"Pro-Life" or Just "Anti-Abortion"?

Political debate is often a matter of controlling the terms, since the names we call things often dictate the way we feel about them. For example, those who support abortion want to be known as “pro-choice” rather than “pro-abortion.” The preference is interesting in that it reveals that, even among its supporters, abortion is not really something worthy of support. “Choice,” however, sounds a lot like “freedom,” and hence is worthy of our highest support. Of course, since the “choice” is the choice for abortion, there is not really a functional difference between the terms; it is merely a matter of marketing.

By the same token, the anti-abortion movement would prefer to be known as “pro-life.” Here the situation is completely different, because while being pro-life means being anti-abortion, being anti-abortion doesn't necessarily mean being pro-life; the different names really do designate different things. One can be anti-abortion on narrow moral grounds, on political grounds, or just out of a certain fastidiousness. But families do a lot more than just give birth, and life is more than just its beginning. A true pro-life movement could be—and should have been—the foundation of a new Catholic politics. This is crucial because after Vatican II, Catholic politics in America severely deteriorated. What had been a strong presence dwindled so that there was very little difference between the Catholic voter and the rest of the population. The strong pro-worker bias of Catholic politics became bifurcated into radical divergent wings and highly partisan. But a pro-life party could have found areas of agreement between the factions and become a true “centrist” movement.

What would a “pro-life” agenda look like? Mostly, it would be pro-family:

Pro-Family Wage. Wages have stagnated for 30 years; in fact, the median wage has declined in the face of vastly increased productivity. This has put pressure on women to enter the work force, limiting their freedom to be full time mothers and home-makers. The Just Wage is intrinsic to Catholic social teaching and a pro-family policy. Without it, you cannot be a pro-life party, and certainly not pro-family.

Pro-natalist. The bias of both law and policy should support families and particularly large families. American politics has been caught in the grip of a false Malthusian doctrine, one that is disproved in generation after generation, yet still holds sway in the culture. Further, the accepted neoclassical economic doctrines privilege capital over labor. This is a direct result of a Malthusian outlook which makes people problematic and wealth an end in itself. Capital is thought to be the true source of wealth, while labor is just a drag on profits. What the economy needs first of all is a supply of workers and consumers, and if we don't “produce” these ourselves, people will come across the border—legally and otherwise—to fill the spaces we have left vacant.

Pro (Marian-)Feminist. Secular feminism doesn't seem to differ much from anti-feminism, and leaves women in an ambiguous place in the society. But in such a masculinity culture such as ours, a real feminism would be a real gift; we affirm not merely the dignity of women, but even more we affirm that women do tend to have a different spiritual and psychological outlook. Thus women make a unique contribution, not only in birth but in every aspect of life, but they need freedom to make this contribution. And the first freedom that women need is the freedom to be mothers. Currently society makes this very difficult. Usually, they must be mothers in addition to all the burdens of wage-earners. Sarah Palin seems to be the modern model, where the needs of the family are subordinated to the needs of the career. This is not real feminism; women in this model must be like pit bulls (that is, like their male counterparts) with lipstick. Some women, I'm sure, will find that appealing. But others will not, and the current culture of death favors the pit-bull view.

Pro-education. The education system has failed in this country, and even the college-educated are often functional illiterates. A pro-education policy would include both public and private schools, and even (or especially) home schooling, since the primary authority and responsibility for education remains with the parents. But for this to be the case, the first three points in this list must also be true.

Pro Just War Doctrine. A Catholic party would not be pacifist, at least not when home and hearth were truly threatened. But it would be opposed to most of the wars we have actually fought. Nothing this side of divorce quite disrupts a family like sons and fathers (and increasingly today, mothers) marching off to war. This should only happen when the war can be unambiguously squared with the just war doctrine.

Pro-employment. A pro-family policy would not subordinate the needs of the economy to globalist doctrines. Families need work, and providing that work is the first duty of the economy and economic policy. We would make intelligent trade decisions that truly benefited both sides (the only kind of just agreement) and not merely imported poverty.

Other issues would be seen in a new light by a Catholic pro-family movement. For example, health care. Now, one may be for it or not, but surely a pro-natalist policy would ensure that every mother had access to pre-natal care and basic health care for her children, regardless of her economic status. A pro-family politics even sheds light on city planning. Is the vast separation of working, shopping, and living quarters really conducive to family life? Should the subsidies to such centripetal forces that spread cities out (subsidies such as the “freeways”) really just a hindrance to family life, a hindrance supported with public money?

A pro-life polity is not so much a group of programs as it is a new (and counter-cultural) was of looking at things. It allows us to work with a variety of people at different levels, and so bridge merely partisan differences in American politics. For example, we can work with Fundamentalists who may merely be anti-abortion, and with Evangelicals who are pro-family, and with Democrats who want to improve the worker's situation, and with Republicans who want to restore virtue in public life, etc. More importantly, it allows us to showcase the richness of Catholic Social Teaching, and is therefore a tool of evangelization. It allows us to display the love of Christ and say with St. Paul, “Look at these Christians, how they love one another.”

With all that in mind, we can ask, “Is the current pro-life movement really pro-life or just anti-abortion?” Before I answer that, let me relate the phone call which prompted these ruminations. A reader of this review called to say that his parish priest had told him that a vote for Obama was a mortal sin and put his soul at risk. Now, as a mere matter of canon law, the priest exceeded his authority; such pronouncements can only be made by competent authority, and that authority is not the parish priest. If the priest's bishop has made such a pronouncement, the priest may repeat. But he has no authority to make this ruling on his own. However, if the priest is right, if voting for a candidate who supports abortion is a mortal sin, then neither can one vote for John McCain, who supports abortion in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother's life is in danger. We know from past experience that these exceptions turn out to be nearly identical to abortion-on-demand. Further, McCain supports federal money being used for new lines of embryonic stem cell research, which not only requires abortions, but actually creates a market for aborted children. Perhaps the priest in question supports this because it will be a free market. Now, one may argue that McCain is slightly better on abortion and therefore deserves our vote, and that's fine. But surely the difference is not enough to compel our vote.

The priest in question is subverting the power of the confessional for purely partisan political purposes. This damages Church authority and violates canon law; Christians should be able to go to confession without receiving a political diatribe. At all times, the Church must speak out on particular issues and at some times must prohibit a vote for particular candidates. But this is function of competent authority, and not a priest subverting the confessional for partisan political purposes on hypocritical grounds.

But the incident does serve as a metaphor for the political wing of the anti-abortion movement. It has never been a pro-life movement, and has always subordinated the totality of Catholic Social Teaching to the needs of the Republican Party. This might even be justified on the grounds of pragmattic politics. But in fact, 35 years of slavish devotion to the Republican Party has produced very little in the way of results. They make a few statements, toss of few crumbs our way, but mostly treat us with contempt, the same kind of contempt that useful idiots and fellow-travelers deserve from their ideological masters. The truth is that the Republicans have appointed 70% or more of all the judges in this country, and if they had wanted to shut down Roe v. Wade, they could have done so a long time ago. But they do not and will not. I doubt if a single life has been saved by our political action, and many other parts of Catholic Social Teaching have been severely compromised on the political level. I do not know how the National Right to Life Committee is funded, and they do not publish a list of donors. But they certainly act as if they were a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fox News and Entertainment, with Rupert Murdoch as the sole proprietor.

This is not to say that people who actually work the issue have not been effective. Those who walk the picket, who pray for the mothers and babies, who counsel mothers facing difficulties, who adopt babies, who establish orphanages, and who show the love of Christ in a hundred over ways, have actually saved lives and won souls for Christ. But they are being betrayed by the NRLC.

The Republicans have not paid very much for the devotion given them by the pro-life voters, voters who usually provide their margin of victory in election after election. They are not even an anti-abortion party, much less a pro-life party. Rather, they are a “Big Tent” party, content to accept our support, especially when it is offered so cheaply and with so few conditions. Lip service is enough. Indeed, abortion was originally supported by the Republican Party under the Libertarian rhetoric of “get the government off my back and out of the bedroom!” Conservatives forget that before Roe v. Wade compelled the states to allow abortion, California did so voluntarily, and did so with the support and the signature of Governor Ronald Reagan. His conversion to the cause only came after he saw its political power to seduce a lot of Catholic voters. The result of giving our votes so cheaply is that we now have one-and-a-half pro-abortion parties and one-half an anti-abortion party.


Anonymous,  Monday, September 8, 2008 at 8:17:00 PM CDT  

Attempting to overrate the value of this post would be a fool's errand. Any and all who wish to advance a holistic culture of life must take very serious the content of this entry. Blessings, John.

Anonymous,  Monday, September 8, 2008 at 9:55:00 PM CDT  

paleocrat is correct. Thanks, John, for laying it out so magnificently.

Mary E. Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 1:38:00 PM CDT  

Yes, great article. I wish I'd written it.
I agree with your assessment of the Republican party though would say about Reagan that it was my understanding that he told the Republican congress that he would sign a bill defining life as beginning at conception. Congress refused to send him such a bill. I also read somewhere that he signed the bill legalizing abortion in CA because he thought it would help reduce the number of abortions. Of course this didn't happen but I don't know if his decision making was as cynical as you make it out to be. His SCOTUS decisions were terrible.

John Médaille Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 6:56:00 PM CDT  

Thanks all. Mary, I can't recall what you say about Reagan, but I do know that congress was not going to pass such a bill, so that such a request would have been little more than grand-standing, the same kind of thing that has been going on for 40 years. I do know that Reagan could have vetoed the California abortion bill, and didn't. The libertarian conservatives did not consider abortion problematic at that time.

Julian Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 7:17:00 AM CDT  

spot on. well, almost... I'd quible over whether any one could justify a vote for Obama. 3rd party - sure, but the most radically pro-abortion politician to come along as a party leader, and one who will do minimal good in the areas of a pro-family wage, pro-natalist, pro-(Marian) feminist, pro-education and even pro-just war, (my guess is that we will just end up trading injust war for injust war)...Obama is a poster-child for the Brave New World. I do understand the concern about the priest overstepping his authority and that does merit some thought. but anyway, the main point - that the pro-life message in America, as a political movement, is badly fractured, is well taken.

Also, I would add that a pro-life agenda would be pro-agrarian or pro-farmer. We're so ignorant about life that we're jeopardizing healthy dirt, air and water that is vital to eating. We've industrialized our food to the point that is manufactured more than it is produced or grown. We don't even know how to eat anymore, we consume.

John Médaille Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 8:51:00 AM CDT  

Julian, excellent points. I could have (and should have) extended the analysis to include openness (at least) to the family farm, the small businessman and manufacturer, subsidiarity in politics, etc.

As for a vote for Obama, there are any number of grounds to vote against him. None of them, however, add up to a vote for McCain. If you exclude voting on the basis of abortion, they are both supporters of abortion, to one degree or the other.

What I am protesting is the subversion of the issue to narrow partisan goals, when it should be the basis of broad--and broadly Catholic--goals.

Anonymous,  Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 1:45:00 AM CDT  

This article expresses the current problem with a Catholic voting in the current political system beautifully. This post was well done. I do agree that it is a major problem for a priest to be giving political opinions, thought there are a lot of problems with Obama. (unfortunately most Catholics are on either spectrum, either with Obama or with McCain).
A true centrist party would be a great innovation in America but the media seems to have a lot of problems with having anyone that has a different ideal. This includes the not so different Republican and Democrat parties. (as we noted with Ron Paul.) Catholic Social Teaching and the teaching of Pope John Paul II would be a great heart of teaching to apply to America. The only problem is that people have to care to see that the current system is not working.
But enough of my rant, job well done on the article.


Anonymous,  Monday, September 22, 2008 at 9:44:00 AM CDT  

I am still trying to be open-minded, but this looks more and more like Mere Leftism, not considering but merely mimicking the sort of we're-all-deathly-afraid-of-Rupert-Antichrist-Murdoch fearmongering that- well- that really cannot be taken seriously by anyone who would stand apart from mainstream ideological propagandizing.

And so a writer who apes such nonsense cannot be taken seriously either.


Anonymous,  Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 4:38:00 PM CDT  

Pro-life is a term representing a variety of perspectives and activist movements in bioethics. It is most commonly (especially in the media and popular discourse) refers to opposition to abortion and support for fetal rights. The term describes the political and ethical view which maintains that fetuses and embryos are human beings, and therefore have a right to live. Less commonly, it can be used to indicate opposition to practices such as euthanasia, the death penalty, human cloning, and research involving human embryonic stem cells.On the issue of abortion, attempts by pro-life campaigners to pass laws against abortion are opposed by pro-choice campaigners who argue that the central issue is a completely different set of rights: the human rights of the pregnant woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy or carry it to term. The pro-choice view believes that a woman should have complete control over her fertility and pregnancy, and that this entails the guarantee of reproductive rights.
james wilkins

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George Carmody Friday, October 3, 2008 at 8:41:00 AM CDT  

I have only recently discovered this blog and am very pleased I have. Here in the UK there is no distributist movement to speak of and the pro-life movement is weak and without real political influence. One consequence of this is that there is very little output in terms of distributist and pro-life thought - no blogs, no (contemporary) books, no discussion of the issues. On socio-political matters the main fare of the Catholic Church in England is a failed 1970s social justice agenda that is deeply influenced by the left-liberalism of the hierarchy, and how irrelevant it all is! How refreshing, then, to read this micro-manifesto for a pro-life society. Too often distributism can be (mis)represented as a rather negative jeremiad against the woes of contemporary Western society. Here, however, it is avowedly positive (pro-this, pro-that), setting out what we want to achieve not just what we want to change.

I would take issue with your last anonymous contributor who dismissed it all as "mere leftism". Try setting out this manifesto in my country and see how many people brand you as a lefty. Take it from me, if you argue the case for the Christian family in Britain, you'll convince very few people that you're not some kind of reactionary.

Anonymous,  Monday, December 8, 2008 at 7:31:00 PM CST  

I appreciate and agree with this post but I think it's incomplete. You start from a language consideration of the term "pro-life" (which I think is important and wish more people would consider). Then you outline a set of positions that could properly be called "pro-human-life." But many more beings live than just humans. For this party platform to be "pro-life," rather than just "pro-human-life," it would also need to contain some pro-environment planks (which benefit all life, including humans).

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