TO AN UNTRAINED EYE
by James V. Schall, S.J.
On April 23, 1989, THE NEW YORK TIMES carried an unsigned
item datelined Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The article was
about the principle of a local grammar school who barred
a young girl in the seventh grade from exhibiting her
competitive display for the school's science fair, which
was devoted to the theme, "Life Science." The young
student's evidently well-prepared presentation was of ten
human fetuses in various stages of development. "The
fetuses, kept in preservative solutions, were from
pregnancy stages ranging from 6 weeks to 5-1/2 months."
The girl's mother, it seems, was an art teacher in the
same school, while her uncle, from whom she obtained the
fetuses, was a local pathologist. The fetuses, according
to the mother of the student, came from miscarriages.
The life-science presentation of the Gatlinburg seventh-
grade student was, it seems, quite a good one. It was so
good, in fact, that the principal arranged for the
display to be given a blue ribbon, but no student was
allowed to see the display. Why? The principal held it
was "inappropriate for the age group here." Evidently,
somewhere along the line, some age group would find this
sort of exhibit "appropriate"? One cannot help but
suspect that this was not the real issue.
In this connection, I have also heard that pro-life
debaters are often forbidden to show similar displays,
even just photos or slides of them, to college audiences
on the grounds that this is an unfair tactic, too
One wonders just how old we must be to see
a display of human fetuses without confusing them for
human beings. In any case, this prohibition is
apparently one of the few things that students are not
allowed to see -- one might here piously hope, in this
instance at least, that the normal prurient interest of
the healthy adolescent might manage to sneak a look at
this forbidden object, just to see what it is that the
elders do not want him to know.
Significantly, also, in the article, there was no record
of the civil rights groups rising in wrath to protect the
rights of students to express their artistic talents and
have others see what kind of "life" was revealed in their
We should note, however, that the very fact that
the principal arranged for a "private" blue ribbon
ceremony indicates that he did at least want to protect
himself against the accusation of prior censorship or
discriminating against a hard-working student. He did
fear a certain kind of liberal opinion. Again we suspect
that what was at issue was the effort to prevent the
students from seeing what one sees when looking at a
human fetus. The fear was that the students would see
what someone did not want them to know about.
What was this sight that the school wanted to prevent the
students from observing? The curriculum director of the
local county schools, in explaining this prohibition of
freedom of speech, gave this remarkable explanation:
"To an untrained eye, the 5-1/2 months along (fetus) was
definitely a child." Needless to say, what this "5-1/2
months along" fetus is to the "trained" eye was not
remarked, nor was it explained just how we go about so
"training" our eyes that they see something else in the
jars besides objects that definitely look like the human
child. The hidden key to this whole little report was,
no doubt, right here in the fear of the supposedly
At first sight, however, along with the realization that
some children do not naturally come to term (a fact that
children ought also to know about, for many in fact have
had mothers or relatives with miscarriages), it would
normally seem that we would want children to know of the
wonder of human growth, its stages, its linear
development that leads from conception, through the
stages in the womb, to birth, to the state of life a
seventh-grader is. Someone does not want children to
know this sort of fact of life.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee is not, of course, the center of
the universe, though it does have a certain charm in the
world of country music. The song I recall about
Gatlinburg, in fact, is a very violent one, so the area
is not a stranger to human disorder. We can, if we wish,
look on this incident as a sort of amusing parody of what
happens when someone, even a seventh-grade student in the
Blue Ridge Mountains of Eastern Tennessee, seeks to
Yet, it is precisely in such incidents, in such
small, out-of-the-way places that the whole
irony of the death-and-killing society we have developed
in our hospitals and laws and, yes, mores is revealed
most graphically. It is in such places that we can see
most clearly what we have brought about with our
practices that we do not want our children to see.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that there were
no abortion culture. Let us assume, furthermore, that we
lived in a scientifically honest and open society.
Furthermore, let us assume that in some school there came
a proper "moment" to explain the growth of the human
fetus, from conception to birth. We will likewise
presume that there would be a normal number of
miscarriages which were attended to by local
pathologists, one of whom had a niece who proposed such a
We are assuming, in other words, nothing in
the least immoral or unnatural in the fact of
miscarriages or in the legitimate scientific or
educational effort to study and explain the condition of
human growth. In such a situation, would there be any
reason to forbid the girl's display?
In our current situation, however, it simply cannot be a
question that the average seventh-grader has not been
exposed already to a wide-spread knowledge of matters
from sex to drugs, so that the presumption of the
principal in the present case cannot be based primarily
on the innocence of the students forbidden to see the
We need not doubt that this principal knows
that even our courts do not require pregnant teenagers --
only slightly, if any, older than these seventh-graders
-- to report their situation to their parents.
Rather, the prohibition is based on the fear that
seventh-grade children, seeing such a display, with their
own eyes and brains, will see the horrible lie that has
been presented to them in various classes or programs that
explain that abortion does not deal with the death of an
otherwise normal human child.
In other words, the schoolteachers do
not want their whole authority underminded
in the light of the lie that our society has
chosen to present in this matter.
"To an untrained eye, the 5-1/2 months along (fetus) was
definitely a child...." Here we have a professional
curriculum director at a county school system in one of
our states -- and therefore, I take it, somewhat typical
of the problem we face -- actually suggesting that we
must train the students not to see what is in fact there.
I believe it is possible for a 5-1/2 month fetus actually
to survive, and some have done so. But the fetus already
looks "human" long before five and a half months.
What would normal students make of this display? Obviously,
they would make of it just what the curriculum director
and the principal thought they would. That is, they
would have thought of it as a human child. And they
would have found no evidence that this was not what it
was or what it would become if left to grow normally.
What the sytem did not want the students to know was what
these things in the bottles really were, for this
information would cause great consternation when it came
time to present other subjects later on in the school
Take for example the Declaration of Independence
Let us suppose that this class of seventh-
graders were allowed to see this display of ten fetuses
in various stages of growth. Let us suppose, for the
sake of argument, that they were obtained rather from
abortions, though in that case they might be chopped up
or scalded or otherwise mutilated. The question of the
right to life is to be discussed in the following class
as part of our national heritage and national principle,
that this nation under God recognizes that there are
norms or standards of human worth and value, that this is
what makes us different from totalitarian societies,
which do not respect human worth.
No doubt, in this situation, some perceptive student will
inevitably ask the teacher about those ten fetuses, "Do
they have some sort of right to life, since they
certainly look human and came from human mothers and
If the teacher were to say, "Why, yes, certainly,
they are human," then he would have to answer
the question about the practice of killing them, which
every seventh-grader knows about even if he is not
allowed to see the results.
This civics teacher, in this circumstance, would,
moreover, immediately find himself in trouble from the
pro-abortion front for presuming to "indoctrinate" his
views on people who have a "right" -- a right to what?
A right to call a human fetus something else so that it
does not come under any protection of the law as
described in our Declaration. So better not to let this
happen. Keep the students from seeing the display.
It will make teaching civics easier later on. No one will
defend a teacher's obligation to call a fetus what it is.
No one will protect a student's eyes to tell him that
what he sees is indeed what he sees.
In this manner, then, the whole school system, and
through it society itself, are corrupted in the name of
"protecting" the children so that they do not "see" what
is before them. "To an untrained eye, the 5-1/2 months
along (fetus) was definitely a child...." Or to put it
in a converse fashion, to train the eyes of our children
can mean nothing but the establishment of the lie as the
norm of our educational system.
This consequence, to be sure, is not a theme unfamiliar
to political philosophy. We do not have to go much
beyond Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the Blue Ridge
Mountains, to discover that the ultimate issues remain
largely what Plato had said they were, that there are
indeed some who would prefer their own opinions to the
WHAT IS before their very eyes and those of their children.
When indeed does it become "appropriate" for us
to see what is in the ten jars containing the fetuses
in the various stages of normal growth that the seventh-
grader displayed at Pi Beta Phi Elementary School in
Sevier County, Tennessee?
The Greeks and the writer of the Declaration,
no doubt, would have been grimly amused
to contemplate the abiding pertinence of their theories.
Fr. James V. Schall, a Jesuit priest, teaches political science
at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. This article was
taken from ALL About Issues/November-December 1989. Copyright
1989 American Life League, P.O. Box 1350, Stafford, VA 22554
The American Life League grants permission to reprint this item
provided that credit is given to American Life League, that their
address is mentioned, and that a copy of your publication is sent
to Editor, All About Issues, at the above address.
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