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Issue #19

What If Susan Couldn’t Sing?

By Michael Spencer  

With An Arsenal of Good Arguments, Pro-life Advocates Do Well To Avoid the Bad Ones

On April 11, 2009 an obscure, frumpy, middle-aged Scottish woman appeared as a contestant on the TV program, Britain’s Got Talent. Susan Boyle marched nervously onto the stage before a panel of cynical judges and a live, mocking audience. As she prepared to sing her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables, the camera scanned the audience focusing briefly on one haughty young woman whose snickering face epitomized the contemptuous mood of many in attendance. This was Susan in the lion’s den.

But then the music played and with the first golden lyric from her mouth, this ordinary woman astounded the audience, silencing those who had prejudged her. Indeed, Susan could sing. Afterward, a shell-shocked judge, Piers Morgan, said, “Without a doubt that was the biggest surprise I have had in three years.” In that moment Susan Boyle became a household name and an international sensation. All of a sudden the world loved her, or so it seemed.

So what does any of this have to do with abortion? Actually, quite a lot. The cruel treatment Susan received raises a crucial question at the heart of the abortion debate; “What makes humans valuable?” Are we valuable because of what we can do (because we can sing?), or simply by virtue of the kind of thing we are? Many, including our Supreme Court, make the same mistake with respect to determining the value of the unborn as the audience did in determining the value of Susan Boyle: They confuse human value with human function. Instead of cherishing unborn human beings for the kind of thing they are, full-fledged members of the human community, defenders of abortion value them only for what they have achieved (i.e., self-awareness, viability, etc.).

Unfortunately, it is not just defenders of abortion who make this mistake: sometimes well-meaning pro-lifers do too.  For example, consider the popular pro-life defense, “Abortion is bad because we might abort the next Einstein or the person who might find a cure for cancer.”

Conservative columnist Joseph Sobran once wrote,

“After tens of millions of [abortion] ‘procedures,’ has America lost anything? Another Edison perhaps? A Gershwin? A Babe Ruth? A Duke Ellington? As it is, we will never know what abortion has cost us all.”

In other words, abortion is bad because we might abort someone who could benefit us. Now to be fair, Sobran makes a good point: Abortion has undoubtedly deprived us of countless intelligent and talented individuals who would have made our lives better with new inventions and entertaining home runs. However, as LTI Vice President, Jay Watts, points out, “This is what’s bad about abortion, but this is not why abortion is bad.” In other words, abortion is not a moral injustice primarily because of what it costs us, but because of what it costs those who are aborted. While there are many things wrong with abortion, abortion is fundamentally wrong because it unjustly ends the life of innocent human beings.

Pro-lifers who employ this line of defense become guilty of picking the philosophically empty pockets of the abortion-choice crowd that says only certain people matter and only if they benefit society in some meaningful way. This is their position, not ours. When human value is measured against the highly praised functional abilities of a Gershwin or some guy who hits homers, the unborn child loses – and, yes, so does all of society.

Whether those destroyed by abortion would have lived to become future inventors or merely future competitors in the Special Olympics is irrelevant. The pro-life position is tolerant and inclusive: Edison counts and so does the embryo with an extra chromosome.  Since every abortion unjustly ends the life of an innocent human being, aborting the child with Downs Syndrome is tragic enough.

Arguing in this way is not only philosophically weak, it is tactically risky since it invites our abortion-choice opponent to counter-punch with, “Sure, we might abort the next Gershwin, but abortion is a societal good because we might also abort the next Hitler. That would be a good thing, right?” Now we’re at an impasse. When defending innocent human lives against abortion the best intentions aren’t enough: We need the best arguments.

Those who initially scorned Susan Boyle soon after congratulated themselves for their speedy character development. Days after her appearance, Piers Morgan confessed, “I think we owe her an apology because it was an amazing performance. As I said, we were all laughing at her when she started.” (CBS News, April 17, 2009). Mr. Morgan has strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel. The apology owed Susan is not for wrongly assuming she couldn’t sing. It is for thinking she’s only valuable because she can sing. But what if Susan couldn’t sing? Would the mocking she endured have been justified then?

Sadly, pop culture’s love for Susan Boyle is only skin-deep. Like a circus dog, she had to perform for us in order to earn our respect. She had to prove her value by entertaining us. This is precisely how our courts and many in our society treat unborn children. They are valuable only if we want them or if they might find a cure for what ails us. But if we are going to insist on confusing one’s value with one’s function, why stop at abortion? What prevents us from applying this same thinking to those outside of the womb who can’t sing or march to our drum? It’s time to move beyond the puerile thinking of 7th grade and start valuing human beings for what they are and not what they can do.

With surgical skill, British journalist, Tanya Gold, took a scalpel to the hearts of many when she asked, “Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we?” (The Guardian, April 15, 2009). As history teaches, ugly worldviews have ugly consequences. Susan Boyle and unborn children are both beautiful and valuable simply because they share a common human nature. The unborn are worthy of life and of our very best arguments, so let’s not make the other side’s job easier by pirating from their defective worldview in order to defend ours.

All men are created equal, but all arguments are not. Some arguments are clearly better than others. Given the fact that so much rests on our ability to argue well on behalf of the unborn, we do well to avail ourselves of the most persuasive arguments and to avoid the bad ones. Buying the functionalist premises of our opponents will not make our case or refute theirs.