Science meets the big questions: The Atlantic examines strategic changes in pro-life movement

This should have been the think piece for a week ago, timed to coincide with the March for Life and other related events that weekend. I guess that includes the March For Women, as well.

Lots to think about, when the calendar gets that crowded.

However, even a week later, readers have continued to alert me to yet another Emma Green feature at The Atlantic, this time with the headline, "Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost." I know that I often start these pieces with the actual overture from the piece, but that truly is the logical place to start this time around. So here goes.

The first time Ashley McGuire had a baby, she and her husband had to wait 20 weeks to learn its sex. By her third, they found out at 10 weeks with a blood test. Technology has defined her pregnancies, she told me, from the apps that track weekly development to the ultrasounds that show the growing child. “My generation has grown up under an entirely different world of science and technology than the Roe generation,” she said. “We’re in a culture that is science-obsessed.”
Activists like McGuire believe it makes perfect sense to be pro-science and pro-life. While she opposes abortion on moral grounds, she believes studies of fetal development, improved medical techniques, and other advances anchor the movement’s arguments in scientific fact. “The pro-life message has been, for the last 40-something years, that the fetus … is a life, and it is a human life worthy of all the rights the rest of us have,” she said. “That’s been more of an abstract concept until the last decade or so.” But, she added, “when you’re seeing a baby sucking its thumb at 18 weeks, smiling, clapping,” it becomes “harder to square the idea that that 20-week-old, that unborn baby or fetus, is discardable.”
Scientific progress is remaking the debate around abortion. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the case that led the way to legal abortion, it pegged most fetuses’ chance of viable life outside the womb at 28 weeks; after that point, it ruled, states could reasonably restrict women’s access to the procedure. Now, with new medical techniques, doctors are debating whether that threshold should be closer to 22 weeks.

Now, this is a strong, fascinating piece -- as reader after reader has noted. However, I do have one critical observation.

Here it is: As long as I have been covering debates about abortion, dating back to the early 1980s, many or even most activists opposed to abortion have highly aware that science was adding new information and arguments to their side of the debate. I have strong memories of standing in a parking lot outside a Denver abortion facility in the mid-1980s, listening to a Catholic activist describe, in sharp detail, the strategic implications of falling prices on ultrasound machines.

At the same time, researchers were making giant leaps in prenatal surgery. This leads, of course, to that famous 1983 quotation from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. How could an unborn child have rights, in terms of the use of emerging medical science, if its essential human rights were in doubt? She wrote:

The Roe framework ... is clearly on a collision course with itself. ... As medical science becomes better able to provide for the separate existence of the fetus, the point of viability is moved further back toward conception."

So Green's piece is amazingly in-depth and relevant. However, this is not a new subject. However, as is often the case, the article is much better than the headline. Can you spot the crucial time element in this next long passage?

These advances fundamentally shift the moral intuition around abortion. New technology makes it easier to apprehend the humanity of a growing child and imagine a fetus as a creature with moral status. Over the last several decades, pro-life leaders have increasingly recognized this and rallied the power of scientific evidence to promote their cause. They have built new institutions to produce, track, and distribute scientifically crafted information on abortion. They hungrily follow new research in embryology. They celebrate progress in neonatology as a means to save young lives. New science is “instilling a sense of awe that we never really had before at any point in human history,” McGuire said. “We didn’t know any of this.”
In many ways, this represents a dramatic reversal; pro-choice activists have long claimed science for their own side. The Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy organization that defends abortion and reproductive rights, has exercised a near-monopoly over the data of abortion, serving as a source for supporters and opponents alike. And the pro-choice movement’s rhetoric has matched its resources: Its proponents often describe themselves as the sole defenders of women’s welfare and scientific consensus. The idea that life begins at conception “goes against legal precedent, science, and public opinion,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of the abortion-advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a recent op-ed for CNBC. Members of the pro-life movement are “not really anti-abortion,” she wrote in another piece. “They are against [a] world where women can contribute equally and chart our own destiny in ways our grandmothers never thought possible.”
In their own way, both movements have made the same play: Pro-life and pro-choice activists have come to see scientific evidence as the ultimate tool in the battle over abortion rights. But in recent years, pro-life activists have been more successful in using that tool to shift the terms of the policy debate.

Ah. This has been unfolding over the "last several decades." How about the last third of a century or more?

So, at this point, I will stop offering large chunks of this feature for readers and I'll say what your GetReligionistas so often say, in posts praising the work of religion-beat professionals: Read it all.

Prepare for lots of amazing quotes from people on both sides of this complicated and emotional issue.

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