By Michelle Arnold
One of the elders said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14).
A religious lay brother once told me something I’ve never forgotten. He had worked for many years in pro-life ministry, had in fact founded a religious community dedicated to serving in pro-life ministry. So, he both knew what he was talking about and didn’t have an ax to grind with his fellow pro-lifers.
“One of the biggest problems pro-lifers face,” he told me, “is that they’re blinded by the blood of the babies.”
The sheer volume of abortions in this country and around the world, he argued, was so staggering to the minds of many in the pro-life movement that the dead babies were all they cared about. They had no time to spare for other pro-life issues—capital punishment, gun control, civil rights, health care, homelessness, climate change, to name a few—because they’d invested all their energy in saving unborn babies. They cared so much about saving the unborn that they took no notice of the world these children would be born into, of the lives these children might have once they were born.
On May 2, a draft opinion of the forthcoming decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked to the press. In the document, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “We hold that Roe [v. Wade] and [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey must be overruled.” Chief Justice John Roberts, speaking for the Court, has since confirmed that the document is authentic, but said that the deliberations aren’t yet finalized.
Since then, protests have been organized at the Supreme Court and conversation on abortion has exploded on social media. And all I can think of is my friend’s observation that pro-lifers are blinded by the blood of the babies.
I don’t hold myself guiltless in this. I’ve considered myself pro-life since I was a teenager, long before I was a baptized Christian, much less a Catholic. When I was in high school, we were given the assignment to write a persuasive essay on a topic of our choice and deliver it as an oral presentation. I chose to write about abortion.
These were the Dark Ages, long before teens could turn to Professor Google for help in research. I dug out all of the literature I’d collected from pro-life activist groups on abortion. In the late 1980s, these groups had taken to sitting outside abortion clinics, blocking the doors. I admired their commitment, even though I was too timid to join myself. So, when they told me what was involved in “saline abortions,” I believed them.
I wrote about the procedure, doing my best to paint a very graphic picture with words about what happened to the babies. I wasn’t just working for an A, I was looking forward to reading the essay in class, hoping to persuade a few of my classmates at the public high school I attended to re-think their support for abortion.
I don’t know if I changed anyone’s mind, but the teacher was impressed enough with my persuasive rhetoric that he asked for a copy of my essay, which I happily handed over.
My work here was done, I thought, probably rather smugly.
Since the presentations were given by students in alphabetical order, I gave one of the first. A few days later, a classmate whose last name started with Z gave her presentation. I’ve occasionally wondered if I inspired her to chuck whatever she was going to write about and start over, because her essay was essentially an answer to mine.
She told about how she got to live because abortion was legal.
Her parents, she said, had genetic testing done before the births of each of their children. With one pregnancy, her parents found out the expected child had a genetic disorder that would lead to the child’s death within a few years. Her parents chose to abort this pregnancy, my classmate said, and try again. She was born a few years later. Had abortion not been an option, her parents would never have chosen to try to have children and she wouldn’t have been born.
At the time, I was horrified at what I saw as parents “picking and choosing” the children they would “allow” to live. How could my classmate be happy about this, I wondered. Happy that her life came at the expense of her sibling’s life? I have to admit that I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut during her presentation, to give her the courtesy my classmates gave me during my presentation. (Thankfully, I managed it.)
Thirty-some years later, I see things somewhat differently. While I probably wouldn’t make the same choices Z’s parents made, I’m no longer the arrogant little know-it-all who thought her parents acted heartlessly. I can see now that Z’s parents must have wanted children very badly, despite knowing they each had a recessive gene that could result in a deadly disorder for a child. They evidently sincerely believed that genetic testing and abortion provided means to ensure their children were healthy—and that the one who was diagnosed in utero with the disease didn’t suffer.
I can see that now. But I know there are many pro-lifers who wouldn’t be able to see anything beyond the blood of the child who was aborted. Rather than seeing the issue in “black and white,” they see it in “red and white”—the blood of the unborn babies and the purity of their own virtue in fighting to save the babies from abortion.
I wish I could say I have sympathy for pro-lifers who are blinded in this way. But it’s become absolutely clear to me in recent years that this blindness to the suffering of anyone besides The Babies is self-chosen and worn proudly as a badge of honor. There are some pro-lifers, such as the religious lay brother, who try to keep all of the life issues in view, who try to understand that those who choose abortion and those who facilitate abortion aren’t unfeeling monsters. Unfortunately, pro-lifers like my friend seem to be in the minority these days.
The news from the Supreme Court made it very clear that Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned when the justices hand down their decision, probably sometime next month. The part of me that is still pro-life, that still thinks of direct, elective abortion as grave matter, wishes I could be happy about it.
But the rest of me has been struggling very hard these past few days with contempt for those pro-lifers who remind me of the arrogant little know-it-all I was when I was in high school.
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.