You Don’t Have To Be Afraid To Be A Pro-Life Progressive

Key and label

If I were a betting man, I’d bet that this week your social newsfeeds has been full of stories regarding the now infamous Planned Parenthood video. While there have been plenty of articles dissecting and critiquing the video on both sides (each with valid points), in the end, it was still disturbing for me.

I am pro-life. I have always been pro-life. I will always be pro-life.

I am also a progressive who has been quite public in my critique of the pro-life movement, and feels little in common with it.

And yet, listening to people sit and talk over lunch about livers and limbs is something that is greatly troubling.

While I could list a variety of reasons why, the key for me is that of experience. As I’ve told before, I spent ten years as a photographer before graduating seminary, and during those years I was a volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. We specialized in infant bereavement photography for families who lost an unborn child or infant. I can’t count the number of times a hospital would call during the night. I’d grab my to-go bag, drive an hour to the hospital, and greet a grieving family. I’d then engage in the difficult task of taking portraits of their babies- sometimes as young as 18 weeks gestation.

Unborn babies who did not reach full development and birth are not an abstract concept to me. I’ve held them in my arms. I’ve positioned their tiny fingers and fully-formed toes. I’ve dressed them in their first (and last) baby gown. I’ve preserved their memories for families who I still hear from occasionally.

I know what it’s like to see a mom and dad cry over their lifeless child who just hours ago, was growing and developing in her mother’s womb.

This “issue” isn’t an “issue” at all for me, but is about real babies I have held.

As a result, I am pro-life. I will always be pro-life.

And yet, I am still a progressive.

Yesterday Ed Stetzer wrote a post at CT asking, “Where are the mainline and progressive evangelical voice speaking up…?” I appreciate the question. Some have, and I hope more do.

In fact, I’m writing this post to join in with that sentiment, and to tell you that you don’t have to be afraid to be a pro-life progressive.

It’s a difficult and explosive issue, I get it. In fact, I dread it when it comes up because I know the pro-lifers will think I’m less than pro-life (because I reject their focus of political messianism) and simultaneously find myself afraid of being shouted down by some of the same progressives who were giving me high-fives yesterday. Yet, that fear must not stop us from speaking out on issues when appropriate. We don’t allow the fear of rejection to stop us from speaking up for other marginalized groups, and we must not let that fear keep us from speaking up from our unborn brothers and sisters either.

My hope is that if you are a pro-life progressive you’ll find the courage to come forward. My hunch is there’s no shortage of us and that if more speak out on this issue, we’ll all be less intimidated and perhaps normalize the idea that these terms need not be mutually exclusive. In light of that, I’ve put together a few “key’s to being a pro-life progressive” to help encourage you to openly speak up for the unborn:

1. Realize that no one can kick you out of the tribe for being pro-life.

Yes, you will catch hell for it online (it’s about to happen to me in 3..2…). No, no one has the right to tell you that you’re “not a progressive anymore,” just as the evangelicals can’t tell me I’m no longer an evangelical because I believe in LGBTQ inclusion. No one has the power to tell you how to apply either label. In fact, if a ton of us all at once were to come out publicly and say “I am a pro-life progressive” we might actually be shocked to find that we’re not as alone as we thought we were.

2. Don’t be obnoxious about it.

And here’s where the pro-life movement I grew up with went wrong– they often hold their belief in a highly obnoxious, rigid, and unsympathetic way. Don’t do that! Instead of shouting people down with signs and comments you got off a bumper sticker somewhere, articulate your pro-life view with humility and dignity: “While the reasons abortions occur are varied and ethically complex, I believe that what grows in the womb is human life, and as a Jesus person I want to be a voice who lovingly and directly speaks to the worth and value of that life. I don’t have the answers for every potential hypothetical circumstance, but I want to be someone who works toward cultivating a culture of life.”

3. Don’t make legislative/political battles your priority.

This one is where the pro-life movement went off the tracks and into the ditch. Instead of pro-life being a term that means, “I believe in the sanctity of all life” it became a term that means, “I support the political goal of making abortion illegal.” It became a political term that identified where a person stood on one, single, legislative change, and stood for little else. And this is why it’s such a loaded term that can set people off- when you use it, many hear “I am pro-life. That means I want to take away your rights.” They hear a political stance that requires nothing of the one holding it, instead of an ethical stance that is backed up by lives of self-sacrifice and service.

The pro-life movement has been an embarrassment. They’ve spent years and untold amounts of money pursuing political candidates, in search of a political messiah who would outlaw abortion, instead of using those financial and human resources to actually do something to reduce abortions. What would the country look like if, instead of investing those resources in the political realm, it had gone to study and address ways we can actually work towards ending abortion? What if it had been spent on education, anti-poverty initiatives, healthcare, community development? The majority of pro-life eggs were in the basket of controlling SCOTUS, and it was a failure.

Remember: abortions happen for a reason. Being truly pro-life doesn’t have to reflect a political stance of legal abolition (it can, but shouldn’t be limited to this as it has previously), but can reflect a position of being determined to actually reduce and end abortions by addressing why they’re happening. There’s a huge difference in those two positions– the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end slavery in America, I’m constantly told gun laws won’t end mass shootings, and simply abolishing abortions won’t actually end them, either. The pro-life movement has wasted a generation seeking a solution that isn’t a comprehensive solution, and we’ve gotta fix that– we need to be people dedicated to the messy work on the ground that will actually reduce or eliminate the practice.

4. Don’t be a hypocrite

Finally, don’t be a hypocrite about it. One of the biggest ironies of the previous generation’s pro-life movement is that it’s not actually pro-life, it’s just pro-birth. Once you’re born, you’re pretty much on your own.

Pro-life needs to be redefined to mean what it says. Pro-life. All life. Unborn life. Post-born life. Immigrant life. Iraqi life. Afghani life. Convicted murder life. Life of the innocent, life of the guilty. If God made it, we say it’s valuable– and we don’t let culture diminish that value regardless of whether or not that life is obscured by a maternity dress, death row bars, or by a pixelated drone camera.

If pro-life doesn’t stand for life for everyone, it’s not really pro-life at all.

Coming forward as a pro-life progressive might not be the popular thing to do. However, following Jesus isn’t a ticket to popularity but an invitation to embrace outsiderness. Those who wish to change culture must first be willing to stand in opposition to it. We’ve done it on evangelical exclusion of LGBTQ, we’ve stood against wars, racism, police brutality, and all sorts of other issues.

It’s time more of us have the courage to come forward and say “I am a pro-life progressive” and to redefine the term, not as simply a political term speaking of political goals, but as one that speaks to the fact that we radically value ALL life– including the life of the unborn.

About Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey is a cultural anthropologist and public theologian. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell (theology & missiology) and received his Doctor of Intercultural Studies (DIS) from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, which is available wherever books are sold.

He is currently signed to HarperOne and is represented by the Daniel Literary Agency in Nashville, Tennessee.

You can also follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.