Symposium: Whole Life v. Pro-Life?
We asked participants to respond to one or more of three questions: 1) Should people who defend the right to life of the unborn and the dying call themselves “whole-life” or “consistent-life” rather than “pro-life”? 2) Does defending the right to life today require particular political commitments? 3) Is the “whole life” movement really a newly fashioned “seamless garment”—Cardinal Bernardin’s “linkage” movement of 1983?—The Editors
Mary Meehan Nicholas Frankovich David Mills Jack Fowler
Fr. David Poecking Rebecca Bratten Weiss Brandon McGinley
Kathryn Jean Lopez Kristan Hawkins Charles Camosy Anne Hendershott
Aimee Murphy Kevin D. Williamson Matthew Schmitz
The consistent-life movement in the United States goes back at least to the 1979, when Julianne Loesch brought together activists who opposed both war and abortion. Her small but lively group, called Prolifers for Survival (P.S.), did valuable consciousness-raising on the left, but never had much money. In 1987 it morphed into a newer group that is now called the Consistent Life Network. Consistent Life stalwarts such as Bill Samuel, Rachel MacNair, John Whitehead, Carol Crossed, and Lisa Stiller do much educational work, especially at left-leaning conferences and demonstrations. MacNair’s weekly “Peace & Life Connections” e-mail newsletter is striking in its ability to show the links among all life-or-death issues. Consistent Life also focuses on poverty and racism, especially as they contribute to attacks on human life. A newer consistency group, Rehumanize International, appeals especially to young people. Led by Aimee Murphy, it publishes the online Life Matters Journal and has a YouTube channel called “Consistently Quirky.”
In the early 1980s, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago promoted the consistency ethic, adding a strong social welfare component to it. Many of his fellow Catholic bishops liked this addition, as well as his antiwar emphasis. But many pro-life conservatives did not. They disagreed with him on some of the added issues. They also worried that additions would water down the opposition to abortion they had worked so hard to organize. And they were upset because Bernardin and his fellow bishops had backed a 1981-82 anti-abortion legislative strategy in Congress that had deeply divided the pro-life movement—and then had failed.
Robert Christian, writing last February in the online Catholic journal called Millennial, supported a “whole life movement” that covers even more issues. He wants to include everything from global poverty to protecting the environment to a host of topics under “economic justice.” He suggests this can “purify the pro-life movement of its inconsistencies” and make it “authentically pro-life.” A Ph.D. candidate at the Catholic University of America, Mr. Christian also writes for a website called “The Whole Life Democrat,” a Democrats for Life of America project. So it is not surprising that he favors a very broad approach to life issues.
Yet it seems unfair to attack the pro-life movement because it does not tackle all the issues Mr. Christian is concerned about. People do not criticize antiwar groups because they don’t deal with poverty. Nor do they berate anti-torture groups because they fail to tackle environmental issues. I understand why some people think that use of the term “pro-life” implies opposition to every form of killing humans, but believe that abortion opponents were the first to use it to describe a movement. To use an old term, they had “first dibs” on it. I hope that eventually it will mean opposition to all killing of humans.
I doubt, though, that Mr. Christian understands how enormously difficult it is to end any kind of killing. Perhaps he does not realize that many people have spent the last forty to fifty years in trying to protect unborn children from abortion. Although they have saved many lives through sidewalk counseling and pregnancy help centers, they had hoped to save far more. People in antiwar and anti-death-penalty groups can also claim some successes, but they have endured many failures as well. The same is true of people who work against euthanasia and suicide.
Given the great obstacles they still face, and the complexity of each issue, it makes sense for some groups to specialize in opposition to abortion and others in opposition to war, euthanasia, violent crime, the death penalty, or another issue of killing. The various groups can learn from one another’s approaches and techniques, and the consistency groups can cheer on everyone’s good work and encourage the various groups to work together on some occasions.
I believe, though, that it is unwise to toss all economic and social issues into the mix, or to suggest that someone is not pro-life because they do not accept the latest government program that claims to help people. Some of those programs work well, but others fail. Sometimes privately funded programs work better.
Ultimately, nearly every issue affects life in some way. But some issues are far more serious than others because they threaten life directly and in a very dangerous way. Years ago, a pro-life doctor remarked that given a choice between being dead and being poor, he would take poor. Most of us would. The poor whose lives are protected have a chance to work their way out of poverty. But people who are targeted for death cannot work their way out of a fatal bullet, an abortion machine, or a drone-bombing.
As a longtime supporter of the consistent ethic of life, I believe it is best not to expand it beyond life-or-death cases. This means ones where an individual, group, or government severely injures or takes the life of one or more human beings. Listed alphabetically, the life-or-death issues include: abortion, assault and battery, euthanasia, execution, murder, rape, suicide, torture, and war. Three of these practices—assault, rape, and torture—do not always lead to death, but they risk death and sometimes cause it. People who do survive such evils often endure great suffering, sometimes for many years or even a lifetime.
Some consistent-life supporters are pacifists, while others are not. I believe the right to life includes the right of self-defense, which can be exercised by an individual or by a nation that is unjustly attacked. History suggests, though, that many wars are unjust on both sides. And because war involves such great destruction and kills so many innocent people, there is an obligation for strenuous, good-faith negotiations to avoid it and, when it does occur, to protect civilians endangered by it.
It is well to remember this: If no one killed except in self-defense, no one would kill. If we could stop all the killing—and all the fear, worry, and misery it causes—this world would be a joyful place.
To all the great people who work to end one, two, or many kinds of killing—those who march in the snow, picket in the rain, lobby in town halls and on Capitol Hill, and rescue those about to be killed—we should say: “Thank you! Carry on!” Then we should ask: “How can we help?”
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—Mary Meehan is a senior editor of the Human Life Review.
Our movement began as a campaign to protect unborn children. The push to make abortion a legal right for women seeking it both mirrored and helped to shape how leaders of the right-to-life movement defined their objective in those early days, half a century ago. Advocates for the unborn accepted the other side’s “rights talk,” answering abortion-rights rhetoric with affirmations of the right to life.
Their view expanded but lost some of its sharpness and focus when they adopted the anti-euthanasia cause and joined it to the fight against abortion. Some of the arguments for and against the one kind of medicalized taking of human life did echo arguments about the other kind, as when abortion-rights and right-to-die advocates alike cited the low quality of life that the party in question—an aborted child, a euthanized patient—was likely to suffer had she lived. In cases where euthanasia was voluntary, however, the patient was seen as analogous to the aborting woman, not the aborted child. The patient who asserted her autonomy and elevated it over her right to life complicated the logic on which right-to-lifers could build their case.
The movement slowly began to style itself “pro-life,” as its rhetorical emphasis shifted from a defense of the weak (the fetus) against the strong to the promotion of the sanctity of human life, a principle that commands intuitive respect, though it’s hard to define in legal terms. Prolifers not only persisted in their fight on the two tracks, opposition to abortion and opposition to euthanasia (though they still directed the lion’s share of their attention and resources to the former), but expanded the scope of their concern yet further.
Or, rather, some did. Others disagreed with what they saw as a senseless dilution and blurring of the movement’s mission. Under various names— “seamless garment,” rechristened the “consistent life ethic” and now, decades later, resurrected as “whole life”—a movement within the pro-life movement has been advancing the trend toward a maximally comprehensive agenda. The wider the lens, the harder it becomes to explain the cause on a bumper sticker—though, in part for that very reason, it becomes less dismissible for someone whose opposition to anything “pro-life” is reflexive and visceral. In that moment when the locution “whole life” is still new to him and he is trying to figure out what we mean, we have a chance to grasp the open jaws of his mind and hold them open long enough to make our case.
An advantage that the whole-life movement enjoys over more narrowly defined versions of pro-life activism is that it provides a fuller context in which opposition to abortion can be understood. Alisdair MacIntyre in After Virtue asks his readers to imagine what sense could be made of isolated fragments of scientific research and knowledge after a civilizational collapse in which our libraries and archives were destroyed. Any shared understanding of the purposes and principles of science would vanish. All that would be left were shards of information for future generations to try to decipher in isolation. Our language of morality, he posits, is in such a state.
Many people intuit that the problem exists. They are reaching higher than they probably realize when they attempt to widen the lens of the pro-life movement. They may think that they are only creating a vocabulary and articulating a philosophy for pro-life liberals, but in the process they also body forth a social movement that fits no current political categories.
The range of public policy that elected officials can affect is vast. To identify the pro-life and the pro-choice candidate in a given election is easy; it’s hard to judge the totality of the many moving parts—the person’s character, his party’s platform, his positions on everything from health insurance to whether America should intervene militarily in Syria—that constitute any congressional or presidential candidacy. If you oppose, say, a Republican candidate’s plan for toppling the current Syrian regime but vote for him anyway because he promises to restrict abortion, tell that to the Syrian Christians who see Bashar al-Assad as the only firewall between them and Islamist militants.
If it succeeds, the whole-life movement will seed pro-life ideas and sentiments on the left. That will be good for the cause and should be especially welcome to pro-life Americans who currently have no choice but to split their conscience at the ballot box, voting for this or that Democrat despite the party’s position on abortion. To the list of reasons for which they vote for Democrats, they should be able to add the party’s commitment to reducing the incidence of abortion. The party is not committed to that goal, but it could be. The whole-life movement has its work cut out for it.
— Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at National Review.
It could almost be a scene from the fifties, with people on one side of the barricades yelling “Commies!” and people on the other yelling “Fascists!” Prolifers and whole-lifers tend to speak of each other, when they do, unkindly.
Some prolifers accuse whole-lifers of trying to hijack the movement to advance leftist political causes, of creating a political “poison-pill” that will some day kill it, of being “astro-turf” organizations for the left, of only pretending to care about the unborn, of supporting the party of death. Some whole-lifers accuse prolifers of using the movement to advance rightwing political causes, of ignoring the unborn after they’re born, of only caring about the unborn as props for culture-warring, of letting the cynical Republican leadership use them, of marching not for life but for birth.
Both accuse the other of failing to get anything done. Both suggest the other enjoys a self-satisfying political theatre.
In my reading, whole-lifers speak more fairly, but not always. Yet they rarely speak with gratitude for those Republican prolifers who have kept the issue alive in this country for decades. They complain that too many prolifers support the Republican Party, but they don’t admit that a major reason for the ideological imbalance is the Democratic Party’s complete—fanatical—commitment to abortion. They don’t see how much their movement exists mainly on the internet, in a self-affirming bubble, while the prolifers have a public presence—and not just in political organizations, but in all the crisis pregnancy centers and other aids they offer expectant mothers.
That said, I think the whole-life instinct a sound response to society and politics as they have developed in the last decades, and particularly the last year.
It seems to be a growing movement among prolifers, not just those who are already politically liberal, but people in the center-left, middle, and center-right. Their commitments to conservatism have weakened as the Right has become more libertarian and social Darwinist.
Many of these new libertarians don’t think of themselves as libertarians, but they flatly oppose any actually existing social programs. They talk endlessly of “liberty” and never of solidarity or society or the common good. They do not speak of what happens to the people “liberty” leaves behind. They tend to be pro-choice or only theoretically pro-life.
The Right as a whole doesn’t privilege life as an issue any more, if it ever truly did. It privileges the market and the shrinking of the state, positions perfectly compatible with legal abortion. Classic conservatism, rooted in tradition and religion, is the only part of the Right that has been clearly pro-life. Even there, few of its leaders put the life issue at the center of their concerns where prolifers put it. It now represents a minority of the Right.
Against this movement, some prolifers see that more overt concern for the poor needs to be part of their pro-life commitment. Poor pregnant women aren’t just pregnant, they’re poor. Their children will likely be poor. Poverty increases the temptation to abort their children. A more libertarian and social Darwinist society will inevitably be more pro-choice, in effect and probably in its mainstream ideologies.
What these whole-life prolifers propose depends on prudential judgments, but the positions they take will usually (not necessarily but usually) be “liberal” or social democratic ones. They could in principle take conservative positions, as long as they pushed for a comprehensive vision of the common good. In both cases, the same principles that lead them to defend the unborn will lead them to defend the poor, to speak for the citizens of other nations, to protect the environment, to oppose torture abroad and the carceral state here, to regulate business, to support the social safety net, to expand or even nationalize health care.
My guess is that we are seeing a shifting and rethinking among those—especially Catholics—who had sided with the Republicans mainly over the life issue, and then adopted the politics because you begin to think like your friends. They were never really committed conservatives and definitely not committed Rightists. Now, as the Republicans have become more markedly Republican, they’re finding their other political commitments becoming more imperative. Maybe, they think, we need to do something else, something more comprehensive, more expressive of a concern for human dignity and flourishing, of which our care for the unborn is a part coordinated with the other parts. The concern to protect life (unborn and aged in particular) may be foundational, but it’s the foundation of a building that still needs to be built on top of it.
This development the whole-life movement focuses and manifests. It gives these people’s intuitions form and roots them in principle. It protects them from sliding into a reactive liberalism or subordinating the defense of the unborn to more popular positions. It gives people a name, and an attractive one, by which they can identify themselves. It gives them a community of similar-minded allies now that they’re taking a position that satisfies neither right nor left.
The whole-life movement points them to sources—particularly, for Christians, Catholic Social Teaching—that give a more comprehensive understanding of human life and the common good than the Republican or Democratic parties can give them. People get tired of pragmatism, of deals, of playing the odds, of flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants politics. Many who had once been just pro-life want to build their political house on rock of a comprehensive principle, not the sand of political compromises. They want a whole-life politics.
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—David Mills, a former editor of First Things, is editorial director of Ethika Politika and a regular blogger for the Human Life Review.
I prefer the term “anti-abortion” because, let’s be honest, this push for a new terminology is motivated by politics. So let us engage by laying down a marker: For one to be truly “pro-life,” one must manifest the courage to tell claimants of a “whole life” label that they are not pro-life if they do not:
1. oppose legal abortion, and its funding, and support incremental restric-tions (state and federal) on its forms and methods and practices, and oppose any form of support for the act in our nation’s foreign policy and in aid programs, and in other ways, such as in employee-benefits packages; and
2. acknowledge as fact that the “seamless garment” construct is not some morally acceptable way of addressing and merging a collection of issues but is an obvious and transparent plot—yes, a plot—to undermine the largely conservative effort to curtail and restrict the abortion right, which was so wrongfully established and promulgated by the U.S. Supreme Court (and by certain state courts) in what Justice Byron White rightly called an act of “raw judicial power.”
Let us remember the very real history. The instigation of this “seamless garment” construct comes from a liberal and leftist-run United States Catholic Conference, the bureaucracy of which, in the early 1980s—distraught that its Catholic congressional and political allies, with whom the USCC was simpatico on a host of other-than-abortion issues, easily located and defined by the Democratic Party’s platform (opposition to SDI, opposition to the death penalty, favoring severe Second Amendment restrictions, a determination to coddle Marxist Central American regimes, etc.)—attempted to undermine the moral calculus that rendered these allies as outcasts, as misfits with the Church’s catechism that taught that their actions in support of abortion-on-demand and its many nasty corollaries were sinful, and sinful in a way that supporting missile defense could never be.
How to undermine?
There had to be some new way of profiling, of justifying, of circumventing the verdict-rendering canon law. What could not be tolerated was that abortion, as a political issue, outranked the rest of the platform’s laundry list. What needed to be combated was the fact that abortion had a singular and distinct source of moral authority that let Helms and Hyde and Reagan politically trump Kennedy and Cuomo and DeLauro and Ferraro (and even the pro-abortion priest-congressman Drinan).
The alternative struck upon was simple and obvious and unscrupulous: USCC hacks and the leftist shepherds who, through the National Committee of Catholic Bishops, oversaw them, moved to unify and thereby equate the issues, to convince voters to see a whole, and thereby, in the equating, to politically absolve abortion advocates—after all, they were “Catholic” (at least the USCC’s de facto version of defining such) on gun control and defense spending and much else that warmed the cockles of Tip O’Neill’s heart.
This new political theology required a new terminology. The perversion bled into imagery, and scandalously used for its catch-all descriptive the tunic of the scourged Christ, the “seamless garment” for which the Roman soldiers cast lots.
This was all a dodge and scam. It was all about partisan politics.
It remains all these things.
New Cuomo, same as the old Cuomo.
It is worth recalling, when this baloney was first sliced, just how very partisan (Democrat) and transparent the American Catholic hierarchy was. After an April 1984 meeting with Ronald Reagan, Youngstown Bishop James Malone, the classless head of the NCCB, met with press outside the White House and issued a statement savaging the president on a range of issues. It caused a huge ruckus, but cemented for many the perception they already had—that Catholic officialdom was partisan, that it was operating as a front for, and in collusion with, the Democratic National Committee.
“Whole life?” If you’re an insurance salesman, I may talk to you. If you’re a Catholic bishop or a bureaucratic henchman, I wasn’t buying 30 years ago when you called it a “seamless garment.” And I’m still not buying.
I’ll stick with being anti-abortion.
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—Jack Fowler is Vice President of National Review.
Fr. David Poecking
Apologists for abortion employ deceptive euphemisms such as “pro-choice” or “termination,” but they get one term nearly right: “Pro-life” really means “anti-abortion.” Yes, and more specifically, to be pro-life is to be against the legalization of abortion.
Christians have always opposed abortion. Ancient Christians scorned it. Scholastics speculated that “quickening” converts the grave sin of contraception to the graver sin of abortion. In the newly independent United States, lawmakers gradually codified the implications of the new biological sciences, which were erasing the moral relevance of quickening. But until recently, all societies shaped by Christian humanism recognized the murderous moral character of abortion, understood as directly, deliberately killing a child in the womb, and so they needed no pro-life movement.
The pro-life movement arose as politicians attempted to justify abortion by medical or other expediency. The movement blossomed nationally in response to Roe v. Wade and subsequent jurisprudence making abortion a mother’s choice. Prolifers rejected that change in moral and legal reasoning. The pro-life movement addresses the novel scandal of our era: the state’s withdrawal from its first responsibility to protect its subjects from violence.
It ought not be a partisan issue. Human dignity precedes the law; the law must recognize and protect humanity if it is to be any law at all. A politics which entirely withdraws the protection of the law from any class of humans is a crime of negligence against humanity.
Being pro-life does not propel anyone into a specific party, major or minor, but it precludes formal support for legalized abortion. We may not do evil that good may come of it, so being pro-life also precludes support for a party platform which formally embraces abortion.
In this context, the “whole-life” movement appears in contradistinction to the pro-life movement. Some whole-lifers say they’re urgently concerned about “life” issues other than abortion, without reference to the pro-life movement. Other whole-lifers say they’re correcting the pro-life movement, calling it to greater consistency. Many whole-lifers identify with both approaches.
All do more harm than good.
The other-life-issues agenda includes state action against infant mortality, hunger, poverty, climate change, or even overseas atrocities, as well as state action favoring universal healthcare, women’s education, LGBTQ rights, prisoner rehabilitation, or the like. From this broadly whole-life perspective, every major political party falls short, and that’s the point: Whole-lifers eagerly blur the bright moral line forbidding formal cooperation with evil, apparent here as a platform defending legalized abortion.
The whole-life-as-broad-agenda line of reasoning appeals to a false proportionality, as if all these other “life” positions justify supporting a party that favors legalized abortion. The proportionality is false in part because, at least for this country, the incidence of abortion is orders of magnitude beyond the combined deaths by war, capital punishment, neglect, and illegal violence.
But the proportionality is also false because there need be no commensuration. Our votes may go to imperfect candidates, but it’s always possible to advocate for the whole-life agenda without throwing one’s voice or money toward a platform endorsing legalized abortion. Consider, via analogy, a country where adult gays can marry each other, but minors suspected of homosexuality are executed before their majority. Does the first condition ever need to be counterweighed against the second?
The other whole-life aim is to correct what it means to be pro-life. In this line of reasoning, whole-lifers may concede that abortion is a high priority, maybe the highest. But they allege that prolifers have been inconsistent: Prolifers oppose abortion yet still take the wrong side on one or more of the the whole-life issues. Whole-lifers criticize prolifers for failing to see how pro-life commitments entail additional commitments to the whole-life agenda.
From within the pro-life movement, it makes sense to promote the whole-life agenda. As “seamless garment” advocates argued in past decades, to neglect the underlying moral principles on a secondary issue might weaken their application to abortion as the primary issue. A whole-life position might also be more persuasive: Perhaps attention to the whole-life agenda wins converts from among abortion apologists. My support for universal healthcare has never seemed to impress my pro-choice antagonists, but maybe others have been more successful.
But criticism from within must be from within. Those who seek to correct the pro-life movement must call themselves prolifers. Following our earlier analogy, marriage-equality advocates should be able to identify with those who oppose the execution of gays, even if the latter don’t always support the former.
When whole-lifers stand aloof, however, distinguishing themselves as something outside or beyond the pro-life movement, they’re seeking more to defeat prolifers than to correct them. Back in the national context of legalized abortion versus pro-life, abortion is still widely legal and children are still dying en masse. From that perspective, posturing as whole-life is political treachery against prolifers.
During the 2016 election cycle, Republican apologists embarrassed by candidate Donald Trump cleverly contrived an “anti-anti-Trump” stance, allowing them to align themselves with him without defending him. For whole-lifers to set themselves against prolifers is no better than to be anti-anti-abortion: It may sound clever, but it accomplishes no good.
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—Fr. David Poecking is the pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
Rebecca Bratten Weiss
What does it mean to be pro-life?
This question can be answered in one of two ways.
We could consider the term’s referents: people who call themselves pro-life, and the tenor of the movement itself. In so doing, many find that they do not care for what they see, especially now that the mainstream movement has been tethered to the Trump platform. But, even prior to Trump, it could be argued that it was problematic to affix “pro-life” to a political aggregate committed to hawkish policies, capital punishment, a robust prison system, lax gun laws, and slashing of social safety nets. Thus I understand why some say that the term “pro-life” has become meaningless, or tainted, and why they prefer the term “whole life” or “consistent life ethic.”
But we can also consider what the term implies—what a stance that is “pro” (in favor of, in defense of) “life” (presumably all life, and life as such, not just some lives) would entail. Considering the heft of the ethic that ought to be designated by the term, it is not necessarily a “no true Scotsman” fallacy to argue that many who claim to be pro-life are not truly so—any more than it would be a fallacy to state that many who claim to be just, wise, or modest are not truly so.
I would suggest that terms such as “whole life” or “consistent life” are simply other ways of designating what “pro-life” ought to entail. Does it matter which term one uses? I think not. What matters is that one acts, in both micro and macro politics, to defend all life. If some have unpleasant associations with the term “pro-life,” by all means let them use a different term. The important thing is that we not just talk, but commit ourselves to creating a holistically just society in which all life is honored, and the responsibility to care for our fellow humans—even when difficult—has priority.
But here I must address another objection, from the opposite side of the aisle. Many spokespersons for the mainstream pro-life movement insist that pro-life has a distinct meaning, not to be confused with consistent-life ethic. Because abortion is, materially, the greatest threat to innocent human life in our contemporary American society, many argue that it must be our main focus. Other issues, they say, fall by the wayside, rendered irrelevant by the monstrous moral evil that is abortion: So pro-life should mean primarily, or even exclusively, anti-abortion, and not be used interchangeably with “consistent life ethic,” or to designate opposition also to war, capital punishment, police brutality, degradation of the environment, gun violence, and rape culture.
The obvious difficulty for right-wing prolifers is that once we expand “pro-life” to mean more than “anti-abortion” (euthanasia being given a polite nod on occasion), it no longer looks especially consistent with Republican affiliation. Even taking abortion alone, apart from other threats to life, once one begins looking at the statistics on abortion choice, instead of envisioning it as a choice that happens in a vacuum, it looks as though leftist policies are far more likely to reduce abortions insofar as they eradicate injustices that lead to abortion demand.
And this is why even if we accept the premise that other evils are rendered inconsequential in comparison to abortion, a whole-life interpretation of the term is preferable, because only a whole-life activism is going to be effective in reducing abortion rates and protecting unborn lives.
Moreover, it is self-defeating to argue that pro-life does not mean pro-all-life. First of all, the belief that unborn human lives have essential dignity and are due justice is not a first premise that one arrives at in a vacuum, but instead a realization and recognition that occurs in the context of a stance of honor towards all life. We are awakened, morally, to the ontological goodness of life itself, and to the essential dignity of each human person. Thus awakened, we realize that all human lives, even the ones we cannot see, even the ones we do not behold with wonder, are similarly sacred, making a claim on our protection.
And the idea that other evils become inconsequential in comparison to abortion is also self-defeating, as it suggests that the value of life exists on a scale, and that in comparison to a large enough number of other lives, the value of a single life is watered down and ultimately dissolved entirely. This is a premise for a form of ethical utilitarianism, and it runs contrary to the personalist dictum that the value of every human life has a kind of absoluteness, and cannot be diminished by relativity.
A final objection I must consider, to the argument that pro-life = consistent life, is that proposed by critics of Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” ethic. Critics of the seamless garment avow that it gives leftists and progressives a sneaky way to pretend to be faithful to Catholic moral teaching because they support most of the “garment”—just not the abortion parts. One could as easily say that rejecting the seamless garment allows right-wing Catholics to pretend to be orthodox by saying that the rest of the garment just doesn’t matter.
But either way, critics of the seamless garment are somehow missing its seamlessness. However people may choose to justify their jettisoning of this or that teaching, the material reality is that the threats to the life of the unborn are linked intimately with other injustices. It is because of prior injustice that abortion is presented, with sad irony, as a “choice” for women who feel that that they are trapped in a corner. How is it a “choice” if there are no other options? Even if abortion is the only injustice that matters, we need a consistent life ethic in order to eradicate the ills—poverty, poor health, homelessness, abuse, discrimination—that make it look, for far too many women, like a grim necessity.
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—Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a lecturer in English Literature at a college in Ohio and a co-founder of the New Pro-life Movement.
It is in the nature of communities and political movements that concern themselves with grave injustices to be fractious, and the movement to end abortion is no exception. After all, if abortion is what we say it is, then our movement is charged with nothing less than the ending of a holocaust. It is not extravagant to believe that the cost of every misstep we make is measured in human lives.
With the stakes so high, every disagreement about rhetoric and strategy and politics threatens to become a quarrel; every quarrel threatens to become a rift; and every rift threatens to become a permanent schism. Perversely, it is the gravity of our cause that makes the unity-in-diversity that is essential to our success so difficult to achieve.
With this in mind, I reject the idea that those who favor legal protections for the lives and dignity of the unborn, sick, and aged should or, worse, must apply any particular label to themselves. Further, while robust debate about rhetoric and strategy strengthens our movement, no person or group should make adoption of a particular label a prerequisite for trust and standing in the anti-abortion community. To privilege or to distrust those who, for instance, opt for the “whole life” or “consistent life” label is to choose factionalism over solidarity.
This plea for goodwill and good faith, however, raises thornier questions: At what point do opinions about matters other than traditional “life issues” begin to vitiate one’s pro-life bona fides? Can or should we ever say that positions on issues beyond legally protecting the lives of the unborn, sick, and aged are “not pro-life”? Must the pro-life movement enforce ideological standards beyond our core issues?
Our consideration of these questions should be guided by two common-sense principles. First, whenever possible we should avoid needlessly excommunicating or otherwise alienating those who share basic pro-life commitments. This isn’t just good “big tent” strategy; it is basic courtesy and charitableness. Second, building a comprehensively pro-life culture requires strict legal prohibitions on abortion and euthanasia but also further political, social, and economic changes to the status quo that would enhance the effectiveness and moral authority of those laws. Both before and after achieving that final and essential legal victory, there will be work to be done to make caring for the vulnerable not just a personal legal duty, but a shared moral responsibility.
This second consideration provides a modest limitation to the first. Someone who claims membership in the pro-life movement but who believes that strict legal prohibitions are either unnecessary or sufficient has not given the matter enough thought to earn the trust of the community—or has come to conclusions that bring his or her reasonableness or motives into doubt. Both of these extremes suggest a deeply unrealistic worldview committed more to ideological shibboleths than to the actual work of building a pro-life culture.
Therefore, while I hesitate to suggest that the pro-life movement should enforce any specific political orthodoxy beyond our core issues, we should expect and, yes, enforce a high degree of thoughtfulness about what a comprehensively pro-life culture would require. Concerns about, for instance, the importance of government assistance in decreasing the demand for abortion should not be dismissed out of hand as immaterial distractions; rather, those who favor limiting assistance should argue why their position would help to construct the pro-life culture we all long for.
Finally, both in rhetoric and in substance, members and especially leaders of the anti-abortion movement should demonstrate a sincere solicitude for all vulnerable persons. Very little corrodes the reputation of the pro-life cause more dangerously than the stench of bigotry and hypocrisy that emanates from anti-abortion partisans who speak carelessly about the poor, racial minorities, immigrants, refugees, the imprisoned, and so on. Again, this does not necessarily require taking particular positions on contested political issues, but it does require giving the welfare of all the vulnerable pride of place in our thinking and speaking about politics.
The pro-life movement is strongest when it is broadest. That means welcoming participants from as many personal, political, and intellectual backgrounds as possible. But it also means recognizing and embracing the full breadth of the implications of organizing our society around the truth of human dignity. We should not worry about violating prevailing political orthodoxies of the left or right in this effort; our distinctive consistency will draw people in more effectively than mimicking the compromising cynicism of contemporary politics.
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—Brandon McGinley is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh.
Kathryn Jean Lopez
There’s a section in Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) about “the incomparable worth of the human person” that begins:
Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-2). At the same time, it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an “ultimate” but a “penultimate” reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.
I don’t know about you but reading this passage makes me want to look up and see the person I might otherwise overlook. It also makes me want to look within myself, to remember that our lives are not our own and that we are made for more than we tend to settle for.
I frequently write about abortion and assisted suicide. Travesties of justice, each hurts the most vulnerable among us, ending innocent lives and leaving trails of misery to poison the lives of those directly involved—and Heaven knows how many others.
At the National Review Institute, where I am a senior fellow, we’ve been focusing increasingly on adoption. You can identify as pro-choice or pro-life and still want to help women choose life for their children. There are many ways to do this, from supporting local crisis pregnancy centers to getting behind national legislation making it easier to adopt. There are children stuck in foster care right now who need people to love them.
I also have been wearing a relic of Mother Cabrini—the saint who is the patroness of immigrants—and praying for peace and progress and a humane approach to immigration policies. There are myriad issues, affecting every stage of life, that need to be urgently addressed. Start somewhere. Pray unceasingly, and do what you can to encourage solutions.
I don’t think we need to change labels, but rather do more to make sure abortion isn’t the default option when things look hard and impossible. Whether ending legal abortion is your thing or not, let’s flood the zone with options that will help pregnant women have their babies. It’s in keeping with the generosity of our nation and its history of welcoming the stranger.
I’m thinking of initiatives like Students for Life’s Pregnant on Campus program, which helps students be able to give birth and stay in school. The wide network of homes and pregnancy centers that prolifers have built over the last four decades, where women find emotional as well as physical assistance. And all the non-profit foundations that help people arrange for adoption.
I am also remembering how Cardinal O’Connor pledged that pregnant women in need would find help from the Catholic Church in New York, a pledge his successors have reiterated. This kind of message should go out far and wide.
Our “throwaway culture,” as Pope Francis has put it, doesn’t need movement-rebranding but rather an explosion of Christian creativity—all-inclusive and unifying—and a revived commitment to responsible stewardship of God’s “incomparable” creation, not just at its vulnerable beginning and end, but at all stages of life.
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— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.
Diluting the anti-abortion cause with vague terms like “whole life” threatens our movement’s goal of abolishing abortion. The “pro-life” brand is damaged enough without causing further confusion. In the past 11 years, Students for Life has visited more than 1,600 college campuses and now serves more than 1,200 student groups annually. When we go to a campus to start a new group or help recruit for an existing one, we don’t ask students if they are pro-life or pro-choice because the most common response we get is, “Huh? What does that mean?”
The term “pro-life” has already become almost meaningless for millions of Americans. A survey by the Institute for Pro-Life Advancement found that 53 percent of millennials believe abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances, with 17 percent saying abortion should never be legal and 36 percent saying it should be legal only in extreme cases. However, only 36 percent of those millennials identified as “pro-life.” Poll after poll of all age groups over the past few years reveal similar gaps between respondents’ opinion on the legality of abortion and their identifying as pro-life.
At the core of what we do is a commitment to ending the greatest human-rights injustice our world has ever seen. Since it was legalized by the Supreme Court in 1973, abortion has taken over 55 million innocent lives. This is a horrific tragedy that rightly deserves a movement dedicated solely to stopping the killing. Respect for the dignity of human life begins with protecting the most defenseless and innocent members of our human family. Winning this argument will have effects that spill over into other debates.
“Whole life” or “consistent life” proponents will argue that merging abortion with other issues like the death penalty, poverty, or nuclear proliferation in one movement is necessary to convince people that we’re really serious about being pro-life. They then demand ideological purity on a whole range of issues that aren’t necessarily connected, an approach that reduces the potential number of people who will join our movement. It is hard enough to get people who agree that abortion should be illegal, no matter the circumstance. By bringing in other issues, we limit our ability to build a winning coalition. We should want as many people as possible to feel they can be part of our movement. We ought to expand the tribe, not limit it.
I believe the best way to do that is by being anti-abortion.
To achieve our mission, we need to be completely focused on it, in the same way any successful business or organization remains focused on its mission and what it does best. By giving in to mission creep and trying to do 100 things well, we won’t do anything well.
Just consider the Women’s March movement that began last January. While it turned into a Planned Parenthood rally in most places, there were marchers holding climate-change signs, Black Lives Matter signs, anti-Israel signs, signs demanding criminal justice reform and LGBTQ rights. The Women’s March has since embraced nearly a dozen causes, which they ask their supporters to take action on. But the movement is ineffective because it’s not focused on one, singular issue.
Choosing to focus my resources on abolishing abortion doesn’t mean I don’t care about other issues. Two of my children were born with a genetic disease; their lifespans depend on having access to the best healthcare in the world. My heart breaks for those trapped by human trafficking and modern slavery. I long for the day when there is no more war. To imply that I am indifferent to these and other challenges, as do those who insist on the “whole life” perspective, is demeaning and insulting. Abortion is enough of an injustice that it deserves its own movement, with strategic goals, concise messaging, innovative tactics, and a focused mission. There should be armies of people working in different movements with different specific missions, but all demanding respect for the dignity of all human life. These movements can work in concert, whenever possible, but should not be combined into one.
The term “whole life” was coined to make being against abortion more palatable to political liberals who would never call themselves “pro-life,” a term they view as Republican, conservative, and Christian. It was an outreach tactic for bringing more liberal-leaning Americans to our movement.
Sadly, those people who identify with the term “whole life” are focusing less on trying to bring new people in from the outside and more on trying to convince those already in the “pro-life” tribe to switch their membership. Instead of expanding our movement, we are dividing it.
We have seen this happen with “whole life” and other modified pro-life terms before. One notable pro-life feminist posted on Facebook during this past election season that it was impossible to be both pro-life and a feminist, and she was choosing feminism over pro-life in how she voted. I can’t tell you how many times—long before the 2016 presidential campaign got underway—I’ve met pro-life Democrats who, at the end of the day, vote for the pro-abortion Democrat over the pro-life Republican candidate, using the “whole life” justification.
The question is: Why do so many feel the need to qualify the pro-life label? Many millennials I’ve spoken with say they add something before or after calling themselves “pro-life” because they are afraid to be associated with our damaged brand. If being “pro-life” were socially acceptable, young people wouldn’t rush to say, for example, “I’m pro-life—but I’m also a feminist.”
At Students for Life, we don’t dance around abortion. We don’t try to deceive people with fluffy language. So we’re using terms like “pro-life” less and less and just getting to the point of exactly what we are: anti-abortion.
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—Kristan Hawkins is president of Students for Life of America.
Often for reasons related to American secular politics, the Consistent Ethic of Life (CEL) is ridiculed as the product of “liberal” bishops and popes like Cardinal Bernardin and Pope Francis. But in reality, the CEL is simply the teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope St. John Paul II, because he is thought of as “conservative,” might not jump to mind as an advocate of the CEL. But anyone who has read his work—especially his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae—cannot help but be impressed by the CEL’s strong influence on his thought.
One could predict that an encyclical on the “Gospel of Life” would have a particular focus on abortion and euthanasia, but John Paul II consistently called out a number of different-but-interrelated issues. In defending the inherent dignity of human life, especially when it is weak and defenseless, John Paul II proclaimed the Gospel of Life by drawing attention to “the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war.” The list gets longer when the Pope joins the Second Vatican Council in “forcefully condemning” the following practices which are “opposed to life itself”:
any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury (http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html, 3).
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Benedict XVI reflected the views of his predecessor. In his Caritas in Veritate, for instance, he explicitly says the distinction between “pro-life” issues (where the Church is thought to have more conservative views) and “social-justice” issues (where the Church is thought to have more liberal views) is a false one. Abortion, euthanasia, and embryo-destructive research are to be understood as social-justice issues—just as global capitalism, ecological concern, and care for the poor are to be understood as life issues. For example, while Benedict makes a ground-breaking call for increased ecological concern in this document, in true CEL fashion he refuses to isolate this concern from what he calls “human ecology”and “integral human development”:
[T]he decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other (http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate.html, 51).
The U.S. Bishops—reflecting the last several popes—have made the CEL their primary framework when attempting to reach the larger culture with a pro-life message. The very first heading on the website of their Pro-Life office is “The Consistent Ethic of Life” and notes the following:
This focus and the Church’s commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement one another. A consistent ethic of life, which explains the Church’s teaching at the level of moral principle—far from diminishing concern for abortion and euthanasia or equating all issues touching on the dignity of human life—recognizes instead the distinctive character of each issue while giving each its proper place within a coherent moral vision. As bishops of the United States we have issued pastoral letters on war and peace, economic justice, and other social questions affecting the dignity of human life—and we have implemented programs for advancing the Church’s witness in these areas through parishes, schools, and other Church institutions (e.g., Communities of Salt and Light ; Sharing Catholic Social Teaching ). Taken together, these diverse pastoral statements and practical programs constitute no mere assortment of unrelated initiatives but rather a consistent strategy in support of all human life in its various stages and circumstances (http://www.usccb.org/about/pro-life-activities/pastoral-plan-prolife-activities.cfm).
Some argue that the CEL is misguided because a pro-life ethic must only focus on direct killing (as occurs in abortion and euthanasia) and not on supporting those who need help. But this attitude, again, comes from liberal/conservative secular political debates in the United States rather than the actual teaching of the Catholic Church. The Catechism, for instance, claims that “the fifth commandment [thou shalt not kill] forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person’s death. The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger.” It then goes on to quote St. Ambrose: “The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and a grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them” (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm).
As a faithful Roman Catholic, I believe the CEL has been revealed by God as moral truth. In a related story, as a prolifer, I believe the CEL is required for our movement to authentically honor the dignity of the human person.
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—Charles Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics in the theology department at Fordham University.
If one wishes to convince others that the whole-life approach to protecting the unborn is preferable to the traditional pro-life movement, hurling insults at the pro-life community is not the place to start. Unfortunately, this has been the strategy adopted by some of the most articulate advocates of the whole-life position. Accusing the pro-life community of “using the unborn as human shields” in political debate, whole-life proponents like Mark Shea, a former columnist at The National Catholic Register, now a blogger at Patheos, suggest that the pro-life movement has “mutated into a heresy” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2017/03/prolife-movement-large-measure-mutated-heresy.html), and claim that too often when it comes to protecting minority children, pro-life people “hide behind their Precious Feet pins” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2016/07/an-honest-and-heartfelt-exchange-with-a-friend-who-feels-that-ive-changed.html).
Likewise, Patheos blogger Rebecca Bratten Weiss accuses the pro-life movement of being “infected with misogyny, not just on the cranky edges, but right down the middle.” For Bratten Weiss, recognizing the dignity of unborn human life “can only make sense in the context of recognizing the dignity of all human life. This means eliminating the causes that drive women to abortion; it means working to end racism and domestic abuse and rape and gun violence and poor working conditions; it means opposing all war, all capital punishment . . . Oh, and let’s take it a step further. Let’s respect all life, not just human life. That means radical opposition to all cruelty towards animals, poaching, factory farming, and the commodification of pets” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/suspendedinherjar/2016/05/now-is-the-time-to-be-whole-life/).
While Robert Christian, editor of Millennial, the online journal of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, has attempted to make a persuasive case for the whole-life movement, he cannot resist taking a nasty swipe at traditional prolifers when he writes that we need a “better” pro-life movement—“only a whole-life approach can make the pro-life movement authentically pro-life.” And, like Bratten Weiss, Christian provides a long list of issues which he defines as pro-life, including ending global poverty, saving the environment, enacting immigration reform, promoting gun control, ending racial injustice, and reforming the criminal justice system. Christian relegates abortion to just another issue on that very long list (https://millennialjournal.com/2016/02/03/what-is-the-whole-life-movement/).
That is the real problem with the whole-life movement. When a commitment to saving the lives of unborn children is equated with opposition to “commodifying pets,” the mission and the message of protecting unborn children become muddled. That is likely the intention of whole-life advocates, because the movement itself is focused on political rather than life issues. While many of those affiliated with the whole-life movement have accused traditional prolifers of politicizing the unborn through their support for candidates running on the Republican Party’s pro-life platform, the truth is that many whole-life movement leaders—including Robert Christian—are committed to convincing Catholic voters that pro-choice Democratic nominees for public office actually will do more than Republicans to reduce abortion. Robert Christian’s own George Soros-supported Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good was created to help elect pro-choice Democrats. Leaked emails from longtime Democratic Party operative John Podesta confirm that Podesta personally helped launch CACG to infiltrate the Catholic Church and challenge Catholic teachings on life issues like abortion. Calling it a “Catholic Spring,” Podesta acknowledged that he “created” these groups to provoke a progressive revolution in the Catholic Church (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/10/12/wikileaks-emails-show-clinton-spokeswoman-joking-about-catholics-and-evangelicals/?utm_term=.987bac9b2210).
For more than a decade, many within the traditional pro-life community sought to expose CACG’s political agenda, publishing articles on its funding sources and its duplicitous attempts to neutralize the abortion issue by, for example, suggesting that even though the Democratic Party platform essentially endorses abortion on demand, Democratic policies addressing poverty would reduce abortion rates more than Republican policies would. In 2008, CACG released a study by Michael Bailey of Georgetown University and Joseph Wright of Penn State, in which the professors claimed to have “discovered evidence that abortion rates could be driven down by redistributive policies aiding low-income Americans.” They also implied that legislation to restrict access to abortion had little to no effect on abortion rates. Their study, however, was shown to contain faulty data by social researchers, and CACG was forced to retract it (https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204731804574384702313364172).
It is not surprising that progressive activists create progressive organizations devoted to electing progressive politicians. Conservatives do the same thing. But from the start, CACG promoted progressive politicians and public policies designed to expand abortion rights—while accusing traditional prolifers of “using” the unborn to elect Republicans.
Insisting the pro-life movement needed to be “purified” by moving away from what Christian has called a “simplistic focus on a single issue,” the whole-life movement is already a bit late to the struggle. In many ways, Christian, Shea, Bratten Weiss, and others seem to have missed the fact that the pro-life movement is already helping to change the culture surrounding abortion by winning many battles at the state level—over waiting periods, ultrasound and parental notification requirements, and restrictions on late term abortion. More than 300 policies to protect the unborn have been passed in the states in the past five years alone—with little help from those in the whole-life movement. The number of abortions in each of those years has fallen to pre-Roe-era levels—the lowest in more than four decades. Many of these gains are due to the selfless efforts of the traditional pro-life community and its pro-life religious leaders. We now have a pro-life president who has promised to appoint pro-life judges. Yet just as victory appears possible at the level of the Supreme Court, the whole-lifers want us to give up our “single issue focus” on the unborn. We need to ignore them.
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—Anne Hendershott is Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio.
I was walking around downtown last weekend, minding my own headspace (or trying to), when quite suddenly I was struck by the sheer diversity of those gracing the streets of my city. There are so many differences among us—our ages and our skin colors, our sizes and our shapes, our sexualities and our gender identities, our abilities and our educational attainment, our economic classes and our religions, our levels of innocence and dependence. Yet a common thread ran from each to each: our humanness. It was an existential moment, in which I saw our connectedness laid out in front of me like a spider’s web sprawling for miles. And I was reminded of these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Indeed, when we support an act of violence against one human being, we undermine our support for all human rights. The multifarious circumstances of our lives matter not a lick to the question of our dignity and worth. Truly and honestly caring for human rights necessarily requires a deep, profound, and pervasive respect for our shared, inherent human dignity; it requires a personalist worldview that puts the human at the center of all that we do.
We can accept that “pro-life” is a single-issue word meaning only “opposition to abortion,” or we can take it to its logical end (and its beginning!) by extending the respect for the inalienable right to life to each and every human being in each and every circumstance. It is dismaying that the mainstream pro-life movement has been tied so closely to a political party whose leaders (and often constituents) support hawkish war policies that kill civilians overseas, throw their weight behind the death penalty, and give credence to torture and “enhanced interrogation.” We often hear that prolifers don’t care about people after they’re born—why does that stereotype persist? Perhaps part of the reason is that consistent-life-ethic supporters (like me) have been pushed to the fringes of the pro-life movement. Cardinal Bernardin has been made out to be a villain by some pro-life leaders, yet the question among most of those who embrace the consistent-life ethic isn’t whether ending abortion is the most urgent cause we could champion (it most certainly is), but whether being pro-life ends there.
I’ve been accused of using the consistent-life ethic as a tactic. I’ve been accused of heading a front group for some right-wing conspiracy. I’ve been accused of not truly caring about ending violence against the preborn. But none of these charges is true. I don’t embrace the consistent-life ethic because it’s a good strategy for reaching disenfranchised and disillusioned millennials (though it is). I don’t embrace the consistent-life ethic to get people to become conservatives (I’m pretty left-leaning myself). I don’t embrace the consistent-life ethic to give cover for leftist politicians who campaign hard for the abortion industry (I have not once voted for or supported a politician who supported abortion).
I embrace the consistent-life ethic simply because it is true.
It is true no matter your age or size or race or sexuality or religion or gender identity or ability or class or level of innocence or dependence: Human beings have inherent, unchangeable worth and dignity. This worth and dignity demands respect, demands that we be treated always as ends in ourselves and never as mere means. Out of this worth and dignity flows the inherent and inalienable right to live free from violence.
So when I say that being pro-life should necessarily require opposition to all forms of aggressive violence, it is not because I am trying to equate abortion and war, or imply that torture and embryonic-stem-cell research are equivalent, or say that euthanasia and capital punishment are the same. It is because all of us, as members of the human family sharing this same intrinsic human worth, are connected. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And each act of aggressive violence that we perpetuate in our culture and in our laws compounds the disregard for human dignity.
We need to stop choosing sides. We need to stop allowing our movements for life and for human rights to be dragged slavishly behind political parties that could care less about actually passing laws to abolish abortion, stop war, or otherwise end legalized violence against human beings. We need to be strong, principled, and above all: human-centered. This doesn’t by any means imply that we slow down or do less in our efforts to end abortion (it is, after all, the most urgent issue by sheer numbers and complicity alone); but it means that we refuse to treat any human being as expendable in our search for justice. Because, in the end, we are all connected by the only thread that matters: our humanity.
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—Aimee Murphy is executive director of Rehumanize International.
Kevin D. Williamson
The worst part of abortion is the violence it inflicts on the unborn. The second-worst part of abortion is the violence it inflicts on the truth.
Those who favor abortion favor euphemism: “choice,” “women’s health care,” etc. They rely on euphemism for the same reason they feel the need to suppress and exclude protesters carrying signs with images they deem shocking, “graphic,” or, in the insipid language of the moment, “triggering”—and for the same reason they object so strenuously to measures such as the Texas sonogram law: The rhetoric of abortion cannot withstand the reality of abortion. Those protest placards bearing images of fetal remains are shocking, but only because they make plain and undeniable the truth of what abortion is and what it does. Abortion is the intentional killing, often through gruesome means, of a living human organism at an early stage of development.
Those of us who oppose the intentional killing of those living human organisms ought not feel any need for euphemism, even if the convention of describing ourselves as “pro-life” is at least a little euphemistic. To the extent that adopting the labels “whole life” or “consistent life” is merely adopting euphemism, it ought to be rejected. It is the case that the label “pro-life” comes with some unwelcome cultural baggage: thundering preachers in polyester suits assuring young women in terrible circumstances that they are bound for eternal damnation and all that. Some of that is a result of political caricature and media exaggeration, but it is not the result of pure invention, either. The fix for the negative associations of the term “pro-life” isn’t pretending that we are somebody else—the fix for that is for us to be better than we have been.
But “whole life” and “consistent life” are not innovations in language only. They also represent a distinct school of thought holding that the campaign against abortion should be linked to other causes broadly involving questions of “life,” such as opposition to capital punishment or support for anti-poverty programs. Some of that tendency is genuine, though some of it is cynical political calculation, too: Many leaders in the pro-life movement believe that they will have more success in the political realm and endure less intense hostility in the popular culture if they emphasize goals that appeal to political progressives rather than those that appeal to conservatives. Many in the clergy, particularly the traditionally liberal Catholic bishops of the United States, have adopted the “seamless garment” both as a rhetoric and a sincerely held set of principles.
This is a mistake. While capital punishment is generally undesirable—and as practiced in the United States is horrifying—it is a fundamentally different kind of issue. That is true as a religious question (no matter how energetically the U.S. bishops may misrepresent their own teachings on the subject) and as a secular political question: Putting a prisoner to death for having committed murder is a different kind of proposition from putting a child to death for being inconvenient. Even if we concede that the same high regard for life that causes us to seek to protect the child should also soften our hearts toward the criminal, that shared sentiment does not bridge the moral or political distance between those fundamentally different situations.
Abortion and capital punishment may be said to be procedurally similar in that both involve the intentional taking of a human life with the blessing of the state. That is a similarity so rough and general as to be politically and morally useless. But the “whole life” school of thought would conjoin even more vaguely related proposals. Of course it is the case that those of us who oppose abortion should also care about the situation of children and mothers in difficult personal and economic situations. (So should people who do not oppose abortion.) Atomistic, Randian individualism exists in American politics mainly within the imaginations of progressives who believe themselves to be opposing it. In truth, Left and Right in the United States both believe in community and charity, and both broadly accept the legitimacy of social-welfare programs. Even F. A. Hayek, the 20th century’s great critic of overly ambitious government, made room in his political economy for a reasonably generous welfare state. Our political fights over issues such as health care and anti-poverty programs are not disagreements about how and whether we value human life, but are mainly about economic incentives, program design, and trade-offs. These are questions for compromise and negotiation—and abortion is not.
We ought not be afraid to say who we are or what we think, because what prolifers propose—that putting unborn children to death is a scandal and a crime—is eminently reasonable. When we talk about the basic facts of abortion, the first reaction of our opponents is to try to change the subject. We ought not be changing the subject for them.
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—Kevin D. Williamson is director of the National Review Institute’s William F. Buckley Jr Fellowship Program in Political Journalism.
Come quickly, Lord. Devils and fools have been saying that “pro-life” is too narrow a label and needs to be replaced with “whole-life” or “consistent-life.” Why not follow this logic to its end and label our movement “People who favor good things but not at the expense of other things that also happen to be good”? Or, if that’s a bit wordy, “Utopians for Utopia”?
Online debates have produced an ugly term that also happens to be a useful concept: concern trolling. Someone who “concern trolls” claims to be in fundamental agreement with a cause but spends all his time raising minor “concerns” or tactical objections against those who advance it, thereby derailing action with pointless disputation.
People who would have us call ourselves “consistent life” are either concern trolls or have been deluded by them. One need not oppose any of the good things they favor to see that their objections are beside the point. If the pro-life movement gave equal attention to every evil in the world, it would fail to end any of them.
Much as I hate the proposals of the would-be rebranders, I have to confess that I don’t care for the term “pro-life” either. It seems that every other week someone publishes the “pro-life” case for this or that: pacifism! veganism!—even abortion. Intriguing as it may be to debate the meaning of life, somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten about protecting the unborn.
Twenty years ago, a certain Jim McFadden put the point nicely: “Why do we eschew ‘pro-life’ and call ourselves ‘anti-abortion’? The short answer is, honesty: ‘pro-life’ is a euphemism that has been effectively countered (with endless media support) by ‘pro-choice’—we do not ‘link’ abortion with any other issues; that led to the ‘Seamless Garment’ which in effect holds that, in a perfect world, abortion would disappear. No, we see Roe v. Wade as our Dred Scott, and abortion as the analogue to slavery; the Abolitionists were not afraid to be ‘negative’—they fought not for Utopia but against slavery alone—they saw it as a singular evil that could be defeated in both the moral and political realms.”
A growing number of abortion opponents see things McFadden’s way. Earlier this year, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told the Washington Post that she considers herself anti-abortion rather than pro-life. “We’re against abortion. I think it’s much simpler. It gets across what we’re about in a faster way . . . To say you’re against it is okay. I am anti-smoking. I’m anti-sex trafficking. I’m anti-drunk driving. And yes, I’m anti-abortion.”
Debates about whether we should be consistent life, whole life, or plain old pro life ought to remind us of the virtues of precision. From first to last, we are anti-abortion. All else distracts.
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—Matthew Schmitz is Literary Editor of First Things.
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