Seven Answers to the ‘Pro-Lifers are just Pro-Birth’ Argument,” in his blog Shameless Popery. The essay offers rebuttals to a meme featuring the quote from Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, that I wrote of a couple of years ago. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Joe, who is a student at the Pontifical American College in Vatican City (and, I believe, should be coming up on his transitional diaconate this year). I earnestly commend the essay to your attention; it’s very well balanced in its treatment of the argument.
Supply and Demand
However, Joe’s essay did prompt me to do a little more drilling on the subject, to embrace a little more of the political context in which the argument arises. The recent elections brought to the surface a long-standing tension between two different camps within the pro-life movement, camps which I will for brevity’s sake call the supply-side and demand-side branches. While the meme Joe dissects arose in a pro-abortion context, the quote has also had currency among demand-side pro-lifers.
The supply-side pro-life camp, which we could also call the first-wave movement, is mostly concerned with the legality of abortion and euthanasia, along with some related issues such as assisted suicide, cloning, IVF, and contraception. Politically, they tend to be older and more conservative or right-wing libertarian. As Joe rightly points out, conservatives are more likely to donate time and money to support charitable causes than are liberals, so it’s not like they’re stingy. However, precisely because their politics are more conservative, their view of the scope of “pro-life” is, for want of a more charitable word, narrower. They highly resist the importation of other issues, such as Syrian refugees or undocumented immigrants, into the pro-life purview and refuse the creation of government intervention programs. Because their concern is mostly with the legal and political mechanisms permitting the “death industry” to exist, one can say they seek to shut off the supply.
By contrast, the demand-side camp or second-wave movement tends to be younger, as well as more moderate to liberal in their politics though less willing to affiliate with either party or identify with either ideology. The demand-siders recognize that economic and social issues often drive the choice for death; by addressing those issues, they seek to reduce the demand. For this reason, they’re more likely to support government intervention and more willing to pay the taxes required to support the efforts. The pro-life movement as a whole is concerned with what Vice-President Mike Pence called “[society’s] most vulnerable, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, and the unborn.” The second-wave movement, influenced by the consistent life ethic articulated most notably by Cdl. Joseph Bernardin and in St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, extends its recognition of vulnerability to immigrants, refugees, the homeless, and other socially marginalized people.[*]
Now, it should be obvious that, while demand is arguably the more important factor in economics, the presence of supply activates hidden (or potential) demand; as a consequence, both supply and demand must be treated to end the legal and cultural shelters of the “death industry”. And I’m afraid I may have given the false impression that the first wave doesn’t care about the demand while the second wave isn’t fussed about the supply.
However, the second wave’s extension of the pro-life scope to other vulnerabilities has led first-wavers to accuse them of being covert pro-choicers out to “kitchen sink” the movement to death by overloading it with “extraneous” issues. In response, the first-wavers’ refusal to acknowledge other vulnerabilities as legitimate pro-life issues has led second-wavers to accuse them of giving Republican politicians a pass on other legitimate concerns so long as said politicians wear the baby-feet pin on their lapels — they are “pro-birth but not pro-life”.
Which accusation came first, the kitchen sink or the pass? The answer to that chicken-and-egg question is irrelevant and unproductive. What is relevant is that the last election cycle intensified the disagreement between the supply- and demand-siders, particularly after the formal movement endorsed Donald Trump as its champion. And if there’s anything I disagree with in Joe’s analysis, it’s his contention that “the real debate is about the means, not the ends.” All too often, debates about the means reveal divergent views of the ends.
Differing on Means and Ends
For instance, let’s take education: Both liberal and conservative agree in principle that children should be educated. However:
- The conservative tends to consider education the responsibility of the parents as their personal investment in the child’s future, and therefore not a legitimate government interest. By contrast, the liberal considers education the responsibility of society as an investment in the society’s future and regards the government as society’s proxy.
- Moreover, the conservative tends to consider education a good, but not a right or an entitlement, and doesn’t consider equality of education outcomes a practical goal. The liberal holds children equally entitled to the same quality education and will support policies that boost the outcomes of the economically disadvantaged.
- In addition, despite their personal generosity in donating time and money to charities, conservatives tend to regard the right to own property as absolute and any tax increase as an encroachment of that right — even as a kind of theft. Liberals, on the other hand, don’t regard the right of property as absolute and tend to use the government to socialize the costs of their altruism; they tend to regard their willingness to pay higher taxes as a kind of self-sacrifice.
- Above all, both sides recognize that formal education reinforces desired community values. Liberals, therefore, push for programs that benefit public education, where they control the values agenda, while conservatives push for programs that benefit private education and homeschooling, where their values hold sway.
This is just a sample of how conservatives and liberals disagree not only about means but also about ends, particularly the telos, or final cause, of government. While demand-siders tend to avoid the “liberal” label, in many respects they’re alienated from the conservative viewpoint. Complicating the matter: while the second-wavers fully adopt the consistent life ethic and talk about building a “culture of life”, a handful of policy preferences and a handy catchphrase do not a coherent philosophy make.
Moreover, while the second wave is leaving old political alignments behind, it isn’t clear that they’ve shaken off the assumptions of classical liberalism — i.e., the autonomous individual making temporary “social contracts” based on self-interest and requiring laws enforced by a strong State to check his more destructive impulses. If not, then the consistent life ethic — indeed, the pro-life movement as a whole — is a healthy branch trying to graft itself onto a sick and dying tree. (See Patrick J. Deneen’s “Unsustainable Liberalism” for the full argument behind this.)
Sr. Joan’s Challenge
In summary: Most of Joe Heschmeyer’s rebuttal to the “‘pro-life’ is just ‘pro-birth’” argument is sane, logical, and charitable, and is as well directed at demand-side pro-lifers as it is against pro-aborts. However, his final argument — that the differences are over means rather than ends — is erroneous. Conservatives and liberals may hold a couple of premisses in common from classical liberalism; however, in many if not most respects, their world-views and value systems are as radically different as are charity and altruism. More importantly, because the liberal premisses they hold in common lead to a fatal contradiction and conflict — in Deneen’s words, “a future in which extreme license invites extreme oppression” — it is beyond the ability of either ideology to produce a “culture of life”.
At the root of it, while Sr. Joan’s words are unfair, uncharitable, fallacious, and inflammatory, the challenge they pose to the pro-life movement is undeniable: to be “pro-life” has to mean something more than that we want to prevent (some of) the vulnerable from being killed. For the “culture of life” to be more than a catchphrase, we must think through all the implications of what it means, how it would affect our social and economic lives, how it would be promoted, enacted, and sustained as a reality. In other words, the “culture of life” needs more than a few preferred policies dictated by one or the other of our ideologies — it must become an ideology in itself, with an articulated philosophical blueprint by which we can make it real.
And we need it quickly, before the internal logic of classical liberalism drives us through the gates of Dystopia.
[*] In a sense, to call demand-siders a “second wave” is a little misleading, as the consistent life ethic has had its advocates since Roe v. Wade. However, it’s the most significant difference between younger and older members of the pro-life movement.