Feb. 24, 2009
Our Navy chaplain told us last Sunday about a most interesting psych experiment from his college days. Student volunteers were given special goggles. These goggles blocked out the students' peripheral vision and turned everything they saw upside down--a full 180o. At first, of course, the students stumbled around, as if hopelessly uncoordinated and incapable of movement. Gradually, however, they began to accommodate themselves to the new view. In a surprisingly short time, the students, their upside-down goggles firmly attached and without peeking, found they could negotiate with ease. Apparently, some volunteers for this upside-down experiment have become so proficient they can actually pilot airplanes.
I feel like those student volunteers. I remember when the world was right side up. In the 1960s, I did not take psychology in college, but biology. In that class, we dissected a fetal pig. I can still smell that formaldehyde and see the odd smile on my fetal pig. You can imagine, then, how strange, how upside down it seemed to me when I heard people in that era begin to talk of the unborn child as a fetus.
We had never spoken of our fetal pigs as porcine fetuses. The adjectival form of the word--fetal-- affirmed even as it modified the pigness of our little porkers. One would have been thought crazy not to recognize the pighood of our dissection subjects.
In that same decade, in 1965, LIFE magazine gave us stunning pictures of unborn children. Lennart Nilsson's amazing photographs showed the development of the child before birth. The text used that word--fetus--but the pictures showed an unmistakably human being. The child looked so vulnerable, but the text soothingly spoke of the "protective" environment of the amniotic sac. Cushioned and sustained by amniotic fluid, the child floats undisturbed, safe. Although we were being told it was a fetus, our eyes told us it was a child. LIFE magazine seemed to be asking us, like Groucho Marx: "Who are you going to believe, me, or your own eyes?"
My French prof, in those same years, gave us an idiomatic phrase-en ventre sa mere-to translate. It literally means "in his mother's womb." As an idiomatic expression in French, it means safe, secure. It's rather like our less poetic "snug as a bug in a rug."
Only later did I learn that en ventre sa mere was also a legal term of art. It has been since the Normans came to England. It refers to the ancient principle that the child in the womb has rights, that injuries done to that child can be the basis for legal action. That unborn child also had the right to inherit.
It's hard to imagine that Justice Harry Blackmun ever saw the LIFE Magazine series or encountered the term en ventre sa mere at Harvard Law School. At a time when the world seemed to be acknowledging what everyone always knew--that the child in the womb was unmistakably human, that it had rights which had been recognized for centuries, Harry resolutely affixed those upside-down goggles. That's how he wrote the infamous Roe v. Wade opinion. Then, it seems, he put them on almost everyone you meet.
My favorite goggle-wearer was the late ABC News anchor, Peter Jennings. During one evening broadcast, Jennings described a stunning new advance in pre-natal surgery. He told how a fetus had been diagnosed with hydrocephaly. Without mentioning abortion, or how the doctors may have pressed the mom to have one, Jennings spoke of the surgeons going into the mother's womb. They took the fetus out, he intoned, still attached by its umbilical cord. Then they operated, placing a shunt in the "child's" skull and sealing the surgical opening in the head. They returned the "child" to its mother's womb. She then carried the "fetus" to term, delivering a healthy child, the suave Jennings reported.
With perfect precision, Peter Jennings had adapted his vision to the upside-down world, court-ordered by Blackmun and Roe. When the fetus was within its mother's womb, Jennings never erred by calling it a child. Removed from that almost holy haven, it could be acknowledged as a child-if only so briefly. Fetus-child-fetus-child-never a slip of that famous professional tongue betrayed the brave new upside-down world of Roe v. Wade.
I thought of that goggle experiment when I read this eye-popping phrase from our new President, Barack Obama. He told the Congressional Prayer Breakfast attendees: "There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know." It was a wonderful statement. Can he mean it? Can this be the same President who had just revoked the Mexico City policy, an act that will take the lives of thousands of innocent human beings? Or, has he simply grown up in the upside-down world of goggle-wearers bequeathed to us by Roe? One thing is clear: Such questions can no longer be above his pay grade.
Our chaplain described the end of the upside-down goggle psychology experiment. The adjustment is not instant. Once fully accustomed to the upside-down world, it takes a while to readjust to the world as it truly is. But first, you must take off those goggles. Then you must want to see the world as it truly is.