What do you do when it feels like you’re losing? For decades, anxiety over imminent defeat has challenged the pro-life movement, nudging us into self-defeating attitudes and behaviors. Prolifers who want to be faithful to our cause might draw some inspiration from pop culture.
Abortion rates in the United States rose dramatically with the legalization movement in the 1970s and sustained highs through the 1980s. Prolifers were overwhelmed. Abortion rates since then have trended gently downwards, but despite political gains by those at least nominally pro-life, we failed to prevent the entrenchment of abortion in American law and jurisprudence, helplessly standing by as a new generation arose for whom the legality of abortion was taken for granted.
More recently, our putative allies in the “culture wars” have mostly surrendered to hostile ideologies. Politicians right and left speak of sexuality as an appetite to be satisfied and almost never as a call to the responsibility of childrearing. Soi-disant conservatives now deny the traditional moral obligation of the individual to work for the common good. Those dedicated to preserving what is natural, organic, or ecologically sensitive renounce their sentiments when it comes to throwing away unborn children.
No doubt, some prolifers are tempted to give up and walk away. Others don’t like the feeling of powerlessness, and assuage it by seeking the feeling of effectiveness elsewhere. It is not hard to find, say, nominally pro-life websites whose main appeal is the platform they provide for publicly denouncing other prolifers for their inadequate zeal or insufficient ideological purity. Still others among us grow so angry or shrill that we discredit our own movement.
About four years ago, United States pop culture indulged in some historical nostalgia about an analogous situation. The “good guys” were losing their fight. Their allies were giving up. They were interiorly divided over whether or how to stay the course. In two movies, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk, audiences contemplated the plight of the United Kingdom as its French allies mostly surrendered, the Nazis conquered the European continent, and threats of invasion and slaughter loomed.
Both movies end with Winston Churchill’s famous speech, commonly known as “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” which concludes:
. . . [W]e shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
To my reading, Churchill’s rhetoric works not because of its stirring litany of how the United Kingdom will fight or its hope-inspiring allusion to overseas colonies and the British fleet, but rather because of its final appeal to an awesome but as yet untapped power: the United States.
I came to be pro-life largely because of my maturation as a Christian. (You can read that story here.) And as a Christian, I acknowledge that the healing of the world comes not from my power or goodness, but from the loving and obedient death of Jesus. Therefore, even though I am expected to pursue all good things, I do not expect to prevail against all the selfishness or malice of the world, nor even against the most obvious instances of these, such as abortion and war.
Our responsibility is to do what is right and good, in particular to protect unborn children in law and in fact, so far as our circumstances allow, without falling into the same selfishness and malice that fuel the abortion movement. We can celebrate our perseverance, as Churchill celebrated the United Kingdom’s. We can identify some of our strengths—not colonies or fleets, but compelling stories and humane charity.
But for our cause to prevail, we will depend on a higher power—not the United States, which is at best only awkwardly compared to divinity—but the saving will of God, who created each of us, including the unborn, for a purpose we can for now only guess at. In the Catholic liturgy calendar, we now observe Pentecost, commemorating the gift of the Holy Spirit who animates all Christian fellowship and mission. The Spirit will animate also our movement, even when by worldly standards we appear to lose ground, until in his own good time our hearts are truly turned toward love and life.