What does it mean to be "pro-life"? For some, the term is understood very narrowly as the opposition to abortion, particularly through legal sanction. Others are committed to reducing the number of abortions, truly making them rare, but favor policies that don’t criminalize abortion—and prosecute women and/or their doctors—to do so. And as U.S. Catholic’s Heidi Schlumpf explains in this article, many people, on both sides of the legality question, see a genuinely pro-life stance as one that embraces respect for the human person at every stage—a position that’s hard to find in today’s polarized politics, and one that cries out for broad (and civil) dialogue across our various divides. —The Editors
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It’s an election year, and once again Jennifer Roth is wondering if she might as well flip a coin. The 31-year-old systems administrator is one of those "swing voters" who could go either way—a demographic highly coveted by both Democrats and Republicans as the key to winning in 2004. But neither the Dems nor the GOP does much to inspire or excite Roth.
The problem? Roth is a self-described liberal on nearly all issues except one: Abortion. It’s a view that she—and countless other "pro-life progressives"—finds entirely consistent. "In my view liberalism is all about looking out for the little guy, the people who don’t have power, money, or protection," she says.
But where does that leave her when it comes to the political process? Well, left out—not coincidentally, "Leftout" is the name of the Web site (not affiliated with a faith perspective) that Roth created in 1997 as a "haven for progressive pro-lifers" to help them "feel a little less like the only Martian on your block." The community created by "Leftout" has perhaps helped alleviate that sense of isolation, but it hasn’t exactly resulted in an explosion of pro-life progressive candidates on U.S. ballots.
So pro-life progressives are forced to make compromises, often major ones. In some elections, Roth has voted for a write-in candidate as a protest. Other years, she shops around for a moderate Republican or a Democrat who’s at least open to seriously considering the abortion issue. When in doubt, she tends toward the Democratic Party, believing its social agenda is more likely to decrease the social and economic pressure that leads to abortion.
"I don’t think it’s an accident that the abortion rate went up under Reagan and Bush but went down under Clinton," she says. "We have to integrate parenthood and school or parenthood and work to relieve some of the social and economic pressures that make abortion feel like the only choice."
Having to compromise by voting for a less-than-fully-pro-life candidate may not be ideal for socially conscious Christians, but it is unfortunately the reality in American politics. "In a perfect world, all public officials would be pro-life in the full meaning of that term," says Tom Allio, senior director for the Cleveland Diocese’s Social Action Office. In his 27 years in that position, he has yet to meet a candidate who fits that bill.
Being a fully pro-life candidate, according to Allio and others, doesn’t mean just promising to work to make abortion illegal, supporting laws against certain procedures, or pledging to pack the Supreme Court to one day overturn Roe vs. Wade. (And for some, it means using methods other than legal sanctions to reduce abortions.) While some pro-life politicians take the so-called "seamless garment" approach, adding assisted suicide, the death penalty, and perhaps stem-cell research to the abortion issue, progressive pro-lifers tend to see the issue even more broadly than that.
"To be pro-life means also to work to eradicate poverty, to provide universal health care, to provide affordable housing, to be consistent on war and peace," says Allio, whose office works on precisely those issues.
OVER AT THE DIOCESE of Davenport, Iowa, Dan Ebener heads up a similar social action office—and the pro-life office as well. The doubled job is not the result of budget cutbacks but rather an intentional effort by the diocese to link the pro-life issue with broader social ones.
"Catholic social teaching values the life and dignity of the human person. And you can’t separate the life and the dignity; they go together," Ebener says. That means considering not only abortion but also poverty, health care, and joblessness.
"To me it’s important to defend life where it’s most vulnerable, and certainly life in the womb is vulnerable," he says. "But protecting human life from abortion is only one way of protecting life in the womb." To Ebener, issues such as prenatal health care, job training for unemployed mothers, and day care for working mothers are as essential to a pro-life agenda as is fighting abortion.
It is on precisely those other issues that the Republican Party—typically seen as more "pro-life"—loses its credibility among progressive pro-lifers. A common summary of the GOP’s philosophy by its opponents is that Republicans only care about the baby in utero. After birth, mom and baby are on their own.
"Republicans who claim to be pro-life also often have anti-life policies that are completely in collusion with the social and economic structures that compel abortion," says Kevin Clarke, editor of Salt of the Earth, a Catholic social justice e-zine.
Not only do Republicans have a spotty, at best, record on the broader social issues that contribute to abortion, they also have accomplished little on the promises they do make, leading some to wonder if they’re not all talk, little action.
"The Republican approach to abortion makes for a nice election issue," says Ebener. "We hear a lot of rhetoric, but when it comes to actually taking action, what has happened in the last three years with a Republican Senate and White House?"
With the partial-birth abortion ban, which took nearly a decade to pass, as this administration’s only pro-life accomplishment, Ebener is not impressed—especially since it was accompanied by plenty of other "anti-life" legislation such as social spending cuts paired with tax cuts for the wealthy.
Yet most pro-life groups working primarily to end abortion tend to side with the Republican Party, if for no other reason than at least they’re saying the right things. Republicans also tend to share pro-life activists’ worldview that rallies against the prevailing secular "culture of death."
But many pro-life progressives find fault with such a single-issue focus, especially when religious organizations use that issue as a litmus test for everything from deciding who can speak at parishes and schools to withholding the sacraments from politicians.
"We are not a single-issue church," says Allio. "Anyone who would say one issue is all the litmus test that’s needed is being guided by something other than Catholic social teaching. Our church does not keep a voters’ scorecard."
The U.S. Catholic bishops’ recent statement "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility" definitely incorporates the broader scope of those teachings. Still, the misperception persists that Catholics must vote for self-described "pro-life" candidates, thanks in part to pro-life activists who imply that those who don’t vote for these candidates are somehow not "pro-life." Allio also believes it’s a myth that the key to the Catholic vote is a hard-line opposition to abortion, citing an ABC/Beliefnet poll that shows only 19 percent of Catholics believe abortion should be illegal in all cases.
ON THE OTHER side of the aisle, progressive pro-lifers also have a problem, albeit a different one. "The Democrats have really sold out. They have no credibility on the pro-life issue," says Ebener of Davenport, who like many regrets that the party that pledges to protect the little guy doesn’t include the littlest of all—the unborn.
"It’s just a real shame this issue has been hijacked," says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, an organization for pro-life Dems who oppose abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia.
The Democrats have reframed the issue as one of "choice," seeing themselves as feminists committed to rights for women. It doesn’t help when some adamant pro-lifers come off as caring more about the baby’s rights than about those of the mother. But plenty of progressive pro-lifers put themselves solidly in the feminist camp, and they believe that abortion has not exactly been a positive thing for women.
"We have to make a better case for why abortion is not a good choice for women, why it is not liberating for women, why it actually oppresses women," says Clarke of Salt of the Earth. "By focusing only on whether abortion is legal or not, we ignore all the other cultural structures that drive women toward abortion."
To hear the pro-choice lobby talk, it would seem the only choice in an unplanned pregnancy is abortion. Pro-life feminists and other pro-life progressives, on the other hand, would like to offer women real choices—economic ones like paid parenting leave or cultural ones like less shame and guilt for pregnant teens.
Another group lacking in real choices are pro-life Democrats, who seemingly are pressured by the party to get in line with the pro-choice position. The near unanimity of the pro-choice view within the Democratic Party was evidenced this year by the presidential primary options: Not one was pro-life, in the narrowest sense of the term. (Richard Gephardt did vote for the partial birth abortion ban.)
Even Dennis Kucinich, who previously had included defense for unborn life among his liberal agenda, flip-flopped on the issue. He’s not the only one: The list of formerly pro-life Democrats includes Jesse Jackson, Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and Vice President Al Gore.
Those Democrats who stick to their pro-life beliefs—many are on the Democrats for Life advisory board—face marginalization and even outright opposition. Not much has changed since the late Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Robert Casey, as the head of the fifth-largest state in the nation, was twice denied permission to address the Democratic Convention because of his pro-life views. Even today, Democrats for Life has not yet convinced the Democratic National Committee to link them to the DNC Web site.
Some think that the amount of pressure brought to bear on Democrats belies the diversity of views within the party. "It’s telling," says Roth of "Leftout." "And it’s got to crash eventually."
Given the limitations of each party, it’s hard to blame pro-life progressives’ temptation to stay home and throw their hands up in frustration. Polls show that a sizeable number of pro-life Democrats voted for Bush in 2000, although few expect a repeat of that in 2004, given other issues such as the economy and the war in Iraq.
Most will have to make a compromise decision they can live with. "The perfect candidate doesn’t exist," says Allio. "Therefore the best a [Christian] voter can do is become fully informed and make the best prudential judgment they can."
Meanwhile, both the pro-life and pro-choice lobbies continue with their all-or-nothing rhetoric that further polarizes the debate—and politicians pander to their constituents on either side. "In an election year the abortion issue is used in such a targeted way to solidify one’s base, whether it’s pro-life or pro-choice," says Allio. "That just doesn’t do justice to the problem."
He and other pro-life progressives believe any solution must begin with finding some common ground between the two sides. Religious progressives who are pro-life are the perfect people to start that conversation, Allio believes, because they have solid pro-life credentials as well as contacts in the secular liberal community because of their work on other justice issues.
Clarke agrees: "The one thing we could do is to reintroduce a respectful dialogue on abortion into the political culture," he says. "We have to develop a way to talk about this issue where we’re not at each other’s throats."
While politicians continue with business as usual, many pro-life progressives are looking for solutions outside electoral politics. "Part of a pro-life philosophy ought to be creating an alternative to abortion and helping women who find themselves in a ‘problem’ pregnancy," says Allio.
Roth of "Leftout" dreams of creating a kind of "pro-life Planned Parenthood," where sex education, contraception, and counseling would be available without promoting abortion. She’d like to see pro-life progressives think proactively and creatively rather than just complain about their lack of political choices.
"If Roe [vs. Wade] were overturned tomorrow, I think we would see at least another 32 years of wrangling about abortion," Roth says. "Because it wouldn’t be by a consensus that the unborn have value. That’s what we really need."
Heidi Schlumpf was managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine in Chicago when this article appeared.