Why I’m Through Being ‘Pro-Life’

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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.

But like the return of 1970’s fashion, it’s back. Now we hear over and over, from self-proclaimed pro-lifers, that a given issue is a “pro-life issue.”

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.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

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Eric Sammons is a freelance writer, editor, and the author of several books. He holds a degree in Systems Analysis with a concentration in Economics from Miami University in Ohio, and earned a Master of Theology degree from Franciscan University. Eric and his wife Suzan have seven children and are serious baseball fans. He can be followed on Twitter @EricRSammons.

17 Comments

  1. Pretty gross misrepresentation of what being pro-life means … supporting life from conception to natural death… not just one element of it. It all counts.

    The author is right… he may be anti-abortion, but not pro-life

    • So advocating for non-governmental ways to help the poor, common-sense security border measures to protect innocent American citizens, and making health care stronger by eliminating government bureaucratic middle-men means I don’t support life from conception from natural death? Good to know.

      And thanks for proving the point of my article!

      • You made your own point, Mr. Sammons. Your goal is to outlaw abortion without advocating for measures that actually REDUCE abortion. And adding the bit about “common sense security” speaks volumes about your commitment to respecting the dignity of all people.

      • Rob Schroeder on

        Unfortunately I feel like you are illustrating the weakness of your article by associating boilerplate conservative POLITICAL positions with being pro-life.
        If universal health care is wrong, for example, I have one question from a Catholic perspective. Who should not have access to health care?

        • I can answer your question. Those who do not work enough to be able to afford healthcare. That’s it everyone else should have health insurance. It is important to remember that in an emerjeancy you will be admitted to the hospital regardless of ability to pay and forcing others to pay for your doctor visits is just theft.

    • Patricia Sheffield on

      Thank you for proving his point. The original pro-life movement long helped women and their babies before and after birth, and he essentially said that being pro-life means protecting life from beginning to end, which was why euthanasia was a natural fit into the movement. The other issues can allow for a variety of views on how best to handle them (that’s Church teaching). Simply put, supporting abortion and euthanasia causes a Catholic to be excommunicated, but disagreeing with the bishops, even the pope, on issues like immigration, capital punishment, and just war doctrine, do not cause excommunication.

      By co-opting the term pro-life to mean only one view on the issues that allow for more than one, this leads to infighting and slander. It is also tying up burdens to lay on other pro-lifers’ shoulders, burdens that the Church herself does not impose.

    • Norris A Harrington on

      Problem is that properly understood “pro-life” doesn’t require one to be against the death penalty, or against justified war, or against lethal force in self-defense. Nor does it require one to advocate for top-down, centralized, big government approach to combatting social ills like hunger, poverty, homelessness, and the rest.

      Problem is, also, that the term “pro-life” is not properly understood because of the actions of the Left. Thus the need to state simply, “I am anti-abortion.”

  2. Leo Flanagan on

    Interesting food for thought. The term could also be hijacked by pro abortion people who could claim mental issues of the mother to be are equally legitimate and a pro life matter.
    Anti abortion yes and also anti child sacrifice, a practice popular in pagan societies.
    Today’s little gods need constant devotion and sacrifice.

  3. Excellent article, but I disagree on your conclusion. You are pro-life. Please continue saying so and don’t allow the so-called “seamless garment” folks to dissuade you in the least from saying so. As you correctly point out, there is a hierarchy of values that some politically motivated folks on the left refuse to affirm. The term Pro-Life fits perfectly for all willful killing of the innocent, starting with the most innocent and helpless among us; the unborn. If others define the language they will do so in a way that minimizes concern for the unborn, as you yourself note in the article. We don’t just oppose, as in “anti-abortion”, rather we affirm as in “pro-life”. The term fits. We must continue to use it.

  4. The strategy of bringing in other supposed ‘pro-life’ issues is to essentially soften “harsh” absolute positions opposing abortion and euthanasia by dilution. In any area of life with many facets to it, no one condemns a certain part for focusing on one particular aspect. Those who deal with abused dogs are not accused of not caring about cats or parakeets.

  5. Timothy Garrity on

    Your response is an excellent example of what he says.You can not be Pro-Life and hold all issues equal.Even Pope Benedict stated that some life issues are more important than others.

    USCCB > Issues And Action > Human Life And Dignity > Abortion

    Pope Benedict XVI & USCCB on Life Issues

    Select Quotations on Life Issues from His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI & the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
    On the Fundamental Right to Life
    Pope Benedict XVI:

    “God’s love does not differentiate between the newly conceived infant still in his or her mother’s womb and the child or young person, or the adult and the elderly person. God does not distinguish between them because he sees an impression of his own image and likeness (Gn 1:26) in each one.1
    [L]ife is the first good received from God and is fundamental to all others; to guarantee the right to life for all and in an equal manner for all is the duty upon which the future of humanity depends.2
    U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
    [T]he failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we understand the human person as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” – the living house of God – then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person’s most fundamental right – the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand. Such attacks cannot help but lull the social conscience in ways ultimately destructive of other human rights.”

  6. I am pro-life, Eric and so are you! We cannot allow others to change the definitions of the words we use! Do not capitulate!

  7. Hi Eric, I think you know that calling abortion the “Sacrament of the Left,” is a gross misrepresentation and to suggest this is true makes you look like a divisive (and a little silly) culture warrior. It also disrespects the Sacrament itself. You are clearly against government programs for the poor, I think that even the furthest left of us would, like you, live in a world where the poor do not have to rely on these programs. However, in a country as large and complex as ours, how do you personally advocate for caring for the poor and vulnerable in our communities if not by the government? What other group of agencies could handle such a burden?

  8. Someone said “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice gives to virtue.” Should we be glad you stopped giving tribute?

  9. Your last sentence seems a bit off. You’re unabashedly opposed to unborn child-killing. You’re anti-aborton, not pro-life, remember?

  10. mary jo rourke on

    Catholic Social Justice is the rule i follow which i learned in Grade School in the 1930″s and have tried to follow all my life.

  11. You say: ““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.”

    The problem with many so-called “pro-lifers” is that they too-often think some people don’t deserve health care, some people don’t deserve to be paid justly, and that many don’t deserve to eat. It is one thing to disagree on valid ways to achieve goals that promote life, but when so many pro-lifers worship at the altar of “liberty” rather than life, (especially when that liberty leads to increased injustice and inequality) it’s hard to take them seriously.

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