By Stephen Wolfe

It is not enough nowadays to be pro-life; you must be consistently pro-life. If you truly care for life, then you must care for all of life − both in and out of the womb. That is, you must consistently apply the pro-life principle, leading you to advocate for governmental policies that purportedly relieve poverty and aid those most at-risk to procure an abortion. Loving the baby in the womb means loving that baby outside the womb as well.

The call for consistency is not itself wrong. We all ought to strive to apply our principles as consistently as possible. And perhaps the pro-life cause has at times failed to be consistent. But the public demand for consistency often masks the complexity of applying principles to different kinds of issues and situations. Consistency isn’t the central issue. The divide between the “consistently pro-life” and those they accuse of being “inconsistently pro-life” is actually a matter of differing policy determinations.

Principles, Conclusions, and Applications

The conclusion of the traditional pro-life cause is that the human fetus has a right to life. This follows from a general “pro-life principle” (which I take to be the ultimate precept behind the Sixth Commandment):

Civil communities must use all lawful endeavors for the preservation of human life, under which is comprehended all the conveniences and comforts of life, or whatsoever is requisite to health, ease, freedom, satisfaction, by which life may be made delightful.

Since the human fetus is a human life, then it is entitled to the preservation of life. This is a conclusion from the principle and, as such, is universally true. That is to say, no particular circumstance changes the fact that the human fetus is entitled to life as defined above.

Calling for the criminalization of abortion, however, would be an application (or policy determination) of the conclusion. An application is a product of deliberating on and determining how some conclusion of a principle ought to shape policy given the particulars of some situation. So the same conclusion might be applied in very different ways, even in contrary ways, in different circumstances.

In our circumstances, the application (advocating for the criminalization of abortion) is not controversial among those who agree that the human fetus has a basic human right to life. This is because criminalization is obviously suitable as an application to the conclusion, is clearly feasible as to its effectiveness, and is morally acceptable with regard to the possible unintended consequences (which can be mitigated by additional policies). For these reasons, the pro-life movement is in general agreement as to the type of policy needed to secure the life of unborn children. The necessary application flows quite naturally from the principle.

To be consistently pro-life, one would have to apply the same principle across all of human society. One conclusion of that principle would likely be: civil communities ought to endeavor to preserve (or render delightful) the lives of the poor. That is, if one is interested in preserving life, one must have interest in preserving life in and out of the womb, including the babies born into vulnerable conditions. This is where critics point out pro-life inconsistency, saying that pro-lifers too often refuse to acknowledge the need for governmental policies that protect and enrich the lives of those whom they claimed to care for in the womb.

But here the critics incorrectly assume that consistency involves pursuing government solutions for everything covered under the principle. It does not follow however that using governmental action in applying one conclusion necessitates that one uses governmental action for all the rest. Hence, calling for the criminalization of abortion does not itself necessitate that one calls for robust government-led poverty relief.

Each conclusion − securing the lives of the unborn and enriching the lives of the post-born and their mothers− though related in some ways, has very different considerations as to policy and policy effectiveness. Governmental action might be the most effective solution for one issue; for another, however, the government might make matters worse.

Many have concluded that governmental action for poverty relief generally does more harm than good. After all, anti-poverty policy in the United States has, at times, been disastrous. Perhaps an emphasis on private charity and other non-governmental means, such as church involvement, would be more effective in reducing poverty and helping poor mothers. Perhaps the best possible way to apply the conclusion today is getting government out of the way of, or cooperating with, civil associations and ecclesial ministries. Or perhaps the best solution is a significant restructuring of anti-poverty programs around encouraging work and self-sufficiency, as Oren Cass has strongly proposed, among others things, in his recent book The Once and Future Worker.

Of course, one might disagree with these all these policy determinations. Nevertheless, the traditional pro-lifer as a pro-life advocate is at least formally consistent with his pro-life principle, if he determines that these are the best solutions in our circumstances. He has not abandoned poor mothers; he has simply determined that non-governmental solutions for these issues are more effective.

The accusation of inconsistency fails to address the issue at hand, namely, disagreement over appropriate application. Instead of questioning policy determinations, they accuse traditional pro-lifers of myopically applying their principle − that “they don’t care about the lives of poor people.” But this is borderline calumnious and often approaches the ridiculous. Disagreeing with the effectiveness of some proposed means to an end is not sufficient grounds to declare neglect of that end. Inconsistency then is not the proper criticism. The criticism avoids the tough questions of policy and goes straight for the personal attack.

But even if there seems to be pro-life neglect of post-birth care, this is illusory. Since there are significantly different levels of difficulty in determining what to do about abortion and what to do about poverty, there will be varying levels of confidence in those determinations. There are few simple and clearly effective solutions to poverty relief. The policy solutions to abortion, as to its kind of policy (viz. the criminalization of abortion), is fairly obvious, affording this policy determination confident advocacy. Most people can see the soundness of this policy and confidently assert it. But this is not the case for the government’s role in poverty reduction.

The pro-life movement then should not be faulted for having varying degrees of emphasis. Anti-abortion is preeminent in the movement’s concern because the governmental action required to eliminate abortion is fairly clear. This is why the pro-life movement has strong unity: it focuses on a clear and straightforward application of the pro-life principle − the criminality of abortion. Why would it destroy its unity by emphasizing other issues that will generate disagreement and disunity?


The accusation of inconsistency unjustly treats a disagreement on the proper application of a conclusion as a disagreement on the conclusion. But more than that, such accusations function as personal attacks. You see the same sort of argumentation in discussions on racial justice: you don’t care about minorities or you aren’t listening to your minority brothers and sisters, because you don’t believe in policy x or you will not denounce policy y. Policy disagreements are taken as moral deficiencies rather than good-faith determinations on the best means to some end. But following the basic distinction between principle, conclusion, and application will go a long way to facilitate productive deliberation on how best to apply the pro-life principle.

Stephen Wolfe is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. His research interests include the American founding, modernity, aesthetics, and politics, and meaningful work.

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  1. Most of the time when this supposed inconsistency is raised in a discussion about abortion, it’s being used as a deflection technique or to put the pro-life individual on the defensive in order to avoid discussing the morality of abortion.

    I think another point that can be made in response to the “inconsistency” charge is that the policy prescription is entirely consistent: our laws should not sanction the ending of any human life, whether pre-birth or post-birth. It should be illegal to end any human life, rich or poor, sick or healthy, fetus, child, teen, adult, etc. Yes, protection of life under the law is the bare minimum, but let’s at least achieve that for all human beings. This is very consistent.


  2. This is a good article, but I think you’re making it too difficult for yourself.

    “Pro-Life” is simply the rhetorical counter-framing to the rhetorical framing of “Pro-Choice” — all we really mean by the term, all we really need for the issue concerned, are the two premises that (1) it is wrong to kill innocent human beings and (2) the unborn are innocent human beings (or similar premises). We can adjust premise 1 in a very uncontroversial way that has immediate policy implications: (1*) It should be illegal to kill innocent human beings.

    None of these premise entail anything about poor people or welfare programs etc. So we can entirely sidestep those red-herrings.

    As the other commenter has noticed, the attempt to move from “pro-life” in some very broad sense to advocating certain welfare programs (or anti-capital punishment programs) is simply another counter-rhetorical move picked up on the left (or pro-choice side) to distract the debate.

    Of course we could make a similar counter-counter-rhetorical move: what does it mean to be consistently pro-choice? Being consistently pro-choice must mean supporting the choice of the individual to do what they want with the money they earn. Ergo, being consistently pro-choice means supporting less taxes, which means less money for government programs etc.

    These games of rhetorical framing are easy, but conservatives have always been bad at it!


  3. This is awful, tortured logic. At least deal with a consistent ethic position that is not a straw man.


  4. There can absolutely be different policy proposals that are based on similar principles.

    But I think the charge of hypocrisy is much deeper than you are allowing here.

    For instance, supporting Trump because of his pro-life positions, while watching him dehumanize people on a regularly basis matters. Calling people animals is not the same thing as advocating that they die. But it is on the spectrum.

    Being pro-life because of the goodness of having children is a principle. But polices about taking away children at the border, which most pro-life people have spoken out against, matters.

    A friend was talking about the problem of supporting Trump even when he does the right things. Because fairly consistently, even when he is doing things that are policy proposals that I like, he is doing them for reasons that I oppose.

    Using the framing of this post, his policies may be right but the principles are wrong.


    1. The pro-life issue started as an abortion issue. That’s really the main concern here. So do you disagree with either of the following premises?

      1. It should be illegal to kill innocent human beings.
      2. The unborn are innocent human beings.


      1. I don’t disagree with either. But I also don’t think that the unborn are the only innocent human beings.

        And I don’t believe that we should restrict our focus to only innocent lives. The point isn’t that innocent lives are worth saving. The point is that lives are worth saving. If we are arguing about which lives are most innocent or worth saving, then we have lost the thread of morality that should be infusing the pro-life cause.

        At the same time, while I understand the distraction and certainly not all abortions are done for utilitarian reasons, a pro-life cause that is unconcerned with issues like health care for disabled or support for special education or even racial discrimination is always going to face charges of hypocrisy because the point of valuing life is valuing abundant life.

        To take an extreme to make a point, if we opposed abortion but do not oppose slavery or human trafficking of those lives then we are not advocating life we are advocating birth.

        The term pro-life may have originated with abortion, but Christians have been long concerned with issues of human flourishing. And it is human flourishing that is the driving force of the ethics that calls for an end to abortion.

        That doesn’t mean that no one should focus primarily on abortion. We all have callings. But it does mean that we should object to people putting different types of causes against one another as if there were only room to call for one type of justice.


        1. I don’t disagree with either. But I also don’t think that the unborn are the only innocent human beings.

          Great. Then we also agree with the conclusion:

          3. It should be illegal to kill the unborn.

          Now that we agree on what is really the main point we can address other issues. So let’s turn to some of those other issues:

          If you agree with the argument in 1-3 then is it deeply hypocritical of you to support a candidate that acts in a way that violates 1-3?


          1. But if said candidate hasn’t really done anything positive toward ending abortion, but is also at the same time violating many of the principles that give rise to the pro-life position, and is doing long term damage to the movement, then it is not at all hypocritical to oppose Trump.

            The choice wasn’t Trump or Clinton. The earlier choice was any other Republican candidate who was actually pro-life and Trump.

            The pro-life community is harmed by trying to make this about only party politics. Having pro-life democrats is a good for pro-life positions overall.

            I just am never to support Trump. Because he is not pro-life. He is willing to use pro-life people to keep himself in power. But he has no guiding principle that are in face pro-life.

          2. You dodged my question. That isn’t discussing in good faith. To repeat:

            If you agree with the argument in 1-3 then is it deeply hypocritical of you to support a candidate that acts in a way that violates 1-3?

          3. No. I am not dodging your question. I am explaining my reasoning.

            You are creating a set of absolutes that don’t exist in reality.

            I agree with your basic 1 to 3. But neither political party fully supports all three. So while you are voting based on what you think is the best option to accomplish your pro-life cause, I am also doing the same.

            But I am also detailing not just my ideological opposition to Trump, but also my pragmatic opposition to Trump.

            I strongly believe not only will Trump not make abortion illegal, I believe that his policies will increase abortions. I also believe that the support of Trump will have long term loss of moral authority by the pro-life movement. And that the support of Trump by the pro-life community has hardened the pro-choice movement making the political possibilities much more difficult.

            I also believe that these problems started a while ago. The movement by pro-life political organization against pro-life democrats over difference of opinion about the ACA harmed the pro-life movement as a whole. The lack of willingness to work on policies that could reduce abortions with Obama did nothing to bring about the end of abortion. And instead it showed the willingness of allowing abortion to be a political fundraising and turn out tool on both sides.

            I have little hope of making abortion illegal any time soon in the US. I do have hope of raising awareness and doing things that are also pro-life, like comprehensive criminal justice reform.

          4. No. I am not dodging your question.

            Yes. You are.

            I am explaining my reasoning.

            You’re explaining something I didn’t ask and doesn’t answer the question.

            You are creating a set of absolutes that don’t exist in reality.

            No, I’m just asking whether or not it would be deeply hypocritical of you to support a candidate that acts in a way that violates 1-3?

          5. A conversation does not mean that I have to submit to your demands. You asked me a question, I did not ask one of you. I have attempted to be clear.

            You are trying to have an abstraction to the debate that I am saying is not possible.

            You can disagree with my opinions, I am sure many do. But what you are attempting is not a dialogue.

          6. A conversation does not mean that I have to submit to your demands.

            Of course not, but a conversation does mean that you’re responsive to what I’ve asked. This is especially so if you give the pretense of having answered my question (as you did). Are you now acknowledging that you did not and will not answer the question?

            You are trying to have an abstraction to the debate that I am saying is not possible.

            This is just an attempt to dodge the question. There is nothing abstract about the question. There are concrete political candidates that reject 1-3. My question is about those candidates: would it be deeply hypocritical of you to support those candidates (that do not merely exist in the abstract) that act in ways that violate 1-3?

            You can disagree with my opinions, I am sure many do. But what you are attempting is not a dialogue.

            The old “I’m rubber and you’re glue” routine isn’t impressive.

          7. I’ll speak just for myself here:If you agree with the argument in 1-3 then is it deeply hypocritical of
            you to support a candidate that acts in a way that violates 1-3?

            Of course it isn’t hypocritical. People are more than just the combination of their policy positions. To demand that people only be seen as either allies or enemies on a particular issue is foolishness.

          8. BWF,

            Thanks for the response. If it’s not hypocritical to support a candidate that acts contrary to your beliefs on, say, killing unborn children, a fortiori, it isn’t hypocritical to support a candidate that acts in ways that are contrary to other beliefs or principles you hold to (like separating children of illegal immigrants at the border).

            Ergo, there isn’t necessarily any deeper issue of hypocrisy going on here for pro-life supporters of Trump, contra Adam Shields’ suggestion.

    2. Trump called people “animals” one time, and those people were, very explicitly, murderers from MS-13 that a police chief was desperately trying to protect people — especially Hispanic children — from. I would suggest that if you think it is “hypocrisy” to support a politician who says something like this, you’re going to have a very, very difficult time finding someone you can support without “hypocrisy.”

      Re immigration, I would suggest that your ire should be directed at the judge who prohibited the government from keeping children with detained parents.


  5. I agree with the general premise, that holding to a certain principle does not necessitate which policy proposals must be pursued to achieve that goal. However, I don’t think the article did a good job of convincing someone that would disagree with you about specific policy proposals, due to the examples used to support the argument.

    If someone is “pro-life”, in the sense of desiring to protect the life of unborn children, and supporting the life and flourishing of all children and adults, there are lots of different possibilities for how those goals might be pursued.

    You suggested that the only valid policy proposal for protecting the lives of unborn children is to criminalize abortion. On the other hand, you specifically suggested that a valid policy proposal for upholding the life and flourishing of all humans is to reduce or eliminate government poverty relief programs and instead emphasize or support efforts by private charities, religious ministries, etc.

    Following the logic of the general premise, it would also be valid to claim that someone is “pro-life” and support a completely different set of policy proposals. With regards to protecting unborn children, you could propose no laws against abortion, but instead provide significant support and resources to pregnancy centers which would offer any type of aid and assistance necessary to persuade women not to seek an abortion. With regards to upholding the life and flourishing of all humans, you could propose a robust welfare state and wealth redistribution administered by the government.

    Now, once can certainly argue about the relative merits and efficacy of all the above policy proposals with regards to the stated pro-life goals. Some are “soft” policies which rely more on personal choice and persuasion to achieve a goal (more libertarian approach), and others are “hard” policies relying on the coercive power of the state. And you could also argue that certain problems are better handled by one approach or the other. But your article only gave examples in favor of the policy positions you clearly hold, which is criminalization of abortion and privatization of poverty relief. I think the argument would be more persuasive to a broader range of people if you didn’t include such strong indicators of which policy proposals you personally think are best, and instead made the argument suggesting that everyone be more open to debating different policy options without immediately questioning the motives and morality of others who favor different policies.


    1. Steven Searcy,

      At one point the author states:

      the traditional pro-lifer as a pro-life advocate is at least formally consistent with his pro-life principle, if he determines that these are the best solutions in our circumstances.

      I don’t see where the author suggested that “the only valid policy propsal for protecting the lives of unborn children is to criminalize abortion.”

      Could you point me to where the author suggests this in the article?

      Furthermore, that society should criminalize the unjust killing of innocent human beings is uncontroversial in all other cases. It’s only controversial in this particular case because of the specific moral depravity of our generation.


      1. I was mistaken – the author does not explicitly state that criminalizing abortion is the only valid policy for protecting the unborn. However, it is the only policy proposal to that end which he mentions at all (and clearly the one that he prefers – and by the way, I agree that outlawing abortion would be the most effective way to prevent the unjust killing of unborn children.). In contrast, he discusses multiple policy proposals for alleviating poverty that might be held by someone who claims to be pro-life.

        I think the author is trying to defend a particular version of a pro-life stance: for criminalization of abortion and privatization of poverty relief. If the goal was to persuade others who hold different positions to be more open and less judgmental about what it means to be “consistently pro-life” then I don’t think the article did a very good job. In my view it came across as more defensive than persuasive.


  6. Another way to reframe these issues is around practical results, not policy ideals. What if it was demonstrable that the use of govt would improve economic standings of the majority of people who procure abortions, due to concerns for scarcity or poverty (and not career or vanity)? The question thus is not whether pro-life is really about abortion or not (I think that’s clear enough), but whether consistency demands policies that get results. A realistic concern from pro-choice people is whether illegal abortions would actually result in lowering of abortions, or would just endanger women who will seek them anyway. This is usually a smokescreen, but it does raise the point that illegality does not necessarily mean ending abortion, or even that it would not work as well as something else. There’s also the question of socio-political structures as well.

    This thus requires a shift away from rhetorical posturing and towards an emphasis on data driven analysis.


  7. So when people charge pro-life advocates with hypocrisy, it is exactly things like the US blocking the UN resolution against the use of sexual violence in war. After the US threatened to block it, Russian and China which has previously supported the resolution also agreed to attempt to block.

    It eventually passed in a weakened form. If pro-life advocates cannot speak forcefully against the use of rape in War, what are we really doing?


  8. […] They are right to call us to be consistent. But they are wrong to assume consistency requires supporting their preffered government interventions. As Stephen Wolfe writes in an essay for Mere Orthodoxy: […]


  9. American Vulcan April 29, 2019 at 7:16 pm

    This is a very polite way of saying that pro-lifers don’t really care about life, just controlling behavior they find offensive or irresponsible (like having sex outside of marriage).


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