A little-noticed pro-life victory

Posted: Aug 13, 2002 12:00 AM
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 "ineffective" abortion. 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 law." 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 infanticide. 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 Marx. 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.