Pro-life conservatives keep falling for the same urban legend: Somewhere, the logic of abortion has devalued human life to the point it is now acceptable to kill newborns, infants, even toddlers.
It’s not true, but the rumors are taken for fact. They are reported as news and treated as outrageous and, at the same time, just what one would expect. Pro-choicers, the story goes, are slipping down their slippery slope all the way to infanticide. Links are then shared and re-shared regularly in on- and offline social networks.
The most recent example popping up on social media is a report from Mairead McArdle, a student at Thomas Aquinas College who writes for the right-wing site the College Fix. McArdle reports there is a new trend seen “on campuses nationwide.” College students are increasingly in favor of infanticide, or “post-birth abortion.” They say a woman has the right not only to terminate her pregnancy, but to put to death a child up to the age of 4 or 5.
The report has been accepted—apparently uncritically—by Gene Veith, who teaches literature at Patrick Henry College (whose president just resigned), by a variety of conservative bloggers, and by many more on Facebook.
The evidence for the growing trend is nonexistent. McArdle herself admits the report is based on anecdote. She cites two pro-life advocates who engage college students in debates about the beginning of life. One says he argued with a student in Minnesota who said children only become people at age 5.
Another said “a common number that is going around is 4 years old.”
Arguments that college students make to provoke activists and demonstrators should probably not be taken at face value, but more importantly neither these people nor McArdle’s article offered any data indicating an increase in support for infanticide. In fact, Gallup polls show Americans are pretty evenly divided on abortion. A report from 2012 found that this was also true for those between the ages of 18 and 34. In the last decade, there’s only been a little movement in public opinion, with pro-choice views declining by about 4 points among women under 50 and by about 5 for men the same age.
There is no data suggesting a spike in (or in fact the existence of) people supporting “after-birth” or “post-birth” abortion.
As Snopes rather gently phrased it, McArdle’s report “lacks a number of key credibility markers.”
Or any, really.
Of course, one evidence-free bit of “news” is not in itself notable in this media landscape. But this isn’t the first time this rumor has been reported as fact and acceptable uncritically.
Earlier this year there were a rush of such reports by conservative commentators such as the American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher, National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru and Fox New’s Brit Hume. Each referenced, as evidence, a 2-year-old blog post which they reported as new. As William Saletan, who wrote the original post on Slate later noted, each of these people misrepresented “after-birth abortion” as a “new thing.” The 2-year-old post actually reported on one article in an academic journal that was making an argument, possibly just for the sake of argument. The piece said nothing about a movement, nothing about a trend. But all that context was lost as the fragement of fact was taken to be evidence of the growing acceptance of the morality of killing small children.
“People thought a new effort was underway to legalize infanticide,” Saletan writes. “This is how the echo chamber works.”
It’s not just the echo chamber of ideologically aligned media, though. And it’s not just social media. The propensity to believe and pass on the flimsiest evidence of a pro-infanticide movement as fact pre-dates Facebook. It predates Fox. It’s actually as old as the pro-life movement.
In 1982, one of the philosophical architects of the religious right was reporting wild rumors of infanticide as fact. Francis Schaeffer, who “wakened the cultural consciousness of the evangelical community,” in the words of the director of the Francis Schaeffer Collection at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was willing to believe sketchy reports that infanticide was becoming an accepted practice in American hospitals. In a speech he gave at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Schaeffer told the gathered evangelicals that “humanism,” or the rejection of the Christian basis of knowledge, had led to a great moral downfall in modern America.
“It isn’t just abortion,” Schaeffer said. “It’s infanticide. It’s allowing the babies to starve to death after they are born. If they do not come up to some doctor’s concept of a quality of life worth living.”
Schaeffer said a growing majority of American medical professionals would “easily” and “wantonly” take the life of a child. “Increasingly,” he said, in the lecture called “A Christian Manifesto,” “we find on every side the medical profession has changed its view. The view now is, ‘Is this life worth saving?'”
There is record of exactly one infant being allowed to die in 1982 in the manner Schaeffer described. That case, called the Baby Doe case, was very complicated, but an infant was denied care and did die. This didn’t happen easily, though. There was an intense controversy, with nurses striking and doctors fighting in the courts and in halls of the hospital to try to save the life of the child over the objections of the parents. Far from showing a broad and growing acceptance of infanticide, the Baby Doe case actually showed that even in extreme cases that raised the question of whether or not a life was worth saving, most medical professionals were absolutely committed to the answer “yes.”
Nevertheless, without any solid evidence, Schaeffer was sure that infanticide was happening. It was going to be happening. It would happen very soon. The slope from legalized abortion to infanticide was just too slippery for it not to happen.
More than 30 years later, pro-life conservatives are still waiting for the slip down that slope. They expect it any day, and so unfounded rumors of a new acceptance of infanticide are greeted as outrageous, but also long expected. 30 years later, however, it’s still an urban legend.
Many people, it turns out, do not generally feel compelled by the argument that either life begins at conception or infanticide is acceptable. The typically rhetorical question, “But where do you draw the line?”, is not impossible to answer. In their real lives, people draw these lines in many different places, often with a lot of nuance and careful consideration of the actual situations of human beings.
For more than 30 years, pro-life advocates have believed they understood pro-choice logic and they’ve warned about its inevitable conclusion. But as report after report of that conclusion turn out to be fakes mistaken for fact, it’s hard not to think the pro-life people are just wrong: The slope isn’t that slippery.