The annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington, D.C., is both inspiring and depressing.
Perennially ignored despite drawing crowds larger than last year's much-lauded D.C. Women's March, it has become, journalistically speaking, a quaint sideshow, its existence acknowledged, if at all, only by avowedly right-wing publications.
Without demeaning the sacrifice of good-natured participants, I would like to confess that I find myself baffled by the march.
What are those of us who oppose what we consider judicially sponsored infanticide hoping to accomplish by busing in church youth groups by the thousands in order to wave signs in front of locals who regard them with undisguised contempt? Do marchers think that Anthony Kennedy is going to change his mind the next time an abortion case comes before the Supreme Court because he read a profile of a march organizer on LifeSiteNews.com? Are demonstrators simply "raising awareness," as if any living American were unaware of their position? And what does it cost the anti-abortion movement when it throws in its lot with someone like President Trump, who is addressing today's march via a television feed?
The pro-choice crowd by and large does not believe that pro-lifers are arguing in good faith. It's not hard to see why. If we claim that abortion is murder, how can we live with ourselves? How can we go about our business, raising our families and watching sports and ordering take-out, voting and contributing to GDP growth, in such a country? How can we possibly affect concern for any other issue, from prudential questions about marginal tax rates to foreign policy? Why are we not monomaniacally shouting our lungs off about this and nothing else 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
I would like to suggest that there is no answer. The scale of the slaughter is as impossible to comprehend as it is easy to ignore.
If abortion is murder, then America has murdered more than 53 million children since 1973. That would make our liberal democracy more evil than any of the great totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Even the crimes of Mao, Stalin, and Hitler would fail to match the wickedness of America under every president from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump. The American Revolution, fought by rich patriots looking to save a few pennies on their taxes, would look like a cruel joke.
This was the possibility considered by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the civil rights activist and founder of First Things magazine, in a 1996 symposium. "America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany," Neuhaus wrote in "The End of Democracy," "but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here."
The reaction to Neuhaus' comments was predictable. Board members resigned from his magazine; old friends and longtime contributors dismissed his language as imprudent and insensitive. Perhaps it was both of these things. The question is whether it is true.
Much as I would like to avoid mealy-mouthedness, I cannot help but answer yes and no. It is true that those of us who oppose abortion look on helplessly as countless numbers of American babies are killed each year; it is not true that these actions are being carried out as an article of the American Constitution, whatever the authors of the majority in Roe v. Wade might claim to the contrary. Nor is it the case that abortions are always, or even frequently, "performed," if that is the right word, by people who believe that what they are doing is murder. Likewise, a woman who chooses to terminate a pregnancy in 2018 has spent her entire life operating under the assumption that what she will undergo is simply a procedure like any other.
I do not think saying these things is an invitation to complacency. As a Catholic I take a very broad view of history. My coreligionists and I find ourselves in the same position as the early Christians before Constantine. The empire permits, and many cases encourages, all that we consider gravely evil. It sometimes tolerates, sometimes persecutes us for believing those truths which we regard as simple and undeniable axioms. When will this change? Will it be in my lifetime or that of my children? I cannot say.
Coming to terms with the reality of legal abortion does not involve a call to arms, metaphorical or otherwise. It should be an impetus to greater understanding, greater decency, greater sympathy not only for those who are committed to the enormity of abortion today or for the rest of us who manage somehow to press on with our lives in the midst of it, but for all of history's victims, perpetrators, collaborators, and indifferentists. We should not be so glib when we use words like "murder." We are all villains too, albeit unremarkable ones.