Gabriel Sanchez notices that some Distributists are trying on their version of the Seamless Garment, the idea that one isn’t really “pro-life” unless one agrees with (in this case) John Medaille’s positions on health care, trade deals, education reform, and God knows what else. One is, at best, merely “anti-abortion”. Drawing connections is an important part of thinking, but so is drawing distinctions, and it is the service of good words primarily to help us with the second task by being as narrow and precise as possible. I never much liked the word “pro-life” anyway because it sounds more general than what it usually means, and this is held as a reproach against the true, noble, and righteous position of anti-abortionism.
I define the anti-abortion position narrowly and will resist any attempt to broaden it. Being anti-abortion (“pro-life” as we used to say) means believing abortion should be criminalized. Nothing more, nothing less.
If we’re not quibbling over words, what does it mean to denigrate being “anti-abortion” in favor of being “fully pro-life”? The following seem to me to be common meanings:
- People who oppose abortion are bad because they don’t care about people who are already born.
- The pro-life movement should, for reasons of justice or strategy, advance positions on many issues other than the legality of abortion. For example, it would be futile or perhaps even immoral to advocate criminalizing abortion without a plausible plan to remove any economic destress from expectant mothers that would have made abortion an attractive decision.
- Opposition to abortion is logically tied to a bunch of other policy positions, so to be logically consistent, a pro-life activist must support them all and with comparable vehemence.
The first meaning is probably the most common, but it is just an ad hominem attack on individual pro-lifers, and so it doesn’t deserve a response. You don’t know what or who I care about. I could say that my hostility to divorce is proof that I do care about children after they are born; it shows that I prioritize giving children intact families over adult irresponsible gratification. I’m not going to say that, though, because I don’t need to prove my compassion to anyone. Believe what you like about me, and let’s get back to the topic of mass murder.
The second meaning is odd, in that no other advocacy movement is reproached in this way. No one complains that environmentalist organizations don’t devote any of their attention to making health care affordable, or that the National Rifle Association has no plan to end homelessness, or that the Anti-defamation League isn’t doing anything to fight pornography. There are a lot of ills in the world. Doesn’t it make sense that we allow a division of labor, with multiple organizations to tackle different issues, each one drawing the support of those who–for whatever reason–feel particularly passionate about a particular issue? If someone decides to spend his life introducing lower-class kids to Shakespeare, or something like that, would we reproach him for not also having a scheme for world peace? Why, then, are we so hostile to someone wanting to devote his attention to what he believes is mass murder? In any case, it’s not true that anti-abortion activists qua individuals have no interest in other issues. The question is whether anti-abortion organizations qua organizations should have such interests. I say the answer is no.
Demanding pro-life organizations take on a raft of other issues would surely compromise their main purpose. It unnecessarily divides people who agree on abortion but disagree on other issues. What’s my plan for eliminating the scourge of unsupported unwed mothers? Shotgun weddings. Should I demand the folks at The Distributist Review get on board with this before we work together against abortion? Only if I don’t really care much about abortion. More importantly, the original purpose of restricting abortion would quickly get sidelined by the other issues. If we can’t criminalize abortion until all expectant mothers have the support they need, then criminalizing abortion has stopped being a genuine policy position and become an eschatological hope. Even if we decide to pursue both ends in parallel, abortion would quickly be dropped, because organizations would start admitting members who don’t take the “pro-life” position on abortion but make up for it by being “pro-life” on many other issues.
Now, you could say that anti-abortion organizations are already as ineffective as can be, so we wouldn’t lose anything by trying a different strategy. I used to feel that way myself, but it’s an illusion that comes from comparing the failures of the pro-life movement to the successes of Leftist movements. This is the wrong comparison to make. The pro-life movement, being a Rightist movement, should be compared to other Rightist movements, like the movement to restore the Bourbon monarchy, to preserve primogeniture, to restore the Papal States, to keep women out of the military, to criminalize usury, to censor anti-Christian literature, and the like. By these standards, the pro-life movement has been quite successful. Not that it has criminalized abortion, of course–this will never happen. But it has kept itself within the Overton Window, something few Rightist movements have ever done for so long.
What of the third meaning? It’s a commonplace statement in neo-Catholic circles that if one opposes abortion, one must, to be logically consistent, also oppose the death penalty and wars not satisfying a restrictive reading of the Church’s Just War criteria. Some ethical systems that opposes abortion also oppose these other things, but surely not all of them. Not to excuse executions or wars of aggression, but they are clearly different from abortion. No one’s humanity (or “personhood”) is being denied by execution or war; the traditional qualifications against lethal force for state-imposed punishment and warfare are being invoked. Nor does violence against criminals or foreigners offend against the most intimate relationships the way mothers legally contracting to have their prenatal children killed does. Also, even if the same ethical belief one uses to oppose abortion does require one to oppose these other things, this doesn’t mean any particular person is obliged to be equally passionate about all of them. See what I said about divisions of labor above.
At least abortion and the death penalty do have intentional killing in common. Far less excusable is this claim that no one can oppose abortion unless they also support some particular scheme for alleviating poverty. Even if we grant that poverty kills an enormous number of people (which, in the first world, isn’t really true), there is still a fundamental difference between deliberate killing and abstaining to take some particular action to avoid deaths. One can always abstain from murder, but trying to eliminate even just “premature death” is often beyond our power. Nor is it clear that there is any moral principle that demands we always do whatever best avoids human deaths. What about calls to ban junk food? Many of you probably share my reaction that, hey, we’ve all got to go sometime, so I might as well be allowed to have my daily soda.
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