The Child Not Taken
Russell D. Moore on Aborting the Conscience Through Choice
Recently a woman wrote a back-page article in the New York Times Magazine about her decision to abort two of her triplets, a choice she tells readers was not all that difficult and one she is glad she made, and would make again. When she found herself carrying triplets—she had gone off the pill because it made her moody—Amy Richards was 34 and not married (though living with the father of her children), lived in a walk-up apartment in the East Village, and would lose most of her freelance income for the year.
“There was a part of me that was sure I could work around that. But it was a matter of, Do I want to?” she wrote.
She went to her doctor and asked, “Is it possible to get rid of one of them? Or two of them?” It was, and she did. But this ghoulish commentary was far less revealing than some of the letters to the editor the Times received in response.
Some readers praised the Times for the “courage” and “bravery” of the piece, but several other pro-choice writers expressed shock, discomfort, and even moral revulsion at the calculating indifference of the writer’s point of view. Particularly noteworthy was a letter from a pro-choice reader in Montreal, who noted that the column caused her to “wrestle” with why it so disturbed her. She asked, “If the freedom to choose removes a sense of awe from the realm of human possibilities, is it freedom or a cruel burden?”
No one thinks that most women get abortions for the vain, self-indulgent reasons offered in this article. But why did it strike such a nerve? After all, the leaders of the abortion rights movement ridicule the pro-life “love affair with the fetus,” arguing that the fetus is no more personal than sperm or a discarded fingernail clipping.
Why would people like the writer from Montreal feel “comfortable” with legal abortion—until they read a story like this? If the fetus is not a person, one might find the story of this woman’s “selective reduction” for reasons of personal convenience self-absorbed and tacky, but why would one find it so morally repugnant?
This column was provocative not only because of the unblinking sassiness with which the writer asserted her right to discard two of her three “pregnancies.” It provoked even pro-choice readers because of its unusual directness, a directness so unexpected that even seared consciences flinch in response.
In our national discourse, we use language about abortion that cloaks abortion itself. Our politicians will say that they stand for “a woman’s right to choose,” without ever telling us precisely what action a woman should have a right to choose, much less whether anyone else, like a father or a child, should have a say in this choice.
Pro-choice speech discusses the decision to “end a pregnancy” or, in moments of unusual directness, speaks of “the decision to abort.” But even then they do not say what it is (never mind who it is) that may be aborted—a computer program, a space mission? Marches for legal abortion rarely mention the abortions themselves. Instead, the activists march for “women’s lives,” thereby testifying that even they know that life should be something worth protecting.
In the column in question, there is no question what this woman does not want to lug up the stairs to her apartment—babies. Moreover, there is one “fetus” born, as a couple of letter writers mentioned. The very thought of this little child walking about forces even pro-choice ideologues to note that he “survived” something.
The Apostle Paul tells us why some readers of the New York Times found this story so rattling. The Gentiles, who do not have the Mosaic law, Paul tells the church at Rome, nonetheless show that they have a law “written on their hearts” by the witness of their consciences. This testimony of conscience is seen particularly, he says, in their “conflicting thoughts.”
For the unbeliever, the conscience is not Disney’s Jiminy Cricket, offering a friendly, understanding, welcome guide. Instead, it is a universal gnawing within the heart that points to a coming judgment, which men and women desperately want to deny exists at all. It is found everywhere, in all people in all places at all times—and it is always smothered by people who do not want to hear its voice.
This is the Achilles’ heel of so much of our preaching and witness. Some of us try to reach the culture by offering “life principles,” twelve steps to personal peace and so forth. Some of us try to offer rigidly organized doctrinal explanations of Christianity. Some of us (though far fewer) try to scare unbelievers into thinking about how miserable hell will be. None of these is the way the apostles preached.
Jesus said that through the gospel the Spirit “convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.” Paul said that his preaching explicitly appealed to the consciences of his hearers. These consciences are “seared” by years of self-justification, but it is the forthright proclamation of the gospel that pierces through this satanic deception.
People do not come to Christ because they seek a new lifestyle aid, or are following a historical argument, or fear eschatological heat. They come to Christ because the honest truth about judgment and sin resonates with something they already know—and the honest truth about the grace of the Father resonates with longings they already have. If we are going to be faithful in our witness (pastors and laymen alike), we must stop addressing merely minds and sentiments and self-interest and start addressing consciences.
Somewhere in Manhattan a woman finds herself, inexplicably, in tears when she reads in her New York Times about a triplet who will grow up an only child. She composes herself, and writes out her monthly check for Planned Parenthood. But, even so, the tears are there—and she just can’t figure out why. Who will tell her?
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“The Child Not Taken” first appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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