Abortion & social justice:
“prolife progressive” is not an oxymoron

Commonweal
6 January 2017

It should be easy to be a prolife progressive. If we could somehow start from scratch and map out political alliances and coalitions according to the logic of people’s stated values, social-justice advocacy would coalesce with the defense of the unborn at any number of points: a preference for working at the causes, not just the symptoms, of social ills; a commitment to pursuing nonviolent alternatives, even where many see violence as justifiable; a principled suspicion of any rhetorical move that defines human creatures as outside our circle of regard or rights; above all, an insistence on testing all policies according to how they affect the most vulnerable.

In reality, of course, it is quite hard to be a prolife progressive. The current political cycle offers no shortage of fresh reminders as to why. President-elect Donald Trump was once “very prochoice” but now, in a brazenly opportunistic gesture to social-conservative voters, claims that he has “evolved” and is “very prolife.” Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, both bragged about having the most consistent “prochoice” record. Hardly anyone in either party seeks to stand out from the crowd by proposing to couple European-level abortion restrictions after twenty or even thirteen weeks with robust proposals for paid family leave, which would make continuing pregnancy a more imaginable “choice” for struggling women or at-risk families. In this environment, a politics that is both prolife and progressive might seem like a fantasy.

Still, it is worth continuing to imagine. As Pope Francis has underscored, “everything is connected.”

His encyclical Laudato si’ reminded us that to disregard the intrinsic dignity of the unborn through abortion is of a piece with complacency toward the suffering of the poor, which is connected to the disregard of nonhuman creatures, which in turn leads to environmental degradation and climate change.

Nothing would do more to energize social-justice movements than a broad-based coalition that was able to break through the impasse of abortion politics in the United States. And nothing would do more to forge such a coalition than for the Catholic left and others who say they are “against abortion but…” to come forward. But I think I know why they hesitate to do so. These are people who support a right to abortion for the best of reasons, while chafing at categories that peg them—peg you, perhaps—tightly as “pro-abortion.” Perhaps you chafe at the term “prochoice” too. So let me address your hesitations.

If forced to use shorthand, I know that—as one who wants to defend the unborn—I, too, try to work in some kind of “yes but” complexifier. I say I am “prolife but focused on what will reduce abortions, not obsessed with overturning Roe v. Wade.” For an even shorter shorthand I go with “prolife progressive,” or I cite models like Democrats for Life or Feminists for Life. Even though the phrase “consistent ethic of life” has passed into and out of favor, I continue to insist on the need for an ethical vision that links together issues of poverty, war, capital punishment, climate change, immigration policy, and so on.

In a similar way, you probably want to nuance your position with some kind of “yes but.” Perhaps you say that you “do not personally support abortion but…” Perhaps you are even pro-choice but would support certain reasonable regulations. Perhaps you oppose late-term abortions. One way or another you sense the challenge we all face when we try to translate moral and religious convictions into law in a pluralistic society.

Your reasons for supporting a right to abortion, however, may well go deeper. Encoded in your support for “choice” is a core desire to respond sensitively, humanely, and justly to women and struggling families caught in complex and often tragic situations. You know of pregnancies that jeopardize the health of a mother and thus a family’s capacity to care for their other children. You almost certainly favor exceptions in cases of rape and incest. But the line that marks off such exceptions blurs when you think of women trapped in abusive relationships, where deep patterns of patriarchy mean that, on any given night, supposedly consensual sex might not have been so consensual after all.

Sure of nothing except that there are no neat and easy answers amid such tragedies, you therefore hesitate to tell others what to do. They must live their lives, you reason. They must make the difficult decisions. Rigid, abstract answers from the outside will not do—especially when they come from men like me. Hopefully, you are ready to support women and families in these tragic situations, though you may also wish that the government would offer support beyond what individuals and charitable organizations can afford to provide. But since the choice must ultimately be a woman’s, you intuitively reason, that choice must be a right. Otherwise, you believe, women will be left without a way to preserve their self-determination in this most difficult of circumstances.

AM I CLOSE? If so, let me hazard one more guess. Demographic correlations and political alignments are such that you probably favor gun control as well. If so, then you are likely to approach that issue in the following way.

You wonder what the founders were thinking when they drafted the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even if they had to include this amendment in order to guarantee and provide for their citizen-based militias, at least their prose could have been clearer. In your heart of hearts, though, you wish the amendment did not exist at all, or that we could now update it for our very different times, perhaps by constitutional amendment.

Still, you know that such an amendment is a pipe dream. Politically, it is all but impossible. You may also recognize the force of the argument that, with so many guns now circulating in private hands, many of the guns outlawed would end up in the hands of criminals. And you don’t have a good answer to every question about what people should do to protect their home and family from an armed intruder.

And so you support or even put energy into more politically realistic efforts. Legislation in favor of reasonable gun regulations may be tough in our current political climate, but it’s well within the realm of possibility. New legal cases might eventually prompt the Supreme Court to re-interpret the Second Amendment in such a way as to allow for tighter regulations.

Even so, you know that a deep reduction in gun violence will require far more than court rulings, laws, and regulations. It will require nothing short of systemic and cultural change: just community policing that gives vulnerable and youth the confidence that calling 911 will bring protection, not harassment; strong communities that give young men alternatives to gang membership; jobs, education, child support, and the public transportation that the poor need to access such opportunities; racial and cross-cultural understanding that reduces suspicion of strangers; ultimately, a culture of hope, not one of fear. You know this is a tall order, but beneath all your commitments a bedrock conviction remains: trusting in guns to protect us is illusory; indeed, it is wrong.

Now if this mixture of moral conviction, dogged hope, and political realism is coherent, then what I wish to suggest is this: to identify oneself as a prolife or anti-abortion progressive can also be coherent in much the same way. Such a position also rests on a bedrock moral conviction: we do not solve our social problems by killing the weakest and most vulnerable among us; abortion is wrong.

As with support for gun control, support for restrictions on abortion does not necessarily require one to contend over constitutional matters. Defenders of the unborn obviously have deep reservations about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal throughout the United States. They may ultimately wish it overturned. But just as gun-control advocates may not concentrate their efforts on trying to repeal the Second Amendment, those who identify as prolife may not focus on Roe v. Wade. For some, this may be only a matter of political realism. But I suspect many defenders of the unborn secretly recognize the force of the argument that complete criminalization of abortion could end up backfiring, since it would effectively deregulate abortion and thus make it riskier. Prolifers do not wish to put women or the vulnerable unborn in greater danger.

Such honest and respectful uncertainty hardly disqualifies one from being “prolife.” To be sure, those prolifers who treat active opposition to Roe v. Wade as a litmus test may consider this kind of thinking inconsistent, while some prochoicers may suspect that overturning Roe v. Wade and criminalizing all abortion remain every prolifer’s hidden agenda. Here, each extreme is reinforcing the other’s Manichaean worldview, which is what keeps the focus on Roe v. Wade in the first place.

Can a gun-control activist recognize that it is hardly worth imagining any repeal of the Second Amendment until the American culture of guns and violence has waned? If so, a defender of the unborn can likewise recognize that, without deep changes in our culture and economy, Roe v. Wade will largely remain beside the point. Such a prolifer will insist above all on attending to economic conditions, social policies, and cultural encouragements that will make keeping a child imaginable for more and more women and families in crisis. Through crisis-pregnancy centers, adoption, and policy advocacy, activists in the prolife movement already give far more attention to the welfare of children, mothers, and families than either their critics or the media give them credit for. Many note that abortion regulation, at earlier stages in pregnancy, is compatible with secular European sensibilities. Many also point out that the family-friendly social policies in European countries are a necessary complement to such regulations.

Rather than accepting an either/or political configuration that assumes a prolife stance must be associated with an antigovernment opposition to social-welfare programs, at least some defenders of the unborn continue to press for a both/and politics. And more would no doubt join them if political leaders had the courage to make reducing abortions the rallying cry for a new political coalition.

The horizon for gun-control advocates working to restore sensible regulations is deep social change that overcomes our culture of violence, whether or not that includes overturning the Second Amendment. So, too, the prolife horizon can—and I believe must—be cultural change that moves away from what Pope Francis has called the “throwaway culture.” This is a culture that sacrifices the intrinsic worth of the natural environment and all living creatures for short-term gains. It is a culture especially cruel to the weak, the “unproductive,” and the unborn. Whether one is opposing the culture of violence or the throwaway culture, there is room to debate how much legal prohibition actually contributes to the desired outcome. But resolving these debates is not the essential point.

THE ESSENTIAL POINT is this: even if one does not have a simple answer for every hard and tragic case, it still makes sense to build on a core moral conviction. Anecdotes and hard cases won’t change your mind about guns. There are certainly real-life cases in which privately owned guns have helped saved lives, yet statistics consistently show that, overall, gun ownership actually increases the chance of death not only through accident and suicide but by exacerbating domestic conflicts. Likewise, even if there are cases in which abortion gives a woman in distress a way to resist abuse and injustice, a prolife progressive will insist that easy access to abortion actually allows individual men and society in general to evade their responsibility to prioritize the welfare of women and children. It does not advance the movement for social justice.

This is why it’s possible for some of us to be both prolife and anti-gun—and committed to many other social changes necessary for a consistent ethic of life. As Holly Taylor Coolman of Providence College has remarked, “prolife” must mean much more than “anti-abortion”—but “it is also true that ‘pro-life’ cannot mean less than ‘anti-abortion.’”

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