What is “Pro-Life”?

Why do "seamless garment" Catholics tend toward views like those of the soft secular left, while those who focus on core life issues are more likely to be active in the pro-life movement?

In America, “pro-life“ mostly means “anti-abortion.“ The name helps counter the “pro-choice“ brand and emphasize the positive concerns at stake. It also supports closely-related concerns such as euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and various reproductive technologies.

But should a pro-life movement be broader than that? After all, the name suggests issues that are not medical or categorically resolved for Catholics by basic moral teaching, but nonetheless have to do with human life either directly—war, capital punishment—or in a broader sense that could ultimately include anything that makes life better or more secure.

But that raises a serious problem. Abortion is direct intentional destruction of innocent human life, and people who view its acceptance as an obvious horrific evil naturally want cooperation among those who oppose it but differ on other questions. But if the issue is life in general, then the “seamless garment“ approach makes it impossible to put other issues aside, and the united front disintegrates.

For example, bungled foreign policy can mean war, terrorism, disease, and famine, and bad social policy can lead to misery that drives some to abortion and others to an early grave. So maybe foreign and social policy should be viewed as life issues, and people with incorrect views placed outside the pro-life camp.

But what views should be treated as correct? Many people think the answer is obvious. Current political discussion favors social engineering, which seems to call for a global structure that supervises human life top to bottom to ensure all human needs are satisfied and all disputes settled peacefully. Many people who identify themselves politically by reference to peace and justice favor policies—internationalism abroad, expanded welfare state at home—that point toward such a system. Some even deny the good faith of pro-lifers who reject the approach.

But is that right? Bureaucratic supervision of outcomes disrupts individual and local self-organization. As the history of socialism shows, that leads to poverty and social degradation. And attempts to establish comprehensive global structures—that is to say, multinational empires on a very large scale—tend to fail, creating conflict, repression, and chaos along the way, because people are different, want different things, and above all want to do things their own way. For examples, consider the recent history of Iraq, or of the lands formerly ruled by the Russian Czars.

So there’s no obvious right way to deal with basic social issues. Would energetically progressive social policies make life better, so that social stress and therefore abortion would plummet? To me it seems unlikely: more likely they’d eventually lead to something like the violent English underclass Theodore Dalrymple describes. Other people have other ideas about how society works, though, and I can’t say they’re anti-life.

The problem is that politics is the ordering of our common life, so all political issues are life issues in a broad sense. And since everyone believes his own political position best promotes the human good, and thus the point of human life, he views it as the true pro-life position. A social Darwinist, for example, would say that evolution by natural selection has made life what it is today, which is a lot better than it was during the Precambrian Era. So if you don’t like abortion, and think it’s at odds with the system of life, the best thing to do—he might argue—is let pro-lifers multiply and pro-choicers abort themselves to extinction.

For me, such considerations indicate that we should let the pro-life movement remain what it is, a movement opposing direct intentional termination of innocent human life in medical settings. That issue and closely related ones are important enough to deserve their own movement, one that lets those who agree on them come together to fight the good fight even though their views differ widely in other ways.

That said, the life issues are indeed part of a seamless garment. The question of abortion, for example, touches on the nature of sex and family, male and female, and the relative value of equality, autonomy, career, duty, human relationship, and life as such. Those issues can’t be dealt with apart from an overall vision of human nature and the good life. However such matters may appear to others, the Catholic vision must be comprehensively pro-life. As Jesus said, “I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.“

But problems remain. What is the understanding of life that the fight against abortion should, for Catholics, be part of? And how it it to be furthered in the world around us? Everyone has his own ideas, but two main tendencies seem clear.

People who emphasize the seamless garment tend toward views like those of the soft secular left—environmentalism, inclusiveness, welfare programs, foreign aid, international organizations, effectively open borders—but with a concern for reducing abortion added in. For many the reduction is expected to follow automatically from increased respect for human life and reduced numbers of women forced into abortion resulting from the other policies. More active measures, such as criminalization, are mostly not emphasized.

People who focus on core life issues rather than seamless garment talk are more likely to be active in the pro-life movement, to volunteer at crisis pregnancy centers, and to insist abortion should be treated as a crime. They are also more likely to favor patriotism and private enterprise over internationalism and the welfare state, and to doubt the claimed benefits of immigration, environmentalism, and inclusiveness.

Commentators are convinced the split makes no sense. After all, if you believe in peace and justice you ought to take protecting the unborn seriously, and if you want to protect the weak and vulnerable in the womb, why not in the world at large? But high-minded efforts to unite the two sides get nowhere. Evidently, commentators are missing something. But what?

At bottom, the problem is that modern thought can’t make sense of human beings. In its dominant scientific form it presents man as active and autonomous, for example as the scientific investigator, but also as the object of scientific investigation, and thus as a passive object of manipulation. The two views can’t be reconciled, but both seem necessary for modern natural science.

The divided view of man causes problems in politics. To govern, man must be free, active, and law-giving, but to be governed he must be subject to control. The most obvious political interpretation of the modern scientific outlook, then, is to make some men free and active rulers and others passive, rule-bound subjects. Bureaucratic experts should deliberate and command, the rest of us hear and obey.

The arrangement is morally inadequate. Human dignity depends on freedom, so it seems we all should all be free and not just a small governing class. Even so, control is necessary. Contemporary liberal thought tries to solve the problem by making us free but ineffectual. It tells us we can do whatever we want, so we’re free, but our actions should be deprived of effect, so they affect other people and even our own well-being as little as possible. If something goes wrong, it can then be treated as a failure of social engineering. The demands of human dignity and a scientific approach to life are thus satisfied simultaneously—or so it is thought.

But that too seems inadequate. How free can we be if we’re part of a system that deprives our choices of significance? And is an approach in which people don’t take responsibility actually going to work? So liberalism has provoked contemporary conservatism, which views us as active and effective but subject to rules. It tells us that we should look out for ourselves and those for whom we are responsible in accordance with settled duties, and if we fail the consequences are ours to deal with.

The effect overall is that we have a scientific view that can’t make sense of human life at all, a liberal view that slights human responsibility, and a conservative view that lacks a good understanding of human weakness and suffering. We also have various mixed or nonconforming views—distributism, for example—that lack the coherent public presence needed for effectiveness.

The result is a political order inadequate to human nature, and arguments between liberals and conservatives over abortion reflect that. The way to something better lies deeper than politics, in a fundamental transformation of life and thought based on a better understanding of man. That transformation, which would—among other things—make the life issues truly part of a seamless garment, is the most important goal of Catholic social action.

About James Kalb 67 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).