Life, Literature, and the Horror of Abortion

An interview with Edward Short, author of Culture and Abortion

In his new book, Culture and Abortion (Gracewing, 2013), Edward Short examines the evil of abortion through the lens of literature and culture. “What I have sought to do,” he writes in the introduction, is “to see if some aspects of culture—which is to say works of poetry, history, criticism, fiction, and the encyclicals of popes—could help make sense of this life-destroying notion, though another and perhaps more important purpose was to argue that in order to end the evil of abortion we need a revival of culture, true culture.”

Short, who lives in New York with his wife and daughter, spoke recently with Catholic World Report about his book.

CWR: There’s been an abundance of writing on the horrors of abortion over the past four decades. Most of the writing on this topic deals with the poor legal arguments that buttress abortion rights, the emotional or physical damage to women, and the scientific evidence that life begins at conception. You, however, take a different approach and examine the type of culture that allows for abortion. Why is this important? 

Edward Short: In Culture and Abortion, I do three things.  I put abortion in some historical context by showing how the pro-abortion assumptions that animate our society would strike previous societies, most of which recognized children, born and unborn, as gifts from God, not playthings of expedience. 

Secondly, I look closely at why our own culture sees fit to reject the gift of life. 

And lastly I show how life-affirming poets, popes, saints, abolitionists, novelists, historians, and other truth-tellers can help us to restore what ought to be the pro-life heart of our own culture. All these are important because they help us see how our own culture has become a travesty of culture, one which is antagonistic not only to civilization but to life itself. 

The sooner we re-humanize our culture the sooner we can begin to show abortion the door, though I insist in the book that we can only do this by showing our neighbors the vital relationship between the creature and the Creator, which is at the heart of the inviolability of life.  Natural law arguments are not enough. To defend the sanctity of life we must witness to the reality of God’s love, which comes to us anew in every gift of every child.

CWR: In Culture and Abortion you introduce a number of literary figures who have offered serious contributions to promoting a culture of life. How have works of literature been important in this regard?

Short: Yes, to show how robustly pro-life most literature is I look at the work of a wide range of very different writers, including Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Anne Ridler, Penelope Fitzgerald, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joanna Baillie, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and G.K. Chesterton. Literary criticism conducted along pro-life lines should be pursued more aggressively. I hope the young read what I have done so that they can follow down these promising paths themselves.  There is much to be done in those beckoning vineyards.

CWR: Who is J.J. Scarisbrick and why has his organization LIFE been so instrumental in the pro-life movement?

Short: Prof. John J. Scarisbrick is perhaps best known in this country as the author of the definitive life of Henry VIII, which was published in 1969 and recognized as a classic ever since. But he and his wife Nuala also founded LIFE, a national and indeed international pro-life organization, in the United Kingdom in 1970 to counteract the baleful consequences of David Steel’s 1967 abortion bill. By making pro-life education the centerpiece of their eminently practical work, they have become heroes of the pro-life movement around the world. If representatives of foundations that support pro-life initiatives are privy to this interview, I urge them to contact Prof. Scarisbrick’s organization at

CWR: What can we learn from Walker Percy’s understanding of our fallen nature and how we might best combat a culture that encourages abortion? 

Short: This is a great question because one of the main contentions of Culture and Abortion is that the only way we can begin to understand the enormity of abortion is to acknowledge and accept the terrible guilt that attaches to our continuing to kill millions of defenseless children in the womb. And there is no better way to grasp that vital, salutary guilt than by recognizing our fallen nature, a nature about which the Southern author Walker Percy wrote so eloquently in so many of his novels and other writings. Psychologists may claim that guilt is simply something that we must learn to sidestep; the fallen heart knows better.

Your readers should also look at what Anne Lastman has to say about the guilt of those who abort their children in her brilliant, groundbreaking book, Redeeming Grief (Gracewing).

CWR:  William Wilberforce’s heroic campaign to abolish slavery offers a number of parallels to the present efforts to end abortion. What are some important lessons we might learn from his legacy?

Short: The two most important lessons that William Wilberforce can teach pro-lifers is never to underestimate the power of pertinacity.  And never to despair of converting public opinion, which, for all its incidental blindness, can be brought round to recognizing and siding with the Truth.  Mother Teresa once said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” Surely, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can drive home that elemental reality.

CWR: Pope John Paul II left behind some of the greatest writings on the culture of life that we’ll likely ever have. Why have his wise words failed to persuade so many self-professed Catholic politicians who still choose to view the issue as a private matter? 

Short: Another great question, but one to which I am afraid I do not have an answer. I agree: we shall never have an anatomy of the tragedy of abortion better than the one John Paul the Great gave us in Evangelium Vitae, but I do not know why it has failed to move Catholic politicians to honor the sanctity of life. What can we say other than that evil is a great mystery? Then, again, we have to acknowledge that it is not only the politicians in our Church who refuse to heed JPII’s cri de coeur. I put Lady Macbeth on the cover of my book because in this culture of death of ours we are all shambling about in insomniacal guilt—Catholics more than most.

CWR: A culture that promotes abortion also allows for euthanasia, as we’re increasingly seeing here in the United States. Is there hope that this trend can be reversed? 

Short: Yes, I would say that there is tremendous hope regarding this terrible threat and for that I would cite the work of the heroic pro-lifer Anna Halpine and her World Youth Alliance (WYA). Anna and her bright young things are on the ramparts every day fighting against the culture of death. I urge all of my readers to support her indispensable work. I went to a dinner at the amusing old Union Club in New York the other evening and sat next to the most brilliant young pro-lifers, and they are all being drilled by Anna and her Alliance. The advocates of euthanasia simply have no idea what they are up against in going up against Anna. My advice to them would be to lay down their arms while they are still in one piece. 

CWR: We have the great hope that abortion will one day be abolished. How do you believe history—and the historians—will judge abortion?  

Short: Yet another incisive question. History is crucial to the pro-life enterprise because, sooner or later, history will witness to the Truth. And that Truth will not have kind things to say about those who have defended the killing of children in the womb. The fact that so few historians pay abortion the attention it deserves is a real disgrace. After all, abortion defines our age even more than slavery defined the 19th century, and yet most of our historians treat it as nothing more than a milestone in the triumphant progress of feminism. I have a long chapter on this at the end of Culture and Abortion. Nowhere is the silent scream more reprehensibly silent than in the pages of our historians!

Here however we must praise some admirable exceptions, including Christopher Kaczor, John Keown, John Finnis, Erika Bachiochi, William Saunders, and Justin Dyer. When the true history of abortion is written, these good soldiers will be singled out for their devotion to the good fight. 

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.