The Pro-Life Movement
May 25, 2020
One of the most important social and political questions of our generation is the abortion debate. This issue is especially relevant to the Cistercian community which, I am proud to say, has been a vocal proponent of Christian morality for longer than I’ve been alive. However, the pro-life movement could accomplish so much more if it extended its focus beyond abortion alone and tried to address some of the root causes of abortion as well. This broader scope, a focus on an overall more just society, could do wonders for this country and its moral compass. First, pro-lifers are obviously not a monolith. When I mention “the pro-life movement,” I realize I am simplifying all the differing individual perspectives within the movement into the public face of the movement as depicted at major events such as the March for Life. Also, I don’t mean to minimize the very tangible and profoundly positive impact that the pro-life movement has had on many women across the country. I simply think that this impact can be even greater.
A core problem with the contemporary pro-life movement lies not with its goals, but rather the means by which it tries to achieve those goals. The ultimate purpose of the movement is, of course, to end abortion. This goal is a noble one, and pro-lifers seek to accomplish it by shutting down all abortion clinics nationwide. However, this fails to take into account both the illegal abortions that would still take place, as well as the pressures that many women face that might lead them to consider abortion as their only option. If a woman is faced with (in her eyes) the impossibly heavy consequences of raising a child given her current circumstances, then by comparison, a perhaps difficult trip to a foreign country to get access to an abortion will still be an option that seems reasonable to her at that moment and so she will seek it out. Remember, we’re trying to eliminate this evil entirely, not force it to a different country. While criminalizing abortion in the United States would soothe our collective conscience, knowing that the state is doing all it can to end the practice, it doesn’t actually stop the problem. Some may think that, if a woman takes it upon herself to flee to Mexico to get her abortion, this is tragic, but there’s nothing more we could have done to stop her. This is not true. A more effective approach would be to also tackle the causes of abortions. In other words, the solution to abortion involves not just banning it outright, but improving those material conditions which drive women to seek it. This way, not just the ability, but the motivation to get an abortion will be gone.
In a 2005 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, 73% of the women surveyed said that their inability to afford a baby was a decisive factor in their choice to abort their child. The Guttmacher Institute also found in a 2016 study that nearly three quarters of women who receive abortions are of a low socioeconomic status, and 49% lie below the federal poverty line. It should be noted that the Guttmacher Institute seeks to defend abortion rights, but their figures and statistics, which are highly regarded by people on both sides of the debate, remain the most accurate on public record. Glen Harold Stassen, an ethics professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and an opponent to abortion, said regarding the Institute: “I affirm their methods and their study, and am grateful for their effort.” Babies are expensive, and while their lives hold infinite God-given value, it is undeniable that they can be a significant economic burden on a new mother. You can’t put a price on life, but the Department of Agriculture estimates that raising a child from birth through age 17 costs around $233,000, or around $14,000 annually. That’s not considering the cost of actually having the baby, which is, on average, upwards of $10,000. As the median annual income in the United States hovers around $30,000, it’s not hard to see why some women view the choice not as abortion or child, but as abortion or destitution (for both her and her newborn baby). New mothers don’t receive much help, either. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 mandated that new mothers receive 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Compare that to the 8 weeks of paid leave and up to 52 weeks of total leave offered by the United Kingdom’s NHS. Ideally, no woman should suffer from such financial insecurity, but with resource distribution as lopsided as it is, that’s the reality.
There’s also the legal ramifications of poverty. The Institute for Policy Studies reports that “poor people, especially people of color, face a greater risk of being fined, arrested, and even incarcerated for minor offenses than other Americans. A broken taillight, an unpaid parking ticket, a minor drug offense, sitting on a sidewalk, or sleeping in a park can result in jail time.” Seeking to avoid homelessness, poverty, and incarceration, women may feel trapped and view abortion as the only way out. If all life from birth until natural death is truly valued in this country, then such predatory justice and healthcare systems would not be tolerated. In summary, the economic factors that contribute to abortions also contribute to many other evils. If the root of these issues were addressed, it would be a massive victory for the pro-life movement. It would be a victory for life in general.
Another significant roadblock for progress with the pro-life community is its political alignment within the (unfortunately) partisan era we live in today. Generally, pro-lifers hold allegiance to the right wing, whose strictly anti-abortion stance effectively compels most Christians to vote Republican, lest their tax dollars go towards Planned Parenthood. This is understandable. Yes – the Democratic Party platform definitely is anti-life, but there is ample evidence of policy standards by both parties that could be called anti-life. One need not look further than GOP Congressman Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana, who explicitly called loss of life due to COVID-19 “the lesser of two evils” when compared to the economy failing. President Trump himself has made it clear that he wishes to remove quarantine orders for the sake of the stock market. There’s also the ICE border detention camps, which have become extremely dangerous because of their cramped conditions and the current pandemic. Even before then, the camps were a rather barbaric institution that were still fervently defended by the right wing. Republicans are traditionally supporters of the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex, two constructs which have done more to diminish the value of life in America than any abortion clinic could do. The Republican party’s determination to end abortion is admirable, but why isn’t this same stubborn, uncompromisingly pro-life energy extended to protesting assassinations of foreign leaders, civilian drone strikes, private prisons, and capital punishment? To be clear, Democrats are also pretty anti-life. Even beyond abortion, they support many of the same things I mention with Republicans (Soleimani’s assassination, private prisons, etc.). As Ralph Nader said, “…the Democratic and Republican parties [are] two apparently distinct political entities feeding at the same corporate trough.” Capturing the nuance of this is impossible in a relatively brief high school newspaper article, and I understand the moral dilemma that voters find themselves in when they go to vote. The way things are today, the two-party system offers Christian voters no real solutions. Perhaps we should be thinking about alternatives to electoral politics, but that’s another discussion.
It cannot be stressed enough that I do not wish for the pro-life movement to cease its valuable work. Rather, I urge everyone that calls themselves pro-life to take a more comprehensive view of what it means to be an advocate for life, and address the root of the problem rather than a symptom. While the battle for a more just society may seem at times a losing one, I find myself coming back to one of the more optimistic verses in the Bible: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11. Amen.