Various formulations of the “you’re not pro-life unless…” argument are regularly employed to dilute the claims of those against abortion. Opponents take pleasure in listing a variety of issues in which pro-lifers are allegedly inconsistent. They contend that to use the descriptor “pro-life,” one must consistently support policies and causes that promote human flourishing “from womb-to-tomb.” To do otherwise is to solely be anti-abortion, or more crudely, “pro-birth.”
At first glance, this logic appears somewhat reasonable. If I were to have a philosophical debate with a friend and he were to ask me what a lived, pro-life societal ethic looked like, my response would be to detail a list of practices consistent with the value of human life. When considered within the context of the argument above, however, its force against the pro-life individual begins to substantially break down. If my friend were to instead ask for my position on abortion, the contextual significance of the term “pro-life” would substantially change. We would be discussing “life” against the backdrop of a specific issue.
Many individuals fail to shift through the contextual nuances of this conversation. “Pro-life,” when qualified by its contrast to the “pro-choice” position, stands to challenge what many strongly consider to be a morally egregious practice. It affirms the dignity of the unborn life in the face of death. This position is primarily concentrated on the broader conversation of abortion policy and not, for example, immigration law or the death penalty.
To further illustrate this point, take the phrase “pro-choice.” Stripped of its political meaning, this slogan might convey a moral leniency for any kind of individual choice. In its proper context, however, most progressives would promptly tell you “pro-choice” is primarily focused on preserving a woman’s bodily autonomy–more specifically, the right to have an abortion. It would be absurd to critique Planned Parenthood for not servicing clients with grocery items and sports gear. Within the context of the discussion, “choice” is narrowly defined.
As another example, consider the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Activists believe that the phrase “All Lives Matter” fails to understand why the movement emphasizes black Americans. Their focus is to cast light on injustices against a particular group of people–a purposefully narrow objective.
The pro-life movement is singularly focused as well. Though its members differ on a multitude of issues, everyone agrees that abortion is the systemic killing of innocent unborn human life. “Pro-life” in the context of this mass injustice involves any policy or action that promotes the well-being of the lives affected by abortion.
In response to this political orientation, the “you’re not pro-life” argument focuses more on the character of those advocating for the unborn and less on the substance of what they say. Do pro-life individuals lack compassion on every other issue simply because they choose to focus on abortion, perhaps one of the greatest human right violations of our lifetime? Of course not, but in an age of toxic partisanship it is certainly easy to believe so.
Many will vindictively claim that “pro-life” is really just a codeword for “pro-birth,” but this objection ignores the vast amount of work to the contrary. Prominent voices within the pro-life movement advocate for comprehensive policies addressing the needs of both the woman and the child. It is not hard to find extensive networks and organizations dedicated to this cause.
Advocates for the pro-life position should be wary of making “you’re not pro-life unless…” arguments. While it is certainly essential that we communicate a consistent value for human life, doing so need not dilute the contextual power of the pro-life position. “Pro-life” cannot mean a focus on every societal ill at the expense of the unborn. Advocates must use their limited resources effectively. Failure to do so in favor of other causes will as Scott Klusendorf stated in The Gospel Coalition, “kill the pro-life movement.”
If the pro-life position is to endure, it must stay resolute and determined. We cannot let it be redefined.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.