The Corner

Politics & Policy

Pro-Life/Anti-Abortion

Human Life Review has put together a symposium that is mostly about how pro-life conservatives should respond to advocates of a “consistent-life” or “whole-life” ethic that attempts to oppose poverty, war, and other evils as well as abortion. Several NR writers contribute.

While the symposium raises a number of important issues, here I want to talk about the preference several of the contributors express for the description “anti-abortion” over “pro-life.” Matthew Schmitz, literary editor of First Things, writes, “Debates about whether we should be consistent life, whole life, or plain old pro life ought to remind us of the virtues of precision. From first to last, we are anti-abortion. All else distracts.”

I used to share this terminological preference. In “pro-life,” as in “pro-choice,” I felt too much the touch of the p.r. hand. But “pro-life” has a great advantage over “anti-abortion,” which is that it better fits a position that includes opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and embryo-destructive research. We pro-lifers don’t oppose embryo-destructive research only or even mainly because it aids the fight against abortion. Our opposition to embryo-destructive research, rather, flows from the same premise as our opposition to abortion: that the deliberate killing of peaceable human beings is unjust. We oppose these things, that is, because all violate a principle of the sanctity of human life.

Specifying this principle will not dispel all confusion about what the principle entails. Someone may wish to argue that national health insurance saves human lives and therefore support for it follows from the principle, which a) would be true only if we granted some additional premises about the effects of this policy and b) would not mean that opposing national health insurance is equivalent to opposing legal sanctions against the deliberate taking of human lives. But calling ourselves “anti-abortion” does not prevent all such confusion: Someone might just as easily argue that doubling the minimum wage will reduce abortion and thus is truly anti-abortion. (In fact, the same people who are inclined to make the first case are typically inclined to make the second.) There is no label that can do our analytical work for us.

But we do need labels on some occasions. When we are talking strictly about abortion, it is reasonable for those of us who oppose it to call ourselves “anti-abortion.” When we are talking about the broader cause of which opposition to abortion forms a part, we could call ourselves “pro-sanctity-of-human-life.” But that’s a bit of a mouthful. Better to abbreviate it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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