I’m a pro-lifer. The sacredness of life doesn’t justify the state of the movement.
My earliest memories of pro-life politics involve blood and crying. As a teenager, I attended a church presentation on abortion with the rest of my youth group. The graphic displays of aborted fetuses, combined with the speaker’s descriptions of how abortions are carried out, caused numerous adolescents around me to break down in tears. I can’t remember whether that presentation involved a paean to the wonder of unborn life, but I do remember its reliance on sheer horror as a persuasion tactic.
Later, in college, I joined a pro-life group. I stayed with it for a couple years, but became disillusioned when it became apparent that the group effectively functioned as an extension of the college’s Catholic ministry. If America wasn’t a theocracy, I reasoned, shouldn’t the pro-life movement work extra hard to ensure that its cause could survive in a secular environment?
In some ways, I became pro-life in spite of the pro-life movement. That is, I hold my current convictions — that abortion ends a human life — precisely to the degree that I rejected the impression that the pro-life position was rooted in either fear or overt religiosity. A politics of fear inevitably harms more than it hurts. And, while I am a Christian, I don’t believe being pro-life is a necessarily religious position, any more than being pro-immigrant, or pro-environmental stewardship, are necessarily religious positions.
In maintaining my convictions, while remaining skeptical of the movement that represents them, I join a steadily increasing contingent of pro-lifers who have expressed deep ambivalence about political conservatism in 2017. Thus, when I read Matthew Lee Anderson’s Vox essay about “the peculiar ethos” motivating the contemporary pro-life movement, I couldn’t help feeling both elated and troubled. Elated, because in challenging critics to a nuanced understanding of “how pro-lifers think,” Anderson encourages the kind of cross-ideological discussion that America desperately needs right now. Troubled, because Anderson’s call to understanding also mischaracterizes the concerns that progressives have about pro-life politics today.
Anderson’s essay offers an important corrective to liberals who dismiss the pro-life position as either misogyny or a theological obsession with a “clump of cells.” If liberals are sincerely interested in understanding the pro-life ethos — if, in short, they are sincerely interested in building an effective anti-Trump coalition — they need to grasp the depth of feeling that unborn life can elicit. Anderson has various names for this feeling — “wonder,” “hushed reverence,” “natural awe” — but perhaps his best designation for this intuition is a “secular sense of the sacred.” In specifically naming this sense as secular, Anderson pushes back at construals of the pro-life position as irreducibly religious. Even if unborn life is sacred, it need not be sacred in an exclusively religious fashion, just as Black Lives Matter’s concern for victims of police brutality need not stem from religious convictions.
This “secular sense of the sacred” is especially important to remember in the wake of the Women’s March controversies about pro-life feminism, which has renewed attention to such groups as Secular Pro-Life, New Wave Feminists, and Pro-Life Humanists, all of whom have made a deliberate effort to de-theologize pro-life arguments. When Anderson writes that pro-lifers find “no clearer instance of the marginalized, the voiceless, and the vulnerable than in the womb,” he captures the reason why many liberals and progressives oppose abortion: not in spite of their concern for social justice, but because of it.
Moreover, Anderson is right to point out that pro-life activists do, in fact, exhibit concern for the lives of mothers. While the left often maligns pregnancy crisis centers as Trojan Horses for anti-abortion ideology, it’s worth noting that the pro-lifers who support these centers are sincerely trying to express compassion for mothers carrying them. Whatever the consequences of that support, liberals only muddy the issue when they attribute it, always-already, to misogyny draped in piety.
This “secular sense of the sacred” is especially important to remember in the wake of the Women’s March controversies about pro-life feminism, which has renewed attention to such groups as Secular Pro-Life, New Wave Feminists, and Pro-Life Humanists, all of whom have made a deliberate effort to de-theologize pro-life arguments.
For all the virtues of Anderson’s essay, though, I’m unconvinced that it offers an adequate account of “what it means to be ‘pro-life’” today. Anderson implies that his reasons for being pro-life neatly map onto those of the movement as a whole — and that, by extension, those reasons sufficiently explain, even justify, the movement’s single-minded drive to illegalize abortion. Because he is primarily motivated by “reverential awe” for the unborn, Anderson assumes that such awe propels his allies. Because he cares about both the mother and the fetus, he assumes that most pro-lifers do. And because his position cannot be easily reduced to caricature, he assumes that critics of pro-lifers are merely cranking out strawman arguments. Anderson might have a point if the pro-life movement, as a whole, upheld the unborn while also remaining receptive to the claims of other kinds of lives; he might have a point if the pro-life movement, as a whole, treated legislation as only one strategy for defending the unborn, alongside caring for pregnant women in difficult circumstances.
But, as a whole, the pro-life movement has not done either of these things. When 4 out of 5 white Evangelical voters pulled the lever for Trump in November, they sent the message that his (wavering) pro-life position was more important than the threat he posed to immigrants, African-Americans, women, and, perhaps, global civilization. Moreover, rather than pouring our resources into supporting marginalized mothers under a Clinton administration, we sent the message that overturning Roe v. Wade, at some point in the distant future, comprises the Alpha and Omega of pro-life strategy — regardless of the cost.
No matter how committed we are to preserving unborn life, all pro-lifers should be deeply dismayed by the present state of the movement. Firstly, Trump has revitalized the stereotype of anti-abortion activists as inevitably, irreducibly, anti-woman. Perhaps, as Anderson argues, we oppose abortion because the embryo represents a site of absolute sacredness; nonetheless, in empowering a man who advocates “grabbing women by the p — y” and faces charges of sexual assault, we inevitably reaffirm the view that women’s lives are, indeed, less sacred to us. The controversy over “whether the pro-life feminist is a viable species,” in Anderson’s phrasing, didn’t come out of nowhere, and it certainly won’t go away over the next four years. If we actually feel “respect” and “admiration” for women who undergo difficult pregnancies, as Anderson insists that pro-lifers do, we have a long way to go before such sentiments are visible to our skeptical interlocutors.
Secondly, by signing up for the GOP’s politics of coercion and chicanery, we betray a curious insecurity about just how defensible our position is, and how amenable our goals are to the spirit of constitutional democracy. In celebrating Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, pro-lifers downplay the circumstances under which this nomination was secured: namely, through stealing a seat from Barack Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland. Such contempt for due process is of a piece with the GOP’s ongoing attempts to implement unconstitutional measures, such as “spousal consent” laws that require the father’s consent as a precondition of abortion. (Literally as I was writing this, news broke of a new Arkansas law banning 2nd trimester abortions.) In a country where almost 8 out of 10 adults support some form of legal abortion, we must ask ourselves just how much we believe in the sacredness of the embryo. Do we believe in it enough to meet the majority’s opinion with persuasion and argument, assured that our perspective will eventually prevail in a constitutional democracy? Or have we abandoned these tools, precisely because we do not really have the “confidence in life” that Anderson, quoting Karl Barth, attributes to our cause?
By signing up for the GOP’s politics of coercion and chicanery, we betray a curious insecurity about just how defensible our position is, and how amenable our goals are to the spirit of constitutional democracy.
Thirdly, even if you’re a die-hard conservative who dismisses Trump’s danger to women and other groups, consider this: in the name of the unborn, you have also sacrificed unborn life. The debate about whether abortion rates increase under Republican presidents is as endless as it is misleading (partly because the modern GOP bears little resemblance the party of Eisenhower). What is indisputable, however, is that women are more likely to have abortions when they’re poor and don’t have access to birth control — conditions that Trump’s GOP will almost certainly exacerbate. Indeed, Trump has already guaranteed an increase in global abortion rates by reviving the “Mexico city policy,” the Reagan-era rule withholding foreign aid from organizations that provide, or even discuss, abortion. Insofar as Trump’s version of the policy promises to be even more draconian than George W. Bush’s, the “global gag rule” potently illustrates the trade off pro-lifers made at the ballot box: to save hypothetical embryos in the future, we’ll sacrifice actual unborn lives on the altar of political expediency.
Finally, there’s still another reason why Christian pro-lifers, like myself, should mourn our entanglement with the Republican party. While I don’t think one has to be religious to be pro-life, those outside the cause invariably connect the two. Even as the movement makes room for increasing numbers of atheists and agnostics, pro-life politics continues to be a bellwether, for many, of what Evangelical Christians are “really” like, what we really believe. And what we really believe, from the non-Christian’s perspective, is that Christianity requires a political defense of no other kinds of humans than unborn humans. However unfair this characterization may be — and the revitalization of the religious Left should remind us that it isn’t fair — it constitutes a great impediment to a Gospel that casts every human as an image of God. A nation increasingly composed of “nones” will find even less reason to believe, so long as that belief remains mired in such dramatic inconsistencies.
My ambivalence towards Anderson’s essay can be summed up in my reasons for writing anonymously. I do so primarily as a reminder that we are all strangers to ourselves — that, however well we think we know ourselves, our convictions, self-knowledge is forever partial. In an age of hyper-polarization, such epistemic humility feels more urgent than ever. With his essay, Anderson challenges pro-choice readers to defamiliarize their own perceptions of pro-lifers — and, by extension, revise their estimation of their own positions. I only wish that he had called pro-lifers to a similar self-estrangement. In his own words, life is too “startlingly weird,” whether inside or outside the womb.
Darius The Mede is a stranger in a strange land.