In the 1996 crime drama film A Time to Kill, a ten-year-old black girl named Tonya is violently raped by two white supremacists. She survives and the men are arrested, but before an all-white jury they will likely walk free. So Tonya’s father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), takes the law into his own hands and kills the rapists himself. A white lawyer, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), agrees to defend Hailey. But since the district attorney seeks the death penalty, and the presiding Judge denies Brigance a change of venue, Hailey is left to be tried before an all-white jury in rural Mississippi—he will likely not walk free. During his closing arguments, Brigance tells the jury to close their eyes and listen as he describes the rape of a young 10-year-old Tonya. “Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl,” he says, and pauses. “Now imagine she’s white.”
[Note: This essay was first published by Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with permission.]
Brigance wants you to see that his case rests on a principle. Even if you disagree with that principle, it remains a principle. It is not special pleading. If the jury would ever spare the life of a white man for avenging the brutal rape of his daughter, then they must do the same for a black man. Jake Brigance wants you to believe there is a time to kill.
The recent Planned Parenthood videos make a few things obvious. Human organs with human DNA are being harvested. Since only living organisms generate organs, these human organs are presumably being harvested from living human beings. A fetus is a living human being, at least scientifically; the natural sciences can say nothing as to whether or not a living human being is a person, for “personhood” is an abstract concept described and defined by other disciplines. Who decides which human beings have “personhood” and which do not? Who decides who gets to live or die based on such tenuous guesswork? Is an unwanted pregnancy a time to kill?
The Jake Brigance Test
For many pro-choice advocates, that a fetus is living and human is beside the point. “So what if abortion ends life?” says Mary Elizabeth Williams in her wildly popular 2013 article of the same name. “I believe that life starts at conception. And it’s never stopped me from being pro-choice.”
To admit that a human fetus is in fact alive—a life, human life!—and simultaneously to claim that there is a justifiable time to kill that life is a very serious assertion. One ought not advocate such a position unless they can back it up. Does Williams’ argument pass the Jake Brigance test?
Remember, Brigance wants you to see that his case rests on a principle. Even if we disagree with that principle, it remains a principle. To show that his argument is not just special pleading, he substitutes the subject—“Now imagine she’s white.” This analogy works because a white girl is an example of the same type to his subject (a black girl). What happens when we substitute Williams’ subject (a fetus) with another example of the same type, say, any other living human being at all?
But is there an example of the same type that even comes close to the deliberate and legalized killing of more than 50 million unwanted human lives by abortion? The closest and most familiar parallel would be the deliberate killing of more than 11 million unwanted human lives by the Nazi regime. What happens when we substitute Williams’ subject (a fetus) with an example of the same type, say, a Jew?
The analogy is not at all offensive or ridiculous, for every Jew was once a fetus, both are living and human, and both have been legally killed as a means to some other end. “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany we have achieved the greatest deed in the world,” Hitler said. “We may work injustice, but if we rescue Germany then we have removed the greatest injustice in the world. We may be immoral, but if our people is rescued we have opened the way for morality.”
Substitute “woman” for “Germany” and you pretty sum up Williams’ argument (you can read the original here). In fact, if we exchange the word “racial” for where Williams uses the word “reproductive,” “eugenics” for where she says “abortion,” “Aryan” for where she says “choice,” and “Jewish” for where she says “fetus,” it becomes at least tenable that Nazi eugenics and pro-choice ideology share a common ground: the ends justify the means. Bracketing the substitutions, here are just a few excerpts:
Of all the diabolically clever moves the [anti-Nazi] lobby has ever pulled, surely one of the greatest has been its consistent co-opting of the word “life.” Life! Who wants to argue with that? Who wants to be on the side of … not-life? That’s why the language of those who support [Nazism] has for so long been carefully couched in other terms.
I believe that’s what a [Jew] is: a human life. And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly [Nazi].
[The Nazi Party] has taken the bold step of reframing the vernacular—moving away from the easy and easily divisive words “life” and “choice.”
[W]hen we don’t look at the complexities of [race], we give far too much semantic power to those who’d try to control it.
Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal.
[A Jew] can be a human life without having the same rights as [the German in whose country] it resides. [An Aryan] is the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity in her [country]. Always.
They believe that if we call a [Jew] a life they can go down the road of making [eugenics] murder.
I would put the life of [an Aryan] over the life of a [Jew] every single time—even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the [Jew] is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.
Williams wants you to believe that a fetus is a life worth sacrificing. She would put the life of an adult human over the life of an unborn human every single time—even if she acknowledges that the unborn human is in fact a life. When someone considers their own life to be more important or worthy than another’s it is a time to kill, and for a woman that time is when the other life is especially unwanted. For a woman, at least, the ends justify the means.
What if there was a Jake Brigance who believed there was not a time to kill? What if he were to tell the jury to close their eyes and listen as he describes the brutal abortion of a young 19-week-old Tonya? “Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she’s 19-months-old,” he would say, and pause. “Now imagine she’s a 19-year-old Jew and the year is 1942.”
More Than Semantics
“But a Jew and a fetus are not at all the same!” a pro-choice proponent might say. “This analogy doesn’t work because a Jew is not a similar example to a fetus!” Williams herself would answer:
When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. Are you human only when you’re born? Only when you’re viable outside of the womb? Are you less of a human life when you look like a tadpole than when you can suck on your thumb?
The Planned Parenthood videos end the debate. What was it the Nazi doctor Julius Hallervorden was documented having said during the Nuremberg trials? “If you are going to kill all these [Jewish] people, at least take the brains out so that the material may be utilized.” Human organs with human DNA are being harvested from human fetuses that are nothing less than human beings. This is not semantics. This is science. As Williams says, “life starts at conception.” Even Jewish life.
By advocating that there are lives “worth sacrificing” Williams is not hurting for company. But to be clear, to substitute “Jew” for “fetus” is not to compare Mary Elizabeth Williams to a Nazi, but to compare the principle of her argument to the principle of the Nazi eugenics argument: the ends justify the means. She is not longing for a purer Aryan race, but for a purer womanhood—a womanhood where sex and babies are not linked. But lives must be sacrificed.
“We may be inhumane, but if we rescue women we have achieved the greatest deed in the world,” pro-choice advocates say. “We may work injustice, but if we rescue women then we have removed the greatest injustice in the world. We may be immoral, but if women are rescued we have opened the way for morality.”
Like so many pro-choice advocates, Williams wants you to believe there is a time to kill. But can anyone in good conscience agree with the premise of her argument? What makes one life “worth sacrificing” for another? A woman’s sex drive? A white supremacist’s sex drive? A feminist’s political ideology? A Nazi’s political ideology? A woman’s lifestyle? Her education or career? A man’s financial stability or emotional tranquility? His reputation? The American Dream? When is it a time to kill?
Read it in Crisis Magazine.