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.