On the Number of Zygote Deaths and the Meaning of Pro-Life

What does it mean to be “pro-life”? Judging by the recent conversation about contraception, it would be easy to think that the point and purpose of the pro-life position is to reduce abortions in the world.

But as important as that is to pro-lifers, it by no means encapsulates the entirety of the pro-life position. In a brief but punchy essay, Frank Beckwith sums up the point:

The truth, however, is that the prolife position is not merely about “reducing the number of abortions,” though that is certainly a consequence that all prolifers should welcome. Rather, the prolife position is the moral and political belief that all members of the human community are intrinsically valuable and thus are entitled to the protection of the laws. “Reducing the number of abortions” may occur in a regime in which this belief is denied, and that is the regime that the liberal supporters of universal health coverage want to preserve and want prolifers to help subsidize. It is a regime in which the continued existence of the unborn is always at the discretion of the postnatal. Reducing the number of those discretionary acts by trying to pacify and accommodate the needs of those who want to procure abortions—physicians, mothers, and fathers—only reinforces the idea that the unborn are objects whose value depends exclusively on our wanting them.

In a post that I’ve seen referenced a few places, blogger Libby Anne follows Sarah (last name not given) does a bit of math and contends that fewer zygotes wind up dead when women use birth control than when they don’t.  Here’s the conclusion from Sarah:

So let’s get this straight, taking birth control makes a woman’s body LESS likely to dispel fertilized eggs. If you believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t it be your moral duty to reduce the number of zygote “abortions?” If you believe that a zygote is a human, you actually kill more babies by refusing to take birth control.

If it were the case that the pro-life view was simply constituted by the number of people who lived and died, then Libby Anne and Sarah might have a case. But there are qualitative moral differences between the two. Suppose that two people are nearing death. In one case, we do nothing at all. In the other, we act in such a way that we know will erode the conditions for their ongoing life. Perhaps we put something in the air conditioner that makes it hard to breathe, or put a clamp on the tube that is feeding them food. In both cases, the patients die—but one died without our involvement, and the other died within conditions that we created. It’s true that they both would have died anyway. But the analogy is meant to show that the life or death of the person is not the only criteria by which we judge the morality of the action.

Now, there are two things worth saying about the above analogy. First, someone might claim that by taking birth control they are not in fact intending the death of the zygote: they are only intending that any zygote that *might* have been created to not be created. And that’s a fair claim. Second, it is an analogy where we know (with considerable likelihood) that both people are going to die. In birth, we don’t know if we use contraception whether the zygote will continue living or be “flushed out.”

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

These two counterclaims, though, actually mean less than they might seem on the surface. For one, even if in the above analogy I am not intending to kill the person I’m still responsible for creating the conditions in which they died. And given that we do not know whether the zygote would live or die *without our involvement,* if the zygote dies we take on responsibility for the death that we would not have otherwise precisely because of our action in the matter. To put it bluntly, our intentional acting is what distinguishes the abortificient from the natural death and which creates a degree of moral gravity about the situation that would not occur otherwise.

That’s an argument, but beneath it stands the principle that we tried to establish at the beginning: the prolife position is not measured by the number of zygotes that survive pregnancy or not, but by the quality of our wills and decisions inasmuch as they relate to human life. Hypothetically, if a couple knew that by not using an abortificient every zygote they had would die and be “flushed out”, but if they used an abortificient and one of the children lived, using the abortificient would still be wrong. Why? Because the decision would have been one that would have been contrary to the presence of human life and because the morality of the decision is not determined solely by the consequences that result from it. To deploy the classic anti-consequentialist conundrum, if we could demonstrate that statistically killing one innocent person would save the lives of a hundred or thousand others, that would not make the intentional taking of human life right or good.

One final point: let’s suppose for a second that it’s simply uncertain whether in my analogy the person died because they were really old or because we put the hypothetical clamp on their feeding tube. Analogously, it may be uncertain when someone is on contraception whether any given zygote is “flushed out” naturally or because of the drug’s effect. (Again, statistics don’t matter—action and involvement does.) In such a case, a strong dose of ethical humility would entail that we should err on the side of not involving ourselves in the process, *even if* statistically more humans die as a result. Theologically, we can entrust ourselves and our decisions to the providence of God, and contend that we have knowingly kept ourselves free from even the possibility of intentionally creating the conditions that caused the death of human life—of doing evil that good may come. We cannot have too much integrity of the will in this world.

Update:  Guttmacher has a study out saying that the abortion rate has decreased to its lowest point since 1973 and credits contraceptives for part of that.  It’s obviously good news that the rate is dropping.  Predictably, it’s being deployed as a reason why the pro-life movement should support the contraception mandate.


Hamlet, Beauty, and the Case Against Abortion

William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is a story of tragedy; a tragedy that results in part because of a stasis that Hamlet nurtures when he should be taking action to avenge his father’s death.  He has all the impetus one could need—his father’s ghost visits him early in the play urging him to “revenge his foul and unnatural murder” (I.V.25) at the hands of his brother, Claudius.  Yet rather than acting, Hamlet hems, haws, and monologues the play away, inventing opportunities to provoke his uncle’s conscience rather than openly confront him.  He even later finds Claudius in a moment of vulnerability as his uncle is at player, and delays even with a sword in his hand.

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?


Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At gaming, swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. (III.3.82-95)

Hamlet justifies his hesitation with the hope that catching his uncle in the midst of more sin will ensure his tenure in hell, whereas killing him at prayer risks sending him to heaven.  Yet this concern ultimately rings hollow given his constant inactivity and misdirection and, moreover, demeans the only motivation he should need—his murdered father.

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I, like Hamlet, have been so haunted and remained largely apathetic.

I remember a day from my undergraduate career at Biola University when the entire campus was seething with anger, and with good reason. Or so I thought.  Our passion was directed at a bi-plane flying above the campus trailing a banner with horrific images of aborted fetuses. My friends and I were scandalized, offended, and not a little self-righteous. What an audacious waste of money to hire a plane like that and brandish such images over a Christian campus. We all knew and believed abortion was wrong. We weren’t the ones who needed to be persuaded…right?

Not really.

The truth is, though I identify myself unambiguously as a conservative Christian, and though I affirm the sacredness of life, there’s a real sense in which I have been complicit in the abortion of children because I don’t actually do much to prevent it. And I’m not alone; I know many individuals who next month will go to the polls and console themselves with the belief that they have discharged their duty to the unborn because they voted Republican, just like they did four years ago.

Pro-life advocate Rolley Haggard recently wrote in Breakpoint Magazine, “pulpit silence on the abortion holocaust is nothing short of blasphemy.” But this silence is one shared, potentially, by every Christian—not merely our clergy—and so we all share in the blasphemy. So insular is my experience of Christianity that the last time I really had a discussion with someone about abortion was over ten years ago. This is America—you need never “inconvenience” yourself on account of your faith if you don’t want.

When I was in graduate school in 2008, a thunder-voiced rascal named Brother Jeb told everyone who passed by that voting for Obama would usher in the apocalypse (which I kind of thought he’d prefer). As something of an introvert, I have a strong aversion this type of vitriolic evangelism that, unfortunately, is widespread enough to be cliché.  These people embarrass the cause of Christ with their hellfire (not to mention give Obama too much credit).

But my real problem was that I’d thought about abortion too much. I had myself convinced that to persuade someone that abortion was abhorrent, I needed to deconstruct the sexual revolution—a problem so colossal that what I needed to do was write a book, not have a conversation.

Let me explain. Continue reading

How to Reduce Abortions: An Idiosyncratic Suggestion

This past spring, we spent a lot of time arguing against the notion that single evangelicals should take contraception to reduce abortions.  What we didn’t do, though, was talk about the positive case:  if not contraception, then how should we set about reducing abortions?

That’s the question that Kolburt Schultz put to me for his blog Faithful Politics.  My friend Eric Teetsel (go forth to his new blog) weighed in, as did a few others.  My contribution is, well, typically idiosyncratic.  Rather than address the issue head on, I tried to get beneath the surface to one of the core problems in the evangelical culture:  our understanding of children.


Yes, this is a shameless attempt to make you like this post.

Still, cultural transformation need not wait until we have every solution.  So let me propose one sideways suggestion, one idea that comes at the question not from head-on but through the back door.  I would like to see evangelical churches end “children’s church” and nurseries and keep all the crying infants in the services.  If we segregate infants because they “distract us” from our worship and learning, then we undermine our own imaginative resources to welcome distractions in other parts of our lives.  The posture of welcome to infants and children begins at the center of the universe, in the person of Jesus.  We ought not want a more professional and more distraction-free worship experience than he does, and if we look at the Gospels he seems quite interested in allowing the little children to mess up his plans.  If our worship on Sunday is a microcosm for the rest of our lives, then it seems deeply inconsistent to separate ourselves from children while singing only to claim that we want them every other moment.

Will that reduce abortions?  Empirically, probably not.  At least not right away.  But like all problematic ethical behaviors, the willingness in our people to abort their children is a sign of our deeper dysfunctions.

 I’d be curious to hear from you, dear reader, on this question as well.  What should we think about how to reduce abortions?


Christian Progressivism and a Principled Pro-Life Position

My good friend Tim King of Sojourners took the Rachel Held Evans stage after I did–an admittedly easy act to follow–as a Christian progressive.  His answers are precisely in line with those which I’ve come to expect from him:  thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate in the best sense of the word.

The section on being pro-life, however, pushed the eyebrows up involuntarily:

I won’t try to articulate here a prescriptive policy position, but a description of how I approach the issue more broadly.

My older sister is pregnant and this August, I’ll have a nephew. Really pumped to be an uncle. My sister told me that as a result of her pregnancy, she has never been so pro-life and pro-choice. This isn’t unusual. In fact, the Public Religion Research Institute has found that about two-thirds of all American’s identify as pro-life and pro-choice simultaneously.

I think that is for good reason. Most people don’t view a fetus as a clump of cells indistinguishable from any other clump of cells but many also don’t see that the state has the same interest in a fertilized egg as it would a three-year-old child. You describe well some of the tensions that I think many people feel when they think about the issue.

In resolving a complex ethical issue, while taking into consideration multiple and often competing demands, we need to ask, what’s the role of government? At what point is the state the best arbiter? Currently, the state registers and logs a record of all births. Should they instead try and register and log all pregnancies? Monitor women of childbearing age? What is the state’s interest in the 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies that end in a miscarriage? What about the many more “chemical pregnancies”? What kind of interest does the state have in the health and habits of women of childbearing age as it effects their bodies’ ability to carry a child to term? What other practices and protections currently extended to those who have been born should be expanded by the state to include fertilized eggs?

I think most people recognized a gradation of responsibility. The interest of the state is not the same at the moment of conception as it is at the moment of birth.

This is what leads me to believe that the primary role of the state is not to dictate decisions around these complex ethical considerations and its primary role lies with preventative and supportive policy.

I appreciate Tim’s kindness earlier in the Q&A in signaling agreement with me on the importance of non-governmental organizations to solve social problems.  (Tim, if you’re trying out the conservative end of the pool, dive in.  The water is great.)

But on this pro-life business, well, I’m afraid we’re at odds.

For one, Tim describes the problem democratically.  ”Most people” is a decent enough starting point for ethical and policy deliberations (Socrates made heavy use of the trope), but it’s not an ending point.  The fact that many of us feel tension on the position is a diagnosis, not a remedy.  More thinking and better thinking would be a good next step:  holding contradictory opinions on a question is okay as a temporary season, but eventually the question must be resolved.

What’s more, Tim frames the question as one of the state’s interest while dodging the metaphysical question:  is the fertilized egg a human person as the three year old child is, or is he not?   If he is, then the state’s purported interest can go to hell–precisely where it will end up if it fails to judge accordingly . The person has rights and ought to have the protection that comes along with them, regardless of what the people say.

Tim throws the series of questions up to muddy the facts of the matter and succeeds admirably at his task.  But the list also reveals the fundamental progressive instinct at work.  The fact that we have human rights doesn’t entail that the state is there to ensure that we live:  rather, they are there to safeguard us from the deliberate and intentional taking of our lives by another human person.  Presume that we come up with some way to reduce the number of miscarriages.  Well done, if it happens, for alleviating more pain and suffering in the world.

But because miscarriage is not a moral wrong, not an infringement of someone’s rights by an agent who can be held culpable, then the state isn’t obligated do anything at all. And the same goes for logging pregnancies, monitoring pregnant women, and the like.  Though the whole thing would give a rather new meaning to the phrase “nanny state,” which is exactly where Tim’s progressive instincts lead anyway.

(Apologies, Tim.  The joke was too good to resist.)

In short, Tim’s rhetorical questions are nonsensical unless we grant that the state’s interest in preventing abortion is the same as its interest in preventing death.  They might both be evil, but they are evils of a different sort.  And the state has responsibilities to act in one realm, and none in the other.

This “gradation of responsibility” that people recognize may be true enough, then, if we were taking a survey.  But as a matter of governing in anything approaching a pro-life manner, it simply will not do.

The metaphysics of the matter–the matter of the fertilized egg, to be specific–have to be evaluated and our ethical reflection and public policy brought into line accordingly.  Even within a liberal democracy, where our differences of opinion apparently extend even to our own minds, we must resolve the question of who will be admitted.  A principled pro-life position depends upon it.

(When) Is Lying Wrong?

Lila Rose’s explosive undercover video exposing a  Planned Parenthood worker who gave professional advice to someone masquerading as a pimp with an under-age sex ring has generated a national debate over the organization and its role.

But it has also generated a much quieter, more philosophical discussion over the legitimacy of the tactics that Rose’s outfit used.  Christopher Tollefsen kicked the party off and it continued unabated for several weeks.  Not surprisingly, the debate quickly moved toward the “Nazi’s at the door with Jewish folks in the basement” problem, a problem that Tollefsen didn’t shirk from:

But the Nazi is not owed the truth as to whether one is concealing Jews even when one is not. His mission is wrongful regardless of whether one conceals or not. He has no legitimate authority, that having been lost long time since by the regime and those who worked for it. Yet he is a human being, and a child of God, and one cannot assume that his soul is beyond saving. One’s obligation, I hold, is to refuse to answer his question regarding the whereabouts of Jews (for he is owed no answer) and to tell him further that he is engaged in a wicked activity and to encourage his repentance.

What are the likely consequences of such action? One possible good consequence is this: a firm policy never to answer (especially if this policy is shared by others) makes it difficult for the Nazi to infer anything accurate from what he hears about the whereabouts of the Jews on any occasion. Having heard this twice when no Jews were to be found, he might, in fact, infer that there are no Jews hidden on the third occasion, though in fact there are. Moreover, a systematic policy of denying the authority asserted by wicked regimes can begin to break that power down—wicked regimes depend for their power on citizens remaining subjects. Of course, it is also possible that a refusal to answer will enrage the Nazi to the point of violence, even if no Jews are discovered. But one would be speaking truthfully and lovingly to this wicked but not God-forsaken man in the only way that could conceivably do some good for him, and in a way that does no evil to one’s self.

I suggest that the policy I have outlined should be adopted also when one does have Jews hidden in one’s house. And here again, the likely consequences are not good. In both scenarios, a search will likely be conducted, and in the second, the Jews found. What then?

I do not think one could in good conscience allow the Nazis to depart alone with the Jews. Physically resisting would likely be futile, but not necessarily wrong. One could offer to go with the Nazis in place of the Jews; and if that failed one could insist that one be brought with the Jews (it is very likely this decision would already have been made by the Nazis). And one should be willing to accept that a possibly significant degree of physical harm, perhaps even death, would be visited upon one’s person while one continued to proclaim the truth to the Nazis about the wickedness of their mission.

In all such actions one would act in solidarity with the Jews and charity towards the Nazi. One would witness to the truth in ways that, were more to do so, could conceivably be the undoing of the regime. And one might occasionally sway a young wrongdoer, one raised as a Christian, perhaps, but gradually corrupted by his culture, recollecting him to his better self and turning him towards the good.

The one thing I’ve never understood in the hypothetical is why those who were hiding Jews would think that the Nazi’s would believe the lie.  I suspect my imagination is shaped more by the movies than by historical accounts on this, and when I reflect about the Nazi’s accepting citizens’ claims at face value when searching for Jews, it seems wildly implausible.

This is a debate worth having, though, as the question of the pro-life movement’s integrity is at stake.  And having this  debate in public, rather than in the cloistered and inaccessible world of the academy or conferences, is why God invented the internet.

Adoption and the Pro-Life Movement


In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.


The great gulf between those who desire children and cannot have them biologically and those who conceive children but do not want them may vary over time and place. But what marks a civilization, in my view, is how we handle this chasm. Do we simply throw the unwanted away? Do we make every effort to find them homes? How do we practically facilitate this?

If the pro-life movement dedicated its every moment not to criminalizing abortion but to expanding adoption opportunities, it would win many more converts.

And Megan McCardle responds:

At the point where international adoptions have increased to a quarter of all adoptions, and kids with special health needs make up a substantial fraction of the children adopted (ranging from 30 percent of international adoptions, to 55 percent of adoptions from foster care), I think we can say that the demand side has been taken care of.  And as far as I know, pro-lifers are doing what they can on the supply side–in terms of building institutions that help women carry a pregnancy to term.  I find it far-fetched that women are having abortions because no one is willing to help them give the baby up for adoption–there are lots of people and agencies that will not only help them, but pay a substantial portion of their expenses until they deliver.  They’re having abortions because pregnancy is physically uncomfortable, and there’s still a social stigma on women who carry a baby to term in order to give it away.

Alcorn on Younger Evangelical Inconsistency

I would encourage you to view this interview between Mark Driscoll and Randy Alcorn. It’s excellent and rightfully deserves a response from evangelicals who label themselves “pro-life” but then vote for pro-choice candidates. I’ll be blunt; I know of no more contradictory stance held by younger evangelicals today, a stance which is both naive and appalling.

I’ve recently completed a term paper on a Christian understanding of public morality. In it, I made the assertion that individual acts create cultural habits and moods (which, I know, is not a novel concept), that eventually contributes to what Robert P. George labels as a “moral ecology.” On the abortion issue, evangelicals have the unique ability to stand on the side of celebrating a culture of life. How sad that, on such an important issue, younger evangelicals are contributing–surreptitiously–to the pro-choice movement’s “culture of death.”

The (Economic?) Case for Babies

I’m in the market for babies and, based on the research, it’s prime time to be having them.  Happily married, financially stable, and with a happiness quotient that should make the rich and famous envious, my wife and I are in a place to “make the plunge.”  However, lots of our friends and acquaintances don’t quite understand why we would want to do that.  If we express interest in raising a family, we often are thought to be either out of our minds, or members of an exclusive order of saints—altruistic beyond comprehension, and perhaps a little out-of-touch with reality.  After all, the standard assumption is that children impose a major limit discretionary time, money, and, well, everything.  But, there are a number of voices arguing the opposite.  While it’s fairly easy to find religious writers, and especially prolific Catholics, making the case for having children, the argument for kids in the press is harder to find…and even harder if you’re looking for an argument that doesn’t depend on altruism and total self-abnegation for its impetus.  Enter Bryan Caplan from EconLog.

Some might take offense at Bryan Caplan’s non-traditional and un-altruistic approach to marriage and family, however, upon closer inspection, his work presents a delightfully subversive argument that undercuts the worst aspects of our obsession with self-esteem and personal fulfillment even while ostensibly appealing to those very cherished values.  For example, scan through his Wall Street Journal article “The Breeder’s Cup” and you might think that the only good reasons for having children are the economic viability of the endeavor and the resulting personal happiness that parents find upon birthing progeny.  And from a guy writing a book titled, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” you are likely justified in thinking that this guy can’t stop thinking about himself.  In the midst of such egotistical considerations, where is the fabled altruistic maternal love, the sacrificial self-denial, and the all-encompassing charity that we’ve heard so much about (no doubt from our parents when they roll out the guilt-trip strategy in the high-stakes bid for our presence at the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday reunion)?

But take a closer look at the article before you consign it to the heap of selfish drivel spewing from a self-satisfied culture that will only act in ways that are bound to deliver on the promise of personal happiness.  In advocating for more children against the traditional axiom that children are diametrically opposed to personal happiness, wealth, and leisure, Caplan argues for a new conception of happiness.  Rather than limit happiness to the standard magazine advertisement fare of cruises, designer labels, and nymphomania, Caplan suggests that any definition of happiness ought to include satisfying personal relationships.  In fact, his interpretation of the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, he concludes that “the people to pity are singles, not parents” because the security and companionship provided in marriage far outweigh the ephemeral benefits of the single life.  In other words, love and commitment still matter.

And with that conclusion, things begin to get really interesting.  In families with parents who love each other and their children, the traditional down-sides to parenting—the pressure to make your kids successful, the constant giving without receiving—all but disappear.  Working at loving your children and developing relationships with them are more likely to produce happiness than making big sacrifices accompanied with self-pity (hey, just like doing the same thing with you spouse rather than being a jerk and making up with expensive presents).  After all, kids are people, too and since many of us are happiest when we have meaningful relationships with others, it should come as no surprise that having more meaningful relationships will increase happiness.

That happiness, though, really is different than the consumer-oriented variety you get from your HD TV commercials in 3D (yes, odds are they are here to stay).  Rather than finding happiness in the options to gratify various desires, the happiness Caplan refers to is related to an older notion of happiness (hello, Aristotle) from before the era of 1960’s behaviorism.  Happiness, in the older sense, is related to doing the things you were made to do, and doing them well.  Disputing the various ends of human action until you’re blue in the face makes little difference for this view of happiness; whatever the final outcome, this older definition of happiness says that the man who does what he was meant to do is the happy man.

Without delving into any major scientific enigmas, it remains obvious that human beings are biologically intended to reproduce.  Thus, reproducing (and then cultivating the fruits of that reproduction) well should, according Aristotle and company, tend towards greater happiness.  And this is the final point that Caplan makes.  The happiness that comes from raising kids can’t be undercut by various pragmatic considerations; in fact, data may suggest that those considerations might actually give support to the case for children.

No one should have children for purely economic reasons, but, it’s refreshing to discover that economics promote rather than discourage a few American values: life and the pursuit of happiness.

Ambiguously Human

Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made is 86 pages that will change your life.

Readers of Mere-O know my ongoing fascination with O’Donovan, whom I regard as the best living theologian in the English-speaking world.  After slowly digesting his trilogy on Christian ethics, I have finally turned to what is perhaps his most influential book.

Begotten or Made is a sustained critique of the eradication of nature in favor of technological mastery.  This isn’t a full review–the book simply must be read and re-read in its entirety.

But in my favorite section, O’Don0van highlights that one of the central features of our age is that man is that the notion of ‘transcendence’–the mastery of matter by spirit–has allied itself with the scientific enterprise, such that when we make things the object of experimental knowledge “we assert our transcendence over them.”

But this notion of transcedence has expanded in our contemporary age to become a project of self-transcendence.  Here, man is both the subject and object of scientific inquiry.  We simultaneously look through the microscope, but look at objects that are us. He muses that the contemporary fascination with the brain is driven by this paradoxical relationship, by the desire to identify the material basis for the free subjective consciousness of the knower–the “spirit,” if you will.

It is in this context that the practice of embryo experimentation (i.e. embryonic stem-cell research) occurs.  ”The embryo is of interest to us,” writes O’Donovan, “because it is human; it is ‘ourselves’.  On the other hand, it is considered a suitable object of experiment because it is not like us in every important way.  It has no ‘personality’.”

At this point, O’Donovan is worth quoting in full.  This may be my favorite bit of writing of his from anything I’ve read: Continue reading

A Moment of Sympathy for Mr. Stupak

Ross Douthat at the NY Times had a moment of sympathy for Bart Stupak today, and it’s a (typically) generous and insightful response to uproar surrounding Bart Stupak:

Here was a politician who embodies what a half-century ago would have been considered the sensible center in American politics — economically liberal, socially conservative — and whose politics represent a good faith effort to live out the social teaching of America’s largest religious body, the Roman Catholic Church. Yet who, in the political arena, really seemed to be on his side? Not the pro-choice left, obviously, which was willing to sacrifice the entire health care bill to the principle that nobody should have to pay for an abortion out of pocket. Not Stupak’s fellow liberal Catholics (E.J. Dionnethe editors of Commonweal, etc.) whose attitude seemed to be, “c’mon, Stupak, just get with the program, and sign up for the compromise that a pro-choice White House wants you to live with.” And not anti-abortion conservatives, who backed him to the hilt not because they wanted him to succeed, but because they assumed that he would fail, and in failing, drag the whole health care package down to defeat.

Ross goes on to sound a variation on a theme he has been pounding out for some time now, the dearth of substantive policy proposals not only among conservatives, and here among pro-life conservatives.

And on this point, Ross is–as he has been–exactly right.  And his contention that “pro-lifers need the Republican Party to feel hospitable to voters whose impulses on social policy tend in a more communitarian direction” comes close to a position I’ve argued here at Mere-O in the past (probably, I should confess, with Douthat’s own thought lurking somewhere in the background).

But his claim that the pro-life frustration with Stupak is actually grounded in our desire to take the whole bill down is (I think) wrong.  Back in November, when Republicans floated the idea of voting down the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the House bill in order to undercut health care entirely, the idea was universally rejected by the pro-life community not for political or pragmatic reasons, but because their operating principle has always been not to use the unborn as a tool for other political ends.

As much, then, as I feel sympathy for the difficult position that Stupak was put in, the pro-life community is not to blame for the Democratic insistence that the bill provide the means to expand abortion.  If one lesson is that pro-lifers need to think more proactively with respect to policy, the other is that when they have the votes, the Democratic leadership is so beholden to the pro-abortion lobby that pro-life measures have no chance of consideration.  And if any lesson seems primary here, that’s it.

It would have been nice, in other words, to end up at a place where Stupak and his crew didn’t hold the keys to ensuring that the bill was thoroughly pro-life–not because in retrospect they proved untrustworthy, but because such a solution would be a better solution to the one we currently have.  But for the pro-life community, any policy solutions have a minimum threshold before they become viable:  no federal funding for abortion.  The Democratic leaders clearly refused to meet that threshold, which makes me suspicious that any policy proposals could have avoided our current maelstrom.

But the bill almost passed without abortion funding anyway, had Stupak stayed strong.  That, I would argue, is the source of the pro-life frustration.  Certainly there are some pro-lifers who are frustrated because they think the bill is an expansion of entitlements.  But organizations like AUL and the Catholic Bishops have maintained throughout that their only focus was protecting the unborn and the doctors who care for them.

For those closest to the pro-life community–those who are most hurt, and most angered–the deepest betrayal happened not when Stupak announced he would vote for the bill, but when he argued against sending it back to committee to add his own amendment to it.  We feel betrayed not because the bill passed, but because the manner in which the bill passed, and because it did not need to pass with abortion funding.

I want to have sympathy for Bart Stupak, then.  And as I have said before, I want there to be a viable Democratic pro-life contingent, not just to keep Republicans honest, but because I’m intrigued by new ways of thinking about the political order and its relationship to the family.  As Schwenkler says, pro-lifers need the Democrats, and the Democrats need pro-lifers.

As in all such situations, the tragedies are many.

Yes, it’s tragic that pro-lifers and conservatives didn’t propose and cultivate more policy initiatives that might have won the ear and attention of more moderate Democrats.  But one failure does not justify another, and Stupak’s decision to vote for the bill regardless was also a tragedy–a tragedy that I suspect those who fought the hardest felt most deeply of all.*

*And yes, I said I would be done writing about this.  But Douthat provoked me, as he so often does.  If only he had written something else, I wouldn’t have to write this.