Scott and Kimberly Hahn: Rome Sweet Home

The Problem With the Term "Pro-Life"

I had a brief debate with a friend on Facebook the other day about the meaning of the term "pro-life." In brief, he objected to its being only a synonym for "anti-abortion," and wanted it to have a broader meaning, taking in all the things one might believe or do to support the intrinsic value of all human life, while I responded that not everything that he wanted to encompass with "pro-life" was of the same moral significance as abortion.

His was a familiar line of thought to anyone who's been following the abortion debate for the last few decades, and it has some philosophical justification, but it's always struck me as a tactical mistake. It's not that there's anything wrong with most of the things people want to add to the definition, but that the effort to do so obscures the very distinctive, almost unique, moral problems surrounding abortion. And, it has to be admitted, the tactic has been used dishonestly for precisely that reason, to provide moral cover for Christians who don't actually think abortion is a very important issue, or perhaps are even in favor of it. (My friend was not doing that, I hasten to add.) Eventually the term becomes so vague that it's hardly more than a synonym for "good." 

Coincidentally, it was only a day or so later that I ran across a perfect instance of the broadened-out-of-existence use of "pro-life." It's at a blog called Formerly Fundie, and the post is titled 10 Things You Can’t Do and Still Call Yourself “Pro-Life”. And, not surprisingly, it's a series of moral ideas formulated in such a way as to signal quite strongly a more or less progressive political agenda. But it's not so much the progressiveness that's the problem as the very broad range of the questions which the writer wants to make a required part of the definition of "pro-life."

While most are based on worthy principles (and the author seems a fine man), some are vague even at the abstract level--"gender equality"--and some are pretty trivial in comparison with abortion--use of the word "illegal," for instance. More importantly, all, at the policy level, admit of many different responses that are compatible with Christian ethics.

But it comes as no surprise that on the question of abortion itself, which is what most people on both sides of the question think of first when they hear the term "pro-life," the author pulls back, denouncing only "unrestricted, elective abortions after the age of viability." Clearly he wants to leave the present legal status of abortion more or less as it is, and to dissipate the moral pressure of the very broad Christian opposition to it. In short, he wants to appropriate "pro-life" for purposes other than opposition to abortion. 

It's a well-worn tactic, and sometimes a useful one for its proponents. But for opponents of abortion it functions mainly as a distraction, generating a lot of useless arguments and encouraging division. For that reason I've often regretted the adoption of "pro-life" as a synonym for "anti-abortion." I've always assumed it was done because someone thought it would be better to be for something than against something, to be positive rather than negative. 

But it seems rhetorically defensive, as if there was some slight misgiving about the cause, some lack of confidence. Many political movements have proclaimed themselves anti-something with the greatest assurance and certainty: no one who is anti-war or anti-racism is reluctant to say so in the plainest terms. It's too late to change now, but I think it would have been more effective to say straightforwardly that the anti-abortion movement is precisely that, and proudly. 


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They should have stuck with 'anti-abortion'. Christians are not people who think 'life' is a good whatever happens. I put 'life' in inverted commas- it's such an equivocal term, it's impossible to say clearly what some one is 'pro', when they are 'pro-life'.

Yeah, it can be anything that you think enhances human life, or for that matter non-human. And it almost smacks of euphemism.

Yes, and in addition 'lay[ing] down his life for his friends' is not simply, unparadoxically 'pro-life'.

"not simply, unparadoxically" -- true. There's that whole crucifixion bit...

Of course the whole thing is moot, has long been moot, but still, it's frustrating that the term gives rise to so much beside-the-point argument.

Pro-life is used partly because the fundamental issues are more than abortion--euthanasia, infanticide, for instance. At least that is the case with University Faculty for Life, to which I belong.

I know, and certainly it makes sense from that point of view. But it seems like the other things were added in later. And of course now people add in the death penalty, which is important but not exactly the same moral issue (actually that's what initiated the debate I referred to). I think its potential for muddying the waters outweighs its benefits.

I agree, and I'm also a member of University Faculty for Life. Ahd I don't think the death penalty is the only thing that muddies the waters.
As a result of modern medicine, we live in the era of 'protracted death'. It is hard to see how simply being 'prolife' can be distinguished from 'striving officiously to keep alive'.

I never use the term "prolife" without putting it in quotes, as I know far too many "prolifers" that support every aggressive war that the US wages, and appear to not give much thought about any but American unborn life (war also kills unborn babies, you know; every pregnant woman in a square mile aborted when the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan...)

If other things were "added later," it seems they were added logically as direct attacks on innocent human life--which is why CP is not included.

Gaudium et spes 27 makes a clear distinction between attacks on life, integrity, other attacks on human dignity, and subhuman working conditions.

"Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction,

"whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself;

"whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children;

"as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons;

"all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator."

The paragraph breaks are mine--I was just highlighting the semi-colons.

People who try to conflate everything as a "life" issue don't take these distinctions into consideration.

Grumpy, I understand what you mean, but I think an actual pro-life position uses the standard Catholic moral analysis to make the proper distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means and between medical treatment and the ordinary care due to all, such as nutrition and hydration. I understand, of course, that people don't agree on how to apply these criteria, but it is different from "keep them alive at all costs."

Oops. I forgot to turn my em code off. Now I don't know how to reaccess it.

All comments for the rest of eternity are going to be emphasized. What if I put an em code here?


I fixed it. Not sure why your putting in em end didn't fix it. Also released Daniel's comment from the spam catcher, where it sat for a couple of hours. I thought it was supposed to "whitelist" (that's racist!) a commenter when I removed the spam flag, but it doesn't seem to be doing that. Well, I guess it could be a different address each time.

Yes, those other things that involve direct attacks on innocent life definitely belong in the same category, and I agree that "pro-life" is a good umbrella term for them. It just seems to be more a rhetorical handicap than not under present conditions. And of course the media at large were never willing to use it, so some of the potential rhetorical edge was lost.

Very few people like to take distinctions into consideration when there's a political point to be scored.

Anti-abortion (or anti-racism, or anti-nukes) is about a specific policy, and as such it is achievable. Pro-life is about a metaphysical stance. It's a general conception of the well-being of humanity, not an achievable goal. So the kind of Catholics who like achievable goals would prefer 'anti-abortion' and the cosmic Catholics like 'pro-life.' There is no need for them to hate each other for their preference.

I think pro-life is easier to say that "anti-direct-attacks-on-innocent-human-life."

I was only talking about the pro-life *movement*, i.e. a social-political effort that's by definition working toward changing something in law, culture, etc. Achievable at least in principle.

As opposed to a philosophical school.

Also, I'm not aware of any big controversy within the movement, either the political or intellectual wings, about the term. This was just my personal gripe brought on by the "if you were *truly* pro-life you would [insert favored cause]..." tactic.

This was just my personal gripe brought on by the "if you were *truly* pro-life you would [insert favored cause]..." tactic.


And generally there is just not enough clear thinking amongst most people. Much of modern thinking seems to rely on slogans.

As a result of modern medicine, we live in the era of 'protracted death'. It is hard to see how simply being 'prolife' can be distinguished from 'striving officiously to keep alive'.

I agree.

"Much of modern thinking seems to rely on slogans."

Like, 85% or so....

What continually surprises me about that is that very bright people do it. I can think of several I know who are really quite intelligent and who use that intelligence heavily in their work, but still essentially talk in slogans and sound bites.

It may be that we're all infected with it to some degree, but I find it pretty annoying at times.

Not me! I'm always the soul of reason.:-)

oh yeah... sorry. I forgot. :)

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