The Decline and Fall of the Pro-Life Movement

The Decline and Fall of the Pro-Life Movement May 27, 2016


It’s been some time since I was actively involved in the pro-life movement. The workload involved in being open to life myself doesn’t leave me free to do the things I used to. I do, however, care tremendously for the rights of the unborn – which is why the state of the pro-life movement continues to concern me. It concerns me, especially, that there seems to have become a deep and problematic disconnect between the two “sides” of the movement.

Basically, pro-life activities can be divided roughly into the private and the public. Private action includes sidewalk counseling, the operation of crisis pregnancy centres, and the maintenance of Catholic charities that help provide for women and their children throughout pregnancy and after birth. The public arm of the pro-life movement is involved primarily with seeking to influence public opinion, and to secure legal protections for human life and for the sanctity of marriage.

In theory, these two aspects of the pro-life movement ought to work in concert, pulling together towards a common end. Both public and individual engagement are necessary if we’re going to make any serious progress towards reducing abortion & other threats to life.

In practice, however, the political side of the movement seems to have lost sight of the goal. It lacks a coherent strategy, continues to doggedly pursue tactics that have consistently proven ineffectual, and is increasingly obsessed with irrelevant skirmishes that do very little except make pro-life Christians look petty and small-minded.

With this election cycle, I can only hope that the movement has hit bottom. Pro-life leaders are calling for Catholics and Christians of all stripes to vote for a misogynistic serial adulterer who is almost certainly not actually pro-life, who demonstrably does not have any understanding of the pro-life ethos, who thinks his pro-abortion sister would make a great Supreme Court Judge, and who vocally opposes the Church’s teaching on pretty much every major issue except (nominally) abortion.

Members of the movement are also putting more and more effort into justifying the odious economic, military and foreign policies of right-wing politicians like Trump. Why? Because they live in the desperate hope that maybe Trump will appoint a pro-life justice to the Supreme Court and then… well, then maybe we’ll all be sucked into a quantum singularity and find ourselves in an alternate universe where there is a remote possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned by SCOTUS in the next twenty years.

At the same time, the resources of the movement have been increasingly drawn off into side skirmishes over the rights of LGTBQ people. The fight against gay marriage was Quixotic, in the sense that it was obvious from the get-go that public opinion was swinging wildly and rapidly in favour of gay rights and that the best the movement could hope for was to forestall it for a few more years. It did, however, at least address really important concerns about the nature of marriage and the recognition of procreation as an essential feature of public life.

Now that the fight against gay marriage has been lost, the pro-family movement’s attentions have been diverted yet again. But this time, the battle is not about the right of a child not to be ripped limb from limb in utero. It’s not even about the defense of the traditional family. It’s about the sanctity of bathrooms.

The new threat to human life and the family is that a very small minority of marginalized children who suffer from a severely crippling and painful condition known as gender dysphoria will pee and change their gym shorts in the same facilities as other children with different genitalia. Somewhere, sometime, if a trans child for some reason forgets to wear underwear to school, then it’s possible that some girls in the changeroom might see a penis.

I understand that there are complex political reasons why this situation has evolved. I know that the Democrats made a deliberate decision to shut out pro-life voices, and that that’s why the pro-life movement has thrown in so whole-heartedly with the Republicans. I know more than probably any human being needs to know about the history of relations between the gay rights movement and the Christian Right in America. I understand how we got here and I know that it happened by slow degrees, that every individual step along the way looked like it made sense.

But no movement can succeed if it is constantly being dragged down by the undertow of current events. At some point, you have to stand back, look at the big picture, and ask “How the hell did we get here?” (I use the word “hell” here deliberately, because I suspect that hell and its denizens have something to do with it.) You have to realize that you’re lost, and instead of doggedly marching deeper into the swamp you have to take your bearings and figure out how to get back on course.

In the case of the pro-life movement, there are political battles that could be fought and actually won. Political battles that would not only make a difference in saving the lives of babies and empowering mothers to give life, but which would also make Christians look like good and holy people. Battles that would help the world to “know we are Christian by our love.”

If the political will of the Christian Right were behind it, America could make strides towards combating child poverty, towards providing mothers with adequate maternity leave benefits so that giving life would be economically feasible for women in crisis pregnancies, towards providing workers with a living wage so that more people could afford to raise children, towards offering better supports for parents with disabled children and making a more inclusive environment so that disabled adults could live full and dignified lives.

Such an approach would reunite the two halves of the pro-life movement. It would mean that political goals of the movement would complement and support and the work of crisis pregnancy centres and sidewalk counselors. It would mean that the people counseling desperate pregnant women would have more and better resources at their command – that they would be able to say not only, “Here are some diapers and some formula and a stroller,” but also “Here are some really great programs that will make it economically viable for you to support this child.”

But this would mean standing up to the Republican party and saying “No. We will no longer give you our votes, by default, just because you dangle the distant prospect of a Supreme Court reversal in front of us. No. We will not support your unjust wars, your rapacious economics, and your contempt for the poor just because you mouth empty anti-abortion platitudes. No. We will not dance every time you pipe a fearful tune.”

It would mean remembering that being pro-life is about being in favour of human life. All of it. In all circumstances. And that a true pro-life ethic can never be made compatible with a politics driven by profit, exclusion and hate.

Image credit: pixabay

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