The Pro-Life Movement On The Left

Most Americans who are pro-life do not experience it from the left side of the political spectrum. Without a doubt, it is terribly difficult to be pro-life on the political left. The current political landscape in America presents a dire problem for “pro-life progressives,”even more so if they’re Catholic and observe the Church’s teachings. Pro-life progressivism is a growing, still voiceless, movement in the Democratic Party. There is a sense of alienation from pro-choice Democrats in regard to “women’s issues” (abortion) and “life-saving scientific research” (embryonic stem cell research) as well a sense of being out of place amongst conservative Republicans whom we might agree with on a few issues, but disagree with on a host of others and perhaps fundamentally on political philosophy. This movement (I think) is really reflective of many Americans, who not only oppose abortion and euthanasia, but would like to see “life issues” extend to the 30,000 children who die globally each day from poverty and preventable disease, issues of genocide in places like Darfur, human trafficking, health care, foreign policy issues of war and peace, and even to environmental stewardship. Many Catholic Democrats see this as what the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin coined as the “consistent life ethic.”

While I personally hold this view, I think there are two fundamental tendencies in this approach to politics (“the consistent life ethic”) that presents a profound challenge, particularly to Catholics. The first is the prevailing tendency to make all political issues morally equal, i.e. fighting abortion is morally equal to providing universal health care. This is a tragic intellectual mistake. In the current election season this sort of thinking hasn’t gone unnoticed with the wave of pro-life Americans voting for Senator Barack Obama despite his radical abortion stance because “there are other issues.” Indeed, I’m not one to deny that there are other issues that I care deeply about, but not even a monolithic commitment to all these other issues in a “pro-life” way can draw attention away from Senator Obama’s unacceptable position on abortion.

The second tendency of this group (this is just modern “progressivism” in general) actually causes the first. This tendency is toward moral relativism; the absence of an objective standard of good and evil easily allows for someone subscribing to a pro-life ethic to see reforming the American health care system as “more pressing” than stopping the genocide of 1.2 million unborn children every year. The tendency toward this kind of thinking is more deep-seated than we like to realize. The American political tradition (and therefore the thinking of American citizens) is deeply rooted in legal positivism, which as a philosophy sees a disconnect between law and morality. This theory fundamentally presupposes moral relativism because allegedly the only way to maintain order in a secular society is not to affirm moral truths, thus society firmly establishes itself on a false sense of peace, which begins to dissipate into what Princeton law professor Robert P. George calls the “clash of orthodoxies,” i.e. radically incompatible worldviews at war, largely viewed as a battle between secular humanist-moral relativists vs. Judeo-Christian moral conservatives.

It’s safe to say then the fundamental problem is our moral thinking. Consider what C.S. Lewis coined as the “abolition of man.” If God created us and endowed us with our human nature, then we can be assured that our nature is in harmony with His good purposes. Given that we have a nature, certain things go against it, won’t fulfill us, and this is what we Christians call sin. But what if we could alter our nature? We live in a society where we create life in laboratories, can alter genetics, and implant embryos. This brings to mind a looming possibility of Huxley’s Brave New World becoming real. The fundamental question one must ask in regard with life-creation in laboratories: Is this in accord with our nature? Are humans meant to be created in this way? Whether or not a person believes in God will profoundly shape their conclusion to this question. There is no natural law without God and the fundamental notion that follows the absence of God is that our humanity is not a creation and therefore, there is no reason why we should not create embryos in laboratories for medical research nor any reason why women should not be denied an implanted embryo when they want a baby as if it were a consumer product.

To the point: how is this relevant to “pro-life progressives?” Those of this particular political persuasion see why abortion is a repugnant evil, which is wonderful. This movement may be key in ending the horror of abortion in America if they are successful in reversing the Democratic Platform and align themselves with pro-life conservatives. However, the modern notion of “progress” may inevitably be their (and everyone else’s) downfall.

In a recent political debate with a friend of mine, who like me, is a pro-life Democrat the fundamental disagreement we had in our discourse is just as I described. He is voting for Senator Obama and I’m voting for Senator McCain. My friend Jacob sees it this way: American health care reform, namely universal health care is a “pro-life” issue; McCain won’t do anything about abortion and health care reform will help reduce the abortion rate. Perhaps he’s right, or at least partially. I am a die-hard supporter of universal health care, thus, I do not fundamentally disagree with his assessment.

But what about the fact that Senator Obama said at the “Compassion Forum” that he thinks people should have the choice to end their lives and their suffering if they choose to? In other words, he does not oppose physician-assisted suicide, which is incompatible again with the pro-life position. Or what of his remarks about funding abortion through his health care plan?

These questions did not matter in the end. For my friend, health care reform is a pivotal issue that we cannot miss this time around. Jesus said, he reminded me, to “love your neighbor and to take care of the poor.” The problem is I don’t reject this particular biblical instruction, but rather find modern, hyper-liberal, pro-sexual revolution thinking doesn’t really include God. The notion of the natural law, at least in modern thinking, godless because we cannot affirm the existence of God. The problem this causes is deeply philosophical. Without God we cannot recognize our neighbors, whom we’re supposed to love, for what they are. To be a person, according to the natural law, is to be a proper subject of absolute regard—a “neighbor”; it is persons whom I must not kill, must not steal from, etc. What is a person? A person is a creature made in the image and likeness of God.

The problem with losing sight of God is obvious: we don’t lose sight of killing our neighbor as wrong rather we don’t recognize our neighbor when we see them (e.g. the unborn). In contemporary secular ethics, the ruling tendency is to concede that there are such things as persons, but to define them in terms of their functions or capacities—not by what they are, the image of God, but by what they can do. Therefore “personhood” is defined in terms of consciousness, reasoning, self–motivated activity, the capacity to communicate about indefinitely many topics, and conceptual self–awareness. If you can do all those things, you’re a person; if you can’t, you’re not. The functional approach to personhood seems plausible at first, just because—at a certain stage of development, and barring misfortune—most persons do have these functions. But to think that they are their functions is a radical departure from traditional natural law thinking.

This is often used as a justification for abortion. The slogan of the pro-choice establishment is heard loud and clear: “every child a wanted child.” But, by this logic, an unwanted child is not a child…so kill it? Obviously, unborn babies are not capable of reasoning, complex communication, and so on. If they cannot perform these functions, then by definition they aren’t persons, and if they aren’t persons, they have no inherent right to life. The real question is a philosophical one and it’s undoubtedly moral. One might say, “surely a collection of tiny cells don’t constitute personhood in such a way that trumps a woman’s right to personal autonomy.” That’s the mindset. But it cannot end with abortion.

If unborn babies may be killed because they lack these functions, then a great many other individuals may also be killed for the same reasons—for example the asleep, unconscious, demented, addicted, infants, toddlers, someone in a coma on life-support (euthanasia), not to mention sundry other cases, such as deaf–mutes who have not been taught sign language. In such language, none of these are persons; in theological language, this is clear denial of the human person coming from God.

The cure for such blindness is not to tinker with the list of functions by which we define persons, but to stop confusing what persons are with what they can typically do. Functional definitions are appropriate for things that have no inherent nature, things whose identity is dependent on our own purposes and interests, e.g. created-inanimate objects.

If I am a person then I am by nature a rights–bearer, by nature a proper subject of absolute regard—not because of what I can do, but because of what I am. Of course this presupposes that I have a nature, a “what–I–am,” which is distinct from my present condition or stage of development, distinct from my abilities in that condition or stage of development, and distinct from how this condition, stage of development, or set of abilities might happen to be valued by other people. In short, a person is by nature someone whom it is wrong to view merely as a means. If you regard me as a person only because I am able to exercise certain capacities that interest you, then you are saying that I am not a person. And so the functional definition of personhood does not even rise to the dignity of being mistaken, it is just irrational and incoherent. With each different criterion of personhood, a different set of beings is welcomed through the gates of others’ regard. This is the same rule of all oppression. Those who supported slavery were free and those who support abortion are born. Personhood is defined at our convenience.

It is clear then that moral principles are more important than policies. Moral principles gives us the capacity to priortize our political agendas accordingly and with a sense of how policies should be shaped, i.e. why abortion is a paramount issue. Much more can be said of this, but given the broad set of political issues, the pro-life movement (this is especially true of Catholics) has constantly a faced a fundamental question often heatedly debated that I’m not at liberty to answer authoratatively. I have my convictions about if or when a pro-life Catholic could ever (if possible) vote for a pro-choice candidate, but I believe people of good will may disagree with me and I place no judgment on them. Honest disagreement can only lead to a healthy debate.

But we cannot avoid the question that often divides us: Can someone who is pro-life and Catholic vote for candidates who are not only pro-choice, but who promote policies such as universal healthcare that is accompanied by an unquestionably flawed approach to bioethics, which inevitably creates more problems? That is, can we argue “proportionate reasons” when the principles of one side is based on a terribly flawed view of the human person and society? It is striking to me that many pro-life Americans, even Catholics, go to great lengths to defend or qualify a pro-choice candidate’s position, or even worse make them out to be more “pro-life” than the person who opposes abortion (Doug Kmiec).

I understand their argument and in all truthfulness, I don’t disagree with them entirely, but I do think it gets so casual that one may vote consistently for pro-choice candidates without discerning the issue of abortion. Moreover, I don’t think any of these same people would vote for a racist candidate no matter what that candidate said or how good, say, their economic plans are. No one would vote for Hitler  because he supported universal healthcare (he did; Germany was the first nation in the world to have it)  despite the fact he supported the genocide of 6 million Jews as well as nearly 6 million others who died along side them. Genocide would disqualify him from receiving our votes, period.

Yet when a candidate supports the systematic, public funded genocide of 1.2 million unborn children in America as well as subsidizing abortions overseas (e.g. not giving foreign aid unless they provided abortion facilities as was done under the Clinton administration) and below the border in Mexico, contributing to the over 45 million abortions that occur within 365 days worldwide, there are suddenly “other issues.” Sometimes it is argued that overturning Roe v. Wade will not do anything, so we should leave abortion legal. Should we have left slavery legal and only sought to reduce the number of slaves? Such argument is incoherent. It’s even argued that social programs will lead to less abortions. I think this is true to an extent, but on some level we (all) should agree that citing evidence from Europe is not convincing because Europeans are contracepting themselves to death and don’t have nearly as many children to be carried by the safety net of social programs, hence, less abortions.

I won’t objectively say a pro-life American, Catholic or otherwise, cannot (ever) vote for pro-choice candidates. Should they? That’s another question and I think good Catholics may come down on both sides. Pro-life progressives, particularly, Catholics ones need to stop accommodating pro-choice candidates. Why should the Democratic Party feel any need to change its position on abortion, if they realize they will receive our uncritical support anyway, even while we disagree?

4 Responses to The Pro-Life Movement On The Left

  1. Terrific post, Eric! I’d drafted a comment, but trashed it… I want to consider your post a bit more first.

  2. Dan Wing says:

    I am impressed by your post. I believe that all of the good points of Obama combined do not offset his Abortion stance. Too bad – That is a deal breaker for me, and some persons vote for Obama will be cancelled out by my vote for McCain.

    If Mr. Obama would change his mind on the Abortion issue I might vote for him. If everyone in the country was pulling the same direction we would get alot more done. I am not as educated as you are, obviously but I could do the dirty work. America should be great, not the way we are now, but better. Way better.

    If we all could see the video of the abortion named the Silent Scream and still be for Abortion I would like to know if we would not change our position on Abortion. Have you seen it? Abortion ends a life. When were you created? At Birth? At conception or at 2 weeks, 2 months, 8, when? Think about that the next time you hear the abortion contained only tissue, not a baby.

    Come on Mr Obama qualify your position to expand abortion through the FOCA (Freedom of Choice Act) legislation. I think we should speak up about what we think so, Thanks for the chance to. Thanks, Dan

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Some issues simply transcend political ideology, and abortion is one of them. I am a political conservative and a Republican, but if Obama were pro-life and McCain pro-abortion I would unhesitatingly vote for Obama. I have voted for liberal, at least more liberal than their opponents, Democrats in the past who were pro-life when they confronted pro-abortion Republicans.

  4. Nancy Reyes says:

    The problem with the pro life left is that this year they are busy trying to persuade Catholics to back them and to ignore the abortion question.

    My question: If every Catholic congressman, senator, governor and delegate took the life issues seriously, they could have mounted pressure to change their platform. they did not…

    So you can see their priorities: Change the church to ignore abortion, not change the Democratic platform…

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