What Do You Mean When You Say a Politician is “Pro Life”? A Historical Comparison

What Do You Mean When You Say a Politician is “Pro Life”? A Historical Comparison August 26, 2020



Every presidential election year, the same debate returns to Catholic circles: may a Catholic, in good conscience, vote for a candidate who is not pro-life? Much has been written on both sides of the question. Some argue that is it impossible. They say that the only moral vote a Catholic may cast is for a pro-life candidate. Some take this even so far as to state that voting for a pro choice candidate is a mortal sin – or, even grounds for excommunication.

The correct answer in terms of actual Catholic magisterial teaching is that yes, a catholid may in good conscience vote for a candidate who is not pro-life. 

As apologist Michelle Arnold writes: 

The short, direct answers are “Yes, you can vote for a Democrat” and “No, it’s not a sin to vote for a Democrat.” Any Catholic, whether that person is a layman, consecrated religious, deacon, priest, or bishop, who tells you that to vote for a Democrat is, ipso facto, a sin, or that you have to go to confession for voting for a Democrat, is wrong. Period.

 She goes on to quote then-Cardinal Ratzinger:

 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 (emphases added).

This is basic magisterial teaching. Of course, it leaves room for debate about which reasons a Catholic might have, for voting for a pro-choice candidate – as well as about what proportionate reasons permit remote material cooperation with an act considered objectively and gravely sinful.

Furthermore, it is evident that many Catholics disagree with this teaching. Some persist in stating vehemently that it is a sin to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Others argue that it is an objectively immoral act to vote for Trump, given his far-right nationalist policies. Nevertheless, whatever our own personal opinions, we must be open and accurate about what the church teaches: that it is not per se required for a Catholic to vote for a pro-life candidate, or forbidden to vote for a pro-choice Catholic: one may in good conscience, according to the Church authorities, vote either Republican, Democrat, or third party. One may vote either for Trump or against him.

I wanted to clarify this as the backdrop to my real emphasis, however, which is: this whole debate leaves out the question of what people intend the term “pro life” to mean. 

 Does it simply mean “anti-abortion”? And does “anti-abortion” necessarily mean “in favor of laws that would ban abortion”? If so, presumably, those who insist that Catholics must always vote for the pro-life candidate are in fact saying that Catholics must always vote for the candidate who claims they will ban abortion.

Here, again, I will point to a recent debate among Catholics, over the question of whether the Republican party, and Donald Trump, actually intend to ban abortion, or whether they plan to keep dangling that promise in front of voters, as they have for over forty years, as a way to secure the vote of the religious Right. Many believe that the party has no intention of banning abortion, because then they would lose this leverage. 

Even right-wing libertarian-leaning senator Rand Paul has admitted to this:

Senator Paul said there are Republicans “that are more concerned with spending money than protecting the unborn.” Speaking one day after President Donald Trump touted anti-abortion measures at the conference, Paul told “Road to Majority” attendees Thursday many Republicans only pay “lip service to pro-life” backers.

“I will tell you that we still lose in the legislation,” Paul said Thursday. “Sometimes we lose because the people who come to you and give you lip service and say, ‘Oh I’m pro-life, I’m pro-life,’ and then they don’t seem to vote that way.”

“I’ll give you an example,” Paul continued. “Last year, I tried to attach to a spending bill a prohibition to have any money spent by Planned Parenthood. You know what happened? [GOP leadership] sat me down and one of the senior Republican senators said, ‘We cannot have the vote today.’ I said ‘why?’ He said ‘we might win.’”


Senator Paul’s suspicions appear to be confirmed. Trump has been in office for nearly four years. The supposedly crucial right wing justices have been appointed. But abortion not only is as legal as it ever was; Trump’s global policies have contributed to an increase in abortion rates in poorer nations, and Planned Parenthood, far from being defunded, has reported the highest abortion rates in fifteen years.

And, of course, the Republican party platform has nothing in it about abortion, nothing about building a pro-life culture, nothing about protecting the unborn. It has become, solely, the party of loyalty to Trump. Which necessitates that it also be the party of racism.

But, circling back, again: if the Republican party were actually to succeed in making abortion illegal – or at least in enacting more laws making it less legal – would this automatically make them more pro life?

If the Republican party promises to make more laws limiting access to abortion, would that mean that the party is the more pro-life option?

If voters are faced with one party that promises to make laws restricting or banning abortion, and another party that does not, is the pro-life vote necessarily, always, for the party that will make abortions harder to access?

In order to answer that, consider this historical tidbit: in the Third Reich, abortion and contraception were illegal for German women.

Strict gender roles, removal of women from the workforce, prohibition of contraception, and the romanticization of motherhood, family life, and childbirth were part of the mythos of the regime, and this mythos was bolstered with incredibly strict laws, to the point that violation of the ban on abortion could be punishable by death.

This does not mean, of course, that abortions didn’t happen. Abortions were routinely encouraged and forcibly practiced on women not considered to be sound, healthy Aryans, as part of the party’s widespread and extreme program of eugenics. But if the sole signification of “being pro life” is “makes more laws against abortion” – well, then, yes, the Nazi regime would count as more pro-life than any of the liberal democratic nations in the world today. According to this standard, it would be acceptable to vote for a Nazi politician who promised to make more laws restricting more abortions, in order to defeat a liberal Democrat who would keep restrictions loose and minimal.

Anti-abortion activists love to make comparisons of abortion to the Holocaust, an argument that is deeply offensive both to Jews and to women who have had abortions. The comparison is not only offensive; it is a category error. You can not justly compare a woman who seeks an abortion, as a way out of a difficult and possibly life-threatening situation, with those who ruthlessly carried out horrific acts of genocide, often on terrified victims looking them in the eye and begging for mercy. Moreover, since abortion bans tend not to work very well at actually reducing abortion rates, assuming that people who resist these bans do so because they “love abortion” is, at best, naive. Considering global and historical statistics, trying to enforce abortion bans can be very effective if the goal is to punish women – but are often the opposite of effective, when it comes to protecting unborn lives.

But add to all this the fact that the party that calls itself pro-life has far more in common with the actual, historically documented Nazi regime in 1930s Germany. Anti-immigrant policies, “our nation first,” insistence on rigid gender roles, obsession with the romanticized heteronormative “nuclear family,” an aggressive police force, adulation of a centralized authoritarian leader, hatred of LGBTQ persons? We’re seeing this all unfold again before our eyes. 

And, as long as abortion rates for the poor and disabled go up, human rights violations against immigrant women go unchecked, and explicit racists are given a platform by the Trump campaign, the Republican party’s supposed loathing of legal abortion does not entitle them to go about making accusations that liberals or leftists are in any way promoting genocide.

What does it mean, then, when we are told Trump is pro-life? It doesn’t mean he will defend life. It doesn’t mean he will defend unborn life. It only means he will – or promises to – create more restrictions on abortion access. And history has demonstrated that this on its own has nothing to do with being “pro life” in the literal sense of the term.

image credit: Donald_Trump_and_Bill_Clinton.jpg

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