One of the perennial questions amongst pro-lifers concerns the wisdom of expanding the definition of “pro-life” to encompass political issues beyond the question of legalized abortion.
On the one hand, we’ve published several pieces at Mere O over the years that say why this is a bad idea. Matthew Loftus noted that we risk watering down the meaning of the term while Stephen Wolfe argued that often supporters of expanding ‘pro-life’ are confusing political objectives with political policies. Matthew Lee Anderson has made similar arguments in a number of places, most notably at Vox.
On the other hand, I think there are good reasons to argue for a kind of expanding. I tried to make some of that argument at Commonweal last week. Charles Camosy has made a similar argument in recent weeks and just published a book that appears to be developing the same idea. If I’m understanding them, I think Popes Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all taken in a similar approach in their social teaching. Certainly if you look at Caritas en Veritate or Laudato Si, the two latter popes are trying to situate the pro-life cause within a broader social teaching. Similarly, much of the work being done at Plough by the radical anabaptists is, at minimum, linking the pro-life argument about abortion to similar arguments about the death penalty.
So then: Should we expand the scope of ‘pro-life’ advocacy work to encompass other causes? As is often the case with such questions, it’s complicated and so I’m going to try and lay out the case for and against below with hopes that we can continue to discuss in the months ahead.
Three Reasons to Keep “Pro-Life” Narrow
First, there is something uniquely horrifying about legalized abortion.
Though ours is a decadent society with rampant loneliness, mental health struggles, drug addiction problems, and familial breakdown, there is still, for all that, something uniquely horrifying about the killing of the unborn. As the much-maligned Alabama bill noted, the number of unborn children killed in the United States since Roe is staggering and exceeds the number killed by some of history’s most horrific moral monsters.
One danger of expanding the scope of pro-life advocacy is that we would lose a sense of the unique horror of abortion as well as the urgency of the struggle. Many of the claims that major religious right leaders made about the distinctive horror of abortion are correct and it would be a discredit to us if we became fuzzier or less alarmed than our fathers and mothers in the movement by the evil of abortion.
Second, clarity can be lost when we compare things that overlap in some ways but are still unlike one another in significant ways.
This is the point that both Loftus and Wolfe were making, in different ways, on the main page. Even the issue that can most plausibly be linked to the abortion issue, capital punishment, is more complex than many admit. In the first place, capital punishment is endorsed in Scripture—not only in the Mosaic law, but prior to that in Genesis 9.
Of course, the fact that scripture endorses capital punishment in Genesis does not necessarily mean that we must support capital punishment as it is practiced today. One can, reasonably I think, argue that the death penalty is used unjustly in the United States, particularly as it concerns racial minorities and especially black Americans.
That being said, because of the biblical record I do not think one can straightforwardly condemn capital punishment in the same way that one can condemn abortion. The two cases are not morally equivalent, even if they do raise some overlapping issues. When we lump them together, this important distinction is lost.
If that problem applies to attempts to link pro-life activism to capital punishment then it is only compounded further when we consider other issues. Some will argue, for example, that a comprehensive pro-life plan requires a particular approach to healthcare policy or even particular reforms to the tax code.
Again, this instinct is not wholly wrong: being able to contextualize moral problems is important. In his writing on private property, for example, Thomas Aquinas argues that if a person takes another person’s property due to material need then that person has not committed theft. In other words, Jean Valjean did not “steal” a loaf of bread according to Thomas’s doctrine of private property.
So it is not wrong necessarily to note that sometimes a woman gets an abortion due to material need and a society more attentive to the needs of the poor is also more hospitable to life.
Even so, it does not follow from this that abortion advocacy should be channeled primarily or exclusively through advocacy for healthcare or economic reform.
Civil law should, without extending the magistrate’s purview beyond its rightful role, reflect the moral law. Defining those boundaries is difficult, of course, but at minimum, we should not see blatant contradictions between the civil law and the moral law.
What often happens when the economic and healthcare policy debates are foregrounded is that we lose clarity about this point. The fact that the law as it currently exists allows egregious injustice to happen daily is bracketed as we reason in very pragmatic, policy-driven ways about the law without asking more basic, essential questions about the good life which would help us reason about policy once we moved further along the road.
One is reminded of Chesterton’s criticism of progressivism, which is that it seeks to always move forward without ever arriving at a conclusive definition of exactly what it is moving forward to.
It is, doubtless, true that we should aspire to creating a society receptive to life and this means more than simply banning abortion. But it does not mean less than that.
Third, expanding the cause will necessarily shrink the possible base for the movement in terms of both capital and people.
There is, finally, a point to be made about the nature of political movements. Causes and movements are advanced when a group of diverse people identify a common purpose and unite around it. This necessarily involves an elevation of some priorities and a refusal to acknowledge other priorities which, if acknowledged, would divide the movement.
If abortion is uniquely evil and if it is a particularly egregious way in which our civil law violates the moral law, then we should seek to end legalized abortion. Doing so necessarily brings us into the realm of practical politics. Here is where we must begin to think more pragmatically about how the political process works.
Advancing a political movement requires people and it requires power. The more obstacles you create to joining the movement, the fewer of each you will have. If we closely link the abolition of the death penalty to the cause for life, then we will lose many people who would happily support the pro-life cause but who, for one reason or another, are nervous about abolishing the death penalty. The same applies to an even greater degree if we link the pro-life cause to advocating for single-payer healthcare, a higher marginal tax rate, or a more robust social safety net.
All of those issues matter, of course, and I actually would firmly be in favor of a higher marginal tax rate and a far more robust social safety net. But if we want to draw together a cohort to address the abortion question, we should focus around abortion and aim for forming a broad coalition.
Two Reasons to Broaden “Pro-Life”
First, individual political goods need to be embedded in a broader vision of the good life.
One line of political critique I have always found very helpful is what Stanley Hauerwas develops in his essay on Watership Down. The short summary is that political communities are groups of people who believe and enact a story about the nature of their life together. Emmanuel Katongole picks up this idea and does a lot with it in The Sacrifice of Africa. This raises one possible problem with past pro-life activism, which is that it is perhaps suspended as a single policy belief hanging in the air without a foundation in a shared set of political doctrines that contextualize the policy and explain its significance.
The main challenge for this critique is that it will inevitably put some stress on the third argument for narrowing pro-life activism mentioned above. If you want everyone to agree on a common story about the good life, you will likely have to exclude a lot of people who oppose abortion but would object to other aspects of whatever story the group generally affirmed.
This relates to another question about the nature of political movements. Many of us are wondering whether or not political coalitions can be held together in the absence of a generally unifying story about the nature of the good life and good society. There are three approaches we can take to that question.
One way of defining a movement is to say “there is only one idea we need to agree on.” This might be a broad-based strategy. You could argue that this is the fusionist move that defined a great deal of late 20th and early 21st century conservative politics. Libertarians, war hawks, and social conservatives didn’t agree on much, but they identified a small number of shared ideas and built a coalition on it, even if the broader beliefs of each distinct group actually contradicted one another at key points. So that is one pole we might define in the debate.
The other pole is to say “we must all agree on everything.” In the parlance of American presbyterianism we would call this a “strict subscription” approach because it requires strict agreement with all points of the belief system. Though I’m not sure all of them would agree with this portrayal, I wonder if this might be where the Catholic Integralists will end up. Certainly it is hard to discern any possibilities for fusionism after you cross the line of saying that the Roman church possesses coercive authority over baptized Christians.
But there is another possibility which Presbyterians call “good faith” subscription. In this approach, all the members of the movement need to agree on the broad system of teaching but there is room for disagreement on certain points, provided the disagreement doesn’t undermine the general system.
In this scenario, perhaps American pro-lifers can articulate a broad political story about American common life that provides the necessary context and foundation to sustain a pro-life movement but still does not quite require the maximalism of the integralists. Perhaps.
Second, though abortion is uniquely horrifying, the underlying logic that allows us to justify abortion is shared across other social evils.
Building off the first point, we should note that there is an underlying logic to legalized abortion that necessarily touches other questions as well. In trying to define this problem in my newsletter I referred to abortion as the reductio for liberalism. If liberalism is a system that seeks to dissolve unchosen obligations in service of individual emancipation, than abortion is simply an instance of finding the most extreme plausible instance of an “unchosen obligation” and asking if even that ought to be eliminated so that an individual may be liberated.
This necessarily means that if you say, “no, you cannot kill that unborn baby in service of human emancipation,” then you are saying that there are legitimate restraints on human freedom which we do not directly choose for ourselves. So when we turn to other questions, whether it be a question about offshore drilling in order to obtain fossil fuels to prop up our system of cheap energy or a question of banning gay marriage so that the natural family is respected and preserved, you have already conceded that some techniques for securing free expression are illicit. Now we are simply talking about what other techniques may be as well. Put another way, we have already said that Justice Kennedy’s claim in Casey is wrong. Now we are simply trying to define how exactly it is wrong.
This movement, of course, does not necessarily require you to do the Full Trad move and start questioning capitalism in its totality. There are, after all, ways of reading even John Locke that would be more amenable to Christian conservatism. That being said, even if you do take a more Deirdre McCloskey/Jonah Goldberg approach to the problem, you must it seems to me, agree that some natural limits are licit. And once you’ve made that move, your pro-life activism is now specifically about the goal of helping people recognize and receive natural limits, which is already broadening the scope of the activism, it seems to me.
This piece has been very bloggy so you’ll have to forgive its rambling nature. But that is why it is on Commonplaces rather than the main page and is why we have blogs for some Mere O contributors to take advantage of. It’s a place for thinking out loud and trying to advance conversations in a basic, if limited, way. I’ll be keeping an eye on the comments on this one so if you want to jump in, please do!