What does it mean to be ‘pro-life’ when we’re in the midst of coronavirus and our economy is crashing as we try to contain it? The question has received some attention in recent days, in part because of our President’s obvious eagerness to see the stock-market return to the pre-pandemic days. But the President’s concerns have been bolstered from unlikely sources. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick rather gamely proposed that grandparents would happily sacrifice themselves to keep the economy afloat. And Rusty Reno of First Things proposed that our current social distancing scheme represents the triumph of Satan. Not to be outdone, Jerry Falwell, Jr. has decided to stand alone among colleges and bring all his students to campus.
It was a mere two months ago when pro-lifers were announcing that Trump had seized the mantle of ‘most pro-life President ever,’ and were looking confidently at a landslide victory in 2020. Our memory of that happier time evaporated as quickly as the bull market, and now we are left with prominent pro-life supporters of the President talking about the trade-offs between life and jobs. We’re just four months away from being told not to bicker and argue about who killed who.
Or so goes the standard response among a certain set, anyway—many of whom, I fear, simply haven’t experienced many real deprivations from our current crisis. Many of us have seen our income diminish, yes, and all our futures seem much more precarious than they did two months ago. But dismissive jokes about killing grandma for the sake of 401Ks are indicative of how easily we forget that the stock market reflects our economy, even if in some indirect way—reflects, that is, the opportunities that real citizens have to earn their bread and keep it.
The dismissive stance is understandable, given that everyone is in one way responding to the billionaire in the White House. Yet when Dan Patrick says that he has heard from countless Americans that they’re being hurt and are eager to go back to work, well, I believe him. In my own immediate circle, I can now count three people who have lost jobs because of this—and who now stand in jeopardy of losing much more as a result. Whatever else we say about the relationship between our responsibilities to protect the lives of those who are most vulnerable, we cannot pretend that these decisions are easy. At their best, ‘minority reports’ to the conventional wisdom can remind us that our convictions sometimes lead us into tragic situations, where there is no option before us which is free of causing someone suffering and pain.
The tragic quality of our current moment should be revelatory to us: if we find ourselves with no good choices in the path ahead, we should perhaps consider that we have made a wrong turn at some point along the way. One possibility is to see this as an indictment on our current globalist, capitalist way of arranging our lives together. If our economy in its current form is in fact incompatible with protecting the health of those who are aging or infirm in the midst of a virus, that might be a sign that the ‘life’ which we embody within it has less contact with the life God designed us to have than it might seem on a daily basis.
Another possibility is to see our current situation as an indictment of more proximate causes of our current moment, like a government that spent the first three weeks of its known presence within the United States dithering, when they might have been unleashing testing, equipping businesses to produce medical supplies, and undertaking all the efforts to contain this pandemic that we are now woefully behind on. There are a range of options, of course, between glad-handing every grandpa we see in hopes they get sick in order to fill our coffers and everyone socially isolating themselves. But targeted efforts to contain the virus depend upon tracking and testing, and we currently don’t have enough resources for either. Whatever story we tell about how we got here, we come to the same result: because of wrong turns in the past, we seem to be left with a choice between preserving the economy as we know it and protecting the lives of those who are most vulnerable. Little wonder that people heard worries about economic devastation as preparations to sacrifice the elderly to Mammon.
But we should also be open to the possibility that among those wrong turns are certain notions of life and our responsibilities that distort our practical judgments in a time like this. After all, the outrage at Reno and Patrick can obscure the fact that they said some true things (as my level-headed friend Jake Meador astutely argued). If you listen to Patrick closely, he frames his suggestion that the elderly would be willing to risk themselves as a conditional, and an apocalyptic one at that: if America is on the brink of ruination, many grandparents would be willing to die to prevent it.
Though Patrick doesn’t use the imagery directly, the logic of war pervades the thought. Patrick’s sentiment is the inevitable outworking of the sort of nationalism that pervades much of our working-class electorate. It taps into both our deep love for our immediate families and our national project, both of which he sees as held together through our current economic order: “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed” he says. Carlson’s clarification of the stakes is straightforward: “You’re saying…there’s something worse than dying.” He is, indeed. Losing America is apparently worse than dying—or at least the America that our current order has built.
There is some measure of truth in what Patrick says, to be sure. When Troy falls, the elderly Anchises has to be given a divine sign in order to allow himself to quit the battle and be carried out by Aeneas. Many of our grandparents have been sacrificing for us their whole lives, and if called would doubtlessly make one more. It is the glory of the elderly to be willing to act in such a manner for their children.
Yet it is also the wisdom of the elderly that moves them to allow the young to protect them, and the responsibility of the young to keep them from folly. How many ‘millennials’ or Gen-Xers have spent time the past week pleading with their parents that, yes, this is a crisis and no they cannot go to bingo? Patrick sees the devastation of our economy and rightly laments: but we might also look at the willing self-isolation by all those college seniors who now face an extraordinarily precarious job market and be humbled by their devotion and sacrifice to their neighbor. If working class families are trading their immediate economic futures for those who are vulnerable, we ought be grateful—and prepared to stand with them, as much as we can, when this crisis has passed. But in the meantime, can we not say that their sacrifice is the greater, and that they are are more fully embodying the American ideals that Patrick elevates?
Though Reno does not appeal to Patrick’s nationalistic pablum, he too wants to relativize death’s hold over our imaginations and actions. Sentimentalism, Reno argues, has seized both society and the churches: “The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of “saving lives.”’ Unlike those heroic stalwarts of 1918, who purportedly went about their lives as though the Spanish Flu wasn’t happening, we are “collectively required to cower in fear—fear that we’ll die redoubled by the fear that we’ll cause others to die.” The triaged delivery of health care, in which not everyone receives everything they might need to survive, is no moral failure but an inevitable fact of living in a limited world. The pro-life cause is, as such, only and essentially a battle against unjustified killing, rather than an “ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.”
Reno’s essay is so devastatingly wrong because it is so nearly right: it pushes against certain currents of thought that pro-lifers need to resist, yet he fails to see that the regime of self-distancing that he so forcefully objects to stands to untether us from the very ideologies he opposes. Reno is, for instance, right that the pro-life cause is not a crusade against death per se. I have elsewhere defended prioritizing opposition to abortion and euthanasia underneath the ‘pro-life’ label. Euthanasia, for instance, is an attempt to defeat suffering through seizing control of death. Though we may never choose death, we might allow it to run its course. Such a stance has been lost by large swaths of the pro-life movement, which has become more reactionary in its politics as it has lost touch with its fundamental philosophical convictions.
Yet Reno’s depiction of the pro-life movement as simply constituted by an opposition to unjust killing is too narrow: beneath such opposition lies an eagerness to see lives flourish, and to see a society forged that makes our own institutionalized forms of unjustified killing no longer thinkable. The trouble with Reno’s approach begins at the outset. Reno distorts Andrew Cuomo’s claim that he’ll be happy if “everything we do saves just one life,” reading into it a brute materialism that allows him to heighten the contrast between ‘life’ and those values we are supposed to care most about. “Everything for the sake of physical life?”, he asks: “What about justice, beauty, and honor?” The antinomy is Reno’s, though, not Cuomo’s. Those values are worth preserving, to be sure—when they are embodied in the very human lives that Reno treats so dismissively.
Reno’s materialistic depiction of “life” works hand-in-hand with his denunciations of the fear of death, and the “specious moralism” that makes use of it. It will be no surprise to readers of my recent essay in Christianity Today to discover that I disagree most with Reno on this point: the fear of death is founded, ultimately, on the belief that we have been given a single and unrepeatable opportunity to serve God: the time he entrusts us with will never be had again. Even our Lord prayed in the Garden that the cup of his suffering would pass from Him: he resisted death until his vocation would no longer permit him. The sanctified fear that Augustine, Aquinas, and many others within the tradition so ably speak of helps us learn to marry prudence with our courage: we cannot know what risks we ought not take if we blind ourselves to the badness of death. There may be “many more things precious than life,” as Reno says; but if “life” is something deeper and more profound than the biologistic depiction that Reno seems to give it at the outset, then the threshold at which we should reasonably sacrifice it shifts accordingly. Besides: does any reader come away with the impression from Reno’s essay that life is among the goods we view as precious, and that we should act in this hour accordingly?
Reno’s story about triage suffers from different problems: while he has the right concerns, he employs them to obscure the distinct badness of this situation. It is doubtlessly true that as creatures of finitude, we have limited resources for caring for one another. While “rationing” has for a long time been a scare-word in pro-life circles, there are situations where it is inevitable: pandemic is one, and a battlefield another. There are extremely difficult questions about how to ration health care justly, which pro-lifers cannot evade forever.
But it is not mere “sentimentalism” that prompts many of us to see our need for triage in this case as a “moral failure.” As Reno notes, the constant demand for health care resources is “now more visible, because the potent virus puts great pressure on our immune systems and healthcare systems.” That is, in one way, true: but if we go about our business as though nothing has changed, the “pressure” it puts on our healthcare systems will utterly overwhelm them—leading to more triage, and more deaths.
Practically, it seems reasonable to think that one outcome of our movement’s commitment to upholding the ‘sanctity of life’ is minimizing unnecessary deaths, rather than merely preventing unjustified killings. One wonders how many people in a triaged health system is Reno willing to accept before he entertains the possibility that we are morally failing in our response? I am disposed to think that our need for triage is already a moral failure on the part of our leadership: earlier action at every level of our government might have concurrently eased the burdens on our health-care systems and our economy. But Reno considers none of these possibilities, because he is dealing in abstractions rather than the realities of the situation we have been given.
Those abstractions come to the fore in Reno’s final paragraph, where he laments the “materialistic view of survival at any price” which has been “unchecked by Christian leaders who in all likelihood secretly accept the materialist assumptions of our age.” For those who are steeped in narratives about the decline of modernity, such a stance is reasonable: candidly, I share many of Reno’s intuitions about our modern world and about our society’s response to this situation. I worried the rush to shut-down church services was too convenient, and would like to see a more narrow, targeted policy of social distancing and isolation than we have at present. But much as I think we need those, our systemic failures to prepare for this situation make our current response more than reasonable: the absence of a widespread testing regime and the lack of resources (human and otherwise) to track infected persons through their contacts mean that the only way we probably can avoid destroying our healthcare systems is by destroying our economy.
Such a stance is not, I think, a “materialistic view of survival at any price”: if anything, it is a willingness to risk an economic form of “survival” for the survival of many of our neighbors. That those two are in opposition at the moment pains me more than I can say: but appealing to sweeping narratives about the spirit of our age in order to denounce the cowardice of one’s fellow Christians and to encourage us to rush back to work is intellectually flaccid. If it is not morally reprehensible, it is at least irresponsible: if Reno is really convinced that his Pope, along with pastors of every denomination across the planet, have bowed their knee to Satan, then his fraternal correction needs much more precision and substantive moral reflection about our current moment than he has given us here.
The grand irony of Reno’s essay is that nothing in my life has given me such hope that our society might yet untangle itself from the “materialistic view of survival at any price” as this pandemic. Despite his denunciations of the spirit of our age, Reno’s practical conclusion is that we should keep embracing the materialistic aims of our current economic arrangements, rather than sacrifice them for the sake of preserving the many individuals whose lives are bound up in our own, and who fill our lives with joy and meaning. I have no illusions that the burdens of such sacrifices are being felt disproportionately by those in the working classes, many of whom are not able to work from home. I begrudge no one in my own impoverished neighborhood a visit to the park with their children right now: getting out of a tiny apartment for respite is no luxury.
Yet while those disproportionate burdens should be met with proportionate compensation, they also require those who enjoy luxury to relinquish our materialism by sacrificing our own security on their behalf. For those who call themselves ‘pro-life,’ social distancing must be a season of preparation. The time has already come to give blood: in many places, we may soon be called to succor the ill, to encourage doctors, and to feed the needy. Through our monastic withdrawal from the world, we are brought face to face with the inescapable reality of our death. By cultivating practices that turn our hearts to God, and fill us with the assurance of His faithful presence, we will ready ourselves to risk our own lives—not for the abstraction of ‘the economy,’ but for those neighbors who in the time of our distancing have suffered the greatest loss.