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What We Can't Not Know


We tend to assume that supporters of abortion do not know that it is wrong. On the contrary, the wrong of deliberately taking innocent human life is "written on the heart." To make headway in the struggle to end this great wrong, we must understand that people are not so much in genuine ignorance about it as in denial.

Source: Human Life Review 22:4 (Fall, 1996), pp. 85-94


J. Budziszewski

 Author Notes

Associate Professor, Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin (USA), author of The Revenge of Conscience (1999), Written on the Heart (1997) and other works

Books by J. Budziszewski
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The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (1999)
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Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (1997)
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 Essay - 11/1/1996

He came out of the blue to talk with me about abortion. I usually avoid discussing the issue with graduate student activists; what they want is free debating practice. This one, I thought, might be an exception. No doubt he wanted free debating practice too, but something in his manner suggested a troubled mind, and I suspected that he was nearing his crisis.

There is a certain pattern in these conversations. He announced that he wanted to talk about biology, not theology. When his biology got in trouble, he switched to medical history. When the same thing happened to his medical history, he switched to the history of canon law. Then he escaped to philosophy of jurisprudence; then theology. When his account of Christian theology was punctured, he complained that I was speaking from faith. When I pointed out the articles of his secularist faith, he returned to biology. Then it was medical history again, and so on. At each step he became more nervous than before. For several weeks we went on, but he was only trying to evade the hounds.

Of course I tried to close in. I showed that he was repeating spent arguments. I asked why it was necessary to keep shifting ground. I returned him to the point: a baby is there, and you're killing him. Time after time he was reduced to silence. But silence made him even more nervous than speech, and he finally broke off.

Several years have passed. We run into each other sometimes; he passes me with an absent-minded greeting, then stops, turns, tells me he has thought of answers to all my points and will soon come to tell me about them, then disappears again.

We say people do not know the truth about abortion. I believe the problem is altogether different: they do know it, but they hide it from themselves. As one post-abortive woman explained to me, "I used to treat my conscience like an abusive mother treats her child. When she beats her, the child wants to cry. But her mother says, 'Don't you dare cry! Don't you act like you have any reason to cry! Don't you even think about crying!' Underneath the child still hurts, but finally she learns to keep quiet no matter what."

So we are in a paradox. The law is really known, but it can really be denied. It is really written on the heart, but our fallen race tries to suppress and overwrite what is inscribed there.

For defenders of life, the paradox is confusing. We understand the ought of abortion, but not the is of it. We know it is wrong and must be stopped, but not how it sits with the human heart. We comprehend that the natural law is law and therefore right for all, but not that it is nature and therefore known to all. We have heard that it is written even on the hearts of the nations, but we don't really believe this is true. Too often, then, what we call belief in natural law is really only moral realism: a belief in objectively true moral principles. And so, too often, we misread the times and play from weakness.

So let us distinguish between mere moral realism and belief in natural law. Let us see what difference they make in theology, in abortion politics, and in the facts of women's lives. Let us try to understand the heart better, and study how to play from strength.


If there were no law written on the heart, there could be no true converse between believers and non-believers - about abortion or about anything else that mattered. Short of complete renewal of the mind by grace, there could be no persuasion on any subject. A Christian in the public square might as well be speaking in another language.

Often enough it feels as though we are, and sometimes theologians have spoken as though this were literally true. Thinkers as diverse as Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas have held that because every term gains its meaning from the story or system of thought to which it belongs, the statements of believers and non-believers will have no meaning in common even when they use the same words. They might both speak of the "sanctity of life," for instance, but there is no common ground, no point of contact, no real connection between them. The story of Jesus "teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible."

These claims are completely true. But are they the whole truth? To believe so is to take the world's pretense of ignorance at face value. I believe that this is a mistake. We are right to suppose that our stories and systems of thought do not in themselves supply a point of contact with non-believers, but we are wrong to suppose that there is no point of contact. Our point of contact with non-believers is established not by us, but by God Himself in revelation.

How could this be true? Isn't revelation precisely what non-believers reject? Isn't its rejection precisely what keeps the two parties apart? Not so: Special revelation can be rejected, but general revelation can only be suppressed.

As to special revelation, an examination of Scripture shows at least four different forms. By the works of God in history, He set apart for Himself a people of promise and delivered them from oppression. (Joshua 24:1-18.) By the Law of Moses, He told His people what sin is. (Romans 7:7-13.) By prophecy, He foretold their deliverance not only from oppression but from sin. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12.) Finally was Messiah Himself, Jesus Christ, who took their sins upon Himself. (John 3:16, Romans 3:23-24, 5:6-8, 7:4-6.) Each of the earlier revelations paved the way for the later ones. For example, Scripture teaches explicitly that the works of God in history were a preparation for the Law of Moses, and that the Law of Moses was a preparation for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

None of this gives us the promised point of contact with non-believers, but the Bible also maintains that God has not left Himself without a witness even among the pagans. By contrast with special revelation, provided by God to the community of faith, this revelation is general because it is provided by God to all mankind. At least five different forms of general revelation are mentioned in the Scriptures. First, the testimony of creation speaks to us of a glorious, powerful, and merciful Creator. (Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 104, Acts 14:17, Romans 1:20.) Second, we are made in the image of God, thereby acquiring not only rational and moral capacities, but also the intuition of an unknown Holy One who is different from our idols. (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:22-23.) Third are the facts of our physical and emotional design, in which a variety of God's purposes are plainly manifest. (Romans 1:26-27.) Fourth is the law of conscience, written on the heart, which, like the Law of Moses, tells us what sin is. (Romans 2:14-15.) Fifth is the order of causality, which teaches by linking every sin with consequences. (Proverbs 1:31.) So it is that unconverted gentiles, who have neither waited at the foot of Sinai nor sat at the feet of Jesus, are still accountable to God.

What concerns us here is the moral part of general revelation, usually called the natural law, which is grounded by the second through fifth ways of general revelation. Because of the influence of the pre-Christian thinker Aristotle, most natural lawyers focus on the third. I am focussing on the fourth - the law of conscience, written on the heart. One reason is that Scripture is especially clear and emphatic about it. Another is that the new sort of pagan views guilt as a sort of wart or mole that has to be hidden, cut out, or scarred over. Scripture speaks of this too: the very heart on which God has written his law is estranged from itself. It needs to be not only informed, but transformed. Until this is accomplished, by the grace of God, we discern His law more through the consequences of its violation than through the witness of clear conscience, and even that instruction may be ignored when we need it most. Yet a seared and scarred heart is still a heart: tough and withered outside, but tender within.

Scripture, then, comes down unequivocally for natural law, not mere moral realism. Now let us bring this to bear on abortion.


The same facts are interpreted by belief in natural law in one way, but by mere moral realism in another.

What facts? Facts like these: That abortion is called wrong by some and right by others. That most of those who call it wrong call it killing. That most of those who call it killing say that what it kills is a baby. That most of those who call it killing a baby nevertheless think it should be allowed. That most of those who think it should be allowed nevertheless think it should be restricted. That proportionately, more and more people favor restrictions. Yet that proportionately, more and more people have had or been involved in abortions. The reason these facts are puzzling, the reason they need interpretation, is their contrariness. In particular, if abortion kills a baby then it ought to be banned to everyone, but if it only excises an unwanted growth then it is hard to see why it should be restricted at all; yet most people do not reason so consistently, and those who do are considered extremists.

Mere moral realism interprets such contrariness like this. The problem of human sin, it says, is mainly cognitive: it has to do with the state of our knowledge. There is a real right and wrong, but we don't know what it is and are trying to find out. In the meantime we hedge our bets, so logical consistency is an unreasonable expectation. One side wants unrestricted abortion, the other wants none at all; what is more natural than to split the difference? Searching for islands of clarity in a dark and trackless sea, we may get lost and sail in circles, but we are doing the best we can.

Belief in natural law views the same contrariness quite differently. Surely we do have thoughts like those above, but they are only on the surface of the mind. The problem of human sin, is not mainly cognitive, but volitional: it has to do with the state of our will. By and large we do know what is right and wrong, but wish we didn't. We only make believe we are ignorant and searching - so that we can do wrong, condone it, or suppress our remorse for having done so in the past. Spurning the paved and posted road, we lounge in the marsh; throwing away the map, we groan that we haven't got one. Our great and secret fear is that to admit that abortion should be banned would be to admit the gravity of what we have already done or countenanced. Because we really know its gravity already, we do admit -- but then again we don't. We feed scraps to our hearts to hush them, but only scraps, to keep them small. Abortion, yes, but not without a waiting period.

Abortion, yes, but not in the last trimester. Abortion, yes, but not by procedures that withdraw the baby partly from the womb -- not where his legs can be seen to kick, his hands can be seen to open and close, and we are deprived of the pretense of his nonexistence.

If the word of God is true, then the second interpretation is the right one. We know on the authority of Scripture that some things are known to non-believers apart from Scripture. One can disbelieve in the natural law, but one can't not know the natural law. Therefore we can be certain that every woman carries in her heart what she has cut from the dimness of her womb, and every man wears around his neck what he has refused to carry in his arms. The burden, I think, is greatest for her. She may try to hush her conscience when she kills her child, but it croons and murmurs anyway as though it were a baby itself.


The difference it makes that we do know the natural law is most heartrendingly dramatized in the lives of post-abortive women. Day after day their stories play out in hundreds of Crisis Pregnancy Centers across the United States and Canada. Asked if she has ever suffered emotional complications from an abortion, the woman usually says "No." Once again, mere moral realism would bid us take her denials at face value; she knows not what she has done. Yet there are cracks in the facade.

"Don't speak to me about fetal development," says one woman. "It makes me think about my abortion, and I'm trying to move on." Then there is the housewife who "hasn't had any problem," but admits to having nightmares and flashbacks about her abortion; the teenager whose experience was "just fine," but who doubled her weight and began suffering panic attacks in the months after aborting; the college student who says abortion "solved her problem," but who lapses into suicidal depression whenever its anniversary draws near; the girl under parental pressure who says "I didn't want a baby the way my life is now," but who later admits that she did; and the professional who declares her abortion was "what I needed," but whose eyes fill with tears when she speaks of it.

Many of these women go on to have a second, third, fourth, or fifth abortion. Asked why they are considering another, they give various answers. One says "I couldn't let down my parents"; another, another, "I couldn't interrupt my education"; another, "You have to understand that I'm a selfish woman and I get what I want, so I abort." Often they speak as though their previous abortions had made no difference, but here again there is always a hidden story. There is the outwardly religious girl leading a double life, who had her first abortion even though she knew it was wrong, and her second for fear that God would "do something to the baby" to punish her for the first. There is the Vietnamese woman who had her first abortion out of anger because her husband had been unfaithful, and her second because "I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby." She has got her wish.

Then there is the working woman who says "I couldn't be a good parent," amends her remark to "I don't deserve to have any children," and still later adds "If it hadn't been for my last abortion, I don't think I'd be pregnant now." One does not need to be Daniel to read the writing on that wall. When she says she could not be a good mother, what she means is that good mothers do not kill their children. She keeps getting pregnant to replace the children she has killed, but she keeps having abortions to punish herself for having killed them. With each abortion the cams of guilt make another revolution, setting her up to have another. She can never stop until she admits what is going on.

The stridency of the abortion movement should not deceive us. Not many women become pro-abortion activists and therefore have abortions. On the other hand, many women have abortions and therefore become pro-abortion activists. In the early days of the cult, prominent feminists used to blazon their having had abortions in full-page signature ads in a parody of general confession. Of course they denied then, as they deny now, that what they were confessing was wrong, and mere moral realism takes their protestation of ignorance seriously: if they say they are ignorant, then they must be. But if there is a law on the heart, then conscience is deeper than consciousness.

Consciously the activists may deny that they have done ill; unconsciously they know they have, and seek absolution in politics. They seek to expunge the guilt of killing their children, not by repenting and throwing themselves upon the Lord of Mercy, but by getting others to join in the killing.

This facade is also cracking. In 1977, when the rift was still unseen, The New Republic stoutly editorialized that "There clearly is no logical or moral distinction between a fetus and a young baby; free availability of abortion cannot be reasonably distinguished from euthanasia. Nevertheless we are for it. It is too facile to say that human life always is sacred; obviously it is not." Writing in the same magazine in 1995, however, abortion proponent Naomi Wolf struck a different note, describing the practice as real sin which incurs real guilt and requires atonement.

Yet she is for it too.


But proponents of abortion give arguments for it. Doesn't this prove that they don't know the natural law?

On the contrary, it proves that they do. Defenders of evil are not indifferent to morality, like animals; they rationalize it, like fallen men. Just as truth is employed in all lies, so natural law is employed in all rationalizations. The mutinous heart can find no other tenets on which it might base its insurrection than those that are written upon it already. Its revolt is a sham, for all it can do is pull a few ordinances from the ranks, fatten them up, and use them to beat down the others. It derives the very strength of its rebellion from the law itself. It exploits the fact that the moral precepts qualify each other to make them suppress each other. Abortionism illustrates this perfectly: Like a slaughterhouse that lets nothing in the animal go to waste, boiling even hooves down into glue, the cause enlists every movement of life in the cause of death. Even compassion takes its turn. Unwanted children must be spared the sorrows of this world, so let us spare them the burden of being in it. Let us no longer have pity and kill not; let us have pity and therefore kill. Let us cut them in pieces with knives, pierce their skulls with scissors, and suction out their brains with tubes, all to be merciful and kind.

This is how sin and error always work; having nothing in themselves by which to convince, on what other resources but good and truth could they draw to make themselves powerful and plausible? A virus cannot reproduce except by commandeering the machinery of a cell. In the same way, sin cannot reproduce except by taking over the machinery of conscience. Not a gear, not a wheel is destroyed, but they are set turning in different directions than their wont. Evil must rationalize, and that is its weakness. But it can, and that is its strength.

The mode of sin's reproduction also explains why so many other things change when we tolerate an evil like abortion. Wise men have warned for years that tolerating abortion will make conscience weaker. The idea is that every evil we condone lowers our barriers to the next; if we cannot see what is wrong in killing our babies, then we will be less able to see what is wrong in killing our grandparents. Good so far as it goes, this warning is based on mere moral realism and gravely understates the danger. Because it traces sin only to ignorance it fails to appreciate its dynamism. The infected conscience does not necessarily become languid; it may become more active, but in a perverted way. The evil we condone does not merely lower our barriers to the next -- it drives us on to it.

How is this the case? Think what is required to justify abortion. Because we can't not know that it is wrong to deliberately kill human beings, there are only four options. We must deny that the act is deliberate; we must deny that it kills; we must deny that its victims are human; or we must deny that wrong must not be done. The last option is literally nonsense. That something must not be done is what it means for it to be wrong; to deny that wrong must not be done is merely to say "wrong is not wrong," or "what must not be done may be done." The first option is hardly promising. Abortion does not just happen; it must be performed. Its proponents not only admit there is a "choice," they boast of it. As to the second option, if it was ever promising, it is no longer. Millions of women have viewed sonograms of their babies kicking, sucking their thumbs, and turning somersaults; even most feminists have given up calling the baby a "blood clot" or describing abortion as the "extraction of menses."

The only option left is number three: to deny the humanity of the victims. It is at this point that the machinery slips out of control.

For the only way to make option three work is to ignore biological nature, which tells us that from conception onward the child is as human as you or me (does anyone imagine that a dog is growing in there?) -- and invent another criterion of humanity, one which makes it a matter of degree. Some of us must turn out more human, others less. This is a dicey business even for abortionists. It needs hardly to be said that no one has been able to come up with a criterion that makes babies in the womb less human but leaves everyone else as he was; the teeth of the moral gears are too finely set for that.

Consider, for instance, the criteria of "personhood" and "deliberative rationality." According to the former, one is more or less human according to whether he is more or less a person; according to the latter, he is more or less a person according to whether he is more or less able to act with mature and thoughtful purpose. Unborn babies turn out to be killable because they cannot act maturely; they are less than fully persons, and so less than fully human. In fact, they must be killed when the interests of those who are more fully human require it. Therefore, not only may their mothers abort, but it would be wrong to stop the mothers from doing so. But see where else this drives us. Doesn't maturity also fall short among children, teenagers, and many adults? Then aren't they also less than fully persons -- and if less than fully persons, then less than fully humans? Clearly so, hence they too must yield to the interests of the more fully human; all that remains is to sort us all out.

So conscience has its revenge. We can't not know the preciousness of human life -- therefore, if we tell ourselves that humanity is a matter of degree, we can't help holding those who are more human more precious than those who are less. The urge to justify abortion drives us inexorably to a system of moral castes more pitiless than anything the East has devised. Of course we can fiddle with the grading criteria: consciousness, self-awareness, and contribution to society have been proposed; racial purity has been tried. No such tinkering avails to change the character of our deeds. If we will a caste system, then we shall have one; if we will that some shall have their way, then in time there shall be a nobility of Those Who Have Their Way. All that our fiddling with the criteria achieves is a rearrangement of the castes.

Sin ramifies. It is fertile, fissiparous, and parasitic, always in search of new kingdoms to corrupt. It breeds.


What does it mean then to play from weakness, and what would it mean to play from strength? All apologetics includes two movements, explanation and expos‚: for honest confusion can be dispelled, but smokescreens can only be dispersed. Most people know how to deal with honest confusion; smokescreens are what defeat us. Being mere moral realists, we mistake them for honest confusion and respond by explaining still more. The futility of doing so is that although one may be instructed out of error, no one is ever instructed out of denial. Playing from strength is distinguishing between the two cases, dealing with each in the way it requires -- whether we encounter it in politics, polemic, or the care of the soul.

Smokescreens are more common in certain kinds of discussions than in others. For example they are more common in politics than physics, not because the data are less clear in politics but because the motive for deception is greater. In morals, smokescreens are especially common, because added to the motive to deceive others is the motive to deceive oneself. But moral smokescreens are also the easiest to discern, and for a simple reason. The mass of the electron is not found in conscience, nor is the principle of legislative checks; but the moral law is inscribed upon the heart. Therefore, if we say we know nothing of particles or parliaments, we may well be speaking truth, but if we say we know nothing of the sanctity of life, "we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

The hardest habit to break -- but it must be broken -- is refuting every argument. Those who will not be disciplined by conscience are hardly likely to be disciplined by reasoning; they use arguments to disguise and distract, not to sift for truth. A better habit is simply keeping things honest. In the first place we should challenge every euphemism. "Oh, you're pro-choice," we can say; "I thought you were only pro-abortion. Then does the baby have a say about being cut to pieces?" In the second place we should concretize every abstraction. "You spoke just now of late-term abortions," we can say; "I am thinking of the procedure in which the baby's legs and torso are pulled out into the air, then his brains are sucked out and his skull is crushed so that it can be pulled out too. Is that the one you mean?" Finally our own speech should be plain. Abortion is not a "medical" matter, because no one is healed, and we do not "consider" it killing, for it plainly is. The little one is a "baby," not a "fetus," and a "he" or "she," not an "it."

Even simple questions can disperse smokescreens if well-timed. "Morals are all relative anyway," said one young man. "How do we even know that murder is wrong?" My friend replied, "Are you in real doubt about the wrong of murder?" The young man's first response was evasive: "Many people might say it was all right." "But I'm not asking other people," pressed my friend.

"Are you at this moment in any real doubt about murder being wrong for everyone?" There was a long silence. "No," the young man admitted; "no, I'm not." "Good," my friend answered. "Then we needn't waste time on morals being relative. Let's talk about something you really are in doubt about." A few moments passed as the young man's face registered comprehension; then he agreed. Another approach to dispersion of smokescreens is playback. "You've asked a lot of questions," I observed to a challenger. "Have you noticed a pattern in our conversation?" "What do you mean?" he asked. "I mean," I returned, "that you interrupt each of my answers by asking another question from a different direction." He considered. "I guess I do," he said; "Why do I do that?" "Why do you think?" I countered. "I guess because I don't want to hear your answers," he replied. "Okay, then," I told him, "let's talk about why you don't."

The man who said "philosophy is the assembling of reminders" spoke more truly than he knew. One can disbelieve in the prime moral truths, but one can't not know them; though theories may differ about how we know them, the great thing is to remember that we do. Nothing new can be written on the heart, but nothing needs to be; all we need is the grace of God to see what is already there. We don't want to read the letters, because they burn; but they do burn, so at last we must read them.

This is why the nation can repent. This is why the killing can be stopped. This is why the culture of death can be redeemed. "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before thee .... a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."

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