Politics & Policy

What’s ‘Pro-Life,’ Anyway?

Chuck Donovan discusses Wendy Davis and the politics of language and conscience.

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

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.

Right-to-lifers also gravitated naturally toward a more positive term. Words are not just words, however. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially after Congress proved resistant to reversing Roe, the right-to-life movement turned increasingly to offering pregnancy-care services directly to women and girls. That effort is massive today, and its scope is still underappreciated. The Lozier Institute is updating research from five years ago, which found that private-sector support for pro-life pregnancy-care centers in the United States is easily as large as the private donations that Planned Parenthood’s government-subsidized network receives. These pro-life centers raise more than a quarter billion private dollars each year and use the help of more than 40,000 volunteers to accomplish their missions. The value of the medical services donated by physicians and nurses is not even counted in this tally.

It’s a good development, I think, that the media has now largely accepted the self-designation of both sides in the abortion debate. It took a long while to get there.

LOPEZ: Has it outlived its time?

DONOVAN: The fact that a pro-choice candidate for public office wants this self-appellation is the best sign we could have that we should keep it.

But identifying “pro-life” in terms of one’s support for a particular national program, much less a particular funding level for that program — especially one that, like . . . food stamps, tracks the failure of policymakers to grow the economy, strengthen the family, and increase mobility into the middle class — is perilous and even misleading. 

I am a conservative who has come to oppose capital punishment and who believes that social justice is real and important but that it is generally a failure of society if social justice is continually thrust upward into a maze of national policies and government bureaus. They can provide a floor, a safety net, but they tend at the personal level toward indifference, and they can lull citizens into believing, “Well, isn’t there a government agency dealing with such-and-such social problem?” The real agent of social justice is the individual and the community. And the most effective “agencies” are one’s own sense of responsibility, one’s neighbors, the church, local charities, and the extended family. When these “agencies” are healthy, the resort to public assistance can be minimal and temporary or may not happen at all. 

Right-to-life groups have generally remained single-issue because that has allowed them to house writers and activists under one roof who have diverse perspectives on other issues. The multi-issue groups like the Heritage Foundation and Family Research Council accept the responsibility to look at the relationship of first-principle issues (like life) to social policy generally. Both of those groups in particular support policies that, for example, would dramatically improve health-care options for the uninsured. They don’t support policies that are government-dominated or single-payer in either purpose or effect. Read the Family Research Council health-care papers from more than a decade ago advocating personal and family ownership of health-care policies for both the poor and the better off. These proposed reforms would require changes as major as anything we see now in Obamacare, but they move toward a consumer-centric, conscience-honoring system, not a government-centric one.

A majority of Americans now call themselves “pro-life.” This is a triumph of decades-long efforts pro-lifers should not readily yield.

LOPEZ: Davis is right when she says much more than simple abortion law has to do with life. She provides an opportunity to focus on some of the work the pro-life movement does for children and mothers and fathers and families after the birth of the child, doesn’t she? What are some of the most important pro-life projects beyond abortion that deserve attention?

DONOVAN: The pregnancy-center movement is one of the largest social-service causes of modern times, ranking with the fight against AIDS and breast cancer in its dimensions and presence in communities across the country. It is not well known how much these centers do for mothers and families after the delivery of the child, in terms of parenting classes, partnering with job-training centers, and other community services.

Increasingly we see right-to-life advocates recognizing the significance of sex trafficking and pornography as parallel concerns and contributing factors to the exploitation of women and girls. The battle to expand personal exemptions and the child tax credit gets little attention, but these efforts keep resources available to families with children in the years when they are making the most important investments in the human lives under their care. The majority of states have adoption credits as well, and Ohio is among the states now seeking to expand the credit to reflect the real costs of adoption. These policies are two-fers, if you will — they build families and they can reduce the cost of foster care to taxpayers.

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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