As we can see in the debate anticipating the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, many abortion arguments boil down to the question of when the occupant of the womb should be considered a human being.
Prolifers—and biology textbooks—state the obvious scientific fact: The union of male and female homo sapiens produces only other homo sapiens, human life begetting human life in an unbroken chain as far as we can imagine. Pro-choicers, on the other hand, attempt to draw a line—arbitrarily, it seems to me—before which a living homo sapiens organism is not a living homo sapiens organism. Before which, in other words, a human being is not a human being.
The place where this line is drawn is usually determined according to various assumptions and assertions about four key criteria: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. These four criteria can be recalled using a simple mnemonic device, the acronym SLED. If you engage in abortion debate, this acronym is sure to come in handy. Because at some point in the argument, you no doubt will have to defend your position that humans come in all shapes and sizes, and that every one of us, inside the womb or out, is a work in progress.
When you think about it, it’s odd that we of all people should have to remind each other that our multivarious paths originate in our common humanity. America is a country of pilgrims and displaced persons, after all. Whether wrenched from natal villages in Africa, herded west from ancestral North American homelands, coughed up from leaky ships onto New England shores, baked in transit over the scrub desert from Mexico, or arriving as refugees from a dozen or so modern-day horror regimes worldwide, we are all on the move and always have been. Over many centuries of slaughter and hate, little by little, Americans have learned to recognize the inborn, God-given humanity of all people. So why can’t Americans, travelers by birth and inheritance, recognize the humanity of the preborn?
Over the past few months my mind has often returned to this theme. The pandemic has pinned the world in place for more than two years, of course. It is only natural that, when all the flights are canceled, you think more frequently about spreading your wings. But most of all I think it is the slow onset of middle age that is causing me to grow nostalgic. As my temples gray and my waistline inches sideways, I look back and feel the romance of my youthful days coursing through my veins as though it were a fever.
For me, the tumultuous years after high school will always be bound up with that most magnificent of American novels, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I remember when I first encountered it, in a small bookstore in a brightly-lit shopping mall in Tennessee, sometime in the mid-1990s. I had read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley a few years before and fallen in love with the travelogue. I tried reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge after that, but it didn’t quite take. Maugham’s story is about an American, but not written by an American. I needed something that swelled with the Faulknerian rhythms of my own country’s language. So, when I opened On the Road that day and encountered fidgety prose shimmying back and forth on the page, darting in different directions—a novel like a jar full of fireflies—I was hooked. How I wanted to “ball the jack” across the vast landscape just like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. To stop in a town long enough to hear Charlie Parker blow “mad blues” before hopping in the car again—or maybe onto a slow-moving freight train—headed for the next place. That was what I knew best as an American: the longing to be somewhere else.
When I tried my hand at cross-country travel after finishing On the Road, I learned that travel is not nearly as romantic as Kerouac’s narrator made it sound. It’s dirty, for example. Life was different when my mother wasn’t washing my clothes. It could also be dangerous. The “hoboes” that Kerouac presents as literary saints were much more frightening in real life than those I had imagined. Travel can be filled with sadness, too. Reading his other books, and collections of his poems, I came to understand that Jack Kerouac was a lonely man; that travel for him was perhaps a great in-between, a replacement for the steady life of love and commitment he apparently didn’t want, or couldn’t handle.
But what I see now more than before is that On the Road is a quintessentially American work. There are plenty of travel books—Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote, Herodotus’ histories. But there is nothing like an American road novel. Huck Finn set the stage perfectly. On the Road, I think, is the showpiece. This is who we are deep down: The cowboy. The long-haul truck driver. The traveling salesman—and woman. The retired couple in the big RV. The young people on spring break. Everyone is on the road in America.
It would be wonderful if we could see the preborn this way, too. Of all of us, aren’t these tiny travelers the most “mad to live,” as the unforgettable line in On the Road goes? In their tiny developmental fury, in their singular will to grow and thrive, don’t they “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles?” Aren’t they the purest bearers of the lifeforce we all share?
“Life is holy,” Jack Kerouac wrote in his 1957 masterpiece, “and every moment is precious.”