tomorrow, I hope we will not grow weary of standing up for the lives of the pre-born. I also pray our concern for the value of human life will also lead us to fearlessly challenge other human rights abuses, such as human trafficking, modern slavery, gendercide and more.
To study this topic further, I recommend a new e-book by John Piper, made free courtesy of the Desiring God ministry.