What does it mean to be pro-life?

I’m pro-life. Really, I am. But I tend to avoid that label for at least three reasons:

  1. The label “pro-life” doesn’t actually describe my position very accurately. Perhaps not surprisingly, I oppose abortion on theological grounds. But Christian theology does not hold that human life intrinsically should be valued above all else. The Church was built, after all, on the blood of the martyrs, who thought their own lives less valuable than telling the truth. Many early Christian martyrs would even take their children to the stake with them, rather than having them raised by their pagan executioners. So it seems to me that Christian opposition to abortion should instead be rooted in a biblical commitment to hospitality to the stranger. Pro-life Christians could make far more headway on the abortion issue if, instead of advocating for the recognition of certain rights (a decidedly untheological category), we would commit to raising unwanted babies and taking young, un-wed mothers into our homes.
  2. The label itself is polemical. It suggests that the other side is what? Anti-life? Pro-death? There’s already way too much screaming and (intentional?) misunderstanding on both sides of this debate. The last thing we need to do is give ourselves a label that alienates potential conversation partners.
  3. Frankly, I don’t want to be put in league with many who call themselves “pro-life.” While I agree with pro-lifers on the abortion issue, many of them have a rather inconsistent ethic. They call themselves “pro-life,” but they unquestioningly support America’s wars and capital punishment, decry even very reasonable attempts to restrict access to lethal weapons, and oppose attempts to extend access to affordable life-saving health care options. (I know I’m painting with a broad brush here. If you are a pro-life person with a consistent ethic of life—good for you!—please understand I am not talking about you). In fact, this discrepancy is so blatant that I’m forced to believe it’s not really an inconsistency at all, but that these folks consistently act on their highest value, namely towing the Republican party line, over against the value of human life. If I’m wrong about that, prove me wrong.

That’s why I was delighted to hear this story about pro-life Nebraska State Senator Mike Flood, who supported a bill to extend prenatal care to illegal immigrants. His reasoning?

If I’m going to stand up in the Legislature and protect babies at 20 weeks from abortion, and hordes of senators and citizens are going to stand behind me, and that’s pro-life, then I’m going to be pro-life when it’s tough, too.

That, it seems to me, is commitment to a value over a party line. And that’s all too rare these days. I don’t know anything about Sen. Flood’s other policy decisions, but this at least is a step toward a consistent ethic of life. To their credit, the Nebraska Right to Life Committee has also publically supported the bill. It was vetoed by Nebraska Governor, Dave Heineman.

Read or listen to the story here.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What does it mean to be pro-life?

  1. Luke

    I find abortion to be one of the most interesting topics when viewed through the scope of religion. In many other cases it’s often very clear who is probably and is probably not a supporter of a certain view, but that’s not the case with abortion.

    I am curious though – do you hold that a newly formed blastocyst or embryo is human life in the same sense that you or I are human life? I find that position a little rationally untenable myself.

    Also what are your feelings about recent legislation that would force medical professionals to perform intrusive trans-vaginal ultrasounds and some that would require the ultrasounds be in the line of sight of the patient before allowing an abortion to be performed?

    I guess the question can be boiled down to two real questions. Is it human life when it’s a blastocyst? And what are the rights of a person who is housing another person?

    • Joe

      Hey Luke,

      You’ll notice I was careful to couch my opposition to abortion in terms of a biblical commitment to hospitality to the stranger, rather than in terms either of the intrinsic value of human life or of rights. So, while I really don’t have very good answers, I probably would want to reframe the questions anyway.

      So, for instance, obviously a newly formed blastocyst can’t be called a human life in the same sense that you and I are. Whether it can be called a human life at all is not a question I feel qualified to answer, but neither is it a question I feel I need to answer. What’s important to Christian theology is that the blastocyst is human life in potentia, and thus a stranger that we are delighted and determined to invite into our community.

      An aside on behalf of my pro-life friends who insist on the language of “value” and “rights”: I’m not sure that anyone is making the argument that a blastocyst is human life in the same sense that you and I are. Most thoughtful opponents of abortion will make a distinction of kind, but will insist that the blastocyst (or at least the embryo at some stage of its development—I gather there is some debate about this)—is nevertheless some kind of human life, and that’s human enough. Thus, in that sense, both those defending a woman’s right to choose and the main-line of those defending an embryo’s right to life are working with the same categories. Where the disagreement really lies, then, is that folks in the pro-life camp want to frame the discussion in terms of the kinds of rights we’re looking at, while folks in the pro-choice camp want to frame it in terms of the object of rights. Pro-lifers want say that, regardless of the discrepancy in kinds of human life we’re dealing with, life is a higher kind right than any of the mother’s that might be violated in an un-wanted pregnancy, and thus should be honored more highly. (The exception here is a case in which the mother’s life is threatened by the pregnancy. I’ve never quite understood the argument for that). Pro-choicers want to say that, regardless of the kinds of rights we’re dealing with, the mother’s is a higher kind of human life than the fetus’, and thus her rights should be honored more highly. (Broad strokes, I know, please forgive my misrepresentations) Again, that’s not my argument—I’m just trying to be fair to all parties here. In fact, I try not to use the language of rights at all. I don’t believe there is any such thing as “inalienable” or “God-given” rights, and I think that rights are an unfortunate political category that assumes the kind of society in which our greatest need is protection from people with whom we have no common interest. Society has a way of living up to it’s expectations.

      As for trans-vaginal ultrasounds, I have not followed the development of the recent legislation closely enough to have formed much of an opinion on it. Just as a start I say that in general I oppose forcing anyone to undergo a medical procedure against her will, and in particular sticking a foreign object in a woman’s vagina against her will is especially troubling. That said—and again, I’m not sure how the law is worded—there is a qualitative difference between forcing someone to undergo a medical procedure against her will and saying that some invasive and uncomfortable procedure is a necessary part of some elected procedure. By analogy, some of the recent policies of the TSA are clearly intrusive and ridiculous—as is the requirement for a trans-vaginal ultrasound—but I’m not sure that they can be said to be a violation of the airline passenger’s rights, since he is choosing to fly and thereby subjecting himself to such searches.

      • Luke

        I agree with your representation of the points of the argument and I think you’re largely accurate on your portrayal of both lifers and choicers. I’d probably disagree with the comparison of the TSA, but I find the TSA to be just as deplorable so maybe I wouldn’t.

        We should have a beer soon.

  2. Pingback: Now, here’s a conservative who gets it. | Theologoholic

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