The Fatal Flaw in the Pro-Life Movement

The Fatal Flaw in the Pro-Life Movement June 6, 2017
The Tower of Babel (16th century) by Hendrick van Cleve. Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain.
The Tower of Babel (16th century) by Hendrick van Cleve. Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain.

There’s been a good deal of talk about the Pro-Life Movement recently, specifically how it has failed. Whether one agrees or not with this thesis and all its ramifications, the conversation exists: the old points about a failure to support economic structures that reduce the desirability of abortion remain, people have decried the selling out of the movement to Trumpian amoralism, and even a New Pro-Life Movement has formed.

For the record, I agree that any movement interested in decreasing abortion needs to concentrate on economic and social institutions as much as on access itself. But it seems to me that this is not the real flaw in the approach of the Pro-Life Movement, or, at least, it is only a symptom of a more basic issue: that abortion is all the movement can agree on. In other words, it can only concern itself with access, because access is the singular point of overlap for the myriad groups involved in the project.

You see, although the Pro-Life Movement is most-typically associated with conservative Christians, namely Catholics and Evangelicals, it is actually composed of an immense diversity of individual groups, both religious and not. There are pro-life Jews, mainline Protestants, Muslims, humanists, and “seculars.” These groups themselves have a variety of ideological approaches to the questions surrounding abortion: namely the role of government in social welfare, the nature of sex education, and, perhaps most importantly, contraception.

Take, for example, Jews. While there does exist support for moderately- and fully-anti-abortion positions within Judaism, the numbers look very different from those found among other religious groups. Roger Price sums up the differences well:

Essentially regardless of denominational affiliation or demographics, American Jews think abortion should be legal in all (49%) or almost all (44%) cases.  That is, fully 93% of all American Jews support legalized abortion in some fashion. Even political leanings, while influential, are not determinative. Among Jewish Democrats support is 95%, but 77% of Jewish Republicans also favor legalized abortion in all or most cases, far exceeding the rate of other groups studied.

The comparable numbers for other faith groups is quite different not only in their overall support or opposition to legalized abortion, but in the internal differences within each group. Jews are the only group surveyed in which a plurality support abortion in all cases. While about half of all Jews support abortion in all cases, in no other faith group does such support exceed 25% of the population. Moreover, in comparison to the 93% total of Jews who support legalized abortion in all or most cases, the only other group surveyed that showed clear majority support for legalized abortion was white mainline Protestants (59%). The comparable numbers for black Protestants and Catholics are 50% and 48%. Just one-third of white evangelicals support abortion in all or most situations.

Moreover, while the survey found that just 6% of Jews oppose legalized abortion in most cases and 1% did in all cases, the other groups surveyed were much more diverse in their views.   For instance, while 19% of Catholics thought abortion should be illegal in all cases, 31% said only in most cases. Similarly, 21% of white evangelicals opposed legal abortion in all cases, but 44% only opposed it in most cases.

The issue becomes even more complex when contraception enters the mix:

With respect to the liberal movements, such as Reform Judiasm: Again, birth control or abortion is opposed when practiced for purely selfish reasons. Birth control [sic] are accepted under certain conditions such as where pregnancy represents a health hazard to the mother or child, or when previous children have been born defective. Liberal judaism [sic] extends this concept to include extreme poverty, inadequate living conditions and threats to the welfare of existing children in the family. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform) goes so far as to declare that birth control is a necessity under certain family conditions. Most Reform and some Conservative rabbis subscribe to the program of planned parenthood [sic]. Liberal Judaism has no problem with the use of condoms.

This remains the case even among Orthodox Jews, who, although generally more restrictive as regards contraceptives, do sometimes permit the use of (typically female) methods of birth control such as the Pill (the idea being that the vain spilling of male seed is forbidden; thus devices like condoms are, if not completely unacceptable, a last resort). Among secular people and mainline Protestants, opposition to birth control is fairly rare, with the same being the case even among Evangelicals, who are often seen as among the most important constituent groups in the Pro-Life Movement. Witness, for example, a few quotations from Evangelical pastors:

Unmarried sex with contraception is not God’s plan, but unmarried sex without contraception is not a plan at all. If holy living is not the choice of some in the near term, contraception can at least reduce some potentially devastating results (including abortion) for all in the long term.

Joel Hunter, Senior Pastor, Northland, A Church Distributed

Contraception is a product of human ingenuity that may be used by Christians to plan families and preserve a woman’s health. Education and discernment are vital in making choices that honor life, benefit a woman’s health, and strengthen the marital relationship.

Jenell Paris, Professor of Sociology, Messiah College

I embrace the view that a marital sexual relationship should have life-giving potential; something is relationally and morally off-target if there is not openness toward producing children. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with the use of morally acceptable and effective methods that prevent conception in order to temporarily prohibit the possibility of getting pregnant.

Stanton Jones, Provost, Wheaton College

When a major figure at Wheaton College, a bastion of the conservative, Evangelical academy, is not opposed to birth control it is hard to imagine much agreement within the Movement as a whole. Even the often-conservative Orthodox find themselves deeply divided on the question. This leaves Catholics as the (if not in practice, in theology) only total opponents of contraceptives.

As a corollary, many people, religious or otherwise, will (and have) argue(d) that contraception reduces rates of abortion. Others disagree. And so, the movement finds itself unable to agree on an approach (aside, of course, from banning or highly-limiting access to abortion).

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