The Indianapolis News
September 19, 1997
by Alan W. Dowd

In the summer of 1852, as the nation averted its gaze from slavery, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass warned that America’s "conscience must be roused." Slavery had exposed the nation’s hypocrisy and scarred its character, he said.

Those words provide an apt description of the state of our nation and its slumbering conscience a hundred forty-five summers later. What else could be said of a country where human life is treated like trash?

Consider Melissa Drexler, whose story illustrates that question in its literal extreme. This 18-year-old New Jersey woman gave birth to a baby boy during her prom and then tossed him in a lavatory trash can before returning to the dance floor. The story of how her son suffocated and writhed while she finished dinner and danced was met with pockets of anger across the country, though some typically tried to explain away her quiet cruelty.

Melissa has since been charged with murder. Hers is only the latest in a growing list of baby-killings in America. The discovery of an infant who had been left to die in a portable toilet here in Indiana is a graphic reminder that this sort of cruelty is not confined to the far-off East or West coast.

Oddly, the same week as Melissa’s prom, a Presidential panel of 18 scientists and ethicists urged the government to ban cloning that leads to the birth of a child but to permit the cloning of human embryos for research purposes.

The distinction is important because those human embryos are unborn children. Doubtless, they are still developing, still growing, still unprepared for life on their own (not unlike many of us more mature embryos). But sentencing them to the laboratory waste-bin, once their scientific usefulness has been exhausted, is no different than what Melissa did.

Even so, Americans are uninterested and unmoved.

Congress will soon send the President a measure banning so-called partial-birth abortions––a brutal procedure designed to end late-term pregnancies like Melissa’s just moments before birth and just inches from the full protection of the law. The President promises to veto it for the second time in as many years.

Last year, when President Clinton used a handful of heart-wrenching stories to justify his first veto of the ban, there was little outcry from the public at large. The public reaction was predictably but tragically muted. The absence of the issue during the 1996 campaign was another indication of the nation’s disinterest.

By the end of the summer months, 375,000 unborn children will succumb to other forms of abortion, which differ from Melissa’s post-birth abortion and the President’s partial-birth abortion only in their style––never in their effect. America’s reaction will range from resignation to outright applause.

But why? Why are we angered by what Melissa did and only disappointed by what the President has done? Why are we nonplused by the loss of thousands and repulsed at the loss of one? How did we get to the point where the unborn are laboratory experiments and nearly one-third of all pregnancies end in abortion?

The answers to these questions are difficult to accept, because they give us a snapshot of our nation’s conscience.

It’s not a pretty picture. At best, our conscience has been dulled to the point of not knowing right from wrong. At worst, we are at the edge of a precipice overlooking a time and place where nothing is wrong.

Science did not lead us to this precipice. We led science. Science is amoral. It does not consider right and wrong. It does not have a conscience, but societies do. And there are serious consequences for a society that allows its conscience to atrophy, and science to operate free from moral parameters.

This summer, we witness some of those consequences.

Today, we extol abortion as a reproductive right, even as we wince not only at Melissa’s carefree brutality but also at the perverse irony of her son’s passing. He will be avenged, and his mother will be punished––not because he was killed but because of how he was killed. The method sickens us today, as abortion itself once did. But perhaps in a few years, we will tolerate even Melissa’s methods.

If that sounds unlikely, consider what would have happened if Melissa’s pregnancy had been terminated just hours earlier––during a medically-induced partial birth: There would be no murder charges; there would be no news reports to recount her son’s short life or denounce her decision to end it. We would have accepted the consequences, despite the ghastly methods.

There is something very wrong with a society that condemns the killing of a newborn who has lived eight or nine months inside the womb and a few seconds outside, but justifies the killing of a child whose nine, five or two months of life have been confined to the womb.

This is the discomforting dilemma facing us, the dilemma abortion advocates have been able to dodge for over two decades: Human life has a definitive beginning and end; when we attempt to re-define where that beginning is, we cheapen all life. Short of endorsing Melissa’s actions, we can no longer avoid recognizing the continuity of human life––stretching not from birth to death but from conception to death.

There is a significant difference between the two. Birth is arbitrary; conception is not. Neither a mother nor a judge nor a doctor nor a president can change that.

Perhaps the events of this summer will force us to revisit such fundamental truths. Perhaps they will lay the groundwork for criminalizing partial-birth abortion, which ends the lives of children who are the same age as Melissa’s son––with the same dispassion and with equal contempt for civility.

Perhaps then, with our conscience awakened, we can begin to view unborn life from a new vantage point, recognizing the total waste and mass-selfishness of abortion. Perhaps we will find the courage to tell the scientist that even a human embryo has a right to life, a right not to be duplicated and triplicated and quadruplicated for research purposes.

With a shrug, many Americans refuse to contemplate what their indifference has wrought––human life tossed aside like trash, the unborn treated like lab rats, infanticide endorsed by the president. This summer, the nation’s true character was exposed; its hypocrisy was uncovered. Now its conscience must be roused.