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The Unbegun Life


A long time ago, even before the Dark Ages — we're talking about the 1970's, the Stoned Age — when I was in Junior High, I stood up in an English class and gave a speech against abortion.

inutero2I was a long way off from being a Catholic, but I was a devout Evangelical Christian, and I knew that abortion was wrong on all counts and simply could not be justified.  The U.S. Supreme Court had just handed down its grim decision in the Roe v. Wade case, and I think the country was reeling.  It just didn't seem possible that what had happened could ever happen.  The people in favor of legalized abortion were a loud and unpleasant minority, and suddenly they had won.

But the argument was not over.  Already the controversialist, I plunged into the controversy, and I did it controversially.  There I was giving my speech, and I used as a visual aid ... an actual unborn baby.  That's right.  My father was a high school biology teacher, and occasionally the county coroner would give him a fetus in jar, the result of a pregnant mother being killed in unusual circumstances.  My father had three or four of them and used them in an advanced biology class to show the stages of pre-natal development.  They were never on public display.  Incredibly, he let me borrow one for my speech.  Obviously and for any number of reasons, this is not something anyone could get away with today: a junior high student in a public school giving a formal presentation against abortion and showing the class a jar with an unborn baby inside.

But it was effective.

I had listed all the reasonable arguments why abortion is wrong, but the climax was pulling the jar out of a paper bag and holding it up.  "This is a human being."

I still needed an ending to my speech.  I closed by saying, "In the words of the poet: 'Never fear that your life might come to an end; rather fear that it should have no beginning.'"

The students all applauded, and it was pretty clear that I had won the debate that day.  My opponent reluctantly congratulated me, but she said "the bit with the baby was below the belt."  (Did I mention we were dating?  Did I add that we broke up?)

The only thing the teacher said was, "Who was the poet?"

I replied, "I don't know.  I got the quote off a poster hanging in my bedroom."

The poster in my room showed the silhouette of a young man leaning in obvious despair against the limb of a leafless tree, set against a barren sky.

For reasons that I am about to explain, I was thinking about this quotation the other day and wondering if there really was a poet behind it, or if its entire literary life was on a 1970's poster.  So I did some research.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that the actual quote comes from — no, it wasn't G.K. Chesterton — it comes from the recently canonized John Henry Newman.  Pretty interesting.  Turns out I was quoting a Catholic.  It is originally rendered as: "Fear not that life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning."

Though the line is not from Chesterton, who wrote a lovely poem called "By the Babe Unborn," there's a paradox here worthy of Chesterton.  Your life has to have begun in order for you to have the fear that it won't begin.  But it is a fear you should have.

What is the Unbegun Life?

On the one hand, he is a product of an education system that does not teach truth, beauty and goodness, leaving him nothing to do but grope after the shallow substitutes of the artificial, of glamor and glitter and instant gratification. 

I thought of this recently when I was talking with a couple that I've known a long time.  They had a very un-merry Christmas.  Their son has been on a steady path of self-destruction for most of his 35 years.  Even as a child he was reckless in his behavior, regularly injured because of taking thoughtless risks, and never taking responsibility for his actions.  When his face was bleeding from having fallen on it, it was always someone else's fault.  As he grew up, he was a million excuses waiting to be made for his many non-accomplishments, or rather anti-accomplishments.  He studiously avoided his schoolwork so that he managed to put nothing into his head.  He spent hours playing video games.  He never developed any of the disciplines that would have afforded him mental, intellectual, philosophical or artistic satisfaction, but he only pursued physical stimulation.  After several years of this, he has become a violent drunk, unable to hold a job, unable to take care of himself.  He begs and steals, then gets bombed and breaks things, sobers up, feels sorry, sort of, then does it again.

His life could end this way.  And that would be tragic.  But the real tragedy is that his life has never begun.  He has never actually started living.  On the one hand, he is a product of an education system that does not teach truth, beauty and goodness, leaving him nothing to do but grope after the shallow substitutes of the artificial, of glamor and glitter and instant gratification.  On the other hand, he is a representative of the abortion generation that has been taught that there are no consequences for your actions.  In either case, there is no meaning, only misery.  And he is miserable.  And there are millions like him, whose life has never begun.

As we pray for the end of abortion, let's also pray for the abortion generation that has been doubly cheated out of the beginnings of their lives.  If the first chapter hasn't been written, then neither has the last.



ahlquist Dale Ahlquist.  "The Unbegun Life." Catholic World Report (January 17, 2020).

Reprinted with permission of Catholic World Report.

The Author

ahlquistkofhgregular Dale Ahlquist is the President of the American Chesterton Society.  He is the author of Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton, In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton, Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, G.K. Chesterton â The Apostle of Common Sense, and is the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, editor of The Annotated Lepanto, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton. He has written and lectured on Chesterton so much that he has not bothered getting a real job. He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.

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