As a child, I remember listening to a group of anti-abortion adults talk about the advocacy work of progressives.
“How can a Democrat care about the extinction of baby whales, but not care about the killing of the unborn?” one asked. No one had an answer. To this group of passionate conservative abortion opponents, protecting unborn human life was an imperative. So to them, the humanitarian impulses of liberals were hopelessly hypocritical and skewed — not for what they did, necessarily, but for what they left out.
I agreed with those adults then, and I agree with them now. But as I’ve grown older, I have also seen ways in which anti-abortion Republicans have also been guilty of ideological inconsistency, ways in which they have made themselves a target for criticism because of what they, too, have left out.
Many millennials who might otherwise lean anti-abortion are troubled by the movement’s union with a Republican Party that is in favor of the death penalty, hawkish in its foreign policy and often duplicitous in its attitude about ending abortion. The Republican Party’s commitment to life — to the flourishing of the vulnerable and the weak — has often been inconsistent, even hypocritical.
What does it say about us, after all, if we condemn the killing of the unborn but ignore the starving of children in Yemen? If we fight abortion but don’t care about the possible extinction of thousands of animal species?
The anti-abortion movement has always been passionately devoted to defending the rights of the unborn. If you believe that unborn children have rights and dignity, as I and other pro-lifers do, then ending abortion is more important than virtually any other issue we deal with as a society and has to remain the focus of our cause.
However, our principles can and should have a broader application, because the heart of this movement is defending the most voiceless and vulnerable of living beings, and that ethic of care and compassion is needed in many other parts of our society.
Thinkers like Charles Camosy have argued that people who think of themselves as pro-life must forsake partisanship and embrace a consistent life ethic to counter prevalent cultural attitudes about sex, abortion, poverty, immigration, ecology and state-sponsored violence (like war, genocide, terrorism, police brutality and the death penalty). In each of these issues, carelessness and callousness foster a “throwaway culture.”
“A primary value in throwaway culture is maintaining a consumerist lifestyle,” he notes, “but to cease caring about who is being discarded, most of us find a way to no longer acknowledge their inherent dignity.”
This sort of thinking affects the way many Americans see racial minorities, the elderly and disabled, prenatal children, immigrants and refugees, enemy combatants and prison inmates. It also influences our perception of animal and plant life — the “vulnerable, voiceless creatures, pushed to the margins, whose dignity is radically inconvenient for human beings who have power over them,” as Mr. Camosy writes.
A consistent life ethic would urge pro-lifers to defend the vulnerable and voiceless, regardless of partisanship or ease. Being anti-abortion would mean being pro-earth. It would mean fighting waste, abuse and poverty. And it would convey a holistic care for life, both before and after birth.
Pope John Paul II, for his part, argued that the “way of death” was not limited to abortion and infanticide. He included “whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution,” as well as the actions of those who “show no compassion to the poor” and do not “suffer with the suffering.” Pope Francis has also included the stewardship of creation in his condemnations of modern consumption, arguing in the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ that climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
Widening the anti-abortion lens to encompass other important issues of our time is not about ignoring abortion or stepping away from the movement’s primary focus. It is about seeking to cultivate greater consistency in our life ethic in the way we vote, in the civility we bring to our political discussions and in the way we act as consumers.
Some conservatives might argue that philosophical coherency matters little if it does not result in dependable political action. That is why many pro-lifers continue to vote Republican, despite their qualms with the party. It’s why a lot of anti-abortion conservatives and groups have supported politicians like Roy Moore in Alabama, politicians who offer lip service to the pro-life movement but have lived and acted in a way that undermines its integrity.
But considering the deep hostility and division in American politics, it is possible that a consistent life ethic might help advance the cause as much as (or even more than) political legislation. Because unless and until abortion opponents pursue greater integrity in our politics, people are likely to misunderstand them. They are likely to see us as hypocrites and won’t take seriously the passion at the heart of many conservatives who are fighting for life in the womb.
Progressives have convinced many that the anti-abortion cause is fundamentally anti-woman — an attempt to legislate women’s freedoms and physiology, not a movement with human rights and human dignity at its heart. So abortion opponents must demonstrate a passion for the oppressed and vulnerable surrounding them: for the homeless in their community, the single moms in need of support, the unfairly imprisoned and the foster children without a stable home.
There’s some evidence that these sorts of efforts can and will positively affect our politics, too: A number of anti-abortion senators introduced legislation in April that would allow pregnant women to claim the child tax credit. This new political effort suggests that many pro-lifers are realizing that if they want to support the unborn, they need to support the mothers who carry them.
Mr. Camosy, for his part, argues that we need “a culture of encounter” in which hospitality helps bridge the gap between political opposites and fosters dialogue and caring.
Abortion is — and is likely to continue to be — one of the most contentious issues of our time. But an anti-abortion movement that is seen for what it affirms and protects, and not just for what it leaves out, could transcend fractious politics, whataboutism and hypocrisy, and offer a deeper understanding of the preciousness of life and the importance of human dignity.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer who contributes to The American Conservative, The Week, The Washington Post and other publications.
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