Alabama’s near-total abortion ban, signed into law on Wednesday by governor Kay Ivey, is a real moment of hope. The principle on which it grounds itself is simple enough; as Ivey put it: ‘Every life is precious.’
In those four words lies a remedy for the hatreds that divide humanity. True, pro-lifers have their own doubts over the bill: is it too tactical, by conceding very narrow medical exemptions? Is it not tactical enough, because it will be overturned in the courts and meanwhile alienate the middle ground?
But whatever the merits of these criticisms, the Alabama ban is still a landmark. A body of legislators in the world’s superpower has affirmed that every life is precious and given that belief legal form.
The opponents of the Alabama bill have tried to explain why unborn children are not, in fact, precious. They point out that these children are very small; when that is dismissed as it should be, they retreat to suggesting that lives stop being precious if they are the result of rape or incest; or – this has really caught on – if the children, once born, would be disabled, poor or vulnerable.
One member of the Alabama House of Representatives, John Rogers, denounced the abortion ban by suggesting that saving lives was just delaying the inevitable: ‘You kill them now or you kill them later.’
‘Some kids are unwanted. So you kill them now or you kill them later. You bring them in the world unwanted, unloved, and you send them to the electric chair. So you kill them now or you kill them later… Some parents can’t handle a child with problems. It could be retarded. It might have no arms and no legs.’
There’s a gruesome logic to Rogers’ words. Once you’ve decided that some lives are beyond hope, why not start the killing in the womb? On the same logic, British law permits abortion up to 24 weeks for able-bodied babies but up to birth if they have disabilities such as Down syndrome, spina bifida or cleft lip. No wonder our societies are increasingly characterised by loneliness and mistrust, when people have to pass a standard of usefulness just to make it into the world in one piece.
At this point, some pro-choicers will let out a bitter laugh. Where, they will ask, is the pro-life movement when the babies are born? ‘The same people who want to protect the unborn child,’ they say, ‘will abandon that child as soon as it is born, denying it every kind of social security.’
This should be recognised as the kind of whataboutery which meets every humanitarian movement. When William Wilberforce was campaigning against the slave trade, it was argued – by, among others, the pioneering radical journalist William Cobbett – that Wilberforce was neglecting the suffering of British workers.
‘You seem to have a great affection,’ Cobbett sneered, ‘for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing negroes; they it is for whom you feel compassion: I feel for the care-worn, the ragged, the hard-pinched, the ill-treated, and beaten down and trampled upon labouring classes of England, Scotland, and Ireland.’
A similar argument is made today by those who wave away the rights of ‘foetuses’, while claiming that their real concern is for migrants and the poor. It is, now as then, a pitiful evasion.
All that said, the whataboutery is worth responding to. And the honest response is that, at the grassroots, pro-lifers are remarkably generous in caring for those at the margins of society. They give their time, their money and even their homes: many adopt children whose parents are unable to raise them. Other pro-lifers devote their lives to offering practical help to vulnerable mothers and their children. Still others, knowing that each termination has at least two victims, help post-abortive women to find psychological and spiritual healing. And, yes, many pro-lifers work and campaign to support the already-born.
The pro-choice whataboutery is right in one sense: if you really believe every life is precious, that belief has serious consequences. It means that each life can be hoped for, even from the start, and that everyone has some responsibility to those around us. We defend each other now, and we defend each other later.