A Future Pro-Life Movement
“You’ve asked the exact wrong person to take you to Planned Parenthood.”
Little did I know how much that sentence would change my life. The recipient of those awkward words was a lost, pregnant stranger who had stopped me on a mall sidewalk. I knew I needed to help her; these kinds of encounters in life are rarely coincidental. She was in her 20s and needed help in the form of a pregnancy test, which she got, although not at her intended location. We spent the afternoon together, and became unlikely friends. Later, she and her boyfriend started attending my church, and over the next few months, gave me a quality education about rough upbringings, addiction, poverty, and life after incarceration. Two years later, their lives took a turn, and my brand new husband and I became legal guardians of their son, the one she was pregnant with when we first met. Three years after that, this past January, we became his permanent adoptive family.
In many ways, I am the poster child for the pro-life movement of the 80s and 90s. I was raised going to pro-life marches, attended Liberty University for my undergraduate degree and then went on to Regent University for graduate school work. Professionally, I spent my career in Republican politics working on issues that I deeply believed in, including those that defended life. But that chance encounter on a sidewalk taught me more about being consistently pro-life than anything I’d learned growing up, and it pushed me to address some troubling blind spots.
What does it mean to be pro-life?
A truly pro-life ethic is rooted in the belief that all human life has inherent dignity, and as such, everyone must be valued and treated with respect. For Christians, being pro-life is a natural extension of the greatest commandment to love God and love one’s neighbor. Every major faith tradition includes instructions regarding protecting the vulnerable, which would include the unborn. For people who are not faith-motivated, there is a recognition and appreciation of intrinsic human rights.
But nuances exist within this movement: Being pro-life is being more than anti-abortion. Being anti-abortion means one thinks, acts, and works toward reducing and even eliminating the horrific act of abortion. Being consistently pro-life extends beyond the womb to an ethic that truly honors each individual as having inherent dignity and value.
For purposes of discussion, let’s separate the current pro-life movement into three very general groups:
1. The “anti-abortion” crowd: While often carrying the mantel of being “pro-life,” their energy and passion are focused laser-like toward the unborn and the elderly. This sometimes means that there is not enough focus on the hungry, refugees, immigrants and prisoners. The cynical view of these folks, as a recent Internet meme pointed out, is that they think an embryo is a child, but not a Syrian refugee. Nonetheless, members of this group are sincere in their beliefs, and they are generally lovely people. They can claim to be pro-life because they fight to protect the unborn and fight euthanasia. Many in the anti-abortion crew most commonly identify as Republicans.
2. The “after-the-womb” crowd: While not as concerned with the unborn, or even actively advocating abortion rights, their energy and passion are steered toward the poor, at-risk kids, the addicted, and the prisoner. They are community-minded, contributing their time, talent and treasure to many worthy causes. Like the anti-abortion folks, they are generally lovely people. The cynical view of this crew is that they think the death penalty for murderers shouldn’t stand, while preventing attempts to protect innocent human life. Members of this team can claim to be pro-life because they care about life after the womb, Because of the pro-life brand, they would rarely claim this mantle, unless arguing with an anti-abortion person on social media. The “after the womb” members most commonly identify as Democrats.
3. The “conscientiously consistent” crowd: These folks do their best to care about life in the womb and outside the womb. They can see the horrendous nature of abortion and fight against it, but still love the mother who is considering it or who has had one. They wonder who would take all the children born if Roe v. Wade were overturned. They spend their passion and energy on hunger, child welfare, health, the environment, and education both here and around the globe. They foster, adopt, nurture and support children and families. They give out meals to the homeless, buy extra Christmas presents for needy children, and encourage their kids to be kind to the classmate who doesn’t have friends. Politically they most commonly identify with the “I don’t want to vote for any of these people” party. The only criticism I can muster about these folks is that they aren’t always politically aware or active enough to have their voices truly heard. They have no idea how much power they have. Members of this group can claim to be pro-life because they are.
Speaking of politics. . .
While neither political party gets to claim the mantle of being “the pro-life party,” the anti-abortion movement has built its political home inside the Republican Party. The larger pro-life movement will likely be unable to escape the current divisions within the Republican Party. Very soon, anti-abortion leaders will need to answer these two questions: “Are we against abortion?” Then, taking it several steps further, “Are we pro-life?” The answer to the first question has always been “Yes.” The answer to the second question is less clear.
And if the answer on the second question doesn’t come easily, perhaps they should ask, “Have we made our justified revulsion of abortion an idol at the expense of a consistent pro-life worldview?”
No Good Choice
So, what are “conscientiously consistent” pro-lifers to do this election season? Most anti-abortion leaders are doing what they’ve historically done: focusing on the Presidency and the Supreme Court by supporting the Republican nominee. Those who are pro-life beyond the abortion issue are appalled by both of the major party choices. Secretary Clinton, staunchly pro-choice with a long record of supporting abortion and 100% rating from NARAL, invited the head of Planned Parenthood to sit in her family box during her convention speech. Donald Trump, a latecomer to identify as anti-abortion, fills the news with seemingly daily revelations that sting the conscience of anyone who is pro-life.
The mostly Republican “But-the-Supreme-Court!” reason for voting for Donald Trump is an interesting one. It leads me to wonder: What if the political dynamics for anti-abortion efforts are actually worse as a result of a Trump Presidency? What if Trump wins, and his high negatives, combined with the traditional backlash that occurs in Congressional mid-term elections, cause Republicans to lose the House, Senate, or both? What if Trump’s low approval ratings percolate into states causing significant down-ballot turmoil? This could result in a Republican loss of state legislatures, the real powerhouses of anti-abortion legislation, for years to come.
Legislatively it is impossible to accomplish everything that either side wants. We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
But there is good news
The good news is that most people have more power to be conscientiously and consistently pro-life than they realize. Regardless of who is President or who controls Congress, you can still support a mom who is considering having an abortion. You can still love that mom regardless of her decision. You can still mentor an at-risk kid or someone recently released from prison who is trying to integrate back into society. You can still teach your kids to be kind to a kid who is figuring this life thing out. You can still work to help the hungry, elderly, immigrants, refugees, prisoners, the addicted, and the vulnerable. You can still engage in the state and local levels to enact change.
For those in the anti-abortion movement who are followers of Christ, it may be interesting to consider that Jesus did not work through political systems. He worked through people, transforming hearts. It is the transformation of hearts that will allow each group mentioned above to accomplish their goals. That’s not to say we disengage with the political sphere — we shouldn’t — but it’s a reminder for Christians who may put all their ideological eggs in one basket, that the pro-life ethic transcends politics.
The Future of the Pro-life Movement
The future pro-life movement may not be rooted in any political party, and it may not need to be. Regardless, it hopefully manifests itself in a manner where we value all life, even the lives of those who believe differently than we do politically.
My ambitious hope is that the future of the pro-life movement is one where we are not merely against abortion, but are more conscientiously and consistently prolife.
For me, the future of the pro-life movement looks like houses of worship filled with families who are fostering and adopting; where birth, foster and adoptive families, and those who support them, work together in the best interests of the child.
It looks like adults taking risks for at-risk kids because the kids have taken enough risks already.
It looks like dinner tables in homes surrounded by people who may not look like, act like, or think like each other — gay, straight, black, brown, white, religious, non-religious, rich, poor, young and older — with no agenda except building relationships.
The future of the pro-life movement looks like supporting police officers, first responders, and health care workers. It seeks to understand the deep, historical pain that has led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The future of the pro-life movement follows the lives of felons inside the court system and prisons, then outside prison to life beyond incarceration.
The future of the pro-life movement extends beyond the womb to an ethic that truly honors each individual as having inherent dignity and value. It brings hope and healing to a country that desperately needs it. This movement will show us what it means to truly love others and how to treat each human with the dignity each one deserves.
Janet Kelly is a Founding Member of Public Faith. She is a former Cabinet Secretary from Virginia, and co-founded a non-profit that works to end the foster care and adoption crisis in the U.S.