By now you have probably heard this sentiment expressed about any number of issues that are not immediately related to abortion. Food stamps, taxes, healthcare—even immigration!—are designated as “pro-life” causes because they may in some way be construed as encouraging the safe birth of children or (through second- or even third-order effects) discouraging mothers from aborting their children. These appeals imply not only that the issue in question is of higher importance than it might otherwise be, but also that one is not truly “pro-life” unless one is in agreement on this particular issue.
At first blush, this seems like it might be a worthwhile tack. After all, most Christians would agree that ending the injustice and horror of abortion anywhere in the world will require a multi-pronged strategy; it is foolhardy to think that merely overturning Roe v. Wade (and then either subsequently working within each state to totally ban abortion or passing legislation at the federal level doing the same) will be enough. Merely building a political movement to get to these judicial and legislative goals requires a certain amount of cultural messaging, extrapolitical activism, and material support for children and families. (Pro-life supporters of Donald Trump and Roy Moore seem to have neglected this in their desperation to win temporary battles at the cost of their dignity and any future victories they might have achieved).
Beyond the simple realpolitik of the pro-life movement needing to back up their statements of support for women and children with action in order to get any legislative traction, those who want justice for all human beings also have to deal with the problem of illegal abortion. No matter what the legislative status of abortion happens to be, we will always need ongoing efforts to convince people of the value of all human life and ensure all families have their basic needs to prevent pregnant women from seeking out illegal means for killing their children. Thus, being wholly “pro-life” requires a holistic and comprehensive approach to ending abortion.
These rhetorical moves, no matter how well-intended, are a fool’s errand. Tying in all sorts of causes under the “pro-life” banner will only weigh down the term itself and sink all of our political aspirations.
The first problem with these strategies is that they are ultimately incoherent when pushed to their logical limit. Sex and procreation are so intimately related to human flourishing that they can never be separated from any economic or political questions. We will never have peace in the much-maligned Culture Wars because the political implications of sex cut far too deeply into our lives, nor can we separate any consequences for family formation from policy.
Take zoning, for example. I can’t think of anything less sexy prima facie, and yet zoning and building regulations have massive implications for where we live, how we get from place to place, and what sort of sex we have. Height restrictions and parking requirements will naturally generate sprawl, raise housing prices, and displace the poor; this in turn will make the prospect of having children more financially burdensome and accordingly make the option of abortion more tempting should an unplanned pregnancy arise. On the other hand, mixed-use communities, appropriately subsidized public spaces, and abundant bike lanes will give parents more options for cheaper housing suitable for having more children and shorter commutes that leave more time for baby-making. (Not to mention healthier bike riders making use of well-designed bike seats!)
If zoning (or anything else) is a “pro-life” issue, then nothing is. Trying to subsume everything under the “pro-life” label weakens any holistic understanding of politics and makes it harder to get people to think clearly about what political common goods we aspire to. Just as casting adoption tax credits as a “pro-life” issuetwists the underlying complexities of adoption and care for struggling families, so stamping “pro-life” on immigration or pollution distorts our ability to talk meaningfully about our mutual obligations and political responsibilities.
A consequentialist “if it reduces abortion, it must be pro-life” approach also constricts our shared political imagination – which is exactly the sort of logic that led to many supporting Roy Moore despite his disregard for the Constitution and his indifference to truth.
Even if you can convince your standard-issue Republican that universal healthcare reduces abortions, you have only cemented his conviction that abortion reduction at any cost is the lynchpin of politics. Such a strategy is disastrous in the long-term because it fails to appreciate the way in which our aspirations to human flourishing require interlocking and interdependent political, social, and cultural work. We should always consider the possible consequences of any legislation (and thus electing any legislator) on human life, but to do so independently of other questions is foolhardy.
Indeed, the pro-life movement has been remarkably successful because it has understood that it must fight hard on every front – supporting untold numbers of vulnerable women and children, bombarding our cultural discourse with a message of human dignity, and eking out legislative victories state-by-state. The willfully ignorant may claim that Christians and pro-lifers don’t care about babies outside of the womb or their mothers, but their message is losing out – advocates of abortion are on the defensive everywhere. The “zoning is pro-life!” message only undercuts the role that non-state institutions play in combating abortion and building a more just society.
We do have to describe the ways in which more robust public welfare system, a cleaner environment, and a more humane immigration system are good for babies, but explaining this from “this could reduce abortions” only gets it backwards. If someone is not convinced that ensuring the human dignity of every person vis-à-vis equal protection under the law and access to food, shelter, and medical care are our collective responsibility, then their support for any particular policy, no matter how practically “pro-life” it may be, is built on sand. Furthermore, anyone with more substantial and legitimate disagreements about just how effective any one policy may be (e.g. health care) are effectively cut off from any political discussion.
Finally, this approach undermines the necessity of banning abortion. Many people are now wrongly convinced that the best we can do (even in the long term) is reducing demand for abortion by ameliorating poverty. While I am absolutely convinced that eliminating poverty would indeed sharply reduce abortion, there are still thousands of babies killed every year whose mothers have the necessary resources and support to raise them. We cannot abandon these children and deny them the right to live as their Creator demands.
On the question of an abortion ban’s efficacy, many European countries are noted to have low abortion rates that seemingly correlate with their generous welfare benefits and easily accessible contraception. While both welfare and contraception are undoubtedly public goods, one need only consider the example of Iceland to see that robust system of support for pregnant mothers and the disabled does not necessarily entail that people will voluntarily embrace caring for the vulnerable. On the other hand, Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world and still has a lower abortion rate than nearby nations.
Thus, the “pro-life” label can and should still be used to describe policies and activities that directly work to restrict the unlawful killing of innocents. Legal restrictions on abortion are an unqualified good when they work in tandem with other policies that protect and support the vulnerable. Watering down this definition allows people to weasel out of the difficult but necessary legal protection that the unborn are entitled to; we would never call someone anti-slavery merely because they supported a subsidy for cotton farmers who wished to transition to paid labor. Maintaining support for a comprehensive ban on abortion except in cases where the life of the mother is at risk is a necessary component of fighting for justice.
We must work out a holistic understanding of “pro-life” and apply it to our politics, but this cannot be reverse-engineered; we have to first build a political theology that appreciates the roles of different institutions in promoting the common good and inquires as to how the state can best support those institutions. Tagging any cause we support “pro-life” only cripples our shared political imagination and encourages lazy, finger-pointing discourse. Justice for the unborn will only come about when we can create a society that cares for every human being.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org