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Author and speaker Frederica Mathewes-Green and I worked side by side at Americans United for Life in 1990 and 1991, when she taught me about the frame of mind of a woman seeking to kill her unborn child: “She wants an abortion like an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.” Here are edited excerpts of our interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College.
You weren’t always pro-life. In college I was very strongly in favor of abortion. A bumper sticker on my car said, “Don’t labor under a misconception. Legalize abortion.”
When did you change? The January 1976 issue of Esquire published a two-page essay by surgeon Richard Selzer. The title was “What I Saw at the Abortion.” He wrote he had favored abortion, like all “right-thinking” people, but had never done one or seen one. He asked a friend if he could accompany him the next time he did one.
What did he see? He described the woman lying on the table, 19 weeks pregnant. The doctor took a syringe—a prostaglandin solution—and injected it into her belly, leaving the hub of the syringe standing upright in her belly. Selzer wrote, “I see something other than what I expected here. … It is the hub of the needle in the woman’s belly that has jerked. … Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish.”
He saw the reality: a baby fighting to survive. He realized that no matter what you can say in favor of abortion, nothing can argue “against the truth of what I saw.” The being in the womb, no matter what it doesn’t have, does have a will to live. That desperate fighting for life gradually slowed down and stopped. He realized with horror that the child was dead. He said that nothing would ever be able to argue against the truth of what he saw that day.
‘These are living, unique human beings, and you have to talk yourself in a circle not to know that.’
Some pro-aborts say we don’t know whether unborn babies are persons. That’s so stupid—of course we know. They are composed 100 percent of human cells. They are not watermelons or lightbulbs. As soon as the sperm dissolves in the egg, there’s brand new DNA that has never existed in the world before. If you took a cell from the mother and a cell from the father, even with that first single cell, a scientist looking at those three would say three different people are represented there. These are living, unique human beings, and you have to talk yourself in a circle not to know that.
We even have the advantage of ultrasound pictures now. Back then we generally thought of the unborn as a blob of tissue—as this inert mass that comes to life at some point.
Some in the pro-life movement saw the women seeking abortions as an inert mass. We were so focused on the baby that we really didn’t think about what was going on inside the mother’s heart at all. That changed over time.
You entered the larger pro-life movement when you were vice president of Feminists for Life and became involved in what at that time were called Fieldstead Forums. I felt so welcomed, even though it was right there on my label: “Feminist.” I felt a genuine interest in hearing what the feminist view on abortion would be, and on protecting women and children.
Did other feminists welcome your new involvement? It was quite the reverse. Suspicion ran very deep.
How has the pro-life movement changed over the past 25 years? It has gotten so much better. It frustrated me when pro-lifers only talked about the baby. Unlike many people, pro-lifers walk the walk but don’t talk the talk. They reach out to pregnant women, provide everything, and have their hearts in the right place. But if you put a microphone in front of them, all they say is, “It’s a baby.” If only we could talk about our compassion and our realistic view of how hard life is for a woman. We are doing it all, we just need to talk about it.
We do want to draw attention to the reality of the baby. Talking only about the baby makes it look like pro-lifers are against women. We were falling into this trap of “It’s the woman against the baby, and only one can win.” We should always say, “Love them both.” Of course, I could get up as a pro-life feminist and talk all day about how abortion was bad for women. But if it wasn’t killing babies, I wouldn’t have been as galvanized as I was about it. The fact that it kills babies makes people so committed to changing it.
You’ve written that abortion should be prioritized over other issues. You could say, if you are a very hard-line pacifist, “It’s wrong to kill soldiers in wartime, it’s worse to kill civilians in wartime, and it’s worse to kill children.”
What happens to a society that doesn’t prioritize it, and instead minimizes it? There must be, in America, a huge subterranean lake of guilt and grief we are not tapping into because we can’t bear to.
Many pastors never preach about abortion because, they say, that would be painful for women in the audience who have had abortions. When pastors told Dr. Jack Willke, “Women might start to cry,” he would say, “Maybe that’s what they need to do. If they just hold it all knotted up inside, they won’t heal.” We can’t be afraid to name the most profound injustice of our age, just because somebody in the audience might be hurt. That might be the beginning of the healing.
You’ve spoken at many colleges and seen some journalists and students ignore reality and go along with pro-abortion ideologues. The thing that most motivates people and journalists is peer pressure—that you need to believe the same things that the important people in your venue believe. It was as if my pro-life arguments were wrong even before I opened my mouth because they needed me to be wrong, because they were shoring up their defense and their sense of identity.
We tell children to watch out for peer pressure, but we don’t say that to adults. You pay a terrible price for becoming pro-life, and many people aren’t willing to take on the rejection and fall in social status. Christians are willing to do that, since they know that they are not their own, but that they are bought with a price, and that they have to stand up for unborn children, even if it costs them.
Easier to forget. The average person just wants to forget the abortion issue entirely. In debates on college campuses I would talk about why abortion was a bad thing, and opponents would talk about why I was a bad person. I could see the audience relax and look so grateful, because what I was saying was disturbing. They didn’t have arguments against the facts I was presenting, and they were so grateful to the opponent for giving them permission to ignore me. Abortion is a miserable thing to think about—people don’t want to think about it.