More on Pro-Life Legitimacy and Anti-Abortion Activism

Answering Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig on the ethics and rhetoric of the Pro-Life movement.

In the wake of the horrific (though blessedly protracted) shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic, the Pro-Life movement has, predictably come under renewed scrutiny. Never mind, of course, that the act was carried out by an antisocial loner, or that all activist traditions attract whackos who want to kill. But the Pro-Life movement remains unpopular independently of these incidents, so in the press and so the slogan “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts”–which has become popular since the explosive (and criminally underreported) Center For Medical Progress undercover videos were released–must be responsible, since the killer repeated it after he gave himself up to the police.

Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig, a Pro-Life Democrat, more or less buys into this narrative, and in a piece for The New Republic, traces the ideological underpinnings of the Pro-Life movement and purports to show how they are responsible for the sort of talk that must have inspired the extremism we saw in Colorado last week. Underlying the “vitriolic” rhetoric, so Bruenig claims, is both the ghoulish patronage of the GOP and the Pro-Life Movement’s quasi-theological commitment to the unique innocence of a fetus as opposed to the grown men and women who perform or consent to abortions. A better way would be the Consistent Life Ethic, or [Bruenig:] “the ‘seamless garment’” approach [which] weaves together opposition to the death penalty, euthenasia, and warfare with support for the poor and resistance to abortion.” But this possible future of a liberal Pro-Life movement never came about due to GOP interference and the fact that Pro-Life trendsetters upheld fetal life in a state of perpetual innocence from sin making it a uniquely terrible thing to end it.

I have two objections to this tale: one to the Consistent Ethic of Life, and secondly, to the contention that Pro-Life movement’s tactics are morally compromised because they are suffused with a theologically dubious interpretation of original sin.

Contra Bruenig, I think the Consistent Life Ethic has not been a politically galvanizing force precisely because it is tactical suicide. It takes a narrow and achievable political aim: the marginalization and eventual outlawing of abortion, and shackles it to many other daunting causes: social programs to combat poverty, halting executions, an end to war. While all of these goals may be laudable in themselves, they are distinct issues with their own sets of circumstances, moral questions, and political pitfalls. Indeed, the cause of ending abortion may well bring one or more of them to come to the attention to the discerning activist, (perhaps causing them to open Crisis Pregnancy Centers or opening a home for unwed mothers) but it is simply unreasonable to insist that legal abortion end in this country only when the kingdom comes and there is an end to all suffering everywhere at the same time. That was not good enough for the abolitionists of the 19th Century and it is not good enough for Pro-Life activists today.

Bruenig, being a Pro-Life Democrat, is speaking for a remarkably quiet group of people that is probably much larger than they are given credit for. I do not mean to be uncharitable to her personally, and I actually have some sympathy for her and others of her cohort, whose writing I follow closely and count as allies on a variety of other issues. It must indeed be frustrating to not see eye to eye with others who oppose abortion on issues other than abortion. I can see how a coalition that held robustly to the Consistent Ethic of Life she outlines would be a far more comfortable climate for them to operate in. I could even see how they might feel excluded by some Pro-Life organizations’ stringently conservative views on other issues. But exclusion runs both ways, and to insist on lockstep unanimity between the CLE’s particular constellation of causes would actually narrow the entry requirements into the Pro-Life movement to a frustrating degree.

The Pro-Life movement today is a broad coalition that does not insist on conservative politics, though it has a lot of conservatives, since a lot of conservatives are religious, and a lot of religious people are Pro-Life. But from what I have seen, there is nothing preventing Pro-Life Democrats from coming strongly out of the closet against abortion except, apparently, their own squeamishness about rubbing shoulders with conservatives. I never see serious salvos from their corner against abortion. Instead, they tend to spend their time hemming and hawing about what is wrong with the Pro-Life movement, and how they disagree with them on everything else. If that strand of anti-abortion activism is well-mannered and reasonable, then they have also been remarkably ineffective. I think a strong and vocal coalition of Pro-Life Democrats who hold to a consistent ethic of life could be amazingly helpful, but they currently do very little to help the cause in congress and without. I suspect that coalition has never emerged due to the strategic problems I listed above, but until they join the struggle in earnest, I have a hard time hearing them out on why Pro-Lifers are unsavory. If there’s a better way, then hop into the trenches and show us how it’s done. There is no more propitious time than now to come out strongly against legal abortion. Public opinion is in our favor (even if the media is not.) Why not act now to end this particular injustice? If we could be successful in our generation, then that would be a powerful tug forward on covering the nation with that seamless garment of life.

Anyway, Pro-Life mistrust of the Consistent Ethic of Life is understandable as it is always trotted out (as it has been again in Bruenig’s recent piece) as a stumbling block just as the Pro-Life cause is in the headlines again or makes a stride forward. Pro-Lifers are unpopular among those who run media outlets like The New York Times (and their shriller cousins The New Republic and Salon) and so Pro-Life consciences must be carefully examined until some inconsistency can be uncovered. Few activist movements today are subjected to this level of intense ideological scrutiny. Even the most vague activism is applauded for its bravery, but Pro-Lifers must expand their message encompass all things or risk being labeled “vitriolic” and inflammatory. Imagine insisting that the marchers against African-American segregation in the 1960s also give equal time to other kinds of segregation before they can be taken seriously. Had they acceded to these demands, their aims would have become so diluted, their actions spread so thin, that they would not have accomplished their aim. Today, the “Black Lives Matter” movement is sometimes encouraged to change their message to “All Lives Matter.” Those activists are right to mistrust such advice. All folk of good will long for an end to all kinds of injustice, but it is expedient, and entirely morally appropriate, to focus on one of them at a time.

To claim similarly that there is a deep theological conundrum responsible for whatever Pro-Life tactics make people uncomfortable is to ignore the common experience of Pro-Life activists. Her contention is that they hold unborn life to be of special importance, but there is little evidence as to just how this indoctrination has taken place. Here she and her dialogue partners are simply making mountains out of molehills. She and her sources simply contend that the Pro-Life movement “tends” to behave this way, apparently because they organize uniquely against abortion and not capital punishment or other causes. But this is just what activists of any stripe are wont to do: demonstrate for one thing and not other things. I have already noted the strategic expediency of focusing on one issue to the exclusion of others. Bruenig points to a couple of meetings held by Pro-Life journals and Christian denominations that raised the question of the moral status of fetuses against grown adults–none of them ended up justifying murder to prevent abortion. She writes as though even raising the question is enough to betray their ideological contradictions and confusions. If the question is “difficult” to answer, then it must be evidence of moral compromise. But a lot of moral questions are difficult to answer, and they are not made any easier by deciding to vote blue. It is not true that conservative Pro-Life advocates have no good arguments as to why not kill an abortion doctor. There are arguments from just war, respect for civil authority, and theological arguments for leaving vengeance to the Lord.

Even if these meetings did betray some irresolvable ideological quandary within some quarters the Pro-Life movement, a couple of conferences do not go nearly far enough to characterize the reasoning and logic of the popular Pro-Life movement as we see it today. These were not ecumenical councils that legislated and canonized the ideological makeup of today’s average abortion activist. Most of the millions of Pro-Life activists who plug slogans like “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts” are not turning over moral hierarchies in their minds, they are simply drawing upon a natural revulsion humans feel toward the suffering of children. When one feels uniquely disturbed by the death of a child, including an infant, or a fetus, it does not mean one has come down firmly on one side or another of the difficult doctrine of original sin. It is just that the thought of children suffering is innately horrifying to ordinary people. This is why development and aid organizations regularly publish photographs of children to encourage giving money toward famine relief or refugee resettlement. The Pro-Life movement has never needed to artificially inflate this horror, they have simply shed light on it where it has been obscured.

As for the the “vitriolic” rhetoric Bruenig and others dislike so much, there is a better explanation for where it comes from. It is not the result of anti-abortion groupthink, but rather plain speech and common sense intruding upon comfortable vagaries that obscure what actually goes on at abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. To illustrate: writing against the eugenic science of his day, G.K. Chesterton lumped eugenics apologists into a number of categories. The historical links between the modern abortion industry and the eugenics of the early 20th Century are many, but that’s a side point that I won’t argue for here. Suffice to replace the word “Eugenist” with “Pro-Choicer” in the following passage and the relevance of the argument will become clear:

Most Eugenists are Euphemists. I mean merely that short words startle them, while long words soothe them. And they are utterly incapable of translating the one into the other, however obviously they mean the same thing. Say to them “The persuasive and even coercive powers of the citizen should enable him to make sure that the burden of longevity in the previous generation does not become disproportionate and intolerable, especially to females” and they will sway to and fro like babies sent to sleep in cradles. Say to them “Murder your mother,” and they will sit up quite suddenly. yet the two sentences, in cold logic, are exactly the same.

This logical equivalency applies between the “vitriolic rhetoric” of the Pro-Life movement: “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts,” and the socially acceptable “seeking reasonable compensation for donated products of conception.” The former is how you would explain what goes on at Planned Parenthood to an inquisitive eight year old. The latter is obscure legalese. This is why even strongly Pro-Choice progressives prefer never to raise the issue. If speaking plainly is too inflammatory then perhaps the issue merits it.

All of the above should be taken in the climate we Pro-Lifers find ourselves in. While most of the country agrees with us, the popular press writes as though the Pro-Life movement’s goals and aims are morally confused, inconsistent, or unclear, and that it is ideologically narrow and exclusive. Tragedies like what happened last week in Colorado Springs make us all the more open to the cultural trump charge of fomenting “hate.” But this is not so, and today’s Pro-Life movement is far more diverse, politically and otherwise, than Bruenig’s article would suggest. The goals are quite simple: terminating a pregnancy takes the life of a child and its practice ought to be made illegal. If it cannot be made illegal because a secret right to it was discovered in the constitution, then its practice should be severely curtailed and restricted, and women should be encouraged to not have abortions. There is no real ideological screen to holding fast to these aims and no attendant causes that one may not also hold alongside them to be called Pro-Life. The Pro-Life circles I am familiar with are full of Democrats, feminists, Muslims, and others who fall outside the conservative fold. They are not offended by the CMP’s videos and are not ashamed of Pro-Life sloganeering and tactics because they believe they are taking part in a respectable and vociferous tradition of activism that will one day be successful and vindicated. The only problem the Pro-Life movement has are in the media. Popular media outlets like The New York Times and journals like The New Republic, place undue ideological tests on a clear and narrow goal, and advance the spurious charge that Pro-Lifers don’t really know what they are about, are playing with rhetorical fire, and encouraging extremism.

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