Life Watch: Millennial Blues, Cautious Hopes

Chesterton once flicked away the beamish assumption that History was moving onward, ever upward; that each epoch not only would bring an advance in material comforts but an enlargement of freedom and a notable improvement in the moral sensibility of humankind. The last century has pro  vided by now an ample refutation of that facile theory. The age that brought forth autos and television and faxes has also produced the massive slaughters wrought by the Nazis and Communists, and it coincides even now with a population that seems to notice less and less the massive killing in abortion.

But even before the Nazis unfolded their horrors, Chesterton remarked that the world does not advance; the world, he said, simply lumbers on, as it has in the past. We may have faxes now and e-mail, but the nature of man has remained unaltered. We are still in that sublunary world, somewhere between the angels and the beasts.

That is a melancholy reflection, I know, at the beginning of a new millennium, and it recalls that character in one of Tom Stoppard’s plays, who consoles himself with the bromide that “Tomorrow, after all, is another day.” To which another character responds, “No, I’ve generally found that tomorrow turns out to be the same day.” I know, of course, that there are grounds for cheer, and one of the wisest among us has famously said, “Be not afraid.” There are enduring grounds for hope.

Still, what moves me to tilt slightly, at this moment, against the giddiness of the new century are the fresh evidences of the way our people have altered for the worse in the final quarter of the last century, the quarter that was marked roughly by Roe v. Wade.

That new evidence comes in the form of the schedules, remarkably precise, for the sale of fetal parts. The story of this novel trade was assembled first by Mark Crutcher in Denton, Texas, and then by the redoubtable Jack and Barbara Willke at the Life Issues Institute in Cincinnati. The vendors in this trade seem shadowy, and when reporters called to track them down, they disappeared. But the buyers encompass some of the most respectable centers of medical research. And the brochures contain items of this kind:

Livers (more than 8 weeks)…$150

(30 percent discount if significantly fragmented)

Eyes (less than 8 weeks) …75

Kidney (less than 8 weeks)…125

Brain (less than 8 weeks)…999

(more than 8 weeks)…150


One invoice marks a “whole intact Leg, include ENTIRE HIP JOINT, 22-24 weeks…To be removed from fetal cadaver within 10 minutes…. Ship on wet ice. Next day.”

Once again, we are reminded of that connection between morality and law that law schools cannot quite efface: Once the notion takes hold that abortions are thoroughly legitimate, that the unborn child is merely a fetus, with no human standing, then the moral inhibitions melt away—and why be so finicky? Why not sell then a “product” with some utility, that some people actually want?

In small steps, the grotesque becomes routine. One can almost imagine a scene, several years into the new millennium, with the customers of this new enterprise sending in their orders and complaints, say, to We can imagine that they have absorbed the emancipated style that comes along with e-mail, with its freedom from the rigid conventions of spelling, syntax, or decent prose.

And, of course, they would be quite shorn, by this time, of any sense that there is something even faintly problematic in what they are doing. “You had a special on legs and arms,” a customer writes, “two dozen for the price of one; and yet we found that you were three legs and one arm short.” Or: “I must protest; this was bait-and-switch. You advertised lungs, and all you had were kidneys. We are tired of kidneys here.” Or, on the other side, an approving letter from a Wiccan in New Haven: “I used to mix in my new microwave cauldron an eye of newt and tongue of frog; but since I’ve switched to your products, my brews have had more zest, and my spells have lasted three days longer, with more telling effects.”

An Alfred Hitchcock could no doubt produce something more ghoulish as fiction, but the chilling thing is that, even with a leap into fiction, these anticipations of the future are not so joltingly out of kilter with our current discourse—they are nowhere near as shocking to us now as our current way of talking about things would have shocked us even in the 1960s or 1970s. As a case in point, I offer the junior senator from California, Barbara Boxer. Toward the end of October, Boxer found herself in a colloquy on the floor of the Senate with Rick Santorum (R- Pa.) over the issue of partial-birth abortion.

It is rare that U.S. senators come apart on the floor of the Senate under questioning from one of their colleagues. But Senator Barbara Boxer did just that, and it was no random happening. She was clearly unnerved as Santorum invited her to make explicit the logic of her position, in refusing to ban abortions even at the point of birth, with most of the child’s body outside the birth canal. Yet, apart from her pique at being pressed, the remarkable thing is just what a senator of the United States still thought it respectable to say in public. Santorum put the elementary question of just when the baby, born alive, could be protected by the law. Senator Boxer replied, “I think when you bring your baby home, when your baby is born…the baby belongs to your family and has rights.”

Boxer slipped into a candor that is rarely expressed as she made explicit the premises behind abortion rights: There can be no recognition of the child as a bearer of rights, protected by the law. With a show of chivalry, Santorum was willing to assume that she might have misspoken:

MR. SANTORUM: Obviously, you don’t mean they have to take the baby out of the hospital for it to be protected by the Constitution. Once the baby is separated from the mother, …—you would agree that baby is entitled to constitutional protection?

MRS. BOXER: I don’t want to engage in this. You had the same conversation with a colleague of mine, and I never saw such a twisting of his remarks.

The question posed by Santorum had not come tripping out by accident. Just a year ago, his staff had prepared a draft of a measure, long advocated in these pages, that would test precisely the point that he posed in the question to Barbara Boxer. Santorum had been on the threshold of introducing what still stands as the “most modest first step” of all on abortion: The proposal simply to protect the child who survives the abortion. At that moment, the interests of the child are separated entirely from the interests of the mother. The only thing at issue then is whether, in fact, the right to an abortion entails the right to kill the child even when it is no longer necessary to ending the pregnancy.

Barbara Boxer’s reaction confirms rather powerfully that this elementary question has a profound, unsettling effect on the partisans of abortion. Ever more reason, therefore, to present that question squarely, in a freestanding bill. Our friends at National Right to Life have been reluctant to get behind a bill of that kind, for they have rather doubted the utility of it.

But now, of all things, the trade in fetal parts may be altering the calculations for them. For the extraction of fetal parts requires, as an initial step, the delivery of a whole child from the abortion. Dismembering the child in the womb runs the risk of destroying the parts that are needed for this commerce. And poisoning the child, by saline injection, threatens to taint the parts, making them unusable. What is needed then are fresh parts, from intact, unpoisoned bodies.

But if bodies are to be removed whole, and live, from wombs, we now have the prospect of live babies separated from their mothers. It is not to talk then of rare cases, and improbable scenes, when we talk of legislating an obligation to preserve the life of a child, marked for abortion, but emerging from the womb alive.

Professor Robert George has noted the spectacle of Senator Joseph Liebermann of Connecticut: Persistently he wrings his hands, professing his wish to vote with the pro-lifers to protect nascent life. But something always holds him back. Professor George has wanted to press this question: “You could not vote with us, Senator, with 70 percent of the baby out of the womb. How about 100 percent? Could you vote with us now?”

Why should Liebermann and his friends be spared from facing those questions? Why not bring the draft bill out of the files and finally press it? It is virtually certain that President Clinton will veto the bill on partial-birth abortion once again, as he is likely to veto Lindsey Graham’s bill for the protection of the “unborn victims of violence.” When and if he does, what could be a clearer response than to press that simplest of all measures, which raises, in the most unnerving way for the other side, the issues that run to the root?

In the meantime, I can report at least that meetings are afoot on Capitol Hill, as gradually, firmly, the logic of that simplest measure is finally breaking through. It is a grim time, but in the grimness, we still find congressmen like Charles Canady, Henry Hyde, and Lindsey Graham and senators like Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback. We still find, that is, wit allied with moral sense, and even in the Last Days of Clinton, these men may find the path for passing a bill and producing an effect. Even in these unpromising hours, we may still find the grounds of hope.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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