In a recent Facebook post, my friend and former Touchstone editor David Mills linked to a piece by Scott Klusendorf entitled “What Does it Mean to be Pro-Life?” (Personal aside: Two of my dearest friends are named “David,” as is my son. Furthermore, the son of my oldest friend — in the sense of knowing him the longest — is also named “David.” There’s a pattern here.)
Mills drew attention to what he called “an increasingly popular recreational activity among some Christians: Trashing the ‘old pro-life movement’ for its alleged indifference to born human life.”
Mills didn’t mean that the “old pro-life movement,” or, as I prefer, “the pro-life establishment,” is beyond criticism. Far from it: Mills (and I) “disagree with [the old pro-life movement] on prudential political matters.” and, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, legal matters.
But, and now I’m speaking for myself, I often get the feeling that some (a lot?) of the people Klusendorf is referring to want to talk about, to use his examples, sex trafficking, economic justice, poverty, and unjust immigration laws in lieu of talking about abortion and euthanasia, a.k.a., physician-assisted suicide.
As a convinced adherent to the “Seamless Garment” or “consistent ethic of life” doctrine, let me be clear: there can be no in lieu. On Sundays we pray for the love for, and the legal protection of, every person “from conception to natural death.”
You cannot emphasize the “to” in that phrase at the expense of “conception” and “natural death.” Without them, there is nothing to be linked. Without them, you are effectively denying any ontological basis for human dignity and instead grounding it in a kind of sentimental universalism.
At the same time I’m not convinced that the relationship between opposing abortion and addressing the concerns of groups like Rehumanize International must be zero-sum. After all, being pro-life includes the “natural death” part mentioned above. Does opposing physician-assisted suicide and just plain euthanasia constitute, to use Klusendorf’s phrase, “diverting scarce resources from the unborn to take on issues that Christians with larger platforms and better funding are more than willing to address?”
Perhaps it does. But, in that case, the fault is with our defective moral imaginations and not intrinsic to what it means to be pro-life. If, as Klusendorf tells us, “few students hear pro-life talks at church” or have “had prior exposure to a pro-life apologetics presentation,” I suspect that even fewer have heard talks about the other subjects from a Christian perspective.
In other words, I’m not as confident as he is that there are “Christians with larger platforms and better funding are more than willing to address” these issues.
Now, about my disagreements with the political and legal strategy of the pro-life movement. I’ve expressed some of these misgivings elsewhere, so I will try not to repeat myself too much.
There is no gainsaying the accomplishments of the pro-life movement. Forty-five years after Roe, abortion remains as contested as it was when the decision was announced. The same cannot be said about same-sex marriage in the aftermath of Obergefell. And the percentage of Americans who support euthanasia continues to rise.
These accomplishments have virtually nothing to do with the pro-life establishment’s political and legal strategy, certainly not at the federal level. That strategy, as described in books like “Defenders of the Unborn,” was the decision to forego attempts at passing and ratifying the Human Life Amendment or the Hatch-Eagleton (as in George McGovern’s original running mate) Amendment that would have restored the right to regulate and/or proscribe abortion to the states, in favor of “Reversing Roe v. Wade Through the Courts,” as a 1984 conference was entitled.
This required appointing Supreme Court justices who would (might?) overturn Roe and, that, in turn meant “ever closer alliances with Republicans.” (To be fair, by the 1980s, Democrats who, like Thomas Eagleton, would countenance rolling back Roe were an endangered species.) The result was a political and legal strategy in which pro-lifers would vote for Republicans — and not coincidentally, support most, if not all, of the GOP’s legislative platform — in exchange for a promise to appoint and confirm judges who would (might?) one day overturn Roe.
The arrangement has worked very well . . . for the Republican Party. For the last 30-plus years, the cost of ensuring the loyalty of pro-life voters has been very low: a post-dated check plus mostly symbolic actions that, with a few exceptions such as the Mexico City policy — which, probably not coincidentally, is only applicable outside the United States — don’t actually reduce the numbers of abortions all that much. (The other federal abortion policy with any teeth is the Hyde Amendment, which predates this strategy by nearly a decade.)
None of this is to deny that there are many individual Republican House and Senate members who are sincerely, even passionately, pro-life, although I do deny that you can say this about congressional leadership and party elites.
And I’m not certainly not denying that overturning Roe or something close to that has become a prerequisite to restarting the democratic debate over abortion that Supreme Court shut down in 1973.
My concern is that for many people being pro-life is primarily about overturning Roe. Much of the energy of the pro-life movement has been derived from anger over the peremptory way the Supreme Court declared the debate over abortion to be over. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was correct in her assessment that “Roe ‘established a target’ and that ‘a movement focused on ending access to abortion for women grew up, flourished, around that one target.’”
If Roe is eventually overturned, the question of abortion will return to the states and the terrain and rules will change quickly. This will require a different strategies and tactics. What worked at the national level won’t necessarily work at the state level.
Predicting what states will do after Roe is difficult. “Studies” like this one by the Center for Reproductive Rights are fundraising appeals in social-science drag. (This one by NARAL seems equally hallucinatory. Massachusetts?) The most likely outcome is that more liberal states along the coasts would preserve something akin to the status quo, while a few conservative states in the Midwest and South might ban most abortions, while the rest would enact a series of restrictions on the time, place, and manner of abortion that would drive some abortion clinics out of business and persuade some women not to have an abortion.
This would reduce the number of abortions but by how much is anyone’s guess — although it’s worth noting that the places where the current abortion regime seem most likely to continue probably (statistics on abortion are notoriously opaque) account for the lion’s share of abortions performed in the United States.
Meanwhile, as Ramesh Ponnuru has written, “Local politicians . . . would adapt to local conditions. In strongly pro-choice jurisdictions, most Republican politicians would either adopt pro-choice views or temper their pro-life ones. Most Democratic politicians would do the same in strongly pro-life areas.”
If this is at all correct, we’re not remotely ready. Obviously, there are exceptions such as Klusendorf, and the people at Care-Net and its affiliates, whose work does not rely on politics or the courts.
What they understand is that the demise of Roe won’t mark, to borrow a well-worn phrase, the “end of history” — it will mark the beginning of a very messy phase of history in which the pro-life struggle will be waged not only, or even primarily, in legislatures and courts, but on countless different fronts. It won’t be enough to be conversant about the Mexico City policy, we will also need to understand the role of Medicaid in helping women to choose life.
So, enough with the sniping, we’ve got a lot of homework to do.
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