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pro-life, anti-abortion, and a consistent ethic of anything

January 7th, 2018 | 4 min read

By Matthew Loftus

I’ve gotten a lot of responses to my post on the main site from the other day, specifically questioning the idea that “pro-life” ought to be circumscribed to mean only anti-abortion policies. My main points (which I would still consider more important) were:

  1. it’s a bad idea to attach “this is pro-life” to an unrelated issue in order to get single-issue voters to care about immigration or taxes or zoning, since this is only giving in to a constricted political imagination.
  2. Legal restrictions on abortion are necessary to secure justice for the unborn.

However, there was a lot more controversy about what how “pro-life” ought to be positively used.

On the one hand, there are the American Solidarity Party folks (who I deeply respect, admire, and would identify with) who are trying to reclaim the term “pro-life” such that it actually could be used to describe immigration or zoning by building an appreciation for life from the ground up. The ASP is doing exactly what I called for throughout the essay; they are trying to imagine what a political philosophy built around protecting and cherishing life would look like and then suggesting policies that would reinforce our aspirations to the common good. So they are all-in on what I referred to as a holistic “pro-life” movement (also commonly called a “consistent life ethic”) and for them, circumscribing “pro-life” to only mean “anti-abortion” is a betrayal because it’s a kick in the teeth to their efforts to broaden “pro-life” such that by default it includes much more. I certainly didn’t intend or want to undercut them because I think a party with a consistent life ethic like the ASP would have a decently sized voting coalition if only our electoral system would permit it to emerge.

On the other hand, there were people coming from a variety of different perspectives who argued that “pro-life” is such a broad term that it is essentially meaningless as a political slogan and that its continued use to refer only to anti-abortion policies only exposes the hypocrisy of the anti-abortion movement for its inability to incorporate anything resembling a consistent life ethic. The term is imprecise and it only undermines the strength of the anti-abortion movement when those who are “pro-life” have an unhealthy attachment to a political party that is often indifferent to or hostile to the lives of refugees, immigrants, black people, drug addicts, and the poor. Thus, it would be more appropriate to simply use the word “anti-abortion” to talk about anti-abortion policies.

I appreciate the pushback I got and I think there’s a lot of merit in both of these arguments. Quite frankly, I can’t really find much to say that supports my original subpoint. I still think that saying “this is pro-life!” in order to garner support for another cause solely because that cause might reduce abortions (or worse, to dunk on your ideological opponents) is silly. It doesn’t really advance a consistent life ethic among people who have narrowed their field of vision so much that they’re willing to elevate a sexual predator in order to get something done about abortion. I still think that public policies that funnel wealth to struggling mothers and thus make abortion feel less necessary are necessary but insufficient to combating abortion and that legal restrictions on abortion are essential in the fight for justice.  

But I am less convinced that the label “pro-life” can do what it was designed to do. Ostensibly, it is meant to mean “against the lawful yet immoral intentional killing of innocent people”, but typically covers abortion and euthanasia but must clearly also be applied to many police killings and should also inform our policy towards asylum seekers who face imminent death should they be deported. And even though the pro-life movement has long approached the problem of abortion in a holistic way and sought to meet the needs of women and children and argue for their dignity in the public square, it has still been part of a much broader liberal ethic that strongly favors “private charity” over government support and appeals primarily to the rights of the unborn in its public arguments rather than our duties to fellow humans. In this way, it diverges from the politics of solidarity and the consistent life ethic that are becoming more and more popular. I would love to see the major players of the pro-life movement describe how their underlying political allegiances and ideological impulses will protect the lives of other vulnerable people in American society, but given the way in which many ardent “pro-lifers” have capitulated to Trump, I doubt this is going to happen. Even the NeverTrumpers are never quite clear on what level of tax cuts and welfare austerity are required before every child would be guaranteed to be born into a safe home where he or she would have enough to eat.

I hope that advocates for a consistent life ethic are successful in getting people to buy into their ideas; if they can do that by reclaiming the “pro-life” label, good for them. Even more, I think our republic is not going to survive unless our political discourse is driven more by coherent ideas about the common good and less by random attachments to slogans. That being said, even people who share a consistent political philosophy are going to disagree on some issues and others with divergent underlying philosophies are going to share goals across party lines on some issues. Thus, it would probably be best that anti-abortion advocates be unashamed to circumscribe their work with the label “anti-abortion”.

Matthew Loftus

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