Finding Renewal: Why the pro-life movement should return to its roots
The catalyst for the following reflections was an Internet exchange during the Obama-McCain presidential election campaign with a long-term activist member of University Faculty for Life. He was disappointed that priests in their Sunday homilies rarely spoke about abortion but frequently preached about other issues of public policy like war, immigration and poverty. I responded by asking, “Won’t our children, our grandchildren and historians want to know what the pro-life movement said about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and nuclear disarmament?” His response: “Like other civil rights movements, I think they will.... Of course, all this is predicated on our having a pro-life movement to write about.”
His answer prompted me to consider a larger problem: What kind of movement is the pro-life movement? Is the campaign against abortion more like the movement for civil rights or the movement for nonviolence? This question transcends the 2008 election and the elections that will follow. It is much more than a conceptual question of definition. The answer will have very practical consequences. How we understand the nature of the pro-life movement will determine not only strategy, tactics and voting decisions, but also how pro-life advocates view the inevitable setbacks and defeats as well as the long-term, eschatological significance of their efforts.
To persevere in an enduring pro-life campaign, we must retrieve the contemporary origin of the movement opposing abortion and regain its initiating charism. The movement can do this by explicitly recognizing its three-part history: (1) the radical beginnings of some of the opposition to abortion; (2) the tactical and temporary political cooption of moral conservatives by fiscal conservatives, a linkage probably definitively eroded by the last election; and (3) the retrieval of the movement’s core radicalism, which located opposition to abortion within the nonviolence movement, itself the principled core of the peace movement. In other words, we must grasp why the movement always found unfair the name “anti-abortion” (much less “anti-choice”), why it merely accepted the term “right-to-life” but always instinctively chose to define itself as “pro-life.”
Rooted in Nonviolence
The fundamental insight, that objections to abortion and objections to war are rooted in the same moral principles, was present at the very beginning of the modern anti-abortion movement. In 1964, almost a decade before Roe v. Wade, Tom Cornell, one of the founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, said that it was pacifism that brought him to protest both the Vietnam War and abortion. “Catholic pacifists,” he explained, “are opposed to war because it is the planned, mass taking of human life for political purposes... [and] we are opposed to abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and economically enforced starvation also, on the same basis.”
Two years before Roe v. Wade, Gordon Zahn, one of the founders of Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace organization formed after World War II, linked opposing abortion and opposing war: “It is not just a matter of consistency; in a very real sense it is the choice between integrity and hypocrisy. No one who publicly mourns the senseless burning of a napalmed child should be indifferent to the intentional killing of a living fetus in the womb....”
In 1973, the year the Supreme Court, by its 7-to-2 decision in Roe v. Wade, struck down all state laws prohibiting or restricting abortion, the first college organization was formed in the abortion controversy: the National Youth Pro-Life Coalition at the University of Minnesota. It linked opposition to abortion and opposition to the Vietnam War. “The Coalition is deeply concerned that our contemporary society is not consistent in its respect for human life,” a student founder, Susan Hilgers, said in an interview, and challenged those who were “antiabortion, pro-war and pro-capital punishment” to greater moral consistency, because “true conservatism should involve a willingness to ‘conserve’ all human life.”
Six years later, Juli Loesch organized Pro-lifers for Survival, which also linked opposition to war and opposition to abortion. In 1980 Sojourners, an evangelical Christian journal, explicitly connected opposition to abortion to its longstanding opposition to the arms race and to capital punishment. The editors explained that from the start, moral consistency had required their opposition to abortion, and that their earlier failure to oppose abortion publicly was prompted by their distaste for some of the tactics of the anti-abortion movement. They added, “The truth is that many poor women do not regard abortion as a real solution but as a brutal substitute for social justice and even as white society’s way of controlling the population of racial minorities.”
Consistent Ethic of Life
While the notion of “a consistent ethic of life” had originally emerged among groups of religiously committed pacifists, who intuitively saw a connection between their moral abhorrence of war and abortion, the phrase entered more mainstream discourse in the aftermath of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Gannon lecture at Fordham University on Dec. 6, 1983, entitled “A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American Catholic Dialogue.” Cardinal Bernardin had been invited to speak on the U.S. bishops’ recently published pastoral letter on the morality of nuclear weapons, The Challenge of Peace. The letter had received considerable attention in the broader American community, provoking a variety of responses.
His audience and the journalists present expected the cardinal to address the letter’s criticism of the Reagan administration’s expansionist military policies and its doctrine of mutually assured destruction as a defense against nuclear war. But Cardinal Bernardin surprised his audience by announcing that his talk would be about abortion in the context of the church’s evolving teaching about war and peace. For three reasons the surprise that greeted his announcement revealed how far the protest movement against abortion had strayed from its original moral intuitions and how it had become associated with political conservatism. The surprise of the audience and the journalists present was itself surprising, given the history of the antiabortion movement.
First, the Second Vatican Council in its “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (1964) included abortion not as a single issue but as the third item in a list of 16 examples of violence against human life.
Second, when in accord with Vatican II the U.S. bishops inaugurated their Respect Life program in the year before Roe v. Wade, they invited Catholics and others to focus on the “sanctity of life and the many threats to life in the modern world, including violence, hunger and poverty.”
Third, just seven months before the cardinal’s lecture at Fordham, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in their pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace taught that the same moral principle governed both the traditional just war prohibition against the direct targeting of civilians and the traditional prohibition against abortion. “Nothing,” the bishops taught, “can justify a direct attack on innocent human life, in or out of warfare. Abortion is precisely such an attack.” The bishops acknowledged that the consistency they found in the Catholic moral tradition linking war and abortion was not widely known and accepted, even by Catholics.
In his Fordham address Cardinal Bernardin confirmed this traditional and contemporary moral teaching that abortion and military violence directed at civilians were immoral for the same reason. Following the orientation of the Second Vatican Council, he situated opposition to abortion in the context of helping the vulnerable: “If one contends, as we do, that the right of every fetus to be born should be protected by civil law and supported by civil consensus, then our moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth. Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker. Such a quality of life posture translates into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs and health care. Consistency means we cannot have it both ways. We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility.”
As had the National Conference of Catholic Bishops before him, Cardinal Bernardin ac-knowledged: “We should begin with the honest recognition that the shaping of a consensus among Catholics on the spectrum of life issues is far from finished and that we face the challenge of stating our case, which is shaped in terms of our faith and our religious convictions, in nonreligious terms which others of different faith convictions might find morally persuasive.”
Adhering to Principle
Despite a lack of public notice, by the mid-1980s there existed a wide and dense network of groups committed to nonviolence; these groups applied the traditional moral principle underlying their rejection of modern warfare to abortion. At the last gathering of Pro-lifers for Survival in March 1987, a Seamless Garment Network was formed. Its mission statement reads: “We the undersigned are committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, poverty, racism, the arms race, the death penalty and euthanasia. We believe that these issues are linked under a consistent ethic of life. We challenge those working on all or some of these issues to maintain a cooperative spirit of peace, reconciliation, and respect in protecting the unprotected.”
By 2003 the network had over 120 member organizations, most of them with religious identities, such as Catholic Worker groups and diocesan peace and justice committees, Pax Christi, Evangelicals for Social Action, Sojourners and the Buddhist Vihara Society. Because the seamless-garment metaphor required constant explication in a secular society, the network now identifies itself as Consistent Life—an international network for peace, justice and life. In efforts to overcome media stereotypes of abortion opponents, Consistent Life has taken out advertisements in publications explaining the consistent ethic of life. Signers have included such prominent peace activists as Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Elizabeth McAlister and the late Philip Berrigan, Jim and Shelly Douglass, Joan Chittister, O.S.B., the late Eileen Egan, Jean Goss and Hildegard Goss-Mayr of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation; Bishops Thomas Gumbleton, Walter F. Sullivan and Raymond J. Hunthausen; the Nobel prize recipients Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel; and the high-profile theologians Harvey Cox and Stanley Hauerwas.
The Consistent Life network is mostly invisible to popular opinion, because the principle of nonviolence itself is neither recognized nor appreciated in American popular culture. Instances of particular protest against particular wars will receive attention in the media, but not the fundamental principle of pacifism—namely, the commitment to nonviolence. Indeed, no term and no principle is more alien to the nation state, especially in its foreign affairs, than nonviolence. Groups committed to nonviolence must mute and marginalize their radical principles in order to gain entry to the world of public opinion and commentary. Even in the churches, the early and strong biblical traditions showing that Christ taught nonviolence and his followers accepted it have been mostly marginalized.
Strategies for the Future
To unlink opposition to abortion from the center of the Republican Party establishment would mean, among other things, that the pro-life movement would become freer to renew its original moral intuition. In doing so, the movement would become more widely recognized and morally respected as promoting a consistent ethic of life. Such an ethic, based on the biblical values of nonviolence and equality, challenges all major and minor streams of American politics.
The telos—the underlying principle, the driving force and ultimate goal—of the movement opposing abortion is a commitment to life and a renewal of the commitment to nonviolence that characterized the first Christian disciples and many others after them. The 2008 election and its aftermath could prove to be the occasion for a pro-life return to its deepest moral insight: that a resort to violence in any dimension is a negation of the human good.
Listen to an interview with James R. Kelly.