Those who associate the term “pro-life” with rigid conservatives focused on curtailing women’s rights might be surprised to find that the term was first coined in the 1960s, by Erich Fromm and A.S. Neill:
No pro-life parent or teacher would ever strike a child. No pro-life citizen would tolerate our penal code, our hangings, our punishment of homosexuals, our attitude toward bastardy.
(Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing)
One of the first uses of “pro-life” to denote opposition to abortion was in 1971, by a group of hippie peaceniks at the University of Minnesota, who saw opposition to abortion as a logical corollary to their opposition to the Vietnam War. This article from the Chicago Tribune gives a picture of a pro-life movement which Seamless Garment or Consistent Life Ethic proponents of today would approve. One student in the group SOUL (Save Our Unwanted Life) is quoted as saying:
Young people are being duped on the issue of abortion. They want to be considered ‘liberal’ and they think that the thing to do is to be against war and for abortion. But the most liberal cause is protecting other people’s lives. To be pro-life you have to be for all life.
Was the term “pro-life” co-opted by the Right? I would say: not necessarily, since words belong to the agora, the public space, and the implications of phrases arise out of context and use. So “pro-life” like “feminist” may mean different things in different contexts, as well as refer to a variety of different groups, activisms, or ideologies.
Which is why it is so ludicrous that Catholic Vote would publish an article by Stephen Herreid, “Democrats for Life: In the Wrong Century,” attacking Democrats for Life’s Robert Christian for, apparently, appropriating the language of “I Am Whole Life” founder, Jason Scott Jones, who wrote his own denunciation of Democrats for Life, apparently under the impression that any use of the term “whole life” is a “sleazy political trick” and a “hijacking” of his group’s name. I suppose the frustration is understandable, given the malleable nature of language, in social justice conversations – especially now that social media allows terminology to morph at record speeds, and given the inevitable emotional dimension of conversations about issues of fundamental rights and justice. One can imagine pro-choice feminist groups feeling similar frustration at what they might see as an appropriation of their term by Feminists for Life.
For that matter, should Erich Fromm be rising from his grave to object to the use of “pro-life” by those who support the punishment of homosexuals?
If SOUL were still around today, shouldn’t they be accusing the war-happy right of appropriating the term “pro-life”?
No, because that’s not how discourse works. What Jones means by “whole life” is one thing, and the “I Am Whole Life” pledge is certainly his own, but there’s an almost historical inevitability, given the more radical roots of the pro-life movement, that “whole life” should be associated not only with opposition to acts of violence against the person, but also with opposition to the social structures that create this violence, such as that proposed by Christian. I am a long-time proponent of the Seamless Garment approach myself, because I have this stodgy fondness for logically consistent ethical systems, even though poetically it might be more fun to contradict oneself. And I have sometimes used “whole life” as shorthand for “consistent life ethic.” The term, like “pro-life”, slips into the common discourse and belongs to us all, though how best to interpret what it entails is, indeed, up for grabs.
After forty years of Republican empty promises, perhaps it is time to look at what Democrats for Life proposes: an approach to abortion that a) connects it more closely to other ethical issues of life and human rights and b) seeks to end the root causes that make abortion seem to be necessary for our culture. I have argued before that we cannot effectively eradicate abortion until we have acknowledged just how much a liberal, technology-based, utilitarian, capitalist system depends on abortion:
Abortion has become a necessity for this system. The value of the individual in this system is relative to utility / productivity, so women who have gotten pregnant in the unaccepted context are devalued, and gotten rid of. A deferral than occurs – the unborn child is devalued, and gotten rid of. But the decision to devalue was not, initially, that of the woman. It is already the attitude of her society.
As you can read at their website, Democrats for Life encourages “all people committed to the common good to work together to protect human life at all its stages.”But the folks at Catholic Vote are not down with this. Herreid writes:
What if Christian is sincerely pro-life and just thinks the Democratic Party is the best tool for the pro-life job? Not even the end of stopping abortion could justify such means.
I’ve written before that I am not fan of party loyalty, but that doesn’t mean one should go all lone-wolf, and refuse to work with groups that share one’s ends. I’ve had success in communicating about life issues with pro-choice feminists who recognize the value of working together to end the causes that drive women to abortion – since, astonishingly, the average pro-choice woman is not out there saying “yay, abortions for all!” I’ve also had success in connecting with non-feminists in more conservative circles, on issues of women’s rights which are connected with pro-life concerns (rape, shaming of unmarried mothers, etc).
But for Herreid, it’s not worth it. Not even to save lives.
Now, of course the ends don’t justify the means, which is why it is not licit to try to stop abortion via violence. But the ends proposed by Democrats of Life involve ensuring social safety nets, providing food, clean water, clothing, shelter, healthcare, childcare, education; they involve fighting global poverty and mass starvation. Not only are “such means” utterly acceptable in opposing abortion – they are, in fact, necessary ends in themselves. They also happen to be in keeping with Catholic Social Teaching.
Yes, the Democratic Party supports grave evil. So does the Republican party. But a party’s platform is not set in stone, and if it is acceptable to work with the one, why would it not be acceptable to work with the other? The Republicans have no unique claim to the term pro-life, and are demonstrating how slim their devotion to life ethics is daily, as they reject even those principles they once considered “non-negotiable,” for the sake of party loyalty, for the myopic goal of beating the opposition.
I was able to communicate with Matthew Tyson, a Fellow for DFLA, who gave this response to Herreid’s piece:
For 40 years, the right’s battle plan for fighting abortion has failed time and time again thanks largely to fact that, like it or not, abortion is a constitutionally protected right. You can’t just scream “MORAL ORDER” and expect anything to get done. But rather than accepting the right’s failings to end abortion, Herreid doubles down and attacks our belief that, realistically, the best way to fight abortion (something we ARE quite dedicated to doing, by the way) is by addressing the root causes—which are largely poverty, vulnerability, and a lack of access to quality healthcare.
And what’s so terrible about this approach? The answer is two-fold. First, it’s supported by Democrats. And second, it involves using public and government resources. Which, of course, is often non-negotiable with those that share Herreid’s mindset, despite the fact that the private sector has not, cannot, and absolutely will not provide enough charity to eradicate these root causes that drive women to abort.
And that’s the truly despicable thing about his article. Rather than responding positively to the fact that there actually ARE a great deal of Democrats dedicated to fighting abortion, he attempts to make the case that the Democrats for Life is some sort of sinister cover operation to ensure left wing domination. It’s pathetic, untrue, and quite frankly, insulting.
Democrats for Life broke with the party and fought hard to end funding for Planned Parenthood. Our executive director, Kristen Day, worked tirelessly on the legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks. We spend a great deal of time fighting with our own party for a seat at the table.
People like Herreid are more dedicated to twisted, ideological purity than actually advancing the pro-life cause. Men like him are the reason the movement will fail. If we want to actually end abortion, solidarity is the only way.
Whole life, consistent life ethic, seamless garment, truly pro-life – whatever you want to call it, this is what is going to be effective in protecting life. It’s naive, at best, to refuse to look at root causes, and there’s an element of hypocrisy in all of us that makes us blind to our own complicity in unjust systems. It’s tempting to adhere to pro-life notions that require no sacrifice on our own parts, heaping all the blame on the women who often choose abortion because we make it incredibly difficult to choose life. And it’s easier to focus our rhetoric on the culture war, on beating the opposition, than in making needed reforms.
But it’s time for the pro-life movement to grow up.
Anyone interested in learning about Democrats for Life, what they stand for, and the work they do, can contact Matthew Tyson at firstname.lastname@example.org; his twitter handle is @matttysonwrites; you can find him on Facebook as Matthew Tyson. Get in touch, and get the real story.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Broken_flower.JPG. Public Domain