Thirty years ago, the anti-abortion movement had an image problem. In most media reports, opponents of abortion were depicted as angry men opposing fundamental women’s rights. They were “anti-abortion.” Those who advocated for legalized abortion, on the other hand, were seen in a positive light, championing “choice” and the right to freedom. They were “pro-choice.”
Hoping to change this perception, John Willke, the President of National Right to Life, came upon a simple solution. He insisted that his fellow anti-abortion advocates stop using the phrase “anti-abortion,” opting instead for the term “pro-life.” Although the term pro-life had been used haphazardly by anti-abortion groups previously, Willke felt it was imperative that the term become the only label for those fighting against abortion.
The label made sense, both in practice and in perception. Abortion is the direct killing of innocent life, so using the term “pro-life” denoted that being against abortion was being for life. Likewise, it was an effective marketing strategy. Pro-abortion forces claimed to be “for” something (“choice”); now anti-abortion forces were for something even more fundamental: life itself.
Although initially the pro-life label normally referred solely to abortion, it soon took another issue under its banner: euthanasia. As Dr. Kevorkian made “assisted suicide” a national topic in the 1990’s, pro-life groups began to fight against that barbaric practice as well. Including euthanasia under the pro-life umbrella seemed like a given, since it also involved the direct killing of an innocent human being. Yet the term was still limited and clear. Pro-life people were those opposed to abortion and euthanasia.
Evolution of the Seamless Garment
Even in the early days, however, there was tension over expanding the pro-life label to other issues. Over the years, one of the most common criticisms of pro-lifers is that they only care about life before birth, and don’t care what happens to a baby after she is born. Veteran pro-lifers have heard this canard for decades and typically shrug it off, knowing the reality of pro-lifers who work tirelessly at crisis pregnancy centers, soup kitchens, hospitals, and thousands of other outreaches.
Some pro-lifers, however, feel a self-conscious need to prove that they do care about life after birth. Many years ago, the “seamless garment” argument was championed by the late Cardinal Bernardin. According to the seamless garment argument, those who are pro-life must also advocate for various government programs that help the poor and the needy. Life is a “seamless garment,” and according to Bernardin it would be hypocritical to oppose abortion and also to oppose welfare programs.
After enjoying some popularity in the 1980’s and 1990’s, this specious argument eventually faded and rightly became largely discredited. People recognized that opposing legalized child-killing didn’t mean you had to support every food stamp program coming out of Washington.
Racism is a pro-life issue. Poverty is a pro-life issue. Health Care is a pro-life issue. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, dogged supporters of the seamless garment argument, recently stressed that opposition to current immigration policies is a “life issue.”
America Magazine, a journal of record for liberal Catholics (who always claim to be pro-life, but consider jaywalking laws as of more importance than anti-abortion laws), even called LGBT issues “pro-life issues.” The expansion of the label “pro-life” has become so unwieldy that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that supporting Marvel movies over DC movies is now a pro-life issue.
Begging for Acceptance
Why are some of those opposed to abortion so insistent about labeling practically everything as a pro-life issue? Some might legitimately believe that certain policy positions help reduce abortion, or at least promote “life” in a generic way. They might sincerely believe that universal health care means better health care. They might think welfare helps, rather than hurts, the poor. That’s fine; there’s no crime in being ill-informed. But that doesn’t make those positions “pro-life” positions; it just means that some pro-lifers hold them.
I think there are other underlying reasons behind the expansion of the label, however. First, pro-lifers have a history of insecurity. We’ve never been a popular movement. You won’t hear from pro-lifers at the Oscars, nor will any A-List celebrity express anything but disdain for pro-lifers. It can become a bit depressing.
Some pro-lifers think if we latch onto more popular movements, we too will be accepted as legitimate. If we are campaigning for expanded immigration, then perhaps the elites will stop ridiculing us and give us a seat at the table. If we advocate for government-sponsored health care, maybe we won’t be attacked at the next Tony awards. We believe the lie that pro-lifers don’t care about people after birth, so we bend over backwards to be accommodating to those who oppose us.
However, those opposed to abortion must realize a fundamental reality: abortion is the Sacrament of the Left. Any opposition to unlimited access to abortion will be met with hatred and attacks. There is no possibility of working together with pro-abortion forces. No acceptance of other issues will bring about even a sliver of change in the Left’s demonic embrace of abortion on demand and without apology. We can give a mile, but the Left won’t give an inch on abortion.
Agree With Me or You’re Not Really Pro-Life
Second, pro-lifers, like everyone, want people to agree with them. If they support a specific government program, they assume like-minded people should agree with them. So when a pro-lifer says, “Immigration is a pro-life issue,” what he means is “All pro-lifers must agree with my views on immigration or they are hypocrites.” By labeling all of one’s personal views as “pro-life,” you cut the feet from under your fellow pro-lifers’ differing views.
This attitude, however, distorts the hierarchy of issues. Some issues are more important than others. Some causes do have legitimate differing views. Abortion is the direct killing of innocent human life. No matter how important, or how unjust, other issues are, none can compare with killing an innocent baby in the womb of his mother. None. Further, there are no other legitimate views when it comes to abortion.
“Pro-life” means that we want all innocent life to be protected by law from being killed. It does not mean we want that life to have access to government-paid advanced medical care, or to gender-equal pay, or to state programs that supply lunch meals. We might want those things, but there are legitimate disagreements on how best to accomplish those goals. Further, those other issues have their own level of importance, but they are not “pro-life” issues. They are not about the direct killing of innocent human life.
Just Call Me Anti-Abortion
I haven’t even addressed a less charitable possibility: that some pro-lifers call everything a pro-life issue because they want to minimize the importance of abortion. They don’t believe abortion is really that bad (and might even be necessary sometimes), so by lumping everything under the pro-life label, they make abortion just one of many issues. And as we’ve often seen, it becomes an issue that never rises to the top in terms of priority.
No matter the reason, by calling every issue a “pro-life” issue, we dilute and fracture the brand. We make other, less important issues as important as the abortion issue. We needlessly divide pro-lifers over prudential issues about which we should be able to respectfully disagree.
As for me, I’ve come to realize that I’m no longer pro-life. Just call me anti-abortion. It’s accurate, specific, and tells the whole world that I’m unabashedly opposed to child-killing.