Friday, April 20, 2007

In the Face of Evil

Two events have gobbled up the headlines over the last few days: the Virginia Tech shootings and, to a lesser extent, the Supreme Court's upholding of the federal partial-birth abortion (D&X) ban. These two things may seem totally unrelated, but there is a thread connecting them that I'd like to draw out. Part of me wants to apologize for and warn you in advance of the graphic nature of some of this post - but the rest of me realizes that, without the full truth being told, no one can make an accurate judgment, not only on if my point here is correct, but on a life-or-death issue that involves the moral conscience of our society. There is more at stake here. So I make no apology - though as you read this, know that I am not posting this with the purpose to shock you to disgust or offend you; but if you are shocked, disgusted, and offended, you'll be a living example of my point via your own experience.

People are talking this week about evil. The actions of Cho Seung-Hui on Monday at Virginia Tech bought our nation face to face with the potential for evil in the human heart, and even the media has not been silent in using this language to describe the shootings. The New York Sun released an editorial on the massacre titled A Glimpse of Evil, calling Cho a "monster." As Ilana Mercer of WorldNetDaily reported, "Cho's poetry teacher, Nikki Giovanni, uses the word evil to describe him. She refused to put up with his intimidating presence in her classroom and had Cho removed." Dennis Prager has given voice to the thoughts and feelings of many with these words: "...why is it always referred to as a 'tragedy'? Virginia Tech wasn't hit by a cyclone. That would be a tragedy. This was evil. Call it that." And as one Blacksburg pastor (the VT campus chaplain) said, "Evil came to campus." America is having a hard time not reacting to the brutality of this event and this man with these sorts of visceral moral judgments, and this is happening across the board – in other words, there is no real controversy in these statements.

Juxtaposed against this is the much more controversial 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in favor of the partial-birth abortion ban. I believe much of the popular controversy stems from a lack of understanding of what precisely partial-birth abortion is. It doesn’t help that the field of public discourse on this matter is littered with red-herrings – such as issues of “women’s health” or “rarity of procedure” or even the application of the term “abortion” (really a misnomer in this case, as Greg Koukl explains here). I am not saying that we shouldn't take care in dealing with these issues - far from it, actually - but that we must first begin, not at a point of theoretical abstraction, but at the point of our own humanity.

This requires us to expose ourselves to the procedure itself. The following medical description is taken from "Dilation and Extraction for Late Second Trimester Abortion", an instruction manual on D&X procedure for physicians by Dr. Martin Haskell that was included in "Second Trimester Abortion: From Every Angle," (materials presented by the National Abortion Federation and distributed at the NAF Fall Risk Management Seminar, held September 13-14, 1992, in Dallas, Texas) pages 30-31.

The surgeon introduces a large grasping forceps, such as a Bierer or Hern, through the vaginal and cervical canals into the corpus of the uterus.... When the instrument appears on the sonogram screen, the surgeon is able to open and close its jaws to firmly and reliably grasp a lower extremity. The surgeon then applies firm traction to the instrument causing aversion of the fetus (if necessary) and pulls the extremity into the vagina....

With a lower extremity in the vagina, the surgeon uses his fingers to deliver the opposite lower extremity, then the torso, the shoulders and the upper extremities.

The skull lodges at the internal cervical [opening]....The fetus is oriented dorsum or spine up. At this point, the right-handed surgeon slides the fingers of the left hand along the back of the fetus and 'hooks' the shoulders of the fetus with the index and ring fingers (palm down)....

While maintaining this tension, lifting the cervix and applying traction to the shoulders with the fingers of the left hand, the surgeon takes a pair of blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors in the right hand. He carefully advances the tip, curved down, along the spine and under his middle finger until he feels it contact the base of the skull under the tip of his middle finger.

...The surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into foramen magnum. Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening. The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents. With the catheter still in place, he applies traction to the fetus, removing it completely from the patient.

What is called "abortion" here is clearly nothing more nor less than infancticide. Koukl responded to this description in his article Nothing Hidden in D&X in this way:

Nothing is hidden in D&X abortion. This is not a piece of tissue or a mere part of a woman's body. This is a little boy or girl dangling between the legs of its mother. You can clearly see its sexual organs, male or female. It squirms and kicks. Its hands open and close, grasping for something to hang onto, until the moment when the doctor's instrument pierces the back of its skull. Then, of course, everything goes limp, because the baby is dead.

Brenda Pratt Shafer, a registered nurse from Dayton Ohio, accepted assignment to Dr. Haskell's clinic because she was "strongly pro-choice." In testimony before the
Senate Judiciary Committee, nurse Shafer described the end of life for one six-month-old "fetus."

"[Dr. Haskell] delivered the baby's body and the arms--everything but the head....The baby's little fingers were clasping and unclasping, and his feet were kicking. Then the doctor stuck the scissors through the back of his head, and the baby's arms jerked out in a flinch, a startle reaction, like a baby does when he thinks that he might fall....[Then] the baby was completely limp....After I left that day, I never came back." [NRLC brief, "Senate Hearing Explodes Pro-Abortion Misinformation About Partial-Birth Abortions," Nov. 28, 1995, p. 1.]

You see, Brenda Pratt Shafer “saw” something important that day. An abstract belief could no longer sustain her once she came face to face with the brutal reality of the procedure. As she later testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee, she was not able to shake free of the visual image of that small body going from struggling and alive to limp and dead at the hands of a doctor. She saw it every time she closed her eyes for weeks afterward, and even had trouble looking at her own children without experiencing deep emotional turmoil.

It is this visceral perception, this deep awareness of evil that humans can't help but have that is the thread that connects these two events. In the face of evil, true evil, if we are not sufficiently bent and twisted around the core of evil in each of us, we all recoil. We all have an intuitive sense of this. When one has truly experienced something like this - when one has come face-to-face with evil - we can no longer retreat into relativistic platitudes of merely personal violated sensibilities or cultural norms. Nancy Pearcey put it this way:

After World War II, when the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps came to light, it created a crisis among many educated people. Steeped in the cynicism and relativism typical of their class, they perceived for the first time in a visceral way that evil is real. Yet their own secular philosophies gave them no basis for making objective, universal moral judgments - because those philosophies reduced moral judgments to merely personal preferences or cultural conventions. Thus they found themselves trapped in a practical contradiction, which created tremendous inner tension.

The dilemma is that humans irresistibly and unavoidably make moral judgments - and yet nonbiblical worldviews give no basis for them. When nonbelievers act according to their intrinsic moral nature by pronouncing something truly right or wrong, they are being inconsistent with their own philosophy - and thus condemn it by their own actions. (Total Truth, p. 396)

We as a culture can run from this awareness, but ultimately, when the rubber meets the road in our own lives, we cannot hide.


mattghg said...

They kill babies by sucking out their brains. I feel ill.

Still, if Peter Singer gets his way, then infanticide will soon be no big deal either.

Jacob said...


[I like the blog recoloring and rearrangement]

I agree. "Abortion" is brutal and ugly and destructive of life.

So is "war." We do that too, though.

Historically speaking, both "war" and "abortion" (or infanticide more generally) have been practiced fairly regularly in different ways, places and times around the world.

I have doubts that this recurrence is tied together by an overarching thin red line of evil. Or, to be more precise, the assertion that there is a thin read line tying these evils together into a whole is something I would have to be empirically shown before I accept it as a compelling argument.

At the same time, is it safe to assert that all humans everywhere have an "intuitive sense" about these issues? Is it safe to assume that there is a thin blue line connecting every human in all times and places?

I ask this because it seems to me that everyday people come face to face with the experiences of abortion and war. They do not "retreat into relativistic platitudes of merely personal violated sensibilities or cultural norms." They act! They have an abortion and they wage war. And sometimes they do it more than once.

I'm concerned that the suggestion that people are hiding from the issue of abortion is itself a straw man argument. It obscures the fact that people may genuinely see the issues in a different light. They disagree. That doesn't necessarily mean they are evil, however.

Nicholas Jenkins said...

I tend to stay away from debates about abortion as I'm just not terribly well informed and can only rely on gut reactions... which is bad at times.

On the subject of Evil, I'm not sure this is a healthy way to deal with the situation. I think it aids people in distancing themselves from someone (like Dahmer) by saying "It's EVIL!". The fact is that he was a man. He had problems, serious ones, but none the less... he was a human being that fell apart at some point. Trying to recategorize him into something "mythic" to me kind of hurts the cause. It alleviates us as a society from trying to correct problems.