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When Life Begins

A new story in Time bolsters the pro-life case--and points to why President Bush should press for a partial-birth abortion ban.

11:00 PM, Nov 13, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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WE TEND TO ASSUME that science involves demystification: Rainbows are not a sign of God's covenant with man, science tells us, but simply sunlight refracted through the prism of water vapor; thunderbolts are not products of the wrath of Zeus, but of electrical charges in the atmosphere--you get the idea. But what's striking is how often modern science actually increases our sense of awe at the ineffable mysteries of the universe.

Nowhere is this more evident than in what science is now telling us about the development of nascent human life, as featured in the cover story of last week's issue of Time magazine. The article is derived from a remarkable new book, "From Conception to Birth: A Life Unfolds," by scientific visualization expert Alexander Tsiaras and writer Barry Werth.

You should read the entire article for all the fascinating details and astonishing images. For a general sense, though, of what advances in fetal imaging and genetic science are revealing about the complex and beautifully choreographed journey from conception to birth, ponder this wonderfully illustrative metaphor from the opening of Tsiaras and Werth's book: "Imagine yourself as the world's tallest skyscraper, built in nine months and germinating from a single brick. As that brick divides, it gives rise to every other type of material needed to construct and operate the finished tower--a million tons of steel, concrete, mortar, insulation, tile, wood, granite, solvents, carpet, cable, pipe and glass as well as all furniture, phone systems, heating and cooling units, plumbing, electrical wiring, artwork and computer networks, including software."

Of course, this astonishing new science will surely reinvigorate debate about the moral status of both the "skyscraper" as it undergoes construction--which is to say, the fetus--and of the "brick"--which is to say, the human embryo. Pro-lifers can find much support for their cause in the Time article and Tsiaras and Werth's book. By showing just how early the fetus develops all the essential organs and features that make it recognizably human, the latest science substantially bolsters the claim that the unborn child is not just a clump of tissue but a human life with inherent dignity and rights that must be protected. (Nevertheless, Time's writers make an absurd attempt to "balance" their article's possible implications, claiming that the enhanced ability to detect diseases in the fetus might also justify more abortions.)

For the majority of Americans, who are not unabashed enthusiasts for unlimited abortion on demand, the difficulty lies in determining how the law should distinguish between human life that must be protected and that which should still be subject to a woman's "choice." But science is making it increasingly difficult to draw that line at some arbitrary point such as the end of the "first trimester" or "second trimester." Given the enormity of the moral implications involved, should we not then err on the side of drawing the line as close to conception as possible? In our ever-roiling debates about abortion, cloning, and research using embryos, the awe and respect for nascent human life that the new science rightfully generates should place the burden of proof on those who would ignore the inherent dignity of human life--those who prefer the interests of the strong over the weak, who prefer those with voices against those powerless to speak for themselves, and who prefer convenience and control over the selfless embrace of the most vulnerable among us.

MOVING from the scientific to the political, there's been some nervous chatter this week in Washington over what the Republican party should do on the abortion issue during the next Congress, as detailed in this piece from Monday's Washington Post.

Some argue that Bush and the Republicans should stay mum on such an inflammatory issue for now, and hoard Bush's political capital for future use when filling an imminent Supreme Court vacancy (or vacancies). But this logic is exactly backwards. Why not immediately highlight the partial-birth abortion issue, on which poll after poll shows the overwhelming majority of the sensible public is on the GOP's side, and thereby reveal the pro-abortion wing of the Democrat party as the extremists they are--thus discrediting them before they can unleash their vitriol on a Supreme Court nominee?

In this sense, bringing up the partial-birth abortion ban for a quick vote early in the new Congress would not only be the right thing to do, it would also be shrewd politics, for two reasons. First, the abortion issue was a real factor in the GOP's success last week. To take a specific example: Exit polls from the Missouri Senate race showed that abortion ranked second only to the economy as the issue voters said was most important in determining their vote--and among those voters, Republican Jim Talent beat Democrat Jean Carnahan by more than four-to-one. Meanwhile, NARAL, the nation's leading abortion lobby, lost 18 of their 19 designated "key elections." And the partial-birth ban is an easy winner: In recent years it passed Congress with near-veto-proof majorities, only to be vetoed by Bill Clinton.

But the more important reason is this: Like the war resolution on Iraq, a vote on partial-birth abortion would reveal a deep division within the Democratic party, and once again forcibly expose the party's utter confusion on matters of clear moral principle--whether it is the forthright defense of America from its avowed enemies, or the defense of late-term, unborn children from an abortion method for which the term "barbaric" is insufficiently strong.

Certainly the Bush administration must choose its battles prudently over the next several months, and focus on accomplishing goals with broad public appeal that will help the GOP augment its majority in 2004. In that regard, the White House's top priority should be a continued, relentless prosecution of the war on radical Islamic terror both at home and abroad--including the defeat of Saddam Hussein's maniacal regime. Nevertheless, on the domestic front, the White House and congressional Republicans should not shrink from moving boldly on issues that will continue to put the Democrats on the defensive, and partial-birth abortion is a perfect example. When your enemies are demoralized and on the run, you shouldn't give them time to regroup merely for the sake of observing the pieties of "bipartisanship."

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.