What’s in a Name? “Pro-Life” Is Hard to Live Up To
Your name influences your destiny. So say social scientists and casual observers. In our day, the business of looking to your name to predict your job prospects, or to explain them, or to understand in more general terms who you are or will be in the world, is a subtle and slippery science, or art, and disputed, like astrology. We see the matter more clearly in religion, as when a man or woman taking vows takes a new name—Padre Pio! Sister Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception!—that announces the character of the new identity he or she aspires to assume. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio, on being elected pope, chose Francis of Assisi, that personification of voluntary poverty, to be his namesake, he signaled something of what he intended the tone and theme of his pontificate to be. In Genesis, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Hebrew for “Father of multitudes,” to make a point.
What a large ambition the name of this publication indicates: a review of human life. It is, as everyone who knows it understands, a review primarily of something rather more focused and defined. From its inception, its editors have striven to compile the record of the long parade of medical, legal, and political assaults on, and consequent defenses of, human life as represented by unborn children and the ill, the disabled, and the elderly. In the 1960s, the nascent movement against abortion and euthanasia had gravitated toward a name that would express what it was for, not just against, and hence right to life. The term invited questions and arguments, however, about the competition between rights—between, for example, the rights of a pregnant woman and those of her unborn child, or between those of the woman now and those that, while still in utero, she had by nature though, depending on the time and place, not necessarily by law. Eventually, the very idea of the right to life was matched by the assertion of a right to die. For whatever reasons, by the 1970s, right-to-life activists had begun to call their movement pro-life, a good, succinct name. It has held up.
It has the advantage of describing a sentiment wide enough to encompass resistance to euthanasia, assisted suicide, and suicide of any kind as well as to abortion. From the earliest days of the anti-abortion movement, some of its leaders recognized the overlap between the two issues, abortion and euthanasia. The National Right to Life Committee organizes opposition to both. In practice, cooperation between those two fronts has not been seamless. I have noticed that people against abortion oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide more so than vice versa. That is, a fair number of those who oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide are ambivalent about abortion and, in some cases, outright supportive of abortion rights, although they tend not to press the issue, out of respect for their political allies.
As if that coalition were not already fragile enough, since the 1980s some thinkers and political activists have sought to expand it further and further. The concept of the seamless garment, as articulated by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin at Fordham in 1983, is philosophically coherent, even compelling, but has proven to be politically infeasible. Many people unequivocally oppose abortion, euthanasia, war, or the death penalty. Few unequivocally oppose all of them. Few people are pacifists. Most believe there are certain circumstances under which the right of one human being to take the life of another must be upheld. What those circumstances are vary from political camp to political camp, even from person to person.
Many avowedly pro-life advocates qualify their position by adding the word innocent before human life, but sometimes the guilt or innocence of the human being whose life we would take is hard to determine. The army of an enemy nation conscripted a soldier whom we seek to kill. We don’t know his mind. He might relish the opportunity to inflict harm on us. Or he might not—that is, he might be innocent in a moral sense, even if physically, and literally, he’s nocent, aiming a gun at us. It’s in that latter aspect that he becomes a target for us to shoot at. We might do so in the moment, in self-defense. Or, if not in immediate self-defense, then because as a nation we have resolved to war against his nation, to defend our freedom or honor, even at the cost of human lives, our own as well as those of the enemy. Along similar lines, the American theologian Paul Ramsey, applying just-war theory in his essay “The Morality of Abortion” (1968), concluded that the practice was morally justifiable to save the life of the mother and even to preserve her mental health, if we knew that it would.1
“Give me liberty, or give me death!” The motto we attribute to Patrick Henry is a monument of American patriotism. It’s a heroic ideal that clashes with the pro-life ideal perfectly expressed, but one that many of us would still be loath to disavow. We consider it noble to be ready to give our life for a cause, or for family, or for the nation. Between us and those who are ready to give their life for some other reason—say, for their release from pain, whether mental or physical—the difference is significant but, in another sense, not. In both instances, a human life is sacrificed to a putative greater good. We say we agree on the sanctity of human life, including our own, and then proceed to disagree with one another about what are the special cases in which we may or even should violate it. We have adopted the name pro-life, but it’s too tall for most of us to live up to. It’s not clear that most of us even think that we should.
1. Paul Ramsey, “The Morality of Abortion,” in Life or Death: Ethics and Options, ed. Daniel Labby (Seattle: University of Seattle Press, 1968), 60–93.