Listening to the Heartbeat of the Pro-life Movement
[Edward Short is the author of several acclaimed books on St. John Henry Cardinal Newman and a contributor to the Human Life Review. The following article appeared in Catholic World Report on September 30, 2021, and is reprinted here with the magazine’s permission.]
In Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (1987), Jerrold Northrop Moore wrote of the earliest musical formation of the great English composer and, indeed, all children:
Before birth, in the dark womb, the baby’s first consciousness of any experience comes in the mother’s heartbeat, her breathing and walking, and the sound of her voice. So pulse and rhythm, movement and sound— all manifesting themselves through time—appear on the tabula rasa before there is anything to see. Pulse and rhythm, movement and sound are also the elements of music.
Elgar’s mother was a Roman Catholic convert, a brave thing to be, as Moore remarks, for a tradesman’s wife with no Catholic background in an English Cathedral City in the mid-nineteenth century. She also loved hearing the choir of St. George’s Church in Worcester sing the ancient Mass. Doubtless, had she lived to hear it, she would have been enraptured, as the rest of us have been, by her son’s incomparable setting of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius (1900), the finest thing he ever produced. As the composer wrote across the score of the oratorio, “This is the best of me.”
What Moore concluded from his musings is striking: “It is the sense of pulse—the source of life itself—that gives music its first and fundamental appeal.” And since music, more than any other language, expresses most deeply and most faithfully our sense of the majesty of life, understanding the primacy of life’s heartbeat is vital to our understanding its sacred inviolability.
This is also why such an understanding should strike a chord with anyone who has followed the pro-life movement over the last fifty odd years, dedicated as it has been to defending the undeniable life of the unborn, despite all of the lies and obfuscations of the pro-abortion Establishment and their friends in the media. Throughout all of those tumultuous years, no organization has been more admirably attuned to the heartbeat of the pro-life movement than the Human Life Review, and in this piece I shall speak with the head of the publication to see how she and her colleagues are faring at a time when Roe v. Wade is being challenged as never before.
The Human Life Review was founded in 1975 by James P. McFadden (1930-1998), associate publisher of National Review to give pro-life writers a quarterly forum in which to articulate and debate the pro-life charge. “Since 1975,” as Maria McFadden Maffucci, McFadden’s daughter and the current Editor-in-Chief explains,
The Human Life Review is the only publication of its kind in the world: a print and digital journal devoted to civilized, thoughtful discussion of legal, philosophical, medical, scientific, and moral perspectives on all life issues. We cover not only abortion but also euthanasia, suicide, neonaticide, genetic engineering, cloning, fetal and embryonic stem cell research and experimentation, and new issues as they emerge. We also deal with underlying issues of family and society.
Each issue of the Review features not only original articles but an appendix of noteworthy articles and opinion columns from other publications. Past contributors of note include: Ronald Reagan, Malcolm Muggeridge, Henry Hyde, John Cardinal O’Connor, Richard John Neuhaus, Clare Boothe Luce, and the late great Nat Hentoff. Present contributors include Helen Alvaré, William Murchison, Eric Metaxas, Ellen Fielding, Hadley Arkes, Wesley J. Smith, Mary Meehan, George McKenna, David Quinn, Anne Hendershott, and William McGurn.
Recently, I sat down with Maria and asked her about how she and the Review are covering the current pulse of the pro-life movement. Since some of my questions pertain to the Texas Heartbeat Act, which prohibits a physician from performing an abortion if the physician detected a fetal heartbeat for the unborn child, I should give an overview of it here.
The editors of National Review, long-term friends of the Human Life Review, captured the essence of the new Texas Heartbeat Act when they wrote:
In an ingenious effort to prevent abortion providers from blocking the Act from taking effect, the Act prohibits state officials from enforcing the Act in any way. It instead authorizes any private person to bring a civil action in state court against anyone who performs a post-heartbeat abortion or who knowingly aids or abets a post-heartbeat abortion. (Federal restrictions on standing — on who can sue — in federal court do not apply in state court.) It entitles successful plaintiffs to at least $10,000 in damages for each violation as well as to injunctive relief and attorney’s fees. Because state officials are barred from enforcing the Act, the usual path that abortion providers would take to prevent the Act from becoming effective — suing those officials to prevent them from enforcing the Act—is a dead end. Instead, abortion providers would be able to challenge the constitutionality of the Act only if and when private individuals pursued civil actions against them.
The fetal heartbeat is usually detectable at six weeks of gestation. The Act went into effect on September 1. While the editors acknowledge that “The private-enforcement mechanism in the Act is a brilliant response to the traps for pro-life legislation that Roe and Casey have illegitimately set,” they also fear that “There are good reasons to question whether that mechanism is a desirable feature of a model abortion law.”
In any case, they do recognize that “The right time to address that question is after Roe and Casey have been overturned. Let’s hope that the chief justice shows much sounder judgment on that question in Dobbs and joins with the five members of today’s majority to restore the people’s constitutional power to enact strong legislative protections for unborn children.”
CWR: There seems more things happening on the pro-life front than ever. How are you and your staff and contributors rising to the occasion?
Maria McFadden Maffucci: The Review is completely on top of the huge prolife news that the Supreme Court is poised to take up abortion in Dobbs vs. Jackson, and will focus on the constitutional status of the “pre-viable” unborn. We have online now at the Human Life Review and in our Summer issue a symposium, with seven prolife readers and thinkers across the political and religious spectrum; we have three major articles in the Summer issue on the case; and I have been writing about some of the amicus briefs on our website. This is especially valuable for our readers, because when the news hit, media outlets and social media exploded, predicting—with either panic or joy—the demise of Roe. But hyped-up messaging from both sides of the abortion divide obscures the more complex, incremental nature of the case.
CWR: How do you regard the Texas Heartbeat Act?
Maffucci: Not speaking for the Review, which does not take any editorial positions per se on debates within the pro-life movement, I personally have conflicting views about the Texas Heartbeat Act. On the one hand, I am absolutely grateful that the humanity of unborn children in Texas is recognized by law, and that, so far at least, babies’ lives are being saved every day! That cannot be overstated. I also celebrate the states’ rights aspect of it—something the Roe vs. Wade decision, and so many other court decisions, have unjustly preempted.
On the other hand, I worry that, as a broad strategy, Americans are not ready for this and we may lose support for the discussion I have been hoping would take place in advance of the Dobbs vs. Jackson Supreme Court case. I am hoping for a broad discussion about the rights of the unborn at 15 weeks—the point at which the Mississippi law would protect—and the artificial construct of fetal “viability.” It is a fact that most Americans are uncomfortable with abortions after the first trimester, and so there ought to be a groundswell of agreement if people are properly educated about what Roe actually allows. I am hoping the mushy middle can be persuaded—and I fear that the brouhaha and misinformation about the Texas law may foil that opportunity.
In the Review’s pages, we have had many debates among pro-lifers, between those who support an incremental approach, and those who insist on a more uncompromising “no exceptions” approach. I can see both sides, though I am always in favor of whatever legislation can save actual lives. After all, lives are saved one at a time, so we ought to support any legislation that accomplishes that.
The current situation, however, is rather confusing. Is the Texas law incremental? Yes, it’s saving actual lives, now, so it ought to be supported. But if it hurts the movement as a whole—ultimately saving fewer lives in the long run, is support for the bill support for the “no exceptions” side? I honestly don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball for what the Texas bill might cause in the way of unintended consequences. I do believe that the legal challenge that the federal government has mounted against it is not persuasive.
I must say that I also find the nature of the bill concerning—that private citizens can report abortions and sue providers. Of course, I can admire it as a crafty legal ploy to get around the court injunctions that stymie so many state efforts to curb abortion, but I am also wary of the Act giving great press and emotional weaponry to the enemies of life. Yes, women themselves cannot be prosecuted, and any citizen who wishes to sue against an illegal abortion must be prepared to initiate a criminal suit and lay out the initial legal costs for such a suit. Still, if it is true that someone can be sued for driving a woman to an abortion clinic, even if they didn’t know they were doing so, that seems unjust and also precisely the sort of tactic that could be used against prolifers in any state hostile to our pro-life cause.
So, again, I am ambivalent about the Texas Heartbeat Act.
CWR: How do you think this will affect Dobbs vs. Jackson? Do you see this as a domino in any foreseeable way?
Maffucci: Not necessarily: the Supreme Court’s decision not to halt the Texas law was based on the nature of the reporting in the law, so it doesn’t really give us a sign about Dobbs. And the fact that Justice Roberts dissented from the Court’s decision does not augur well.
CWR: The editors of National Review express doubts about the advisability of the “private-enforcement mechanism” of the Act as far as providing a model for future legal challenges to Roe and Casey. Do you agree?
Maffucci: Yes. It could boomerang. I am not saying it will boomerang. But it might.
CWR: However, do you see the Texas heartbeat law as a positive turning point for the pro-life movement?
Maffucci: Even with my reservations, I will say, Yes. As my father, James McFadden often said, the worst thing that could happen to the abortion issue in America is if the issue “went away,” was simply accepted—as, unfortunately, it has been in much of Western Europe. God bless America: that sure isn’t happening here. And I hope that when we debate heartbeat laws the average citizen will wake up to the reality of the life of the unborn.
One could get brainwashed in the major media by the constant euphemisms and outright lies spun to hide the beautiful reality of fetal development—an egregious example of which is the New York Times reporting that the heartbeat referenced in proposed heartbeat bills is not a “fetal heartbeat” but an “embryonic cardiac activity of the fetal pole,” which is euphemism of an almost gymnastic cynicism. Now, with the Texas Act being debated throughout the country, and in the pages of the Human Life Review, the truth of an unborn baby’s heartbeat is abundantly accessible to anyone willing to open their eyes to see—or, as the case may be, their ears to hear.
CWR: Anne Conlon, the Editor of the Human Life Review, made an important point about the publication — that the pieces you run tend to take the long view of the struggle for life. You are not a “news” publication per se, but a reflective journal designed to showcase writers who see the various issues that arise within the movement like the Texas Act and Dobbs vs. Jackson in a larger light. A wonderful pro-life voice who exemplifies your more thoughtful approach to pro-life issues is your old boss, with whom you worked when he was editor of First Things, Father Richard John Neuhaus. Who can forget the speech he gave at the close of the 2008 convention of the National Right to Life Committee?
“We do not know, we do not need to know, how the battle for the dignity of the human person will be resolved,” Father Neuhaus told his auditors. “God knows, and that is enough. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta and saints beyond numbering have taught us, our task is not to be successful but to be faithful. Yet in that faithfulness is the lively hope of success. We are the stronger because we are unburdened by delusions. We know that in a sinful world, far short of the promised Kingdom of God, there will always be great evils. The principalities and powers will continue to rage, but they will not prevail. In the midst of the encroaching darkness of the culture of death, we have heard the voice of him who said, ‘In the world you will have trouble. But fear not, I have overcome the world.’ Because he has overcome, we shall overcome. We do not know when; we do not know how. God knows, and that is enough. We know the justice of our cause, we trust in the faithfulness of his promise, and therefore we shall not weary, we shall not rest.”
Maffucci: Yes, Father Neuhaus was quite a boss! A bigger-than-life, brilliant boss. And I am pleased to see that you consider his great speech—what Prof. Robert George of Princeton regarded as the single greatest pro-life speech ever given—emblematic of our approach at the Human Life Review. Of course, we pay close attention to the minutiae of pro-life issues as they emerge but we never take our eyes off the big picture—the picture Father Neuhaus captured so unforgettably.
But I would reference another example of the sort of approach to the debate over abortion that we highlight in our pages, and it comes from one of our very best contributors, Hadley Arkes, the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions emeritus at Amherst College and the founder and director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding, who has this to say about Dobbs v. Jackson in the current Summer issue of the Human Life Review:
The case for the Act does not depend . . . on some dramatic new revelation about the nature of that child in the womb. What the sponsors will cling to more firmly is the plea that a limit of 15 weeks stands a better chance of sparing the fetus from excruciating pain; the pain of being poisoned or dismembered. That concern for the pain suffered by the child was most notably raised in the mid-80s in a penetrating essay in the Human Life Review (“Pain in the Unborn,” Winter 1981) by our late friend, professor and federal judge John Noonan. The piece was relayed to President Reagan, who then mentioned the matter in a State of the Union Address that caught the attention of the public. Hearings were held on fetal pain in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. In those hearings, my late dear friend Daniel Robinson refuted the claim of one of the pro-choice doctors that a fetus cannot feel pain at 12 weeks. Doctors on the other side testified that fetuses were not as likely to feel pain because their cerebral cortices were not well developed. Robinson pointed out that “‘the anatomy of pain’ throughout the animal kingdom . . . does not seem to avail itself of any specific region of the cerebral cortex.” He recalled cases of brain cancer where it was necessary to remove as much as half of the cerebral cortex, and yet the patients did not lose their sensation of pain. The reaction to pain, he said, is reflexive; it depends on instant recognitions “for which the cerebral cortex may be utterly unnecessary.” And “when our hand touches a red-hot object we do not engage in syllogistic modes of deliberation in search of an appropriate response.”
But then he quickly brought matters down to solid ground by asking,
What difference would it make? If the human fetus is regarded as a human being deserving of our solicitude, then we surely would oppose its death even if pain were not involved. After all, what is wrongful in abortion is the taking of a human life and this remains wrongful even if painless methods were developed and adopted.
As everyone understood, the concern to avoid pain to the child in the womb could be met by simply requiring anesthesia. The right of the woman to the abortion would then remain unimpaired. But that was not a counterclaim that defenders of abortion were eager to make, for it simply brought home again the jarring fact that what was being extinguished was a human life. And this was the understanding that had been at work among prolifers for years as they pressed to bar at least late-term abortions, or abortions based on the sex or race of the child. The prolifers have never thought that the onset of pain marked the arrival of the fetus to a human standing. And neither could they have possibly thought that the beating of the heart marked the beginning of life. The beating heart was just another manifestation of an already living being that was powering and integrating the features of its own growth. Rather, these proposals by prolifers over the years have been put forth in the hope of drawing the public into the recognition that what was being killed in these surgeries was a child who has never been anything but human from its first moments, drawing on the genetic pool of the two people who conceived him. The immanent risk in this approach was that a large segment of the public could indeed come to think that any of these moments in development actually marked the emergence of a truly human life—or a human life that was now worthy of being protected.
By any chalk, this is great critical thinking on a matter that could not be of more urgent importance to the very lifeblood of our civilization, and we are proud to have been able to publish it in the Human Life Review. God bless Hadley!
CWR: If the piece by Prof. Arkes gives readers a good sample of the character of the pieces you run in Human Life Review, can you share with our readers the range of your articles?
Maffucci: The Review covers in-depth, in our pages and on our website, the multiple life issues at the forefront of society due to the pandemic, from the mask-wearing wars to nursing home and group home deaths to the ethics of the vaccines to Wesley Smith’s wonderful new article, in which he warns that “the Covid pandemic unleashed a soft totalitarianism in healthcare policy and bioethical advocacy that may not abate with the decline in infections.”
The Review’s website features—most of which are free—are timely, well-argued and well-written. We have weekly blogs (which are often actually mini-masterpieces); and we have recently added new features: My column, Insisting on Life, in which a guest or I share news or commentary and Pastoral Reflections, in which each week a member of clergy (so far Roman Catholic or Protestant) meditates on abortion and other grave moral transgressions that not only hurt individuals but deform the culture and threaten religious liberty.
Our plan for Fall 2021 is to initiate an online news section, where trusted writers can analyze and discuss a couple of prolife news stories each week—straight facts from a prolife source, though, as Anne Conlon rightly pointed out, our approach to the “news” will be reflective, rather than simply reactive. And we will feature judicious critical thinking rather than controversy for the sake of controversy.
In addition to our editorial content, we have excellent events, the greatest being our annual Great Defender of Life Dinner, though we also have many smaller events with expert speakers, film showings, and book signings. All of our events create a great and necessary sense of community for prolife readers, thinkers, and activists, which is essential for changing hearts and minds and shoring up and rededicating the committed. Lastly, we have a truly distinguished history, recorded in both our archives (fully available online with a subscription) and in our story itself, spanning as it does the founding of the journal by my father, and the brilliant authors we have published and conspired with over the years, including such luminaries as Ronald Reagan, Malcolm Muggeridge, Henry Hyde, and Clare Boothe Luce. Our tradition of excellent pro-life coverage continues with the work we showcase from such present-day stars as Helen Alvaré, Wesley Smith and William Murchison. Our history can also be seen in how a small but indomitable non-profit in New York City has lived through and persevered through so many financial and other crises. In that sense, we are a true microcosm of the pro-life movement, adaptive, unflagging, and committed to the core!
CWR: Any concluding thoughts? The pro-life movement is always in flux; our opponents, after all, are tireless in trying to upend the defense of life; but what do you see as the most important thing to keep in mind as we fare forward to persuade our compatriots to join us in this good, this fundament fight?
Maffucci: What I see as the bottom line—no matter what laws are passed—is this: the prolife movement has to step up to the plate in the culture and stand for actual women and children at risk. Even if Roe is overturned, we know that some states will immediately legalize abortion, hence the struggles will continue. In the meantime, every day, there are women who need help not to choose abortion. Each one of us can do something to help these women, whether by supporting or volunteering at our local pregnancy centers, working to enact policies that enable women as mothers to be successful in business and society, and convincing our churches to step up!
When is the last time you heard a sermon—if you ever heard one—about unexpected pregnancy and how a family and community can help? As my friend Amy Ford, who is President of Embrace Grace—an evangelical organization in Texas that encourages churches to minister to women with unplanned pregnancies–shared recently on social media:
“Churches: What are you doing to help women with unexpected pregnancies practically? What are you doing to help women with unexpected pregnancies emotionally? What are you doing to help women with unexpected pregnancies spiritually?
If you don’t have an answer for all three of the questions above, you’re not ready . . . you better get ready. Your time will soon be up.”