I’ve been doing some thinking recently about the ISIS crisis, and specifically the plight of Christians watching their children being beheaded. I’m expecting many pro-life groups will want to comment and “put this in perspective” and start talking numbers. “A few kids being killed in Iraq is bad, but abortion is badder,” is essentially the perspective. (Or, to be more charitable, we might imagine a pro-life blogger simply asking the question: “But since over 3000 unborn children are being dismembered each day in the US alone, isn’t abortion worse?” or, “Shouldn’t we at least give equal concern to the unborn being killed each day?”)
I think there is a knee-jerk in the pro-life movement to always try to relate evils in the news to abortion.* I have a theory about one of the reasons for this: we are tired of people not being very empathetic towards the plight of unborn children. I think there is, though, within that statement, a sort of solution to its own problem.
Think about it for a moment. Why are people empathetic towards Christian parents watching their kids being beheaded in Iraq? Because they can imagine being in that very same situation. They can imagine being the parent. They have enough memory of being a kid and enough familiarity with kids to imagine what it’s like to be in that situation – being asked if you follow Christ, while a sword is literally at one’s throat.
But it is much more difficult for any of us to imagine being aborted. The world of the womb seems many worlds away. No one knows what the unborn child is able to feel, especially early in pregnancy. Indeed, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Nagel, none of us knows or remembers what it is like to be an unborn child at all.
It’s a problem of imagination then, at least in part. We can imagine “what it is like to be a Christian in Iraq” but we can’t imagine “what it is like to be an unborn child facing the curette and suction machine.” When an injustice or suffering is not only visible to us in some way, but also viscerally presents to us a suffering or other injustice that we ourselves might be asked to endure, we don’t have much trouble imagining. It’s plainly different with the injustice that is suffered by the unborn.
This realization gives me a sense of empathy, then, for my fellow Christian, who gets quickly motivated to pray and act on behalf of suffering and injustice towards the born human, but is lackluster in action towards the injustice towards the unborn. I cannot expect this Christian (or myself) to feel empathy regarding an injustice I cannot even imagine happening towards myself or my children.
So, perhaps my (our) prayer should be,
“Give me empathy for the unborn, to reflect what’s true about them, that they are my brothers and sisters, children very much like my children.”
I tend to think, though, that my (our) prayer might more profitably be this:
“God, help me to act on behalf of human beings in need, even if it’s impossible to imagine that I might be in that same situation, even when I cannot empathize.”
We need both: action on behalf of those with whom we empathize and action on behalf of those with whom we cannot.**
* I’m not intending to be critical by using the term “knee-jerk.” I’m intending to be purely descriptive. I’m sure I’ve also suggested this as a way to create dialogue on abortion, and I think there are ways to do this so that it doesn’t seem dismissive to the particular evil in question. In any case, it’s not my purpose in this post to comment on the wisdom or appropriateness of these comparisons.
** When I discuss action and response towards ISIS and abortion here, I am not intending to imply that the response towards both of these should be similar. While I am making no claim about the proper response to ISIS in this post (military or otherwise), I will restate JFA’s position on the proper response to abortion: I and JFA unequivocally condemn the use of any sort of violence or force to stop abortion.