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Sunday Night Journal, October 1, 2017

Literally anything that one considers to be good can be called "pro-life." And any apparent contradiction can be reconciled with the addition of the word "truly." Almost by definition, any conception of what is good for people is aimed at saving or enhancing their lives, and can therefore be called "pro-life" by those who hold it. Both free-marketers and socialists can insist that their favored policies make more people better off, and so are pro-life. The fact that the term was first applied to themselves by people opposing abortion, and still is generally associated with that cause before others, doesn't mean that those who disagree have accepted it. Even advocates of abortion and euthanasia can claim that even though their immediate aim is to cause a death (though that is generally not admitted in the first case), their broader intention is to reduce suffering and to relieve people of burdens they can't or won't bear, and so they are "truly pro-life."

For these reasons I've thought for a long time that it was a mistake for the anti-abortion movement to adopt the label "pro-life" for itself. It's not that I think it's inaccurate. I understand the reasons for it, especially as its application was broadened a little to include euthanasia and assisted suicide. I have always supposed that part of the motive for using it was to make it appear a positive thing. The abortion rights movement presented itself from the beginning as a vehicle for liberation, a movement for women's rights. In the American context especially, and especially since the late '60s, any movement to restrict a right is almost always going to fare more poorly than one to expand a right. This is especially true if the right is favored by the upper crust of society and by journalism and entertainment, but even the movement to restrict gun rights, which very much has their support, has not been very successful, and part of the reason surely is that it is trying to stop people from doing something they want to do; maybe not the biggest part, but a part. So it probably seemed preferable to advertise opposition to abortion as being "pro-life" rather than "anti-abortion." 

But on the face of it, it's a vague term, and the price of that vagueness is an endless argument about "what it means to be truly pro-life." And, worse, that argument creates an opening for dividing and undermining the movement by making opposition to abortion only one part of a bigger political package, one that is "truly pro-life." I don't mean that the dividing and undermining are necessarily intentional. It's unarguable that Christians in general and Catholics in particular should have a coherent set of political principles that are aimed at the good of each and every human person. It's hardly necessary to say that Catholic ethics--in particular the social teachings of the Church--should guide Catholics, and that we should always seek to apply them as thoroughly and consistently as possible. But it's probably always going to be the case that we disagree about how those principles are to be actualized. To proclaim that one and only one approach to politics is "truly pro-life" is just a recipe for division.

For various reasons, starting with the takeover of the Democratic Party by abortion supporters, and the welcoming of abortion opponents by the Republican Party, the latter has been for a long time the only home of the anti-abortion movement in electoral politics. This has had some very bad effects. Abortion opponents tended to adopt the entire Republicans political package as their own, and to regard its enemies as their own. Correspondingly, abortion opponents who were otherwise ideologically disposed toward the Democrats had to choose between opposing abortion and supporting other causes favored by the Democrats but opposed by the Republicans. There really are some left-wingers who are serious opponents of abortion, and they've found this situation to be intolerable, especially over the past fifteen years or so as Republicans initiated an apparently endless state of war in the Middle East, and domestic conditions deteriorated in ways that, to them, cried out for the sorts of more or less socialistic interventions favored by the Democrats.

In recent years some of these people have become as vociferously hostile to the pro-life movement, as it has existed for the past few decades, as any secular left-wingers, over and over again making the long-standing charge that pro-lifers only care about people before they're born, and probably only white people at that, etc.; that they hate women, etc. And that the pro-life movement is not truly pro-life because it supports war-mongers, etc. etc. Some of these attacks have some justification, some don't. But I don't want to argue about those. The point I want to make is that it's the use of the term "pro-life" that justifies the attacks and gives at least some of them some weight. 

So now there is something called the New Pro-Life Movement (sometimes called the "whole life" movement) which is attempting to make opposition to abortion part of a package that includes various policies favored by liberals: for instance, a call for "universal health care," which seems to be the so-called "single-payer" plan, a British-style National Health Service for the U.S. Maybe that's a good idea. Maybe it's not (personally I don't think so). But from the Catholic point of view it's perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, it's not mandatory; other views are also perfectly acceptable. What the NPLM does is put together a package of "truly pro-life" policies, implicitly declaring disagreement not truly pro-life. In short, it inverts the identification of the pro-life movement with "conservative" causes and identifies it with "liberal" causes. You can read a statement of their basic principles here.

If there must be a package deal, if opposition to abortion can only be discussed in inextricable linkage to various other proposals, it's just as well that there be a left-wing package as well as a right-wing one. But it shouldn't have to be that way. People who are opposed to abortion should be able to unite and work together on that issue even if they disagree on others. It seems to me that it would be better if anti-abortion people simply called themselves anti-abortion rather than using the ill-defined and endlessly debatable "pro-life."

The package deal approach almost guarantees that proponents of each will be at each other's throats a good deal of the time. This is especially true now that our politics have in general become so viciously polarized. And it has to be said that Donald Trump is a pretty horrible horse for the right-wing pro-life movement to hitch its wagon to; I can't really blame left-wingers opposed to abortion for wanting to make it crystal clear that they are not on his side.

And going for each other's throats is exactly what has happened. Rebecca Bratten Weiss (the link is to her blog) is one of the leaders of the NPLM. I've seen enough of her views to know that I disagree with her about a lot of things, but have not seen any reason to think her expressed opposition to abortion is insincere. She was the subject of a really vicious personal attack from LifeSiteNews, which I'm not linking to because I don't want to give it any more oxygen. And that set in motion an Internet war between her opponents and her supporters. From what I saw it was one of the nastiest intra-Catholic fights I've seen, and that, unfortunately, is saying a lot. One observer was moved to say that it resembled the state of things described by Flannery O'Connor's "Misfit": "no pleasure but meanness." 

The Human Life Review recently had a symposium called Whole Life vs. Pro-life? that includes a number of views on the question. The first and last contributions pretty well reflect my opinion. As several of the writers say there, we shouldn't be ashamed to say that we're anti-abortion. I'll quote the last one, written by Matthew Schmitz of First Things:

Earlier this year, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told the Washington Post that she considers herself anti-abortion rather than pro-life. “We’re against abortion. I think it’s much simpler. It gets across what we’re about in a faster way . . . To say you’re against it is okay. I am anti-smoking. I’m anti-sex trafficking. I’m anti-drunk driving. And yes, I’m anti-abortion.”

Debates about whether we should be consistent life, whole life, or plain old pro life ought to remind us of the virtues of precision. From first to last, we are anti-abortion. All else distracts.

All that being said, there are some limits, pretty obvious ones, to what can be accomplished in this matter by political action. Whatever political approach one favors, none of them prevent the offering of direct help to pregnant women in need. Anyone who thinks abortion is a tragedy can support those efforts. 


I've just finished reading God or Nothing, a collection of interviews with Cardinal Sarah. The title had me expecting something a bit different, something focused on the elemental struggle between belief and unbelief. Instead it's, first, a sort of autobiography (maybe the first third or so of the book), and second, a very wide-ranging commentary on Christian life, the state of the world, and the state of the Church. The autobiographical part was the most interesting to me: he has had an extraordinary life, beginning with his childhood in a rural village in Guinea. One thing that struck me was the influence he ascribes to the French missionaries of the Holy Ghost Fathers (Lefebvre's order!) who converted his parents and catechized him. Throughout the book he returns to the power of their example.

The rest of the book has its more and less interesting parts, but on the whole is--I hesitate to use this word, because it sounds dull, but it's accurate, and not dull--inspiring. Here are a few passages I marked.

I think this is the best definition of freedom I've ever read:

...God..created us free so that, by the reasonable exercise of our freedom, we might go beyond our wild impulses and tame all our instincts by taking full responsibility for our life and growth.

On the apparent religious indifference of the West:

Man wishes for what is exceptional, which is God, but he has never really encountered him. In our time of religious indifference, the search is even more vital. For temporal things are in league with eternity. Although the aridity of the era seems frightening, we must not forget that the divine source is still more present than ever. Man may search without knowing why, or he may even reject the path toward God; but his quest exists in the depth of his soul... I think that man will never be indifferent toward God. He can try to forget him, by following fashions or by an ideological mind-set. But this timid withdrawal is merely circumstantial.

On Christian doubt:

[The words of Jesus on the cross are] not a cry of rebellion, but a filial lament. Today too, when we are lost, like the witnesses of the crucifixion, our doubt is still a hope. If we call out to God, it is because we have confidence. Christian doubt is not a moment of despair but another declaration of love.

On affluence and materialism:

A society that takes material development as its only guide inevitably drifts toward slavery and oppression. Man is not born to manage his bank account; he is born to find God and to love his neighbor.

And the best definition of holiness I've ever read:

God deeply desires that we might resemble him by being saints. Charity is love, and holiness is a sublime manifestation of the ability to love.


About to get in my car after buying a few groceries, I looked back and saw this. My house is only a couple of miles away, to the south, and I expected a downpour to be in progress by the time I got there. But surprisingly, the storm never arrived here. This picture is facing east, and the storm was apparently moving southwest, but more south than west, which is unusual.



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Nice commentary, Mac. I usually say that I am against abortion, but anti-abortion clicks off the tongue a little easier.

I am also anti-gun, which is another pro-life stance IMO. With now once again the biggest and best ever mass shooting just behind us I also feel anti-USA, or pro-other countries. If it was easy to move to Canada and check out of this place forever, I would do so.

But that is all distraction, sorry. I also enjoyed all of your quotes from Cardinal Sarah, I may have to look into that book.

Thanks. Gun control is a perfect instance of the problem with "pro-life." Whatever one thinks about it, it's a totally different set of moral and political questions from abortion.

I agree with Matthew Schmitz' and Kevin Williamson's pieces. Bratten Weiss' view is very common among our graduate students and the young Catholic intelligentsia. It seems to me to be typical of the kind of opinion young intellectuals hold between the age of 17 and 35 - very smart and very impractical.

Yeah. I agree with them that we should apply Catholic social teaching consistently. But not that you have to embrace their specific positions on twenty different issues to be "truly pro-life."

The funniest reductio of the "if you were truly pro-life.." thing is one I think I quoted here once before: "If you were truly pro-life you'd use low-flow showerheads."

The word “abortion” itself remains a powerful one. Isn’t that mostly why those in favor of it prefer to be called “pro-choice”?

Oh, definitely. The letters in NARAL now officially do not refer to specific words. Especially that first A. :-/

I think they are confused between ethical positions and political positions. Ethically, this is a connection between say not giving a hoot about the mistreatment of animals in industrialized farming and not giving a hoot unborn babies. Actually, even put like that, it sounds a bit of a stretch. But I'm actuall willing to say I support a 'consistent anti-exploitative pro-life ethic' or a 'whole life ethic' or most anything they want to call it.

But I don't buy into 'consistent whole life politics'. Because what you have to get together to do to outlaw or minimimize cruelty to animals in industrialized farming is not the same thing as what you have to do to outlaw or diminish abortion on demand. These are different policies with different stratetical games to be played to achieve them.

I was sorry when David Mills was fired from First Things, but when I look at the kind of guff he wrote in the article cited, I figure either they were right to fire him or it had a really bad effect on his ability to reason.

:-) I don't think it was guff but I didn't especially agree with it, either. Well, maybe roughly half. I can sort of see how he might not have fit in at FT.

I was glad to hear him point this out: " a major reason for the ideological imbalance is the Democratic Party’s complete—fanatical—commitment to abortion". Anti-abortion people had nowhere else to go. Ten years ago I said that for Christians (not just abortion opponents) the difference between Democrat and Republican is the difference between an enemy and an unreliable ally. It's even more true now.

I suspect he is overly optimistic about the appeal of this whole-life movement. People have been predicting or arguing for this amalgam of anti-abortion and more-or-less-Democratic-party principles for over thirty years and it never seems to get any closer. Even if you grant for argument's sake that they're right about everything in their package deal, we're probably going to remain stuck with a two-party system, and both parties are going to find major parts of that package unacceptable.

And therefore their influence is likely to be pretty limited.

Somebody who's been there, done that:


One person commented shrewdly that the 'whole life' pro-lifers don't realize that their entire movement exists on the internet :) Its a nod and wink between Catholics online

Yes, that made me laugh.

The American Solidarity Party is trying to make something of that sort a functioning political party. I actually voted for them in the presidential election, because I could afford to make a statement vote (i.e. the outcome was already known). Perhaps in time something may come of it but for now it's probably more or less what you describe.

Peter Wolfgang's experience is similar to mine. I've moved to a more conservative position, but still have some issues that I'd be considered "liberal" on: immigration, capital punishment, gun-control. I also believe in universal access to healthcare--and I believe that our current system is broken, both before and after Obamacare.

Oh, and I believe in public transportation.

I very much believe in universal access to healthcare. I'd go so far as to say that Catholics are obliged to support it. The question is how to do it. For reasons I've stated more than once, I don't think "single payer" (I'm always suspicious of euphemisms) is a good idea for this country.

I'd describe our current system as not so much broken as insane. It works reasonably well for most people.

It's probably 25 years ago, at least 20, that I heard a discussion of health care on the radio (NPR probably) in which somebody who was somehow involved in it (on the business side, not as a doctor) said "You have to be an idiot not to make money in this business." Given that we can probably take "money" to mean "a lot of money", that struck me as indicative of something very wrong.

I think it's fair to call it guff because David Mills is an older person and has enough experience to know better. Its barely possible for a young person with no experience to grasp that ethics and politics are not simply identical. Young people are idealistic for many reasons, and one of them is simply lack of experience. Their idealism is great, and sends them out onto their journeys in life with energy that goes way beyond what they will ever be able to achieve. As they go through life people learn to temper their energy to the achievability of their projects. They learn that the right thing is not necessarily the achievable thing.

No matter how annoying they can be, it may simply be descriptively wrong to call these young folk self righteous or pharisaiacal. But if the attitudes stucks into late adulthood, then yes, they are self-righteous people talking guff.

The 'on the one hand the Democratics stink but on the other hand I am going to embroider my pro-life stance with a string of other stances and demand that they all be achieved at once or not at all' position that he outlines in that article is a very empty rhetorical ploy.

In other words, what would not be puerile guff coming from a grad student is puerile guff coming from an older man

I agree with what you say as a general point, but Mills's piece doesn't seem such a bad instance to me. I guess you're right that there's a naivete in it, at least as regards its connection to actual politics. In that respect it reminds me of the distributist types who approach the whole subject of politics by comparing the actual world to an abstract set of perfect principles, which makes their criticisms perfectly coherent but mostly irrelevant.

Re-reading it, this struck me: "The whole-life movement points them to sources—particularly, for Christians, Catholic Social Teaching—that give a more comprehensive understanding of human life and the common good than the Republican or Democratic parties can give them."

This is the thing I was talking about a week or two ago: does it really need to be said? Does anybody really look to either of the parties for "a comprehensive understanding of human life and the common good"?! Well, maybe they do, and if so they do need to have that knocked out of them.

I just read a Facebook post from the American Solidarity Party asserting that "gun violence is a pro-life issue." Well, yeah, but....

It sure is.

From what I've been able to observe, there is no way to rationally discuss the relationship between pro gun control and anti abortion positions. If we bring it up we are asking for it.

I was going to say "QED" to Stu's comment.

I'm not sure precisely what you mean, Robert, but I would say something similar, and mean that it's usually impossible to get the obvious distinctions across.

Any topic which instantly enrages someone is then of course a waste of time, and you might as well quickly change to another. I know this just from myself as an example of becoming enraged. But I am older and a tad mellower these days.

What I mean by QED is the way the term "pro-life" lends itself to throwing very different issues into the same basket. Not that they aren't both valid, but they're very different questions, ethical and political.

"But if the attitudes sticks into late adulthood, then yes, they are self-righteous people talking guff."

I think that a lot of these folks lean left economically and politically, and that sort of leftism has a measure of idealism baked in. While it's not exactly the same as the idealism of the younger "social justice" types, it does sometimes lend itself to a similar sanctimoniousness or superiority, albeit one that is perhaps a bit less strident. Which doesn't necessarily make it any less annoying.

As a former youthful idealist, I've long been skeptical that "idealism" is the right word to describe the syndrome. Sometimes it is, I guess, especially in young women. But it very often contains that "sanctimoniousness or superiority" from the get-go. Sort of a "how dare the world not meet my standards" attitude.

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