Scientific advances work as “anchors” to longstanding moral and ethical arguments against abortion

By Dave Andrusko

Emma Green’s one-sentence bio is deceptively modest: “Emma Green is a staff writer at ​The Atlantic, where she covers politics, policy, and religion.” She is, in fact, a terrific writer whose work on a myriad of topics is praised by contrasting sets of people who ordinarily don’t agree on the time of day.

Which brings us to “Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost: Advocates are tracking new developments in neonatal research and technology—and transforming one of America’s most contentious debates.

Before we go into all of Green’s spot-on observations, it’s worth noting that no pro-lifer I know believes the only factor which moves public opinion (and private hearts) is “science.” Nor of all the pro-life researchers I know personally and/or have read have I ever worried that any are intent on “weaponizing” scientific research by making it “subordinate to political ends.”

The irony is this is such politicization is rampant in pro-abortion advocacy, masking as objective research. As Dr. Randall K. O’Bannon, NRLC director of education & research has demonstrated repeatedly, their own papers are studies in dubious extrapolation, ambiguity, especially the use of one another as “proof,” and conclusions that do not follow from their own data.

Here’s an important early observation, borne out by Green’s reporting:

Scientific progress is remaking the debate around abortion. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the case that led the way to legal abortion, it pegged most fetuses’ chance of viable life outside the womb at 28 weeks; after that point, it ruled, states could reasonably restrict women’s access to the procedure. Now, with new medical techniques, doctors are debating whether that threshold should be closer to 22 weeks.

Like [pro-life activist Ashley] McGuire, today’s prospective moms and dads can learn more about their baby earlier into a pregnancy than their parents or grandparents. And like McGuire, when they see their fetus on an ultrasound, they may see humanizing qualities like smiles or claps, even if most scientists see random muscle movements.

These advances fundamentally shift the moral intuition around abortion.

Green details how all these advances work as “anchors” to longstanding moral and ethical arguments against abortion. She notes the twist. For the longest time pro-abortionists acted as if they owned science.

You see why when academia and the Medical Establishment are almost uniformly on their side. This across-the-board support gives them the freedom to airily dismiss any research that bolsters the pro-life cause as “junk science.”

But while that monopoly may stand for the likes of the AMA and the American Psychological Association, the times they are a changin’. The American Cancer Association can continue to pooh-pooh the link between a woman having an induced abortion and increasing her risk for breast cancer forever and a day. But in fact there is a tsunami of evidence buttressing the association coming out in waves from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka)

Then there is the work of Prof. Priscilla Coleman, the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the work of doctors who are promoting Abortion Pill Reversal, and Dr. O’Bannon—to name just four.

Two other quick points about Green’s terrific story.

First, it is absolutely true that scientific discoveries can be used for anti-life purposes. Green rightly cites Jérôme Lejeune, the French scientist who was instrumental in discovering the cause of Down syndrome. “He was horrified that prenatal diagnosis of the disease often led women to terminate their pregnancies, however, and spent much of his career advocating against abortion.” Again no one says all discoveries are unalloyed blessings.

Second, Green writes

Pro-life and pro-choice activists have come to see scientific evidence as the ultimate tool in the battle over abortion rights. But in recent years, pro-life activists have been more successful in using that tool to shift the terms of the policy debate. Advocates have introduced research on the question of fetal pain and whether abortion harms women’s health to great effect in courtrooms and legislative chambers, even when they cite studies selectively and their findings are fiercely contested by other members of the academy.

Of course members of the “academy” will challenge the studies as “selective.” Otherwise they’d have to deal with them honestly and on their merits.

And (one more time)do we really believe science is the “ultimate tool”? How about an important tool harnessed to make clear what intuition and commonsense have long taught us: there is a baby in there and if you leave her alone, she will join us outside the womb. 4-color, real time ultrasounds give visibility to what—who—was previously largely invisible.

Green quotes a professor of psychology at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, who “published a paper showing that late-development fetuses prefer to look at face-like images while they’re in the womb, just like newborn infants.” He wasn’t happy that pro-lifers were ecstatic. He wanted to remain above the abortion fray.

And so he can. What people saw with their own eyes bears out a core truth: in many, many ways the behavior of unborn child resembles his or her post-natal behavior.

To point that out is not “co-opting” or “weaponizing” science. It is what it is. And, let it be noted, that newspapers and other outlets that are not the least bit pro-life rave about the similarities when they see the unborn child frolicking about.

Do read “Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost.” It’ll be worth your time many times over.

And after you do, reflect on this astute observation from O. Carter Snead, professor of law and political science at Notre Dame. Green prefaces his comment with, “Ultimately, this is the pro-life movement’s reason for framing its cause in scientific terms: The best argument for protecting life in the womb is found in the common sense of fetal heartbeats and swelling stomachs.

“The pro-life movement has always been a movement aimed at cultivating the moral imagination so people can understand why we should care about human beings in the womb,” said Snead, the Notre Dame professor. “Science has been used, for a long time, as a bridge to that moral imagination.”