Beads of sweat threatened to plaster my cotton undershirt to my back. A brisk gust of wind tousled my hair and helped carry some of the moisture out of my shirt and off my skin. A group of other students and I had just carried about a ton of transportable metal fence to the grassy portion of campus where we would set up our display.
Above, dark clouds from the night before refused to dissipate as the clock tower chimed seven o’clock in the morning. The wind continued to rip through our windbreakers and sweaters. We stared at the gray mass filling the atmosphere.
“What do you think, Dave?” One of the older men on staff with the mobile display approached his colleague and tapped his arm with a leather-gloved hand. “The wind’s pretty rough – probably about thirty miles per hour. Do you think the display will stay up?”
“We don’t want to waste this opportunity.” He grimaced at the weather. “But I don’t think we can put up the thirty-footer. We can do eighteen if we tie it down.”
We prayed that the storm would roll over. A few cold drops of water had accumulated on my glasses, so I wiped the lenses on my shirt. Three of my friends approached me from the direction of the library with cups of coffee, a newspaper, and joyful expressions.
“What’s up?” I took the newspaper that my friend gave me in response to my query. He gave me a brief overview while I turned to the page he pointed me to.
“Check it out. We’ve got positive coverage in a liberal newspaper.”
I was thankful he gave me the newspaper because our whole group began to crowd around, and I wanted to know what was being said. I found the article and folded the newspaper over itself to keep its pages from blowing away.
“I’ll read it out loud.” In bold letters the title read, OUR VIEW: Photos Good for Debate Despite Discomfort. I cleared my throat against the cold and started. “Whether you’re pro-choice or pro-life, it’s impossible to walk down the sidewalk and not cringe at the giant pictures of mutilated fetuses on display…” I cocked an eyebrow at Brian. “Positive coverage?”
“…But the presentation by the Justice for All is constructive, if cringe-inducing…”
The article went on to summarize that the board of newspaper editors felt that the pro-life display we brought to campus was unlike others that had come before. It labeled us as being open-minded and reasonable and commended us on avoiding shouting matches with sign-brandishing protesters.
“Awesome!” I returned the newspaper to him. “Have you shown Dave yet?”
Brian walked over to the visiting professor, twirling the paper like a wand. The man who had been talking with Dave came to where the rest of us were gathered.
“Alright, guys, Dave and I have been talking. The wind’s too strong to set up the entire display, so we’re going to cut it about in half. We’ll need to adjust some of the panels, and we’ve got about an hour before the crowds start heading to class. Let’s get to it.”
We dispersed to our individual stations. A few students started arranging the fence partitions into a large circular barrier around where the display would be set up. Others carried the panels that constituted the giant exhibit. When these had been connected as per the guidance of the display staff, we used thick nylon ropes to erect three adjacent eighteen-feet-tall sides of the triangular display.
The sides had been face down on the grass. Their pictorial content was revealed as we hoisted them into position. One panel featured the giant image of an eight-week old human embryo. It had five distinct toes on each foot, five fingers on each hand. I saw the beginning of a ribcage through its translucent skin. A thin umbilical cord carried a stream of red life-blood to the embryo from its mother. A caption above the picture asked “Is this human?” The panel also contained quotations from prominent health officials who asserted that human life begins at conception.
I rounded the corner of the display and surveyed the other two sides. Both were headed by questions. I murmured the second title under my breath.
“When are we human?”
This title rested above several small, sequenced photographs of the different stages of development a human being undergoes. There were pictures of a zygote, which, upon fertilization, contained a unique and complete human genome; a four-week embryo whose heart had been beating already for one week; and a seven-week embryo which had already been emitting brainwaves for a week. There was a newborn, a teenager, an elderly adult and more.
What a pertinent question. When are we human? Is it our genetic uniqueness that qualifies us as such? A zygote has that.
Is it that we are able to fathom things on an emotional level or have a certain intellect? What about those with brain damage or a mental handicap? If cognitive faculties determine what a human is, then we have a society striated with different levels of humanness.
Maybe it is a question of development. I have heard it said that a fetus is just a clump of cells, but the same naturalistic position would label everyone who reads this just a clump of cells. The only difference is that we are bigger and more developed. I am also bigger and more developed than a four-year-old, but I do not consider myself more human than that child.
Then again, maybe we are given the right to life when we can fend for ourselves. Yet this has terrible ramifications for the nursing infants who would perish without constant care. Furthermore, even fully-grown adults cannot survive independently, if we consider that our continued existence depends on the resources around us.
The question of when we are human is one that is too often sidestepped in this political, moral, and religious debate. It is – perhaps – the most fundamental ground to lay, given that on average 3,315 unborn children are aborted every day in the United States.
I continued around the display and came to the third and final panel. The cold air helped me keep my food in my stomach when I saw it. This one also contained an enormous image of an embryo. I could see its toes and skull and the red tissue surrounding it, only this was not a still picture of a developing fetus.
This embryo lay mangled in a white plastic tray. It had likely been vacuumed out by a suction curette during a common abortive procedure called suction aspiration. The embryo had been sucked through a hollow, knife-edged tube, and its parts had been crudely reassembled for documentation. A dime-sized intestinal track rested below the now empty, twisted ribcage. The nine-week-old fetus stared at me like the dead face of Emmet Till stared at America from the cover of Jet magazine on the eve of the Civil Rights Movement.
I hoped that I was living in such an eve, and that this towering display, while so minuscule in size compared with the nation around it, would serve to impact those who saw it.
I was sickened by those photographs, but I think it was worth it. After all, one of the causes of our country plunging into World War II was Americans becoming aware of the true brutality of the Holocaust.
I buttoned my jacket and turned south toward the dormitories. People would be coming any time now. I was ready to have some good discussions, hopefully learn from others and invest in them, and help save some lives.