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What’s ‘Pro-Life,’ Anyway?
Chuck Donovan discusses Wendy Davis and the politics of language and conscience.

Participants at the Walk for Life West Coast rally in January, 2013.

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Last week, Wendy Davis, the Democratic state legislator running against Rick Perry for governor of Texas, declared, “I am pro-life.” She explained: “I care about the life of every child: every child that goes to bed hungry, every child that goes to bed without a proper education, every child that goes to bed without being able to be a part of the Texas dream, every woman and man who worry about their children’s future and their ability to provide for that future. I care about life and I have a record of fighting for people above all else.”

That, of course, is in some sharp contrast with the activism that has made her a superstar among the leaders of the abortion industry and the Democratic party nationwide. During her filibuster of a bill that would protect some children in the latest stages of pregnancy, assuring higher medical standards for women, President Obama dutifully tweeted in support of her. Children have her support if their parents determined that their lives were of value, if they have survived Roe and the culture of Planned Parenthood

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Chuck Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, is no stranger to abortion politics and the “pro-life movement.” What is it? Where is it going? In an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, Donovan reflects on the opportunity Davis has provided, almost 41 years after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
 

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What does the label “pro-life” mean exactly?

CHUCK DONOVAN: The “pro-life” label, which the right-to-life movement has used for decades, is an attempt to get to the heart of the matter. It was and is meant to convey the breadth of the right-to-life movement — as well as to underscore the utter centrality of the right to life. It goes to the origin of our rights and to the idea that life is essentially a given – that is, a gift from our Creator. 

If I am a good swimmer and I pass by a pond and see a drowning child, I go in and save that child’s life. I care about the social and health-care services that child may need in the future, but I don’t impose a strength test on the child before I decide whether to pull that child from the water.

The ultimate value of the term “pro-life” consists in this: We know that people are going to disagree over questions about the efficacy and extent of social services. Pro-life says that there is one thing we won’t do: We won’t subject your claim on our conscience, your most basic right to life, to arbitration. It must be a given that we do not sacrifice innocent human life on the altar of any public debate. You have this right whether you live in Sweden or Namibia.

That this right exists is why the rest of the debate matters. If it does not exist, then we should be doing everything possible to end suffering by destroying the sufferer before he can impose on or inconvenience us. The Peter Singers of this world find this alternative appealing. Pro-life is a position that says the value of individual human life isn’t, cannot be, contingent or qualified. No tests of perfection or “good timing” apply.
 

LOPEZ: Strategically, how did it come about?

DONOVAN: The term has been around a long time. Certainly it came into wide use soon after the Supreme Court decisions in 1973. I suspect “right to life” is the older phrase, because the early years of this debate were intensely focused on the new legal right, the privacy right that overshadowed the right to life after Roe and Doe. The idea that one could “privately” dispose of another human being was shocking, but opponents of this idea found that they would be invidiously characterized for expressing it. The late Dr. Bernard Nathanson detailed how his colleague at the founding of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, Lawrence Lader, incessantly marshaled anti-Catholic bigotry to advance legal abortion — a strange thing to do if your real concern is a broad-based social-justice platform.

Right-to-lifers wanted an inclusive term. We wanted something that could capture the views of people who were pacifists and those who were just-war defenders, of people against capital punishment and people who thought it could be justified in some instances. Especially in the early days of the cause, the movement was politically and ideologically diverse on these questions, and intense exchanges over these life issues were part and parcel of the movement. It became a core strength. Over time, perhaps because of the abandonment of the unborn that has become ever more absolute in one political party, this exchange of views happens less often and does not seem as deliberative.



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