I was pregnant with my second child, seven months in, but so huge I looked ready to birth triplets any moment. Store workers gave me alarmed looks when I waddled in, appraising me to see whether they’d be needing to perform amateur midwifery in case my water broke as I perused the organic grains section. I had been misdiagnosed with placenta previa early in my pregnancy, and warned not to be too active. So I hadn’t exercised much, and couldn’t move very quickly: a debility that added to my pre-partum depression, since I hate feeling trapped.
I’d been unable to find a parking spot near my work building, and was slowly blobbing across the lot when a vehicle came swooping around the corner, nearly running me down. I managed to scoot to safety, and – turning to glare at the offending driver – saw a bumper plastered with bold pro-life slogans, rocketing out of sight.
Nearly running down a pregnant woman has to be the worst pro-life advertisement of all time. At the time I thought: if you’re not going to drive pro-life, don’t call yourself pro-life.
Marketing a pro-life philosophy has been a problem from the beginning of the movement, since the term became separated from its origins in a consistent life ethic put forth by anti-war activists who rightly saw the connection between opposing war and opposing abortion. It didn’t help that many feminists emphasized freedom of reproductive choice as a condition of women’s equality without sufficiently questioning the degree to which abortion can be deemed a “choice” if there are no other options available – without sufficiently opposing the capitalist system that forces certain choices on women if they wish to survive. So for many pro-life advocates, opposing feminism – without bothering to educate themselves on feminism – has become a minor industry.
Those of us who uphold a consistent life ethic while also supporting radical gender equality have been working diligently to present the pro-life ideal as something consistent with female equality, and to separate it from the rhetoric of groups that perpetuate sexist systems. It has not been easy. Pro-life groups such as Feminists for Life or New Wave Feminists seek to connect the rights of the unborn with women’s rights, but often fail to recognize the need to seek solidarity with those pro-choice feminists who do not, in fact, think abortion is awesome, but instead view it as a necessary evil, at best. These feminists share many of our goals of eliminating the causes (poverty, abuse) that drive women to abortion. Dismissing them as “fauxminists” means losing the gains that could be made, if we entered into dialogue instead of culture-warring. Of course, pro-choice feminists don’t make this easy, either, as they are otnen quick to disregard or deride anyone with “life” in their label, presuming that we must all be motivated by internalized sexist desires to control women.
And, unfortunately, when I hear the rhetoric of many who wear the pro-life label, I can see why they might be justified in thinking so.
When I see pro-life leaders rally around Donald Trump, whose views on women and the poor are appalling to anyone attempting to follow Christ’s lead, I find I hardly have ground to stand on.
Trump not only isn’t pro-life in the broad sense of opposing war, capital punishment, violence, environmental degradation, and racial justice; he isn’t even pro-life in the narrow sense of opposing abortion. So why has he won the endorsements of so many pro-life groups? Because he understands marketing. He doesn’t understand it as well as he should, having been in business all his life – because, being rich, he hasn’t really needed to develop real skills. If he were really good at marketing, he could have crafted a perfectly pleasing pro-life brand from the start of his campaign. It’s not hard to do. It just means knowing the right words – which Trump, in spite of his claims, does not. But his marketing strategy, poor as it is, works – because we’ve been conditioned to cultivate in ourselves a form of brand loyalty.
Just as a sports fan obsessively cheers for his team even after it’s traded his favorite players, even when he can’t afford a ticket to the game – just as a self-professed Dodge owner repeatedly buys Dodge trucks even if they happen not to be very reliable – so, too, those who have conditioned themselves to product loyalty will buy the brand because it wears the right logo. Trump adopted the pro-life logo, plastered it on as sloppily as a sticker on the bumper of a car that nearly runs over a pregnant woman. So now, the corporate leaders tell us, if we don’t buy him, we’re not pro-life.
Take, for instance, EWTN’s 2002 voter’s guide, incorrectly labeled a “Catechism,” which gets trotted out every year. Contrary to actual church teaching and proper moral theology, the Guide states:
3. If I think that a pro-abortion candidate will, on balance, do much more for the culture of life than a pro-life candidate, why may I not vote for the pro-abortion candidate?
If a political candidate supported abortion, or any other moral evil, such as assisted suicide and euthanasia, for that matter, it would not be morally permissible for you to vote for that person. This is because, in voting for such a person, you would become an accomplice in the moral evil at issue. For this reason, moral evils such as abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide are examples of a “disqualifying issue.” A disqualifying issue is one which is of such gravity and importance that it allows for no political maneuvering.
“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”
…and this statement from the USCCB’s document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”:
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.
Since, at present, neither major party candidate we face is actually opposed to abortion, it really is a matter of diligently analyzing whether one is likely to do great enough harm to justify voting for the other in order to prevent this harm. That is, if we’re thinking in terms of actual objective morality, not brands. But the EWTN guide is telling us that it doesn’t really matter whether abortions are happening or not, whether lives are being lost or not: what’s necessary is to support the approved brand, which happens to be pasted onto Trump’s orange hide at the moment. He can peel it off with ease should this become convenient for him. He can also continue to wear it while promoting nuclear war, torture, deportation of immigrants – he can wear it while destroying support systems that enable women to choose life – he can wear it while destabilizing immigrants and Muslims, so that women in these demographics may find themselves with no option but abortion – he can wear it while mocking the disabled and promoting a culture which discards the “unfit.”
Many of us are horrified that all of our good work in trying to make pro-life look good again has been undone. But maybe we’re taking the wrong stance. Maybe we’re worrying too much about the brand. Case in point: Jason Scott Jones getting upset because Democrats for Life is “stealing” his “Whole Life” brand. As I pointed out, maybe the pacifists who coined the term “pro-life” in the start should be mad that it’s been stolen by capitalist war-hawks?
Or, maybe, we should stop worrying about who calls herself what, and instead look at what actually works to save lives. It’s noteworthy that abortion rates have steadily decreased since Roe v. Wade, even if abortion supply has remained the same. And many who avoid the label “pro-life” as actually less in favor of abortion than people were several decades ago. As this piece from the Washington Times states:
“Over the past 10 years, the image of the pro-life movement has trended younger and more mainstream, but the ‘pro-life’ brand still carries an image which many people don’t want to associate themselves, despite their views on abortion,” Ms. Hawkins said in a statement. “Planned Parenthood would have the nation believe that young women are fighting with them on their extreme abortion agenda but that’s not the case.”
Thinking about brands is typical in a market-driven society, and aligns well with leftist identity politics, too. And branding oneself as pro-life can be a form of virtue-signalling in social media circles where accruing “likes” is the moral goal. Where culture wars reign, choosing the wrong brand – sporting the wrong bumper sticker – can even get one in trouble, in communities and places of employment.
All of this is incredibly shallow.
Personally, I no longer have a candidate in the race. I’ve never found a candidate whose views reflect mine anyway. I can see the viability of a third party vote, and am sick of people denouncing others for opting out of a system that is, to my mind, inherently corrupted by money and power. But Catholics misrepresenting theology in order to guilt other Catholics into supporting the brand will do nothing to save lives, and (if you care about the brand) do everything to make “pro-life” look increasingly unpalatable.
But maybe, if we can come up with ways to protect life and create societies that promote human flourishing, the brand degradation just isn’t that important.