What Does It Mean to Be ‘Pro-Life’?
Would it surprise you to learn that when I describe myself as a pro-lifer, I don’t think it particularly matters what I believe about the legality of abortion? Well, it’s true. In my two opinion posts on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I argued from a pro-life perspective, but the legal battle over abortion is not a priority for me. I believe I have the right to wear the pro-life label, no matter what my position is on the legal issues, because I walked the talk as a nineteen-year-old and because I consistently advocate a life-affirming message.
Perhaps it’s battle fatigue. Like many others, I’m tired of the culture wars and the way they’ve turned friends and family members off to the gospel. Some of the people I love most in this world have either had abortions or have participated in abortion decisions and I increasingly don’t want to be associated with rhetoric that hurts them. Conversely, I hope they don’t want to be associated with unkind, unfair, and untrue rhetoric that hurts me.
I know the legal fight is important, but it’s not one I’ve engaged in other than as a writer (occasionally) and a voter. I’ve never protested at an abortion clinic, attended the annual March for Life in Washington D.C., or volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center. I have taught a life skills class to teen moms at an alternative public school though.
When I interviewed a group of Catholic pro-life college students at the Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-minded Words: A Conference on Life and Choice in the Abortion Debate at Princeton University in 2010, I could not relate at all to their passion for the legal fight. I could, however, entirely relate to conference organizer and Fordham University ethicist Charles Camosy’s goal of finding areas of common ground with abortion rights activists. (Check out his five tips for creating civil discourse in an age of polarization here.)
What it means for me to be a pro-lifer now is to be an advocate for a comprehensive ethic of life, one that spans from womb to tomb, from conception to natural death. It includes issues like healthcare and immigration reform, extreme poverty, euthanasia, and more.
Ever since my son died by suicide, my first pro-life priority has been suicide prevention. That’s why I was so glad to read that Tony Cornelius, the son of the late Soul Train founder and host Don Cornelius, has launched a suicide prevention foundation in memory of his father. “This is a huge, huge issue and it’s an issue that has a veil of shame over it. People are still very uncomfortable with who’s talking about suicide,” Cornelius told EURweb. “Breast cancer at one time was something that was under the table. Women didn’t want to discuss it. AIDS was something that was under the table. No one wanted to discuss it. I mean I think this is an opportunity to bring this to the surface.” That’s a pro-life message, if ever I heard one.
I’m also glad to hear pro-lifers like the Rev. James Martin advocating for stricter gun control laws in response to the Aurora shooting. (There’s common ground to be had here too, according to Craig C. Whitney, author of forthcoming book, Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.) Like me, Martin believes in a “consistent ethic of life.” Writing at the Catholic weekly America about abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and poverty, he said, “All of these issues, at their heart, are about the sanctity of all human life, no matter who that person is, no matter at what stage of life that person is passing through, and no matter whether or not we think that the person is ‘deserving’ of life.”
In an email exchange with Religion News Service reporter David Gibson, Russell D. Moore, dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued that “we ought not to let the term ‘pro-life’ become so elastic as to lose all meaning.” He charged that “in most cases, the expansion of ‘pro-life’ is a way to divert attention from the question of personhood and human rights.” I disagree. Just as the gospel message speaks to all of life, so too a pro-life ethic can and should be all-encompassing.