Thomas Friedman, Pro-Lifer?

by Charles A. Donovan

One can always treat it as a sign of hope when a prominent columnist earnestly tries to claim the label “pro-life.” It must mean, at least, that the label is not pejorative. Nonetheless, the hope is more limited when the claim is made in a less-than-earnest fashion, as Thomas Friedman did last week in a column for the New York Times.

By now, op-eds like Friedman’s are nearly set pieces. They hold up some issue of public controversy such as an assault-weapons ban, climate change, or contraceptive mandates, and attempt to prove that any truly pro-life person must hold certain views on these matters if their pro-life commitment is to be regarded as legitimate. That would, of course, logically imply that no person could be genuinely concerned about climate change (disruption, volatility, what have you) unless they also embrace the right to life of the unborn. Friedman manifestly does not mean any such thing. He is not looking for a genuinely consistent moral or political philsophy. One mulls the possibility that he (1) wishes to malign political foes, or (2) feel better about his own inconsistencies. Or both.

Friedman repeats the trope of defenders of abortion “rights” when he accuses pro-lifers of believing in the sanctity of human life from conception to birth. At one time, when first uttered, to my memory, by Representative Barney Frank, this charge had some force. Force, that is, in the sense that no conscientious pro-life American faces the day thinking he or she has done enough to avert abortions or aid mothers in finding alternatives. The pregnancy-center movement in the United States is daily aware that for all its efforts (remember this: U.S. pregnancy centers raise significantly more private money than Planned Parenthood’s network does), total abortions in our country have not dipped below 1,000,000 annually since 1974. The scale of our efforts is still nowhere near the scale of the problem.

That said, Friedman and others like him rely on false history that pro-life Americans internalize to our detriment. First of all, he offers no empirical evidence for his observation that pro-lifers oppose bans on assault weapons (this writer doesn’t) or hold specific views on climate change (either denying it or refusing to embrace the radical economic and/or antinatal policies of some who champion the cause) to a different degree than other Americans. Second, there is nothing in the history of health care and provision for mothers in need for which Christian and other religious institutions need apologize. 

The website of the Catholic Medical Association has a brief but very useful account of this history that is worth absorbing. As the CMA recounts:

The [health] institution built by St. Basil at Caesarea in Cappadocia had the character of a city in its scope. The first Catholic hospital in Rome was founded in 400; the first in France, at Lyons, came in the 6th century. In 580 Bishop Masona at Merida gave orders to that locale’s physicians and nurses, telling them “that wherever they found a sick man, ‘slave or free, Christian or Jew,’ they should bring him in their arms to the hospital and provide him with bed and proper nourishment.”

Similarly, while liberal critics have spurred pro-life leaders to even more action in the services sphere, the movement to provide medical and material support for mothers is as old as Roe v. Wade. Alternatives to Abortion International, now known as Heartbeat International, dates to 1971. Care-Net, founded by the Evangelical board of the Christian Action Council, dates to 1980 and is continuing to expand its services nationwide. Neither of these enterprises was the suggestion of Barney Frank, and it is probable that they represent “social justice flyover country” as far as Friedman is concerned. 

The recent rhetorical performance of a few pro-life candidates merits some refinement. But Congress is not on the verge of debating the matters that the liberal media has jumped on with such frenzy; it has, however, just witnessed the liberals’ defeat of measures to address sex-selective abortion and the experience of pain by the unborn, topics that somehow fail to stir Friedman or Frank’s “pro-life” bones. The day that Congress holds a genuine and informed debate about why abortion is not the answer to crimes of rape is a day in the future when the pro-life movement has prevailed at some level that, at present, is hard to imagine.

Yuval Levin had the proper measure of things when he observed recently that the true aim of the secular hegemons, Obamacare included, is to sweep away the institutions of civil society that compete with them for the fealty of citizens and for different ideas of the common good. Government monopolies are harsh mistresses, claiming to represent “diversity” when they would in fact quash it, invoking “prevention” when they treat fertility but not infertility as a disease, and lauding “comprehensive” reproductive services that omit the social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual elements that drive true sexual health. 

Friedman is just getting into the spirit of this enterprise. If one of his chosen “pro-life” issues peters out or is amicably resolved, no need to worry. He has a dozen more in his pocket. He is not out to strike any social bargain where babies are welcomed in life or protected in law. But it is flattering in a way he does not intend that he strives so hard to fly our flag. 

Charles A. Donovanis president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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