Evangelicals have opened up a fascinating new controversy around the complicated issue of fetal rights: If a known neurotoxin — being spewed into the air by coal-fired plants — enters the fetal bloodstream and causes brain damage or premature death, does that threat to the fetus count as something pro-lifers should consider? No, according to lengthy statement released Feb. 8 by the Cornwall Alliance and signed by religious leaders such as Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, officials with Focus on the Family and other groups that oppose abortion. “The life in pro-life denotes not quality of life but life itself.” The statement goes on to say that the signees do not feel that it is appropriate to fight anything but abortion “under the pro-life banner.”
The Cornwall Alliance issued the statement as an attack on the Evangelical Environmental Network’s (EEN) support of President Obama’s new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. EEN has been airing commercials explaining why fetuses, infants and toddlers should be protected from mercury, a potent neurotoxin that especially impacts developing hearts, lungs and brains. But the Cornwall statement says, “Genuinely pro-life people will usually desire to reduce other [than abortion] risks as well — guided by cost/benefit analysis.” That remark about cost/benefit analysis is truly chilling: these pro-lifers are actually saying that toxicity to third-trimester fetuses might be okay — if it costs too much to remove the source of the poison.
The Alliance makes a distinction between “issues of life and death” versus “matters of health” — heedless of the fact that ill health can lead to death. In a 2007 study of over 1,000 women, mothers who gave birth very prematurely were three times more likely to have high levels of mercury in their blood. The study must be replicated, but frankly, I don’t know many moms who want to be human guinea pigs while they’re waiting for further confirmation of trouble.
Within hours after the Alliance released their statement, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe had jumped into the fray, calling the Evangelical environmentalists’ concerns “absurd.” And then Rick Santorum hardlined his anti-science position, saying that science created boogey-men to frighten people and emphasized that instead of following science, he is part of “the truth party.”
What’s most stunning here is the admission that pro-lifers should not collide with pro-polluters. Perkins’s group argues that abortion involves an intent to kill, whereas living in a polluted environment does not. Most people, pregnant or not, do not choose to inhale air pollution. They — we — cannot help but do so, when regulations are not strong enough to protect us.
It is worth considering that soon, the burden of defending no intent to harm might shift to the polluters — as it once did to cigarette makers. How is it morally defensible to spew poisons into the air, knowing what we now know about how dangerous they are to human health, especially the health of the most vulnerable among us, the youngest and the oldest?
The third trimester is sacred — and common — ground. Everyone, from the Supreme Court to the woman in the street, agrees that the third trimester fetus must be protected. Shouldn’t everyone want a pro-life environment?