Over the past month, pro-lifers have been compelled to speak openly and loudly about the possibility of infanticide being permitted by our laws.
On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, video spread of New York’s legislature giving a standing ovation for a bill that, among other things, removed requirements that infants born during abortion procedures receive legal protection as persons.
Those concerns were stoked again last week, as video went viral of Virginia state legislator Kathy Tran saying a similar bill in her state—which was since voted down in committee—would permit the termination of an infant’s life even during labor. A similar bill has gone before state legislators in Vermont.
From the outside, pro-lifers’ claims of legalizing infanticide might seem like hysterical reactions against attempts to liberalize abortion access. Those exhausted by the culture wars might be tempted to dismiss such outrage as conservative handwringing.
Yet our concerns are fully justified. Even Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s attempt to clarify matters ended up conflating expanding abortion access with declining care for infants born in the process.
Defending Tran’s proposal, Northam stated that babies determined in the third trimester to have “severe deformities” or be “nonviable” would be delivered, “kept comfortable,” and “resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
The controversy has since moved on, as Northam is dealing with the fallout from an infamous yearbook photo. But the emerging discussion about infanticide seems to represent a new stage in America’s struggle over abortion.
The legal gap between the states is growing wider, as legislators maneuver to prepare for the reversal of Roe by the Supreme Court. As conservative states have sought ways to protect personhood of infants in the womb, progressive states are weakening protection for infants outside it.
This widening gap means that pro-lifers must be prepared not simply to speak about the possibility of infanticide, but to speak well on it. We have sound, democratic reasons to prophetically articulate its link to abortion. Even though such cases are rare, Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to legalizing third-trimester abortions. Rebuilding democratic consensus about abortion will begin by reminding Americans what we already agree upon. These controversies have given us that opportunity.
When addressing infanticide, it is possible to oversimplify the argument and fail to acknowledge the complexities that arise for many women. But we can also remain clear-eyed about the stakes and ask: What do we owe “severely deformed” infants who may be viable outside the womb, when those infants are unwanted by their mothers and born against the will of the doctors?
Such a question, in all its brutal starkness, draws out why these bills sanction infanticide and why pro-choice activists struggle to support efforts to protect the rights of infants born alive through abortion.
Infanticide does not only include the direct killing of infants, through injecting toxins or other direct means of harm. It also means unjustly denying infants necessary life support. The key term is unjust: not every decision to decline life-sustaining treatment for those in our care is the equivalent of killing.
Neonatal ethics are exceedingly complex, but for infants whose death will follow immediately upon their birth and we have strong reason to believe attempts to prolong life would fail, comfort may be all that can be given. The end of life sometimes does sometimes arise at its beginning. Excruciating as it is, we must sometimes allow those we love to go into the hands of God, even when they have just arrived to us.
But context matters, and we can let them go into God’s hands only by showing honor and respect for the life that God has entrusted to us. Killing or denying necessary treatment because of the burdens such a life might impose intrinsically fails to do so.
There must be an exceptionally high threshold to justify declining medical care for infants, as they are exceedingly vulnerable. But we should be even moreskeptical about decisions to decline treatments when the people deciding are the ones who previously intended the infant’s death.
If third-term abortions are legal, it is difficult to say why doctors are morally obligated to provide life-sustaining care to infants who are at the same stage of development. Why should a doctor who was responsible one minute for terminating an infant’s life be obligated to save it the next? What forms the difference, really, between an infant at 28 weeks who is still inside the womb and one who is now outside? It is easy to see how the 21st-century equivalent of the Roman practice of “exposure” takes form through the dulcet, sonorous tones of “compassion.”
As the dissolution of Roe draws nearer, we need more honest, unvarnished discussion about abortion and its realities.
Pro-lifers must name infanticide everywhere it occurs, then. We speak with intensity and urgency because we recognize the efforts to make it more plausible, which others are willing to downplay or overlook.
The pro-life witness still has only a marginal place in America’s organs of public speech. Our media-complex only reluctantly addressed the horrors enacted by Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell and routinely frames pro-life outrage as unsubstantial or unfounded. For those pro-lifers eager to reframe our political witness so that it might sound less histrionic, what options do we have when such legislation is being considered in the halls of our governments?
Yet, the form of speech we often need to spur social change in democratic society does not easily admit distinctions, which are the lifeblood of both mercy and truth. We must also recognize how our denunciations create moral hazards for those who find themselves in real-life situations involving these issues.
I once talked with a pro-life counselor who works closely with at-risk women. She told me that in her first consultation she will only speak of a fetus, rather than of a baby—which is the opposite of what I’d expected and what most pro-lifers have advocated. Her reasoning was simple: While the latter names the baby’s humanity, it also exacerbates the mother’s fears, making it harder for her to think clearly about how she will overcome the challenges before her without pursuing abortion.
In the same way, public denunciations about infanticide will invariably reshape moral deliberations by doctors and parents in cases where declining further care might be licit. It is not bad to be held by a little fear and trembling when making life and death decisions, yet fear cannot be the final word.
Through clear-headed reasoning and the warmth of care, both parents and doctors need to understand when and for what reason it is permissible to decline further treatment for infants and when doing so would be morally equivalent to infanticide. Faced with such circumstances, they also need a community to support and sustain them and to comfort them in their duress.
In other words, evangelicals must speak of infanticide in ways that remain animated by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are to proclaim the darkness of the evil inflicted upon infants and their mothers in ways that still hold forth the promise of good news. The truth of compassion provides comfort in the face of the cross—a comfort that defeats death not by inflicting it, but by overcoming it with love.
It is likely that America’s abortion politics will become more fractured, not less, in the years to come. As the dissolution of Roe draws nearer, we need more honest, unvarnished discussion about abortion and its realities. Yet we also need clarity about what compassion demands of us, and to be with those on the cusp of going to God.
In a world where the “possibilities of even an apparent neutrality are diminishing,” as C. S. Lewis once described it, our Yes and Amen to the goodness of human life must be unambiguous and unhesitating—and our No to the darkness of infanticide equally clear.
Yet such a message must yet be one of grace: It must sound like good news, for the Christ who became flesh in Mary’s womb is not done with our world yet.
Matthew Lee Anderson, D.Phil., is a postdoctoral research fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the founder of Mere Orthodoxy and writes at The Path Before Us.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.