Professor Hadley Arkes a dozen years ago made a terrific
proposal to revive the faltering pro-life movement -- and his efforts
finally paid off last week, although hardly anyone noticed.
In 1990, when many pro-lifers were still hoping for the home
run -- a constitutional amendment to ban abortion -- the Amherst political
philosopher proposed bunting for a single: Have Congress go on record as
supporting the right to life of any child who is born alive following an
That's what now has happened, and the Austin American-Statesman
was typical in giving the result one paragraph in a roundup of the Aug. 5
news: "Bush Signs Fetus Status Law. President Bush signed a bill that
declares a fetus that survives an abortion procedure a person under federal
That description would be laughable were it were not so sad.
Sometimes it's hard to avoid talking back to a newspaper: "The creature
protected by that newly signed Born Alive Infants Protection Act could not
possibly be a fetus. The abortion procedure has expelled him from the womb.
He is born. He's a person. What else could he be?"
But some judges in recent years did not grasp that elementary
fact, and some doctors and nurses sadly left born-alive survivors of
abortion to die in cold steel pans.
Ironically, the reluctance to come to grips with reality made
passage of the Born Alive Act possible: Democrats agreed not to oppose the
bill, and Republicans agreed not to give speeches about it. Democrats did
not want to alienate their virulent pro-abortion backers when a high-profile
discussion of just-born life turned to an examination of the same life
several minutes earlier, but they also did not want to go on the record for
For a time, it seemed that President Bush might sign the bill
into law without comment. He came through on Aug. 5, though, saying, "Today,
through sonograms and other technology, we can see clearly that unborn
children are members of the human family. ... They reflect our image and are
created in God's own image. The Born Alive Infants Protection Act is a step
toward the day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law. It
is a step toward the day when the promises of the Declaration of
Independence will apply to everyone, not just those with the voice and power
to defend their rights."
The president also thanked by name individuals who had made the
act possible, including Arkes, who never gave up on the idea. I remember
Hadley speaking at meetings of pro-life leaders, displaying his Jewish
intellectual style amid a coalition of somber evangelicals and Catholics.
With a mischievous glint in his eyes, he would pepper his talks with
humorous, Damon Runyonesque remarks, and then arch his eyebrows like Groucho
The lines that could have come from "Guys and Dolls" kept Arkes'
arguments from becoming arcane. The force of his logic was hard to dispute.
He spoke then and has continued speaking about the "animating principle"
behind what Congress (even if through a silent scream) has enshrined in law:
"The child marked for an abortion is recognized now as an entity that comes
within the protection of the law."
The next legislative step, of course, is for Congress to extend
protection from the fully born to the three-fourths-born by passing a
partial-birth abortion bill that will withstand judicial challenge. That
should happen soon, and President Bush will sign it into law. Steps to help
young women make better-informed choices between life and abortion also are
needed. The president referred to the power of sonograms, and the
administration and Congress should work together to help pregnancy centers
purchase the equipment that will allow more women to see pictures of the
babies they are carrying.
So Arkes' content and style have led to one victory and paved
the way for bigger efforts. Unsurprisingly, none of the nation's news pages
(judging by a Lexis-Nexis check) mentioned him the day after President Bush
signed his bill into law, and most were like Austin's newspaper in almost
entirely ignoring the development. But future historians should notice, and
some abortion survivors certainly will.