By Jonathon Van Maren
I remember vividly the first time I saw a victim of abortion with my own eyes. It would be wrong to say I saw the tiny human being face to face, for she no longer had a face. What had once been a perfectly formed person had been reduced to a bloody smear on a blue terrycloth, and the only body part still identifiable after being suctioned through a plastic tube was a single, translucent arm. The arm was probably no more than half or three-quarters of an inch long—it is hard to remember, exactly—and the fingers were perfectly splayed. I remember thinking she seemed to be waving, and felt somehow reproached.
I thought of that little arm and the person it had belonged to again after reading a magnificent piece from the Irish journalist John Waters in First Things. Titled “Don’t Sanitize Abortion,” Waters explains why he believes that people must often see abortion before they will reject it—and he describes his own reaction after seeing a video of a child who had been aborted:
Someone recently sent me a video of a child of perhaps two months’ gestation. The child had survived a botched abortion and been born alive. The still living body is in a petri dish and two women inspect it. One of them prods and mauls the child’s body with white-gloved fingers while the child seeks to evade them, moving his hands to cover his face as if already suspecting everything of the evil of the world. Rarely has Kahlil Gibran’s evocation of “Life’s longing for itself” been so heartbreakingly illustrated. What I felt watching it was not merely horror or pity, but a sense of metaphysical affront at having to observe a fellow human being in this unspeakable situation.
Waters is right: Once you see abortion, you can never think about it the same way again. The word will forever conjure up horrible images of murdered children, children who reproach us by their obvious innocence and our glaring failure to protect them. It is why people so badly want to keep photographs of abortion victims out of the debate: Because with the victims hidden, they can continue to perpetuate the fiction that this is a discussion about “reproductive rights” or the elimination of “clumps of cells.”
Waters’ moving essay reminded me of a scene in last year’s award-winning documentary One Child Nation, which examines China’s One Child Policy. As a result of this policy, millions upon millions of babies were aborted, often forcibly. One stomach-twisting picture of a shattered mother with her butchered baby lying next to her on the bed, killed by the state officials who pulled him from her womb, summarizes the whole bloody affair with brutal succinctness. The filmmaker also spoke with a Chinese artist named Peng Wang, who placed an aborted baby he found in the garbage in a jar of formaldehyde.
The cameraman zoomed in on the jar, with the baby resting almost peacefully in the chemical solution. The child was ethereal, and looked as if he might wake up at any moment, as if he was both there and not there at the same time. Perfect fingers curled around a perfect thumb, and his chubby feet looked just like baby’s feet should. “He was a beautiful baby,” Wang said, gazing at the child. “But he was dead. A smile was still on his face. I was wondering: Why would he smile like that after being aborted and killed? It’s as if he knew it’d be miserable to be alive in China, and he was happy to have avoided it.”
It is impossible to truly understand abortion without seeing the victims, and their absence from the discussion often turns the entire debate into a fruitless semantic shouting match. But when the victims show their beautiful, awful, bloody faces—then everything changes. I have seen the angriest abortion activist stunned into silence by a photograph of one of the victims. These photographs often bring up unanswerable questions that we cannot help but ask.
I had the privilege of being on a discussion panel last summer in Michigan with my friend Dr. Monica Miller, who has retrieved thousands of abortion victims from dumpsters (and wrote the foreword to my book Seeing is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion.) Someone in the audience asked her what she would say to help someone really understand what abortion has taken from us. She paused for a moment, and then responded: “What do you do with sixty-five million bodies?”
That is a question that should haunt us for as long as the killing lasts.