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.



Family-policy councils across the country are working alongside Focus on the Family to promote adoption in the church. No child should lack a family and a mother and father.

LOPEZ: A lot of people criticize “culture war” talk. They think folks like yourself insisting on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage are dividing people. Is this a war? If so, who shot first? Is peace possible? We know many are not fans of “truce”!

DONOVAN: I can’t say for certain that I’ve eschewed all culture-war talk — I’ve signed fundraising letters, after all. Upstream from politics there are differences here about the nature of reality — we live in a time when people think that a warming planet is undeniable and undeniably bad while the existence of two sexes is deniable and not demonstrably good — that cannot be reconciled. Within politics, there are always ways to live together peaceably, but the biggest danger to this amicability is denying the other side the freedom to argue, persuade their neighbors, change policies, and keep the change if it works out.

Roe erected a seemingly impenetrable wall against the restoration of any element of the right to life before birth. It disempowered millions of Americans as it led to a massive loss of life and massive injury to relations between men and women. Law after law to hedge the abortion cases was struck down, with a handful of pro-life court victories on things like abortion funding and rules against Title X clinics promoting abortion. It’s a miracle of political and personal stamina that today, 40 years on, the debate over abortion is still alive. The Supreme Court, ironically, has tragically prolonged and embittered the debate by attempting to make it undebatable.

The same may be about to happen over the issue of marriage. I fear an even more comprehensive attempt there to shut down public debate. Being pro-life rarely if ever cost individuals their jobs or their careers. Conscience laws to protect pro-life health-care institutions and personnel were passed with relative ease in the 1970s. Same-sex marriage and related statutes appear to be operating differently, beginning with the Supreme Court itself attributing the ugliest motives to people who think that marriage is properly understood the way nearly everyone understood it just two decades ago. People are losing their livelihoods, criminal sanctions are possible under some sexual-orientation laws, and government agencies, including the military, are leaning on employees to make affirming statements during “gay pride” observances.

We should not have to wait for our own particular ox to be gored before we understand that protecting conscience is the bedrock of civil order. Under Obamacare, many religiously and morally opposed institutions and individuals are being obliged to subsidize or arrange for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization. If one’s dispositions are more to the left, shouldn’t one understand that a government that can force you to participate in an abortion can force you to administer a lethal injection to a prisoner on death row? Conscience wars, as my colleague Tom Messner describes them, will raise the stakes on culture wars dramatically higher.

In the 1970s pro-choice senators like Frank Church and John Heinz helped enact conscience-protective laws regarding abortion. Where are legislators like this in 2013, when a bill like Representative Raul Labrador’s Marriage and Religious Freedom Act is proposed to ensure that traditional views on sexual matters will not be used to deny Americans their basic liberties or eligibility for federal service, contracts, or tax exemptions? Where is the better angel in the Obama administration to recognize what it is doing via the preventive-services mandate to undo the kind of limited “truce” that conscience accommodations represent?

We now face tests whether there will be even the most minimal tolerance.

LOPEZ: Why is the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protecton bill that people are talking about — Lindsey Graham just introduced a version in the Senate — important?

DONOVAN: The various federal and state versions of this bill call us back to the core contradiction of Roe, the contradiction that inspired even Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to acknowledge in the City of Akron case that the ruling was “clearly on a collision course with itself.” It set up an artificial trimester scheme that was insupportable constitutionally then and is scientifically obsolete now. Knowledge and medicine advance, sometimes at breathtaking speeds. The new prenatal treatments and surgeries available today are startling, and the revelations about fetal pain are relevant. The unborn baby in these situations has his own regime for anesthesia as the surgery is carried out. Philadelphia Children’s Hospital celebrated its one thousandth successful fetal surgery this past summer.

Philadelphia happens to be the locale where babies who were indistinguishable from the prenatal patients at the Children’s Hospital were being brutally killed and their mothers brutally abused at the Gosnell house of horrors. It is hard to have a starker display of inequitable treatment. The contrast here is irreconcilable and inherent in the decision to allow some babies to be killed while others receive medical care that not even kings and pharaohs could have commanded.

Our nation cannot continue down this road of contradiction that is tearing us apart. With this legislation, it can begin to choose the path of life. Pro-life can and should mean an array of things, but it must never omit this equal standard for the innocent.

 Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.



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