At a recent Thursday-morning press conference, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was asked to explain the moral difference between the 20-week-old babies whom Dr. Kermit Gosnell killed in his Philadelphia clinic and the unborn children that legislation sponsored by Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks would help protect. It's a perfectly reasonable question, one she answered with derision and evasion.
The incident perfectly illustrated something that was noted more than four decades ago by the journal California Medicine: "The very considerable semantic gymnastics required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices. It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected."
We owe it to ourselves as much as to the lives stuck in our semantics gymnastics to stop dodging and ask the question: Does a baby, at any stage in pregnancy, really have no value unless the mother wills it?
Eighteen years ago, Pope John Paul II saw how the poison of such thinking was spreading in his encyclical on The Gospel of Life: "Conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life."
I thought of JPII while recently listening to Chuck Todd, host of "The Daily Rundown" on MSNBC.
Ruminating on the latest manufactured outrage over a Republican politician's anti-abortion comments, Todd noted -- with what sounded like both nostalgia and bewilderment -- that pro-lifers used to be better at talking about the issue. Now, it could be argued that the media pounces on and amplifies pro-life missteps while ignoring the everyday debate. Still, the man has a point.
I suspect Todd and I have different views on abortion. But unlike Rep. Pelosi, who declared abortion "sacred ground," he probably sees that a bill seeking to ban abortion after 20 weeks -- when a child could feel pain -- isn't the same as banning every one of them.
Implicit in Todd's comment seemed to be a kind of gratitude for the pro-life position, or at least the impulses behind it. It's good to have people thinking about how to make the world more hospitable to life. "Anti-abortion" and "pro-life" are just words, but behind them is more than just "no" to Roe, but also "yes" to practical help for life: crisis-pregnancy centers and adoption counseling, welcome arms. You don't have to be a dedicated abortion opponent to see some good there.
And that's what's missing in the perennial media kerfuffles about the rhetorical abortion battles as fought by politicians: stories of people who have chosen life, regardless of the sacrifice, and of the people who helped them make that decision and live with it.
"When I have surgery, I stay with Jesus on the cross. I pray in my heart for Mama, Dad, and Ben." That's 6-year-old Grace Polvani, who, along with her older brother Benedict, has a genetic syndrome that keeps them both in and out of hospitals. The two of them embrace life, understanding sacrifice to be a necessary and even redemptive part of it.
Sacrifice "is what you're in for," Chiaro Polvani shared in a recent interview with the Sisters of Life, which run a mission for women who need help raising their children.
Abortion is a violence of the most intimate sort. The more we accept it as a "sacred ground," as Pelosi put it, as some kind of sign of liberation, the more we miss the culture it promotes, where men are disconnected -- with no shame -- from their children, where women submit to being used rather than cherished, and where babies we know to be humans, not mere tissue or cells, are discarded. A culture that helps people rise to challenges and make sacrifices has got to be a better choice. It's about choosing love -- in life and even public policy.