Donald Trump will be speaking at the 2020 March for Life, the first president ever to do so in the 47 years since the event was initiated. This is significant – but, not in the way that the event promoters seem to imagine. Far from proving that Donald Trump is “the most pro-life president ever,” his attendance at the March give credence to every criticism of the pro-life movement that pro-choice advocates ever made.
I was involved in the pro-life movement for much of my life. I have bused in to Washington for the March, participated in Life Chain, protested outside clinics. I voted Republican dutifully for many years, even though I didn’t like the Republicans much, because of my belief that the right to life is foundational, natural, and irrevocable. As a philosophy scholar I wrote defenses of the idea that the human organism is a person from the moment of conception. So when I say “the critics of the pro-life movement were right” I am not saying this as one who is unfamiliar with the movement or those within it.
What do people say about pro-lifers? That they are only interested in controlling and punishing women – and here the pro-life movement has elevated a man who has been accused of assault by multiple women, including one of his ex-wives.Trump has boasted about sexual assault. He has used derogatory language about women. He treats women as objects to be used and discarded.
People say that pro-lifers are really only pro-birth, and don’t care about other life issues such as war, gun violence, rape, immigration, or poverty. And now the pro-life movement is hailing as their hero a man who cuts benefits for poor families, loosens firearm regulations, cages immigrants, deports the innocent, pals around with dictators, and has repeatedly expressed his willingness to commit war crimes. They say pro-lifers don’t care about babies once they’re born – and now they praise as “the most pro-life president ever” a man who has advocated for eugenics and mocked the disabled, and who had braille removed from Trump Tower because “no blind people are going to live here.”
Critics of the pro-life movement have said that pro-lifers are indifferent to racial justice, or even downright racist – and now the movement lauds a man who has never apologized for demanding the unjust execution of innocent Black and Latino children, who has denigrated the whole continent of Africa, who has praised Nazis as “very fine people.” In the 70s Trump’s family was sued for racial discrimination in housing. Trump is on record as saying he didn’t want Black people handling his money. Recently Trump expressed surprise that not all people on welfare were Black. He has made a career out of capitalizing on the racism of white Americans – a career, and now a presidency.
Some of us saw this coming.
Even at my most conservative, I was concerned that pro-lifers were failing in logic as well as in rhetoric, and that this failure was connected with ignoring other grave human rights crises. I believed that if we could situate the issue of abortion within a broader context of human rights and social justice, we would be more convincing, more effective, and more ethical. In my sophomore year in college a few friends and I even started a holistic pro-life organization, “Lux In Tenebris,” that sought to work in tandem with organizations like Amnesty International. Getting this organization approved by student government was a struggle, of course, given the far-right nature of Franciscan University of Steubenville where I was a student. But we did it. The organization fizzled out, of course, when we graduated – just as, later, when I was faculty, the Feminists for Life chapter that I initiated also fizzled out. The campus culture was hostile to talk about social justice and women’s rights, even when juxtaposed with pro-life rhetoric.It is grimly amusing that some of the same people who pushed back against Lux In Tenebris in the 90s were also instrumental in attacking me for my part in the New Pro Life Movement, that we started as an objection to the mainstream movements embrace of Trump.
“But not all pro lifers!” you may say – and yes, this is true. Organizations such as Rehumanize International and New Wave Feminists have successfully taken up the same consistent-life banner we were struggling to keep aloft back in the nineties, but they are not mainstream in the pro-life movement. Similarly, I know many who identify as pro-life and are horrified by the behavior of anti-abortion activists who ignore and sneer at every other moral issue that arises in our political landscape. I know pro-lifers who will not attend the march because it is no longer about life; it is a Trump cult. But the vast majority of pro-lifers, rather than standing up and speaking out when one of their number does anything cruel, racist, or sexist, instead lashes out at the few of us who object.
“He’s not perfect, but if he saves lives, that’s good enough for me,” some say. But Trump is not saving lives. Abortion is still around. In fact, global rates have increased as a result of Trump’s actions. Banning abortion, in a nation with rampant poverty and instability – which we are quickly becoming – does not have the effect of reducing abortion, but rather just drives it underground. In Pakistan, the nation with the highest abortion rates in the world, abortion is illegal. Bans do not always work, and when they do they are often accompanied by problematic baggage such as invasion of women’s privacy and denial of their autonomy.
Banning abortion is not the same as being pro-life. A nation is not automatically more pro-life because it has more abortion bans in place. In case you doubt this, consider the fact that in Nazi Germany abortion was illegal for “Aryan” women.
Is that what we are heading towards? A racist, authoritarian regime in which high birth rates are demanded of white families while the non-white, disabled, poor, and disadvantaged persons are regarded as expendable? Where we give lip service to life values while turning our back on thousands of lives that are inconvenient or don’t fit our narrow ideas about what a family looks like?
With Trump as their figurehead, the pro-life movement now looks, to anyone outside his cult following, like exactly the kind of misogynistic, cruel, racist movement we were worried about it becoming. And those pro-lifers of good will who support a consistent life ethic have been roped into lending their own credibility to what is now no longer a pr-life movement, but rather an ongoing Trump rally.
Which is why he is attending, after all. This is a man who has never in his entire life showed empathy or concern for ethics, who has almost certainly paid for abortions himself – but he knows how to run a con, and in this case it’s as easy as just showing up.
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_at_a_March_for_Life_event_2018.jpg