As the novel coronavirus spread across the globe this past spring, a debate in the United States emerged regarding its name: Was it racist to call a virus that originated in Wuhan, China, Chinese? Was it acceptable even to mention the city or country of origin?
But the name of the virus quickly became a secondary concern. In one harrowing week, New York City was converted from a thriving cultural capital to a desolate expanse of empty streets and shuttered businesses. Unthinkable scenes unfolded: Gurneys laden with body bags being lined up in hospital alleyways; municipal crews digging mass graves on islands to bury the legion dead.
Whatever we called the disease, it was devastating. In late May, as the body count in America passed the sobering 100,000 mark, the New York Times ran a front-page memorial listing the names of 1000 people from across the country who had died from the virus—their names and personal details added eerie contour to the nebulous horror felt by those who watched the plague ravage New York from afar.
The US economy creaked and buckled as lockdowns brought all but essential business to a halt. In addition to the virus, people had to worry about where the next paycheck was coming from. A stimulus was announced, and then another. The IRS began to send out checks—made out to individuals with names—to help keep millions from going homeless and hungry. The authorities kept track of who lived and who died. All were listed in some roster or other—by name.
Churches, too, remembered the dead by name wherever possible. In a beautiful gesture, Carlos Castilla, Archbishop of Lima, held a ceremony earlier this month for the corona dead in Peru. Incensing thousands of pictures of the departed, each one identified by a name, Archbishop Castilla commended to God the souls of those who had been known by the living, and would be remembered by them. To see images of the dead papering the church pews and walls was even more poignant than seeing names listed in a newspaper. So many holes torn into society, so many never to be spoken of again without sadness.
Yet while this very human instinct to learn about and remember the dead was playing out, I could not help but wonder why the unborn do not get counted among those for whom we grieve. Over the years, we have occasionally seen stories in the press about the struggle of pro-life groups to bury aborted babies. Consider this one, for example, from the August 29, 1985, edition of the New York Times:
After three years of argument, the County Board of Supervisors has decided to bury 16,500 aborted fetuses found in a container at the home of a man who ran a medical laboratory.
The supervisors voted Tuesday, with little discussion, to send the fetuses to the Guerra-Gutierez-Alexander Mortuary of Los Angeles for burial, according to Toby Milligan, spokesman for the Department of Health Services.
The long battle over what to do with the fetuses had pitted religious and other antiabortion groups against a feminist group represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The abortion opponents had sought permission to hold services for the fetuses. But the Southern California chapter of the civil liberties union, on behalf of the Feminist Women’s Health Center, challenged that in court and said the fetuses should be cremated, contending they were unwanted biological tissue and not humans.
The Times does not mention in the article the names of any of the aborted babies, or whether any of the babies had names, because no doubt they did not. In 2020, however, the Times dwelled, rightly, on the names of those laid low by the coronavirus. Why do some people get to have names, while others do not?
A name for a person is not at all like the name we use to designate a thing. When we lose most things, we can look for and usually find other things to replace them. But this is not so for a person. When we lose a member of our human family, he or she is gone forever, at least as far as this life is concerned. There are seven billion people on the planet, but I bet there are a few whom you love without really thinking about all the rest. Those people—those names—you have built your life around. Take one away, and you can’t just fill the void with someone else. You can never replace what has only one instantiation.
Our society has decided that unborn babies are replaceable, though. In a 2015 piece defending the trade in fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood, which had been revealed in undercover videos made by pro-life advocate David Daleiden, former abortion clinic counselor turned journalist Amy Littlefield states that “fetuses are not people.” She does not provide any scientific reason why this is so. But she knows that if fetuses were people then the abortion industry would be doomed. In her attempt to justify to herself the life-ending procedure she encourages other women to choose, she confronts, head on, the question at the heart of the pro-life debate:
Only about one percent of abortions take place at or after 21 weeks—and these are the abortions the pro-choice movement is most reluctant to talk about. Why? Because the fetuses look more like babies than the bundles of blood and tissue that constitute the vast majority of abortions. But if we are truly to defend access to abortion, and the personhood of pregnant people, we have to be able to say, unequivocally, that the aborted fetus is not a person. It is not a baby. It is medical waste.
Still, in the clinics where I worked, I tended to avoid seeing the medical waste. I avoided it because it was irrelevant to my work. But I think part of me also avoided it because I thought seeing fetal tissue might diminish my allegiance to my patients.
As a young teenager, I was staunchly against abortion. I believed it was murder. Later, when I considered what it meant for the state to force a rape victim to remain pregnant, and learned how many women died from unsafe, illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade, I became staunchly pro-choice, realizing access to abortion is a matter of survival for pregnant people.
Yet even as I took part in hundreds of abortions as a counselor, I think on some level, I still wondered if seeing second-trimester fetal tissue could shake my pro-choice views. Then one day, I was offered the unusual opportunity to see the fetus of a patient who had been close to 22 weeks pregnant. With some trepidation, I accepted. I looked. And in that moment, my pro-choice position crystallized. While it was shaped like a baby, what I was looking at was not a person. It was a fetus. A fetus my patient had chosen not to make into a baby. I felt no attachment to it. Relieved, I stepped into the recovery room to check on my patient. Years later, looking back on this moment, it’s still the patient I think about, not the fetus.
Her life was what mattered.
Prolifers think about both the “patient” and the “fetus.” The life of the woman and that of her child are equally precious to us. Littlefield’s self-serving conclusion, supported purely by hardening of heart and steeling of will, is that only the one who already has a name counts. The thing she disingenuously describes as “shaped like a baby,” doesn’t.
This refusal to name, to recognize our unborn brothers and sisters as deserving of life, has caused more misery than the coronavirus ever will. In China, as in the United States, abortion has left tens of millions of holes in tens of millions of hearts. Mothers and fathers have lost irreplaceable treasures, but they are not culturally permitted to admit they have suffered any loss. Unborn babies tagged for abortion have no names, making it seem as if “blobs of tissue” or “products of conception” are all they are. But if I—a blob of tissue and a product of conception—were to die of the coronavirus, I would be mourned. Because I had lived. Because I had a name.
As we try to come to terms with the toll the coronavirus will take on our human family this year, let us not forget that during the same time abortion will wreak far greater damage, and has done so for decades. When we call to mind the hundreds of thousands of dead from a new sickness, perhaps we can also mentally name and commend to God just one of the tens of millions of babies our culture has christened “medical waste.”