Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Love's Beckoning” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Touchstone.
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Loving the Unborn Is Difficult but Necessary If Human Love Is to Survive
There are many ways to measure the tragedy of abortion, but the starkest, perhaps, is by numbers. We are told that the Rwandan genocide claimed about half a million innocent lives. The Khmer Rouge killed as many as two million. An estimated six million were killed in the Holocaust. And according to National Right to Life, more than 52 million American lives have been lost to abortion over the last 40 years.
To the pro-life individual, this reality is horrible to contemplate. It is a bitter reminder of what happens when a society feels at liberty to decide which human beings are worthy of respect and protection, and which are not. Pro-choice Americans, however, are generally unmoved by these comparisons to historical atrocities. This is unsurprising, and not only because the unjust invariably find rationales for their evil deeds. The average pro-choice person feels confident that he is not a kindred spirit of the Hutus or the Nazis because he supposes that these oppressors felt a real hatred for their victims, actually wanting them to suffer and die. He, by contrast, does not actively despise the unborn. He simply doesn't care about them.
Apathy, of course, is not exonerating, and most Americans today cannot even claim ignorance as an excuse. Biology has demonstrated that a new human being is created at the moment of conception, and further, that the conceptus develops recognizably human features with astonishing speed. Abortion clinic workers who tell women that their 12-week fetus is little more than an amorphous lump of cells cannot, in this day and age, claim invincible ignorance. Quite simply, they are telling lies.
The Unborn's Handicap
The pro-life movement has worked tirelessly to acquaint the general public with these biological facts, and its success in this area has been considerable. Most people are now aware that "abortion stops a beating heart," and this general awareness very likely explains why Americans have shown a gradual but appreciable drift towards the pro-life position in recent years. Nonetheless, most Americans remain relatively unbothered by such practices as IVF and embryonic stem-cell research, both of which involve the deliberate destruction of newly conceived individuals. First-trimester abortions are still regarded by many as ethically trivial. It is only as the fetus approaches its full term of gestation that the tide of public opinion turns markedly in favor of its protection.
For the disciplined pro-life thinker, these trends are maddening. What mysterious threshold do people think they have discovered lying between the blastocyst and the fetal stage of development? Why do we applaud the March of Dimes for its Herculean efforts to save 23-week-old fetuses, while we shrug indifferently at the fate of smaller, but equally unique human beings that are destroyed by the millions, not only at Planned Parenthood but also at the local fertility clinic?
The truth is that ordinary people rarely reflect on metaphysical thresholds. They learn to value others relationally, through love, and they wish to protect those individuals whom they recognize as potential objects of love. This puts the unborn in an uncertain position. As a blastocyst, the newly conceived individual is probably not loved by his human family, because his existence has not yet been detected. Over the course of the pregnancy, his presence becomes increasingly evident, and anticipation grows among his human connections as they prepare to welcome the newborn. After birth, the child impresses himself on us quite strongly as a being worthy of protection and love, and at that point, nearly all modern people agree that it is ethically unacceptable to kill him. (Interestingly, even this has not always been the case historically; many societies have sanctioned the killing or homicidal neglect of newborns. This may reflect, among other things, the way that a high infant mortality rate encourages parents to deliberately distance themselves from their offspring until long-term survival seems probable.)
Advocating for the unborn is challenging because it requires us to foster sympathy for a group of people who cannot be sympathetically engaged. Activism typically involves giving victims a voice, but there is no obvious way to give voice to someone whose lungs have yet to develop. However just the pro-life cause may be, we will always have to contend with this natural obstacle. It is difficult to persuade people to make sacrifices for those for whom they care little, and difficult to make people care about those whom they cannot love.
Given this handicap, it is impressive that the pro-life movement really has made considerable progress in influencing public opinion. Still, the struggle remains a difficult one. Philosophically, we can make the case for the value of unborn life, but as a rule, love is more potent than justice, and far more effective at inspiring the strong to protect the weak.
Von Hildebrand's Insight
Explaining whether and in what way we can love the unborn is important because this may enable us to recognize and then dismiss an implicit criticism that lies behind many liberal critiques of the pro-life position. Over and over again, we hear liberals sneer that the conservative concern for children ends in the delivery room. In part, this reflects political disagreements that are beyond the scope of this article. But it also evidences a kind of incredulity about whether pro-life concern was ever really focused on the children. Is it possible to love and value the unborn simply for their own sake?
If it is not, this would give credence to the liberal suspicion that pro-life activists are disingenuous in their professed concern for the unborn, and are driven by a more insidious motive, such as the desire to repress women and punish those who deviate from traditional sexual norms. If we acknowledge up-front the reasons why the unborn are difficult to love, while also explaining the sense in which they can be loved, we may ultimately be able to make pro-life arguments more persuasive.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, working within the personalist tradition, offers a perspective on human love that may throw light on this question. He suggests that love should be understood as a value response that is elicited by our personal contact with another human being. The core of this view is explained in the first chapter of The Nature of Love, where he writes:
When von Hildebrand speaks of my beloved "standing before me," he of course does not mean this in a completely literal sense; nevertheless, a value response does seem to depend on significant personal contact of some kind. In perceiving and interacting with another human being, I come to recognize him, not just as one instantiation of the type "human being," but rather as a unique, particular human being who is precious and beautiful in his own right.
This response cannot be predicated on the mere intellectual recognition of another's ontological worth, any more than a true recognition of the worth of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro can be predicated entirely on a musically informed analysis of the score. We need to hear the music to appreciate its beauty, and in a similar way, we need to meet a particular human being in order to grasp his precious uniqueness. It is, as phenomenologists would say, the appreciation of the thing itself that occasions the value response that, in von Hildebrand's understanding, is the essence of love.
A Mother's Advantage
Specifying necessary and sufficient conditions for love would be difficult, but it seems reasonable to suggest that our personal contact with the unborn is in general too minimal to inspire a robust value response. Love may begin stirring when we look at ultrasound pictures or hear a fetal heartbeat through a stethoscope. These small points of contact, however, do little to help us discern the unique person before us. Ultrasound pictures and heartbeats vary only slightly from child to child, and they are unable to capture the unique characteristics of the unborn person.
Mothers have a natural advantage when it comes to loving an unborn child. They alone can feel the child's regular movement within their very bodies, and they are sure to notice as it gradually becomes stronger and more rhythmic. To a small extent, a mother (particularly over multiple pregnancies) can recognize the distinctive features of each unborn child, perhaps noting how one is more active and another more sensitive to noise. The mother's continual awareness of this creature, who is within but also distinct from her own body, will naturally inspire a measure of protectiveness and awe, and some sense of the value of that fetus as specifically her own child.
The Reality of Incipient Love
Does it follow, then, that the unborn cannot be loved? This is not precisely von Hildebrand's position. He suggests that expectant parents in particular do feel a kind of incipient love for their unborn child. As he explains:
He goes on to specify that this natural response can be muted or even obliterated if the couple has strongly negative feelings about the pregnancy that make them unreceptive to love. But even in the normal case, it may seem that what von Hildebrand is describing cannot be real love. None of the factors that occasion it are direct manifestations of the unborn child's own intrinsic preciousness or beauty. He does not "stand before" his parents in a clear and perceptible way; rather, they react to the broader circumstances surrounding his conception and fetal development, which are manifestations both of God's causal power and of their own. No doubt it is healthy and proper for newly expectant parents to meditate with gratitude and amazement on the way in which God has enabled their mutual love to overflow into the creation of another human life. Even so, the enjoyment of their newly conceived offspring's unique personhood remains something "expected." It is in the future, not the present.
All of this is sufficient, I believe, to explain why the unborn are reasonably and understandably less loved by their human families and communities than the already born. A mother who feels less grief over a miscarriage than she would over the death of a toddler is not revealing any inconsistency in her pro-life convictions. It is natural to grieve more over those whom we have truly had the opportunity to know and love. Birth may not bring an ontological change in the child, but it does mark his entry into family and community life. Although he possessed from conception the potential to love and be loved, he is now available for love in a way that he previously was not. It is entirely reasonable that his family and community should regard him differently in light of that transition.
Of course, it does not follow that the unborn have no right to life. Even if they are mostly unloved, they are still entitled to protection from wanton violence, and we have an obligation in justice to provide that protection. But von Hildebrand does not argue that love for the unborn is utterly non-existent. In the natural and healthy case, we direct towards them a kind of proto-love or incipient love. Although their unique personalities (and even their unique faces) remain hidden from view, we hold ourselves in readiness to embrace them as soon as the opportunity arises. This is itself a kind of love, and indeed, it is a kind of love that should not lightly be tossed aside. To understand why, it will be helpful to examine some observations made by Josef Pieper in his great essay on love.
Pieper's Account of Love
As a Thomist, and someone who stands outside the personalist tradition, Pieper does not speak of value responses. Nonetheless, his own description of love harmonizes well with von Hildebrand's insofar as both see in love a recognition and affirmation of the true worth of the beloved. Pieper describes love as a kind of "turning towards" another, saying to him (or it), "It's good that you exist; it's good that you are in this world!"
Pieper's account of love differs from von Hildebrand's, however, in that it places more emphasis on the active component. Where von Hildebrand described love as a value response, Pieper argues that love is first and foremost an expression of will. In loving someone, I will his continued existence and celebrate the fact that he is. Of course, Pieper recognizes that mere humans cannot cause anything to exist simply by loving it (though there may be a sense in which we yearn to do exactly this). But he marshals to his cause a diverse array of thinkers (ranging from Thomas Aquinas to Jean Paul Sartre) to support his suggestion that love does in a sense create, by enabling the further development that follows upon God's initial act of creation.
Love is critical to human thriving. Here we encounter one of the more remarkable points of contact between psychology and theology: however mysterious its origins and essence, love remains one of the most basic necessities for human beings, without which we are quite unable to mature into physiologically healthy adults. The need for love is common to all human beings; without it, we simply cannot live a good life.
As evidence of this, Pieper cites the work of Rene Spitz, who did a study comparing the long-term welfare of children raised in prison with their mothers, with that of children raised in well-ordered institutions by trained nurses. Although the latter group were clean, well fed, and materially comfortable, their physical, psychological, and moral health was measurably poorer than that of the prison-raised children. Pieper draws the obvious conclusion: no material advantage can compensate for that most essential of goods, namely, personal love. The institution-raised children were not mistreated, and no doubt their nurses regarded them with real concern and affection, but they could not uniquely cherish each and every child in the way that a parent would do. Healthy moral maturation depends on having someone in our lives who can look on us individually and say, "It's good that you exist!"
A Paradox & a Possibility
A kind of paradox follows from this radical human dependence on love. Love embraces that which is most uniquely good and lovely in an individual. Without love, however, we are unable to develop those good and lovely features that love itself seeks. Our need for love predates the developments that justify it. Love makes us lovable.
This paradox is only resolvable if love has the ability to embrace potential, seeing that potential as intrinsic to the beloved even before it is developed. Love thus involves a kind of foresight. It sees what the beloved may become, and so enables the beloved to fulfill that potential.
Setting this analysis alongside von Hildebrand's discussion of incipient love for the unborn, a chilling possibility arises. The unborn are difficult to love, because their unique personalities are for the most part hidden from view. But if we dismiss them on those grounds as intrinsically unlovable, are we not in danger of dismissing all human love as intrinsically unjustified? It is in the nature of love to hopefully prognosticate about the beloved's future. If this were not so, none of us could ever have received the love that initially enabled us to grow and develop. How, then, is the incipient love that we direct towards the unborn so categorically different from all other love, which draws out and develops what it does not immediately find?
Our Ontological Equals
Life at the margins is mysterious. No one remembers what it was like to be newly conceived, and so this phase of human existence passes beyond our understanding. Embryos live among us, but we cannot break bread with them, nor share a joke with them, nor join with them in singing hymns to God. We make no chicken soup for the embryonic soul.
Early pregnancy detection has enabled us to realize that, even without the intrusion of abortion or IVF, many embryos die within days or weeks of conception. Undoubtedly, many die before their existence is even known to us. To the metaphysician who contemplates the embryo's ontological status, these facts may seem insignificant. Why should fragility diminish the intrinsic value of a life? To ordinary people, however, it does seem to matter that natural embryonic death is such a common occurrence. This fact seems to confirm the intuition that the death of an extremely immature human is a relatively insignificant event. New life has but small value, at least until such a time as it can be known and loved by other human beings.
Looking to von Hildebrand's analysis, we can grant that the unborn are understandably less dear to us than the already born. They are human, but not yet full-fledged members of human communities, and this is why we do not celebrate or mourn them to the same extent as we do already-born children or adults. We need not fear that this acknowledgement will undermine our commitment to life. Celebration and mourning are expressions of love, and love, as von Hildebrand observes, requires acquaintance with the beloved's unique character.
Even if the unborn are not loved in Hildebrandian terms, it of course does not follow that they may be slaughtered at our convenience. Metaphysics and biology between them provide compelling evidence that the unborn are our ontological equals, and this is reason enough to regard their deliberate slaughter as gravely unjust. If more people would defer to metaphysics in determining who is worthy of life, human history might be happier.
The Seed of Robust Love
The pro-life attitude involves more, however, than a passion for justice. It is important to look on the unborn with tenderness, and with the hopeful expectation of a rich and rewarding life for and with that person. This attitude may seem more anticipatory than loving per se, but as Pieper points out, love is anticipatory, as indeed it must be if it is ever to be possible at all.
No one becomes capable of loving without first enjoying the blessing of anticipatory love, given freely by another. In dismissing as morally trivial the act of slamming the door on a mostly unknown but already existing child, we set a boundary on how far love is willing to prognosticate before demanding a return on its investment. This cannot but undermine that joyfully anticipatory attitude that is at the root of all human love.
An openness to life is an openness to love. This must be true, because love is both the richest reward and the harshest burden that is meted out to those who procreate. Whether or not the unborn can be loved in the fullest sense, the willingness to love them is essential to a genuinely humane state of character, and it forms the seed from which a more robust love can spring. Without that openness, the seed may shrivel, leaving behind a poisoned perspective that can injure born and unborn alike. Abortion has robbed us of the opportunity to know 52 million Americans who, by their own parents' choice, were never born. In the end, though, the most terrible casualty may be love itself. •
Rachel Lu is a Senior Contributor at The Federalist, as well as a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine, Ricochet and other publications. A convert to Roman Catholicism, she teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, and lives with her husband and three boys in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Love's Beckoning” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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