The recent controversies about abortion bills have brought internal debates among pro-lifers about strategy, tactics, and the shape of our witness to the surface again. Among the most interesting questions within those debates is whether we ought include other social issues under the ‘pro-life’ umbrella. If you read this symposium on pro-life leaders
(and also me), you’ll see how often the question comes up—and how much the leadership of the movement is opposed to any such expansion. That it is such a recurring theme suggests, if nothing else, the growing appetite to end the monolithic association of pro-life with the anti-abortion effort.
I understand, I think, the reasons why expanding the term seems attractive to many pro-lifers. There’s an ideology buried within our abortion regime
, and it has roots that spread into our ordinary life. The contest of life and death is not limited to what happens in the womb: it is a cosmological struggle, and everything from our account of the environment to war and punishment to animal rights is wrapped up within it. Expanding the ‘pro-life’ category to include all these dimensions (see the litany here
) both obviates the charge of hypocrisy, and makes it clear that what’s at stake in our concern about abortion is something more than subordinating the rights of women.
Yet the temptation should be resisted, for reasons both of prudence and of principle. In the first place, the pro-life label is a political term—not a philosophical one—and a highly successful one at that. It has galvanized a movement, and framed that movement positively rather than negatively. That movement has determinate and discrete ends and aims, by which it can measure it’s success or failure. Moreover, there are few people who think that it’s political victories will come with the kinds of social tradeoffs that would make them imprudent. That is: pro-lifers almost universally think that overturning Roe would be good, and that the social byproducts of doing so would not justify not doing so. Yet these features make the pro-life cause distinct from many, if not most, of the aims that often get lumped in with it. Ending factory farming, for instance, might be worth doing—but the tradeoffs on food-costs for low-income families might not make it worth it. The environment is worth preserving—but it is far harder to see what policy aims are determinate or focused enough to galvanize a movement the way the pro-life movement is.
Additionally, whatever causal link might exist between other issues and reducing abortions in fact is so nebulous as to be functionally empty. The diffusiveness of their effect on actual decisions over human life and death matches the blandness of a ‘pro-life’ label that includes everything that’s good for the world and human beings. No wonder, then, that more often than not the broadening strategy is using the ‘pro-life’ label for other ends—rather than using those other ends to further the cause of ending abortions.
But there are, as I mentioned, principled reasons to avoid such an expansion as well. The reality is that abortion is sui generis as a moral act. Only killing in war or punishment comes close to it—but in those areas, guilt can plausibly be invoked to make killing justified. The decision to terminate an innocent human life radically shapes a person, as it remains within their character until it is renounced and repented of. The objection to abortion is not a general objection to anything that leads to the ending of a human life. There are lots of acts that I do which might, in fact, unwittingly or unintentionally contribute to the shortening of my own life and the lives of those around me (using certain chemicals, for instance, to control the pests in my yard). Yet the proportionate reasons I have for so spraying, and the diffusiveness of my agency in causing those deaths, make whatever “complicity” I might have relatively benign. Nothing like this obtains in the direct termination of an infant in the womb, though, when there are insufficient reasons to do so. What happens in the womb is a focal point for the demonic war against humanity that rages around us. We might say, even, that it is the focal point for it in our own time.
Moreover, the objection to abortion is not based on anything like a general affirmation of “life” just as such, which animal rights and environmental rights activists tend to argue for. There is, from what I can tell, no in principle reason to not terminate animals. But there is always an in principle reason to not terminate a human life, founded upon the distinctiveness of human beings as made in God’s own image. Expanding the umbrella of ‘life’ to include those broader concerns loses sight of these differences. And losing sight of those differences is a feature, not a bug, of the broadening approach: the whole point is to have one term to encompass a wide range of policies. This can only be done by allowing in what is fundamentally an account of “life” that loses sight of the differentiated order of creation, and the diverseness of our moral obligations that arise in response to it.
These problems are endemic to the broadening strategy, and I have yet to see an argument that they can escape them which does not fully embrace an apolitical idealism. If there is one story beneath which we can unite our resistance to the various evils of our age, it is not one which has ‘pro-life’ at its center—but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not “life” that the forces of evil hates, nor even human life, but the singular and irrepeatable life of Jesus Christ. Moloch met his arrival by slaughtering infants—and he carries on with his hatred even now.