When thousands gather today in Washington to march to the steps of the Supreme Court, the Pro-lifers will be confirming what has in many people’s minds become a stereotype. Pro-life has become synonymous with “anti-abortion.” There are those who are trying to rebrand the Pro-life movement by imaginatively calling it the New Pro Life Movement by providing a more “consistent-life ethic” to other issues, especially those related to abortion. Whether or not the rebranding of the movement will be better only time will tell, but they may not be addressing the larger issue.
Pro-life might be the only positive word (the Pro part) that has a negative definition. The Pro-life Movement is more like a protest group defined by what it is against. The problem is that when you define yourself solely as against something, the enemy of your enemy becomes your friend. As we are learning with the new administration it can make for interesting bedfellows.
The anti-X label follows Pro-lifers wherever they go and they self-identify with those labels. They might like the sound of Pro-life better than “anti-abortion” from a public relations standpoint, but can they define themselves positively?
Pro-lifers could say “we are for life.” But their work doesn’t necessarily set them apart from any other group that is concerned with the just treatment of society’s most vulnerable, including those in the womb and approaching death. Pro-lifers define themselves as against abortion, euthanasia, abject poverty, and the like. Anyone who is Pro-life should oppose those things. But you don’t need to be Pro-life to oppose them so much as pro-justice. A just society may eliminate all those things and yet still not be Pro-life. Pro-life must mean more than just obtaining justice for the weak, even if it most definitely includes those things.
Catholic Pro-lifers often speak more generally in terms of the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death. Pro-lifers favor the former over the latter. Over the past few weeks leading up to the March for Life I have heard these terms, Culture of Death and Culture of Life, invoked any number of times in Catholic circles. But I have yet to hear them described in the manner that John Paul II did—namely as a battle between a culture that is designed to encourage spiritual death and one in which earthly life is “a penultimate reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters” (Evangelium Vitae, 2).
Being Pro-life means first and foremost about caring about the spiritual welfare of each person in society. They are not only concerned about the welfare of the child in the womb, but the spiritual well-being of the mother. They are not only concerned with the life of the elderly, but that they are given an opportunity to die in a manner that increases their dignity. They are concerned not just with the plight of the destitute, but the spiritual dangers faced by the rich. In other words, Pro-life means caring about the eternal welfare of all those involved—both victim and perpetrator.
In a society that is marked by its materialism, Pro-lifers often forget this and only focus on the material well-being of the person without any reference to their spiritual health. Without making this distinction, the Pro-life movement could ultimately get burned. For example, how many people identify themselves as Pro-life and still support contraception? Whether or not availability of contraception reduces the number of abortions is an ancillary consideration. They are both fruits plucked from the tree of the Culture of Death. This is not to say that they carry the same moral gravity—only that they equally have the ability to kill the soul.
“Kill the soul?” I mean this not so much in the sense of judgment and heaven and hell (although that may be part of it) but in their innate capacity to kill men and women interiorly by wounding their ability to give and receive love (i.e. in JPII’s words above, “brought to perfection in love”).
This is also why Pro-lifers must be slower to hail President Trump as some sort of long awaited Messiah. This is where the distinction between pro-justice and Pro-life is important. We can applaud his working for justice for the unborn, but that does not make him Pro-life. He will have to show himself to be concerned with promoting an atmosphere in which he makes being the “pursuit of happiness” (happiness in the classical sense that that Jefferson meant—namely a life of virtue) easier. The best measure of a good leader of men is always how morally good the people are that he leads.
All of this is not to reduce the work of things like the March for Life. They are a vital part of what it means to be Pro-life. You cannot change laws or change hearts, but change hearts to change laws and change laws to change hearts. Think of how the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was a vital piece of the Civil Rights Movement. The law is a great moral teacher and it forms the minds and hearts of the citizenry. Good laws make it easier to take things like the value of human life for granted and then form your opinions based on that. Roe v Wade did not invoke the Culture of Death, but was a sign of its presence already among us. Removing it would not mean that the Culture of Death was in its final throes. Overturning Roe v Wade would be victory but only of a battle and not the war. If Pro-lifers are to be active participants in that war, then we must make sure we have our marching orders correct—“to build a culture that is designed to encourage the pursuit of eternal life.”