The March for Life has just passed. The shouts, chantings, and ever-creative handmade signs are still vivid in many minds, images redolent with pro-life enthusiasm. I’ve been to the March several times, and in other years have assisted spiritually from a distance. Every year, I see much that’s beautiful and inspiring—many souls full of dedication, courage, and love, giving me hope for the advancement of the “culture of life.” Of course, these folks’ actions aren’t limited to the penultimate week of January; they’re at work all year.
Unfortunately, I’ve also seen much less encouraging things within the pro-life crowd. The desire to save the unborn, noble as it is, can become so consuming that it blinds one to other persons in need, who also deserve concern and help, and to evils in the world or in oneself. Furthermore, when passion is not purified and directed, it easily degenerates into hate and vitriol. Demonizing those who support abortion becomes too easy a temptation. Politics, ever a divisive and emotional subject, explodes into the discussions. Too often, it’s not long before those who should be friends or at least allies end up turning on each other.
Need this be so? Of course not. We are called to defend life—but not by doing the things just described. It’s not hard to see that this kind of behavior is really detrimental to the pro-life movement.
Thus, we might benefit from considering: what does it really mean to be pro-life?
A Definition for “Pro-Life”
First, one crucial note: it means more than just being anti-abortion. It certainly does mean that, but cannot be reduced to that, any more than being pro-America means being only anti-terrorist. Abortion is wrong because it violates a positive principle—respect for human dignity—and that is what needs to be kept at the center.
Based on this last idea, then, I propose that being truly pro-life means A) believing in and respecting the dignity of the human person and B) acting on this attitude in one’s day-to-day life and interactions and, where possible, one’s social and political life.
To flesh this out a bit, let’s look at some specific implications.
Upholding the Dignity of All Human Beings
This principle has a wide range of potential actions: supporting the missions, doing volunteer work for the poor, visiting a shut-in, caring for an infirm or elderly relative, or extending kind welcome to immigrants. Most of us are seldom put in the position of defending someone from kidnapping, rape, or murder; however, if we are, the same principle applies. Many programs have been instituted expressly to support the dignity of some vulnerable group.
Listing every possible example would take too long, but the fundamental idea is simple. Every person deserves to be treated with care and respect. We are obliged, in justice, to work so that everyone may be able to live a life of peace and dignity, with special attention to the suffering and vulnerable, who most need help.
On the political level, we must do what we can to support legislation that upholds this goal, and to oppose what would detract from it. In this and any sphere of social life, we must do our best to counter, or at least not help, those who are violating the rights of the poor or weak—even if it seems that collaborating or giving in to such evils will somehow advance the battle against abortion. We may not do evil so that good may result, nor betray our principles in one area in order to advance them in another.
Why is all this necessary for being truly pro-life? If we are defenders of human dignity, we cannot pick and choose. What we are working to establish is a culture that values every person, in which no one is trampled or disregarded. The principles that we advance, the same that would protect the unborn, also oblige us to care about everyone whose dignity is compromised or threatened. This is not to say that no one should make combating abortion his chief apostolate, but we must not allow that to make us forget about others’ needs.
Courtesy in Word and Deed
Part of upholding people’s dignity is to treat them with courtesy. Valuing persons doesn’t just mean not physically harming them; it means approaching them in a way that shows our respect for them. Jesus Himself categorized verbal abuse under the fifth commandment: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you . . . whoever says ‘You fool’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna” (Matthew 5:21-22). After all, vicious speech is a form of violence.
Of course, this means graciousness toward family and friends, even if they don’t always reciprocate. It also means that all pro-lifers must strive for the utmost charity in their interactions with each other, even if they differ in some of their other convictions. If we are to demonstrate that we believe in respect for every person, we must first prove it in how we treat one another.
Charity seems particularly necessary in online discussions. When one is only interacting with a screen, instead of being in someone else’s physical presence, it’s easier both to misinterpret the tone of the other person’s words and to exercise less restraint with one’s own. Because the abortion issue is an especially emotional one, tempers often flare quickly when that subject is in discussion or dispute.
The too-frequent result is that pro-lifers hurl worse insults than “you fool” even at each other. When this happens, their passion for their cause, though good in itself, has degenerated into an evil opposed to that very passion. The nastiness that happens in so many comment boxes, Facebook threads, etc., is contrary to reverence for human beings, and thus to the pro-life spirit.
On a more challenging level, we also need to show charity to those who support abortion. Obviously, we disagree with them, and should not be timid about doing so, but we should express ourselves with courtesy as well as conviction—not only because this is the only way we can hope to change their minds, but because they too are persons and deserve to be treated with respect.
This aspect of the pro-life spirit can be the hardest to practice, especially when someone else is being rude or unpleasant. No saint myself, I know well how easy returning “fire for fire” can be. However, since this attitude of respect is so crucial, we can’t let the difficulty discourage us. Sometimes the most intense, and most important, battles are waged inside ourselves. “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32).
In some cases, especially this one, we can only hope for external victories once the internal ones have been achieved. Before we can tell the world how it should treat unborn children, we must show it how we believe everyone should be treated.
Maintaining the Overall Vision
What does it mean to “maintain the overall vision”? It means keeping in mind the picture of the kind of culture that we’re trying to create, one that respects every human being without exception, and making judgments, choices, and efforts with that image in mind.
The attitude opposed to this is that which fights abortion less and less for the sake of principles and more and more because “Down with abortion” has become a sort of tribal chant. The struggle becomes less about curing evils and improving the world and more about about defeating one’s enemies. Of course, most pro-lifers would be indignant at such a suggestion, or might even wonder what it means. I have no intention of judging anyone; I only describe the phenomenon as I have seen it.
This mindset is usually a political one, expressing itself in statements like, “Every Democrat is evil, and anything he says or approves must therefore be evil,” or, “Any Republican must be supported because Republicans are the party of life.” When followed in disregard of a politician’s actual character and record, such ideas can be very dangerous to pro-life efforts. We must not let generalizations or past experiences blind us to the likely results of the choice before us. No party line suffices to show who a person is; there is no such thing as the party of life, of truth, or of God.
The Republican vs. Democrat division is probably the best example because it is the largest and most obvious; but there are, or can be, other instances. Whenever the pro-life movement starts revolving around “us vs. them,” whenever the focus shifts from what is true and right to shouting down one’s despised opponents—or even, on an extreme level, anyone who says anything mildly sympathetic about some opponent—the deadly tribal mindset is at work.
Above all—I write it with tears—above all, we must avoid making statements like the examples above and following up with, “If you deny or dispute this, you have betrayed the cause/abandoned the unborn.” We have no more surefire way to defeat ourselves than to turn our personal opinions into dogmas and, on that basis, start anathematizing each other. How can we fight a common battle if we are fighting among ourselves? I’ve seen this kind of attitude tear apart families, friends, parish communities, etc., for no good reason. Also, as noted earlier, we can hardly present ourselves as agents of peace, justice and compassion if we cannot even treat one another decently.
So we cannot turn the fight for life into a tribal battle, into a fight for our “team” simply because it is ours. Instead, what should we be doing?
We must focus on our goal. We must keep in mind that image of a culture where everyone’s dignity is acknowledged and valued. If we remember that, we will not be subject to the myopia of political allegiances or other forms of tribalism. We will choose based on our principles, on our reverence for every human being, and will not be goaded into rash words or decisions based on loyalty to one group or hatred for another. Being pro-life is not about these affiliations. It’s about a shared belief in the value of human life and the vision of a culture of respect and dignity for all human beings—things compatible with many differences in other areas.
“Letter” vs. “Spirit”
Essentially, this article has been advancing “the spirit of the law” of the pro-life mindset, over the mere “letter.” Just as understanding that stealing is wrong leads to a whole world of reverence for private property, so understanding that abortion is wrong—and why—leads to a world of reverence for human dignity, with many components and implications, which I have endeavored to explore here. I have doubtlessly omitted some elements, and I welcome polite additions in the comments (emphasis on polite—please keep in mind the importance of verbal charity online). Here, however, I have tried to focus on those areas that seem especially in need of attention.
In any case, if we understand the basic, underlying principle, it will go a long way toward guiding us in the specifics. If this respect for the human being informs our actions, we will not be merely another set of voices shouting to be heard, but a real force of light and healing in a darkened, wounded world. Among other things, we will bring genuine caring to those neglected in any way, whether born or unborn; we will resist the world’s emotional violence with courtesy and charity; and we will stand united in our common beliefs, not letting other factors confuse our focus on our goal.
If we do that, we will be truly credible witnesses to human dignity—and will have a much better chance of saving our culture.