The following essay is my submission to the Blogs4Life Online Symposium. It is perhaps unconventional in tone for a Symposium of this sort. It is certainly “off the point” somewhat, as I present what might be construed as a specifically Christian approach to the first question(as evidenced by my use of Scripture), which reads:

Defining our Movement: Redefining “Pro-Life” for the 21st Century

Over the past thirty years the term “pro-life” has often been almost completely associated with the issue of abortion. How can we use weblog technology to argue for a more robust definition that includes opposition in such areas as euthanasia, assisted suicide, and embryo destructive research? Also, where do we draw the between essential, nonnegotiable elements (e.g., opposition to abortion) and matters on which disagreements and differences of opinion should be respected allowed (for example, IVF or capital punishment)?

I would encourage Mere O readers (and those in the Symposium who are interested) to offer feedback. My apologies to FRC and Blogs4Life for not playing within their terms, but old habits die hard: at Oxford, I was told to make an interesting paper out of the question given, so that is what I have attempted. My thoughts are tentative at best, and consequently still blurry. I birthed the child prematurely (as it were), yet thought it still worth carrying forward. Without further ado, then, my thoughts:

When I first read the question, my thoughts explored the path of the glorious hopes of new media in general, and weblogs in particular to promote a more robust definition of the pro-life position. The question informs us that such a position is badly needed: “pro-life” is now nearly exclusively associated with abortion. Of course, the question itself betrays that this association is almost entirely negative (i.e. “pro-life” means “anti-abortion”), even for those who would eschew such a characterization. After all, when asking how a more robust definition of “pro-life” can be communicated, the examples given are all positions of opposition: “anti-euthanasia,” “anti-assisted suicide,” and “anti-embryo destructive research.” Is the pro-life movement pro anything?

Such is the trouble with the pro-life movement. It is not much good communicating a “big-tent” pro-life agenda through new media when that agenda is almost entirely negative. Ironically, I would sometimes hear social conservatives (of whom I am one) malign the Democratic party for not having a coherent, positive agenda. We would be well served to remember Jesus’ warning to those who would point out the splinters in our neighbor’s eye. For those loyal to the cause, the “pro-life” movement is often nothing more than an “anti-murder” movement, and while (obviously) noble and worthwhile, such a position is ultimately insufficient for cultural renewal. A positive statement is needed: if we are to be pro-life, we must be more than anti-death.

It is my suggestion, then, that before examining the prospects and potentials of new media for the pro-life cause, pro-lifers should return to the “first principles” and examine their own understanding of the “life” for which they fight. The pro-life position is an inherently stronger position in that it affirms the medieval notion that Being itself is a good, and secondarily that this type of being–namely the human being–is also a good. But, alas, that is the rub, for opponents of the pro-life position have a radically different notion of what constitutes “the human being.” The pro-life position, if it has failed at anything, has failed to articulate exactly where the difference lies, and why the pro-life understanding of “human” is not only more true, but more good and beautiful than the alternative.

And here I come to my point: the pro-life movement is an ideological struggle that goes deeper than whether life begins at conception. Fundamentally, it is a struggle between an necessity and “the freedom to choose.” While the “pro-choice” position is, in the popular mind at least, associated with abortion, it cuts across all modern bioethical challenges. The concept of “human nature” suggests that there is some necessity, some boundary condition that cannot be crossed for a human to remain a human, yet this is just what the doctrine of choice rejects. The question is whether our “dominion” over the created realm give inevitably us a right to dominion over ourselves–a dominion, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, that will entail the dominion of some men over others. Is human nature still able to make demands of us, or can we recreate it according to our own desires? Are some things necessary–and if so, what are they–for this type of being to flourish, or is flourishing a matter of exercising our choice?
The pro-life position must be a defense of nature itself–not of the earth and trees, but of a structured, ordered reality that governs and restricts the choices that we make. The pro-life position is nothing less than a statement that human existence is only human when it is bounded by necessity, when the natural laws constrain it and guide it. The requisite for human flourishing is submission to the reality of human nature.

If this is true, pro-lifers should build a much bigger tent: heterosexual marriage is an affirmation of the pro-life position that there is a reality to which humans must conform if they wish to flourish. Those who advocate genuine human embodied contact over the virtual are themselves pro-lifers, for they are fighting for the notion that we cannot recreate ourselves online according to our own desires. Those who work for educational reform contribute to the pro-life cause to the extent that they shape souls into the image of God. The pro-life cause has faught a noble fight, but it has only fought on one front of a much larger conflict.

There is a subtle irony undergirding my position that the pro-life movement must be about the necessities nature imposes upon us, a surprising irony that puts pro-lifers in a position of strength. The pro-life position is fundamentally about freeing Death to do its work in its own way, in its own time. When it is free to work on its own, Death is unwittingly life’s greatest ally, for it confronts us with the necessary demands of an embodied existence. As such, it will be the last bastion of the pro-life position: only when we can choose to make ourselves how we want will we be able to finally escape its clutches. “Freedom” will triumph over necessity, and immortality will prevail over mortality.

And that is exactly what euthanasia purports. We “defeat” death by embracing it on our own terms, when we decide. Just as we wish to control life, we wish to control death, and free ourselves from the fear and pain that accompanies it. Consequently, it must be part of the pro-life movement to embrace Death–on its own terms–as a part of life. Just as Pope John Paul II embraced a life of suffering, choosing to die when Death took him, so pro-life advocates must also defend pain, agony, and the desolation of death as part of this fallen human life. If we are pro-life, we cannot merely be pro-prelapsarian life. It was Jesus who told us, “I come that you may have life, and life to the fullest” in one breath and “Take up your cross and follow me” in the next. Death, like all his angels, is still one of His servants.

It is not enough to understand and defend death and pain and their value. The culture ware will not be won by political action or reasoned discourse. Like Pope John Paul II, we must embrace the suffering of a mortal life ourselves. The martyrs embraced Death because they recognized that their life was not their own, yet it is still their blood that is the seed of the Church. They did not die to escape pain, but accepted pain for a greater good. As the Pope showed us a more excellent way, we must transform culture by living well while dying well. The pro-life position is about much more than culture–it is about experiencing the flourishing life that humans were intended for, and that is ours to be had on the other side of the journey to that far off country.

What, then, shall we say to the latter part of the question? What is “necessary” in the pro-life movement and what is optional? I would suggest that the real war is a war for the notion that it is better to be constrained–by corporeality, by mortality, by reality–than not. It is the particular character of human nature to be subject to limits. We are offered transcendence, but not of our own making. I have never been one to answer well, “What are we to do?” The pragmatics of war are best left to tacticians wiser than myself. It is my suggestion, though, that the pro-life position encompasses much more than it is currently characterized to include, and that pro-life advocates would do well to unify even with individuals who are not traditionally thought of as “pro-life” and yet are themselves working to transform the “options-driven” spirit of our age.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

8 Comments

  1. […] Matthew Anderson considers the nature of the pro-life movement at Mere Orthodoxy. […]

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  2. It is morally dubious to equate the suffering of martyrs with the suffering of the sick. Jesus came to heal the sick, not to tell them to “die well.” His disciples were commanded to carry out his work. Is this not a refusal to “embrace Death?”

    If euthanasia’s proponents are accused of sliding down a slippery slope, what of those who would say that we must accept Death on “its own terms?” Why bother with palliative care? Why bother with EMTs and 911? Why bother to learn CPR? After all, the heart attack has come, and it is obviously Death’s time. Who are we to intervene?

    The irony you might not see: in the Schiavo controversy, everything you write here could be justification for pulling the tube.

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  3. If humans can choose to act in a way contrary to a particular definition of human nature, shouldn’t that cause us to rethink our definitions? The nature of a trout includes its inability to fly. However, if we found flying trout, we ought to adjust our definition of the the nature of the fish rather than demonize the fish’s new found freedom.

    Your question boils down not so much to the nature of human Being, but to what is best for that Being. The exciting aspect of this question is that it will be easy to test certain theories in the real world. However, determining what is best is very difficult. As you point out, death may not be the correct litmus test. If a certain behavior leads to death we cannot necessarily say that that behavior is fundamentally wrong because sometimes even death (and pain, and suffering) are minor goods with greater results.

    While Christians are quick to defend certain types of pain, suffering, and death they also love to point out that certain behaviors (e.g., homosexuality) lead to death and destruction and therefore are fundamentally wrong.

    If we are going to approach the issue from the standpoint of human flourishing or health, we are in need of some very specific criteria to help determine just what flourishing looks like…since it very well may include things that, at first glance, appear to be antithetical to flourishing.

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  4. Jim,

    Good thoughts, as always. My replies:

    It is morally dubious to equate the suffering of martyrs with the suffering of the sick. Jesus came to heal the sick, not to tell them to “die well.” His disciples were commanded to carry out his work. Is this not a refusal to “embrace Death?”

    Well, Jesus said a lot of things. He healed the sick and then told them to take up their cross and follow him (suggesting, I think, that they die). Paul in Romans suggests that we should “put to death the deeds of the body” (i.e. participate in the crucifixion of Jesus in order that we may experience the power of His resurrection). While these are somewhat different than death at the end of life, I am not sure they are that different. My notion of “Death” throughout the essay is a broader notion than “the stopping of the heart” or other biological descriptions. Death–even of a biological sort–might be the sort of thing that we can practice and prepare for. This is all very tentative, of course (it’s blogging!), but my reply is simply that Jesus and the NT aren’t quite as obvious on the issue as you or I make it seem.

    If euthanasia’s proponents are accused of sliding down a slippery slope, what of those who would say that we must accept Death on “its own terms?” Why bother with palliative care? Why bother with EMTs and 911? Why bother to learn CPR? After all, the heart attack has come, and it is obviously Death’s time. Who are we to intervene?

    These are good questions. I am starting to think that the default position of “attempt healing all the time” is not necessarily the best one. I’m interested in a more critical position on the adoption of painkillers. Someone like Lonn (a personal friend, for you lurkers) is a great witness, I think, to the recognition of the limits of physicality and of the virtues of embracing mortality. That said, I don’t think my position excludes the use of medical drugs or technologies, but rather seeks to constrain them within a philosophy that is oriented around meaningful pain as a means to human flourishing.

    The irony you might not see: in the Schiavo controversy, everything you write here could be justification for pulling the tube.

    I’m not sure I see this. Schiavo didn’t get to consent to anything that anyone was doing to her. I think that matters a lot for the morality of the case.

    Tex,

    If humans can choose to act in a way contrary to a particular definition of human nature, shouldn’t that cause us to rethink our definitions? The nature of a trout includes its inability to fly. However, if we found flying trout, we ought to adjust our definition of the the nature of the fish rather than demonize the fish’s new found freedom.

    It seems like humans choosing to act contrary to our nature is a different sort of thing than finding a fish that is flying. Also, I’m not at all sure that finding someone (or even a small group of people) who act(s) contrary to human nature should cause us to redefine human nature. Some people–and some fish–don’t fulfill their nature (i.e. flourish). More on this below.

    Your question boils down not so much to the nature of human Being, but to what is best for that Being. The exciting aspect of this question is that it will be easy to test certain theories in the real world. However, determining what is best is very difficult. As you point out, death may not be the correct litmus test. If a certain behavior leads to death we cannot necessarily say that that behavior is fundamentally wrong because sometimes even death (and pain, and suffering) are minor goods with greater results.

    Well now, I’m not sure we can separate what is “best” for a human being from what sort of thing the human being is. It seems like the latter is a requisite for understanding the former. At least that’s what I think two days out of the week. Two days of the week I am convinced that natural laws are not rooted in human natures, but in the structure of the universe (parallel, as it were, to the axioms of theoretical reason such as the law of non-contradiction. See John Finnis or Robert George for this view). Two other days of the week I’m convinced both notions are wrong (maybe more on this later, since I’m reading a critique of natural law theory and a “resurrection ethics” alternative by smart-guy Oliver O’Donovan). The last day of the week I rest.

    While Christians are quick to defend certain types of pain, suffering, and death they also love to point out that certain behaviors (e.g., homosexuality) lead to death and destruction and therefore are fundamentally wrong.
    Indeed. I haven’t given up on this. Yet maybe the redemption of such behaviors–and maybe I’m after a pro-life position that is grounded in the resurrection’s redemption of creation–involves the embracing of the suffering and pain that attends such behaviors.

    If we are going to approach the issue from the standpoint of human flourishing or health, we are in need of some very specific criteria to help determine just what flourishing looks like…since it very well may include things that, at first glance, appear to be antithetical to flourishing.

    I couldn’t agree more. And the gist of my post, I think, is that such a standpoint on “human flourishing” has to be robust enough to account for an include death, pain and suffering into it–something I’m not sure has been done at a popular level.

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  5. Matt, your further thoughts are helpful. My point about Schiavo is that absent continuous medical intervention, she would have been dead (as in, uncontroversially dead) years ago. For all we know, the initial accident was her time to die; medical science said “no,” and put her in a hospital ward, pumped her full of drugs, hooked her up to monitors, and placed in a feeding tube, all artificially extending her “life.”

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  6. Jim,

    Thanks! Re: Schiavo, thanks for the clarification. I’m honestly not sure what to think about the Schiavo case. A lot of it depended, I think, on the fact-finding: was she still able to register consciousness, was she still having brain activity, was her heart beating, etc.? I wonder also if there is a moral difference in letting her die (rather than intervening and pumping her full of drugs) and stopping the drugs once you’ve started them. I’m just not sure what to think about it.

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  7. […] In late January, I wrote this essay for a Pro-Life symposium that it seems never materialized.  In it, I included this claim: The pro-life position is fundamentally about freeing Death to do its work in its own way, in its own time. When it is free to work on its own, Death is unwittingly life’s greatest ally, for it confronts us with the necessary demands of an embodied existence. As such, it will be the last bastion of the pro-life position: only when we can choose to make ourselves how we want will we be able to finally escape its clutches. “Freedom” will triumph over necessity, and immortality will prevail over mortality. […]

    Reply

  8. Emily Elaine Hartzog May 26, 2019 at 7:27 pm

    Thank you for this article, I really appreciate it. I’ve been disappointed with the shallow angle of defense for much more deeply-rooted issues. I struggle with writing nowadays, so I’ll get to it…Why does quality of life matter if the existence of human life doesn’t matter?

    Reply

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