Being Pro-life in the Age of Trump

For certain Christians there is no political position more sacrosanct than the absolute opposition to abortion. This opposition is based on prevailing evangelical theology, and is undergirded by a philosophical belief that the moral status of human life is a categorical imperative such that if something even has the potential of possessing that status (like a fertilized egg might) it carries the same moral weight as something that already does. There are early autopsies of this election emerging from the conservative intelligentsia like Avik Roy and Max Boot that hint at more complicated roots to the modern conservative movement than the coalescing of Christian values with Friedmen’s economics, and certainly this election has shown a significant block of the Republican base now consists of people who simply have an ad hominem spite for the left without much consideration for the substance of the positions on either side. But here on the ground in Oklahoma this Summer I can anecdotally report that there are still a significant number of evangelicals who are essentially the old Moral Majority, single-issue voters. For them the question is, “which candidate can I trust to most strongly oppose abortion at every level and every stage, and, given the chance, appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade (actually Planned Parenthood v. Casey) in the event of a new abortion challenge making it to the Supreme Court?”

This election is testing the loyalty of these evangelicals to that single issue by presenting them with a Republican candidate who as a person is vehemently antithetical to everything they teach, and who as a candidate is flighty at best in his opposition to abortion. Yet despite this, evangelical leaders like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr, and Wayne Grudem who would have once pointed to someone like Trump as the archetype of the libertine hedonism they saw rotting American society have cast their lot with him. Here in the Bible Belt that support, though it often comes wrapped in other oppositions encompassing the whole of the “…pro-gender-confusion, anti-religious liberty, tax-and-spend, big government” liberal project as Wayne Grudem recently wrote, still boils down to the single question of abortion. I know many highly educated, thoughtful, circumspect people who take a range of center and left positions on social and economic issues who believe that, as Christians, they have a simple moral imperative once they get to the polls to vote for the candidate of the party that opposes abortion. This election is revealing the difficulty of holding that position. Trump is not just a “flawed but good candidate” as Wayne Grudem characterized him, he really is bad. He is the distillation of all that is worst in American politics, playing to the very tangible problems and fears of people in disenfranchised parts of the county to fuel his personal ego trip. As The Economist pointed in May, the fact that serious writers are having a discourse as to whether Trump does or does not satisfy the definition of a fascist is astounding, and should be a complete condemnation of his candidacy whether he actually conforms to that extreme or not.

This is the danger of becoming tethered to a moral absolute cut-off from the spectrum of ethical possibilities in real life, and in this election it is pressing the question I keep getting asked in pro-life circles. How do we avoid voting for such an objectively bad candidate like Trump, and yet still feel morally justified since we will inevitably have to either forgo voting or check the box for someone who supports abortion rights? I think there’s an answer to this that will satisfy both their pro-life moral obligations, and spring them from the Trump trap.

If you take as a given that in general it is better for a human to be alive than not, then whatever actions keep the most people alive in a society would be the most ethical actions to take. At one end of the spectrum there is the absolute legal prohibition of abortion, but for a number of reasons it’s safe to assume that it is not an option that will be available in this generation. Opinions on the issue are simply too nuanced and closely divided to expect a dramatic change any time soon. If this option is off the table it shouldn’t even be a factor in an pro-lifer’s decision making. Voting for someone who promises to overturn three decades of legal precedent supporting the abortion rights of women would be like voting for someone who promised to land us on Mars in the next four years because you felt like it was a moral imperative to support space exploration. Now you might actually be able to justify the latter by saying, “well sure it’s crazy to think we’ll get to Mars in the next 4 years, but they are going to dump money into NASA because they are trying, so on net it will be good.” Framed this way, the real question for pro-lifers should be: regardless of their infeasible desire to overturn Supreme Court precedent, will the candidate’s other policies on net reduce, increase, or have no effect on the total number of abortions? In short, whatever policies reduce the total number of abortions are the best course to take.

Here’s one way this ethical tack can be taken. The Guttmacher Institute studies the demographics of abortion around the world, and their most recent research in 2015 found that in the United States some 75% of abortion patients qualify as poor and of low income. There is a strong correlation between being poor and the likelihood of a pregnancy ending in abortion. Thus supporting policies that reduce poverty and income inequality by increasing access to education, reducing punitive debt burdens, providing easy access to quality healthcare, cutting into unemployment, etc… is as, if not more, ethical for pro-lifers than single-issue support for abortion bans. There is much that can be done to reduce the number of abortions in a society where it is still legal, so wonky fields such as public health policy and welfare economics, and big ideas like universal basic income should be the new fronts for the pro-life movement.

In the last few years there has been a push among many Christian groups to extend their political support beyond the single issue of abortion to social ills like poverty, racism, and gender bigotry. Something I have been hearing more and more from these camps is that Christians must be “pro-life for all-of-life.” The core of the pro-life movement at its best is not simply saying “abortion is wrong,” but more fundamentally that “life is unequivocally sacred and intrinsically good.” If it is human life that is truly the concern and not any particular party agenda, then supporting policies that on net increase the number of lives and increase overall human flourishing should be the compass steering pro-life political support.