The main character in one of Molière’s plays makes a delightful discovery: without knowing it, he had, all of his life, been speaking in prose. A similar revelation occurred to the politicians, pastors, and right-thinking citizens of the 20th-century who learned that they were “pro-life.” What had hitherto been the unspoken conviction of civil society in an unbroken tradition from Hippocrates to the present suddenly inherited a name and a label when the clear humanity of the unborn child was contested by radical reformers who should have known better, and probably did.

Since then, advocates for the protection of unborn children have found themselves in a rather awkward position. Logical arguments against abortion can, of course, be advanced – and preposterous counter-arguments contradicted – but the ability of pro-lifers to make the case against abortion should in no way diminish the scandal of their having to do so. Like the abolitionists who worked to end the abomination of slavery, pro-life advocates work to persuade others of what is actually self-evident, arguing for what, in a lucid moment, is obvious enough.

We do not doubt that most of those who vaguely affirm a “woman’s right to choose” are men and women of curiosity, intelligence, and good will; nor do we doubt that, each and every day, fruitful discussions and closer examinations of fact lead people, swiftly or slowly, to see the truth of the pro-life position – to see a child where, formerly, only a “fetus” had appeared. In such happy cases, the truth sets free those who had been betrayed by our sad tradition: that dark legacy created by those who have tolerated, legalized, and even perpetrated the moral outrage of abortion, who have made murder a part of the patrimony handed onto the generation lucky enough to be born.

More often, however, it is not so: although the very word “abortion” creates a queasy feeling in most stomachs, the numbing euphemisms with which the debate about prenatal infanticide has been tainted often prevent even this encounter with what one prominent pro-lifer has called “the wisdom of repugnance.” Too many prefer pleasant lies to the ugly truth.

Thus, the words with which Christ indicts an inconsistent generation echo to the discredit of our age as well: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Mt 11:17). When we are told that abortion is about women’s rights, we speak of the millions of unborn girls murdered simply for the crime of being female. When we are told that abortion is about women’s health, we speak of those women who have been physically and psychologically maimed by this brutal practice. And when we are told that abortion is a therapy for rape and a salve for victims of incest, we speak of the inviolate, undiminished dignity of nascent human life.

At the Catholic Civil Rights League’s recent awards dinner, Stephen Woodworth, the courageous pro-life MP from Kitchener, argued that a “preoccupation with abortion is actually preventing us from starting with the notions of human equality and dignity.” But, even if the dignity of human life in the womb were not already the centerpiece of our argument against abortion, the cornerstone which the builders of our society have rejected, would the world really be more inclined to halt infanticide, just because we dare not speak its terrible name?

To Stephen Woodworth’s well-meant advice, we can only offer the example of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. When he spoke the truth to the people of Israel, “they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse” (Acts 7:58).  In our own age, it is still so; as the German aphorist, G. C. Lichtenberg, remarked: one cannot “bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody’s beard.”

St. Stephen chided his “stiff-necked” listeners for “always resisting the Holy Spirit,” admonishing those “who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53). Whether we focus on lofty truths of human dignity or the grizzly reality of abortion, there will be those who have ears but will not hear, whose beards will be burned by the truth we profess.

The landmark passage of pro-life legislation in Texas puts the case in point. A bill premised on prohibiting fetal pain and requiring abortuaries to maintain the normal standards of medical facilities would seem to flow directly from a lively sense of human dignity and equality. And how was this legislation opposed? With a cadre of vociferous radicals who were ready with jars of feces and urine to hurl at their opponents – who, between jeers aimed at pro-life demonstrators, chanted “hail, Satan” to keep up their courage.

“By their fruits, ye shall know them” (Mt 7:16). While the eloquent proponents of the pro-life cause have confirmed Oscar Wilde’s suspicion that “even things that are true can be proved,” their opposites in this debate have not covered themselves with honour. Like St. Stephen, then, we must argue tirelessly, and pray that we might speak with a “wisdom and Spirit” that cannot be withstood (Acts 6:10). Yet, like Stephen, we must also be willing to witness with our lives to the truth of unborn life, hoping that those who are not convinced by our words will, like St. Paul, be convinced by other means.