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The Smell of Abortion

September 12, 2020 (1,048 words)

Did you know abortion has a smell? This provocative question is posed by one Abby Johnson, who spent eight years working for Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas. She started in 2001 by escorting women into the facility from their cars, and eventually became the clinic’s director before ultimately resigning in 2009 as a conscientious objector.

Her decision to jump ship and switch sides has earned her a level of notoriety. Her conversion story is well-known in certain circles, but it remains compelling and bears repeating here:

“For most people who consider themselves pro-life abortion is abstract. They can’t begin to conceive of the barbarity involved. They don’t know about the ‘pieces of children’ room in abortion clinics where infant corpses are pieced back together to ensure nothing remains in the mothers’ womb.

“For me, abortion is real. I know what it sounds like. I know what abortion smells like. Did you know abortion even has a smell?”

One day Johnson was asked to assist in an ultrasound-guided abortion:

“Nothing prepared me for what I saw on the screen: an unborn baby fighting back, desperate to move away from the suction. And I will never forget what the doctor said next. “Beam me up, Scotty.’ The last thing I saw was a spine twirling around in the mother’s womb before succumbing to the force of the suction.

Since leaving Planned Parenthood Ms. Johnson has become an outspoken pro-life advocate who regularly interacts with audiences. Her most recent high-profile speaking gig was at the Republican National Convention a few weeks back. She was part of the Opening Night line-up and received a hero’s welcome.

Her star turn was followed a night later by a Catholic nun of some renown who also enthusiastically testified in defense of the unborn. This much prime-time exposure for their cause positively charmed the pro-life crowd, which came away feeling as though they have finally been brought in from the cold.

Combined with President Trump’s landmark appearance at the March for Life rally last January, everyone should now be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt the Republican Party is the political party that “stands for life.” There should be no one left out there who needs any further proof the pro-life movement has found its political home.

And yet, here I am.

Listen, Abby Johnson’s story is truly heart-rending. Anyone who can sit through the opening sequence of the feature film Unplanned that is based on her book without sobbing uncontrollably is a better man than me. And the fact the Republican leadership asked her to speak at its convention is a lovely gesture, and a clear indication that it means well.

But in many respects Abby Johnson is an advocate without a home. She is that proverbial ship at sea with nowhere to dock and come ashore. And so is the entire pro-life movement.

In our celebrated liberal democracy, pluralism is our pride and joy. But this makes morality a moving target. Majority rule if often little more than mob rule. The will of the people can change with the weather, and is too easily manipulated. Believing the Christian ethos can triumph in such a setting has proven to be an unrealistic expectation.

Abortion may be the most egregious example of the pitfalls of a liberal democracy, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of wrong moves had to be made before we landed on this spot of the game board.

When one lives in a liberal democracy based on pluralism, trying to legislate against an elective medical procedure in not a winning strategy.

In a liberal democracy where everyone gets to do what they want to do, in order to pursue their own, individual definition of happiness, arguing the science that clearly shows life begins at conception will also not work.

The ultimate solution to legal infanticide is much bigger than appointing the right sort of federal judges, defunding Planned Parenthood, and engaging in regional skirmishes over access to abortion.

The challenge before us is figuring out how to reintroduce morality into a system of social organization that has rejected the idea of an objective sense of right and wrong, in favor of the complete emancipation of the individual. And what has the individual been liberated from, exactly? From the limitations imposed by what has been dismissed as nothing more than a social construct. That is to say, from “morality.”

Pro-life people have drawn the mistaken conclusion that reversing laws on abortion is the first step in the much-needed restoration of the culture. While I share their objective, I couldn’t disagree more with their evaluation of the situation.

Right now certain Catholic commentators are caught up in wanting the bishops to call out Joe Biden for his frequent reference to his Catholic upbringing. Mr. Biden, like so many other Catholics in the public eye, started his career as staunchly “pro-life” but has since “developed” his position on the matter to suit the times.

While such a formal rebuke would be welcome, it wouldn’t address the larger issue. The fact that Democrats have lately succumbed to the cultural zeitgeist on matters of sexual morality should in no way obscure the fact that Republicans long ago embraced the cultural zeitgeist on matters of economic immorality.

Concepts such as supply and demand have their place in economic theory. But they should not be allowed to supersede the more fundamental concept of justice. The only problem with our flourishing economic system is that it currently operates outside a moral framework.

Far too many conservative, pro-life Catholics believe that economics has nothing to do with morality, and see abortion as a matter quite apart from the economic question.

Getting bishops to publically condemn politicians who support abortion might be an action sought by some, as a long-awaited defining moment. But that could too easily be misinterpreted as a de-facto endorsement of the Republican Party platform as it pertains to economic behavior.

I, for one, think it’s too much to ask our active bishops to sort through the myriad problems associated with the “economic freedom” promoted by Republicans.

That’s something lay people, and especially our most successful lay people, need to tackle. And they should keep the smell of abortion front and center when they do.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 12, 2020

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