Pro-Life and Pro-Science

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | January 15, 2019

The March for Life in Washington, D.C. this year has the theme “Pro-Life is Pro-Science,” emphasizing the contributions of scientists who have revealed previously hidden truths about human development in the womb, and the uniqueness of every human life, including those not yet born. Predictably, headlines have begun to emerge saying “Scientists say otherwise,” citing attempts to curtail the use of federal funding for research using aborted fetal tissue.

Since the time I left my work as a bench science in a cell biology lab to work on pro-life issues in an international context, I’ve heard a lot of talk of “evidence.” One of the most prevalent myths one hears from abortion proponents is that their position is “evidence-based”—the implication being that any open-minded person would inevitably arrive on their side of the issue following an intellectually honest assessment of the available data. Terms like “ideology” or “faith” or “cultural norms” are cast as barriers to progress and anti-intellectual, and those who cling to them are dismissed as “on the wrong side of history.”

I like to think of myself as being pro-science. After all, I was trained as a scientist, have published papers in scientific journals, and would like to think that my work served a useful purpose in contributing to our understanding of how cell adhesion molecules operate in the vascular endothelium. I believe in the value of science as a human enterprise, using our ability to test hypotheses through empirical measurements and subject our findings to a rigorous review process, with the end goal of creating a trustworthy body of knowledge that contributes to our understanding of the world we live in, and lends insight into how to solve the problems that face us. In this respect, I am grateful that my own training was in the biological sciences as opposed to the social or political sciences, and that my projects focused more on understanding mechanisms and their potential malfunctions than the testing of potentially effective (and lucrative) cures for human diseases. While it is inevitable that human nature will manifest itself in any area of human work, I was grateful that the incentives in my own niche area did not appear to favor the championing of one particular explanation over the desire to determine the correct explanation.

Unfortunately, when a scientific endeavor has a politically relevant angle, the incentives tend to skew against a spirit of honest inquiry. Those most interested in resolving a question are often highly motivated to resolve it in one way over another, as are those funding the research project in the first place. Science is an ordered way to explore the way a thing is; politics and policy are attempts to push a thing toward where it ought to be. In our current era, the idea that policies should be evidence-based has gone from being a nice idea to a prerequisite, and in response, evidence factories have emerged to meet the demand for brief, quotable statistics that can be delivered by laymen with minimal specialized knowledge.

In the abortion battle, the preeminent example of this is the Guttmacher Institute, which originated as part of Planned Parenthood before becoming a separate entity, still in lockstep with its parent organization in terms of priorities. Toward the end of 2018, I received a barrage of fundraising emails from them featuring the hashtag #FixItWithFacts. Interestingly, a lawyer of my acquaintance told me that in a legal deposition, a Guttmacher employee admitted they had declined to publish some of their findings because they did not support the Institute’s political agenda. I suppose #NotAllFactsAreFixes when curiosity and the desire to obtain and disseminate truth runs up against a preexisting—dare I say it—ideology.

The notion that pro-abortion entities are fact-based, while pro-lifers are hopelessly mired in retrograde worldviews, is a myth that can only appear plausible in a world in which the political left has exerted a multi-decade stranglehold on institutions of higher learning, as well as international institutions that determine what measurements constitute progress toward development. When you control the definitions and the metrics, you can claim your position is the simple result of facts and evidence: the ideology is already baked in from the beginning.

To give an example, the classification of certain contraceptive methods as abortifacients rests on the question of whether a pregnancy is defined as beginning with sperm-egg fusion or implantation. A reasonable case could be made for the latter, given the fact that human embryos are increasingly housed not in their mothers’ uteruses, but liquid nitrogen tanks. Nevertheless, the abortifacient question dodges the real issue, which is not when pregnancy begins, but when life begins. This is a place where scientific knowledge lends credence to the notion that the human fetus is a separate life, not just an extension of its mother’s body.

Another example of an arbitrary definition with real-world implications is the inclusion of induced abortion as a cause of maternal mortality. There is a case to be made in that abortion is related to the state of being pregnant, but it stands apart from other causes of maternal death, such as hemorrhage, infection, and hypertension, in that it is not a condition that emerges as a natural consequence of pregnancy or other preexisting health determinants, but involves the voluntary introduction of a disruptive and potentially dangerous new intervention. One can argue about the way terms are defined, but let us at least acknowledge that they are defined by humans with their own prior assumptions and specific motivations, and not by empirical inevitability.

I am both pro-life and pro-science, and see no contradiction between the two. However, I would caution the pro-life movement against embracing the pro-science label with excessive zeal. It is the pro-abortion left’s erroneous claim that what they claim as science is non-ideological and that its findings are entirely sufficient to move us from the realm of is to ought. The pro-life movement must expose the falsehood of this position, not seek to adopt its methodology for our own use. Indeed, we should not fail to acknowledge the sources of our own oughts, from the tenets of our deeply held faith to our belief in the intrinsic human right of every person, born and unborn, to the point of natural death. We should not deny having an ideology, but rather challenge our opposition on their implied lack thereof.

Finally, a pro-science, pro-life movement needs its technocrats. Far too often in the international context, we find ourselves in a reactionary mode while the groundwork has been laid over a long period of time by those seeking to entrench a pro-abortion agenda in an ever-increasing number of issue areas. At the United Nations, everything from global development to peace and security to human rights has become battlegrounds for the abortion issue. At C-Fam, we focus on anticipating where tomorrow’s fights will be and identifying new spaces to advance a pro-life position that have not yet become hotly contested. This involves long hours listening to floor debates, reading technical reports, and then reading their additional data supplements, footnotes, and annexes to understand their methodology more deeply.

The pro-life movement has many scholarly members, but more are always needed. Specifically, we need people who passionately embody the curiosity and tenacity to do scientific research, but who also recognize its limitations, and arrive at their beliefs about what ought to be in more appropriate venues.