Today's column is drawn from Paul Greenberg's remarks October 27 accepting the Human Life Foundation's annual Great Defender of Life award:
Life is just full of surprises. What's an old boy from Shreveport, La., doing talking at the Union League club in New York City? In a hall adorned with portraits of Mr. Lincoln and members of his cabinet during The War.
Our newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has got to be one of the few left in the country, if not the only one, that still devotes a full editorial page every January 19 to celebrating the birth of Robert E. Lee.
Yet here I am, improbably enough, and feeling as if I am among more than friends. Each of us has followed his own personal path to meet here tonight. Some came to the cause early; they were present at the creation of the Human Life Review in 1975. Others, like me, the slow learners, arrived late.
When Roe v. Wade was first pronounced from on high, I welcomed it. As a young editorial writer in Pine Bluff, Ark., I believed the assurances that the high court's ruling was not a charter for abortion on demand, but a carefully crafted, limited decision applicable only in some exceptional cases.
Even Mr. Justice Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion, assured us that Roe would not grant blanket permission for abortion. He seems to have managed to fool even himself. He certainly fooled me. I swallowed the line whole, and regurgitated it regularly in learned editorials. For years. Though it took more and more effort to rationalize that view of Roe every time. It can be a strain, sophistry. But editorial writers can develop an affinity for it.
I had it all figured out back then: The right to life need not be fully respected from conception, I earnestly explained. It grows with each stage of fetal development until a full human being is formed. (As if any of us are still not developing as full human beings.) I went into all this in an extended debate in the columns of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial with a young Baptist minister in town named Mike Huckabee.
I kept trying to tell the Rev. Huckabee that life is one thing, personhood quite another. He wouldn't buy it. Though it's an engaging argument. For a fatal while. As if those of us who would confer personhood on others couldn't just as easily revoke it.
Over the long course of history, whenever it has been decided that some category of human beings is less than fully human, and so their rights need not be fully respected, even their right to life, terrible consequences have followed.
That we in this time in this country have grown used to the consequences of Roe, that they are now part of the ordinary backdrop of American life, does not make its consequences any less terrible. But only more chilling. Call it the banality of evil.
It is the oldest of temptations: Eat of the fruit of this tree and ye shall be as gods, having the knowledge of good and evil, deciding who shall live and who shall die.
Yes, I'd been taught by Mary Warters in her biology and genetics classes at Centenary College in Shreveport that human life was one unbroken continuity from life to death, and the code to its development was present from its very conception.
But I wanted to believe human rights developed differently, especially the right to life. As if we had not all been endowed with certain unalienable rights.
My reasons were compassionate. Who would not want to spare mothers the burden of carrying the deformed? Why not just allow physicians to eliminate the deformity? End of Problem.
I hadn't yet come across Flannery O'Connor's warning that tenderness leads to the gas chambers.
One day, I don't know exactly when, something happened. It always does. Eventually. It just takes longer for some of us to catch on.
I just couldn't help noticing that the number of abortions in this country had begun to mount year after year -- into the millions.
Perfectly healthy babies were being aborted for socio-economic reasons. And among ethnic groups, the highest proportions of abortions were being performed on black women and girls.
Last I checked, something like 37 percent of American abortions were being done on African-American women, though African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Eugenics was showing its true face again. And it isn't pretty. Abortion had become just another method of birth control, of population control, of eliminating what the Darwinians of another fatal century called Surplus Populations.
Want to eliminate poverty? Why not eliminate it even before birth? By aborting the children of the poor. Problem solved. That is the brutish philosophy behind the socio-economic rationale for abortion.
With a little verbal manipulation, any crime can be rationalized, even promoted. Verbicide precedes homicide. First dehumanize the other, then anything is permitted.
Vocabulary remains the Little Round Top, the decisive position, of every polemical engagement. The trick is to speak of fetuses, not unborn children. So long as the victims are a faceless abstraction, anything can be done to them.
Just don't look too closely at those sonograms. The way I studied the first pictures of my first grandson. Astounding. We are indeed strangely and wonderfully made.
By now the toll has reached some 50 million of those wondrous creations aborted in America since 1973. That's not some abstract theory or philosophical argument. It is a fact, and facts are stubborn things. Some even carry their own imperatives, moral imperatives that can be ignored only so long. So I changed my mind, and changed sides.
We've become very good at preaching to the converted, those of us who still believe in life. So good at it we may have forgotten what Martin Luther King Jr. tried to teach us -- that we have a hidden ally in the hearts of our opponents. And we must never cease appealing to it. They are not our enemies, but allies in waiting. They have consciences. They may yet come around. I did.
In 1982, another Southerner, Walker Percy, M.D. and writer, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times on the subject of abortion. He called it "A View of Abortion, With Something to Offend Everybody," a title that is irresistible to any editorial writer worth his salt. Dr. Percy ended his letter to the editor with a few words addressed to the opposition:
"To pro-abortionists: According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. But you're not going to have it both ways. You're going to be told what you're doing."
And that's what matters. To bear witness.