The Pros and Cons of Pro-Life by Jerry Salyer

There was never a time when I didn't think abortion should be illegal.  Even back when I was an agnostic, lapsed-Baptist undergraduate, it always seemed evident to me that society cannot protect its members from murder unless it also has some line of demarcation between person and non-person.  The most obvious place for such a line seems to be at conception, when the genetic hand gets shuffled and dealt and everything from sex and eye color to intellectual potential, temperament, and propensity for addiction all get established.  

In other words, at conception the pattern for a distinct person has been laid down.  Conception represents a qualitative change, while the organic development which follows looks mostly quantitative, a matter of degree rather than kind.  Those familiar with Philip K. Dick's dark, scathingly hilarious short story “Pre-Persons,” will get my point, which is how very dangerous it is to move the line of personhood toward more arbitrary criteria.  If humanity doesn't begin at the sharp line of conception, then when?  The first kick?  The first breath?  The first word?  The ability to get a passing score on a standardized test?

Since then I have come across much more powerful arguments against the practice.  Mother Theresa expresses the natural law argument as eloquently as we could wish:  “We must not be surprised when we hear of murders, of killings, of wars, of hatred. If a mother can kill her own child, what is left but for us to kill each other.”  Whether she realized it or not, Mother Theresa's argument implicitly challenged the conventional understanding which would place equal and individual human rights at the center of the moral universe.  Instead of basing our moral order upon atomized individuals and their rights, we should acknowledge that relationships are essential to our humanity, and not always subject to our individual wills.  A mother's choice to kill her own child is as violent a severing of as foundational a relationship as one could imagine, and as such represents a transgression against the natural order next to which nuclear weapons seem almost clean and wholesome.  

Now's where I have to strike what may be a discordant note.  Whenever I am asked if I am “pro-life,” I never say “yes,” but instead reply in the form of a full sentence.  “I think abortion should be illegal,” or words to that effect.  For the term “pro-life” seems to me an equivocation, one which serves to conflate two related but different things.   On the one hand, it could refer to the simple conviction that abortion should be greatly restricted if not banned entirely.  People motivated by this conviction often pray outside abortion centers, offer counseling to troubled mothers, and strategically select politicians and legislation to support in the hope of seeing abortion at least curtailed.  I am all for such people, and am the first to recognize the fact that they have succeeded in maintaining debate about the issue in a hostile public square – no mean feat, that, in a regime which has been so effective at squelching so many other politically-incorrect causes.

The problem is, though, that “pro-life” also refers to a distinct subculture which has grown up around the efforts to end abortion, and most of the people empowered to define this subculture have made a point of drawing the lines so as to exclude people like me.   For my part, I am absolutely convinced that questioning liberal dogmas such as Equality and Human Rights is the only way to effect long-term, positive change on any scale; these leaders not only double-down on the enlightened notions that got us into this mess, but also do their very best to convince their unfortunate followers that such notions represent the only possible way of thinking about the abortion issue.  

More concretely, I can't say how many times I have heard some bishop or diocesan official or other representative of the pro-life movement explain solemnly that being “truly pro-life” means you won't just be concerned about abortion.  No, we also need to be committed to alleviating the plight of migrants, the homeless, Third World babies in need of adoption, those on death row, and for all I know the polar bears.  My complaint is not that these causes are not worthwhile – I have nothing against polar bears – but that a host of quite debatable propositions winds up getting subtly slipped into the “pro-life” brand, much as fine print may be slipped in at the bottom of a contract.  E.g., “the US border is policed too strictly,” “transracial families represent a spiritual step above conventional families,” “capital punishment is always wrong.”  Should I openly challenge such notions, I am the bad guy for being “divisive,” as if insisting that additional litmus tests unrelated to abortion be added to determine who is or isn't genuinely “pro-life” is not itself divisive to begin with.  Is the tent to be a big one, or isn't it?

In reality, fetus dismemberment is one thing, and the putative right of a migrant to improve his standard of living by moving into my neighborhood is quite another.  Were there anything like open, truth-oriented discourse in Catholic circles, the border control advocate could turn the tables by arguing that promoting streamlined labor flows between countries – i.e., mass migration – actually strengthens the hand of abortion by depressing wages, fragmenting communities, and taking pressure off national leaders who might otherwise have to address declining native birth rates.  Indeed, a case could also be made that were it not for immigration, the abortion side would in the long run be doomed by demographics – i.e., large Christian families.  Such arguments will never be tolerated for so much as an instant by anyone above the rank of parish priest, however. 

We can even set aside those clerics, Rod Dreher conservatives, and academic bigshots like Robert George, who all disavowed the Covington Catholic boys the moment the left said “boo,” and who appear to have learned precisely nothing from said fiasco.  There is still much too much “defending human dignity” via robotic slogans, cheap sentimentality, and superficial marketing gimmicks, all within a conceptual framework established by liberals.  If we convince our audience by degrading it, we have wrongly thought to accomplish good by doing evil.  

Rarely if ever does pro-life rhetoric allude to Communism, even though said totalitarian system went whole hog for abortion and has far more in common with 21st Century America than, does, say, the Old South.  Instead of reflecting upon the brutal Soviets' abortion policies, year after year propagandists for life invoke abolitionism, along with feminism and even the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, all in transparent attempts to be “relevant.”  

In other words, they are trying to ingratiate themselves to the minorities, feminists, and yuppies who consistently vote for pro-abortion candidates, election after election after election.  Meanwhile the working-class Southerners and Midwesterners who have repeatedly put pro-life politicians and judges into office are blatantly regarded as contemptible nonentities by Ben Shapiro and other such “family values” celebrity all-stars.  Anybody who lectures me about solidarity here is wasting his time.  Real solidarity goes both ways.  


The Fleming Foundation

13 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    Mr. Salyer – thank you for this excellent article. My own disdain with the “Pro-Life” movement has grown exponentially over the years. I first starting seeing through the charade when I received a newsletter from Pro-Life lobbyists bragging about their achievements. When I saw the American Life League was using donations to stage a “Pro-Life rock concert” I knew the jig was up. Since then I’ve heard of the ‘Pro-Life” Gospel and have read about schools teaching a “Pro-Life” curriculum which includes a “Pro-Life” reading of Dante . . . etc. I’m now of the opinion that the “Pro-Life” movement has done far more evil than good.
    I agree that the “big umbrella” of Pro-Life-ism is absurd and just an excuse to adopt progressive and liberal agendas (“fighting Climate Change is the most Pro-Life thing we can do because ALL life is in danger.”) However, even restricted to the issue of abortion the movement has been a catastrophic failure. Refusing to address contraception and the entire mentality behind it has been like trying to convince an obese person to just get liposuction but never make any dietary changes. It’s a futile strategy, but one necessary to keep that “big tent” as open as possible so as not to offend pro-contraception types. Meanwhile, making abortion the preeminent political cause has enabled the Republicans to get a great deal of mileage through nothing but lip service while losing ground to the Progressives on every other front. Because abortion has been hyped as THE issue, many Democrats will de facto reject any candidate who is against abortion even if 100% of his other stances on immigration, government spending, foreign entanglements, American manufacturing . . . etc. are in line with their goals. The result has been little to no ground gained on the issue of abortion, but just about ALL of the ground possible lost on every single other issue. Then, when Donald Trump actually performs as the most anti-abortion President to-date, many in the Pro-Life movement abandoned him because he was too uncouth. If this political strategy isn’t hopeless, I don’t know what is.
    In reality, while I believe abortion should be illegal, its just a symptom of a societal sickness that legislation cannot fix. Pro-Lifers rail at Biden and Harris as if they, personally, were aborting babies, but that’s just as disingenuous as Leftists that railed at Trump as if he was personally throwing migrant kids into cages or infecting people with the COVID. It’s the mothers that are killing their own babies. If this is going to be fixed, mothers, fathers, priests, bishops, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and the like must raise sons and daughters that both understand the purpose of marriage and acknowledge the murdering of babies is evil. As simple as that sounds, I guess the actual Gospel just isn’t as exciting as “Marching” for Life or Pro-Life rock concerts.
    Pace to the many folks I personally know who are heavily invested in the Pro-Life movement. I don’t think less of them for their ardent support for what they believe is the only unassailable moral cause left in the modern world, but their sincerity doesn’t change reality.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    This is a thoughtful reflection and thank you for taking the time to put it together and post it. The left is always taking half truths and combining them with whole lies to triangulate, or as Hegel proposed —-thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
    Things are in such pieces today. You have the Catholic Church governed by no one, the Protestants split into over twenty thousand different sects, the triumph of materialism and a practical atheism in our schools. The imposed silence on teachers of the ancient tradition by an arrogant, quarter educated enthusiasts who honestly believe in the destruction.
    Nothing seamless about Cardinal Cupich’s pro life positions, he is just another administrator killing things softly as he poses.

  3. Dot says:

    I agree with Mr. Salyer that abortion should be illegal and that it should never be an option. But speaking as a female, this whole business of men philosophizing about it is a matter of the male blaming the female for abortion when he was the the one who got the her pregnant in the first place. Doesn’t the blame go both ways?
    How many women, not married or married but divorced, are living in poverty and are trying to raise children with no help from the male who got them pregnant. “Out damn spot” and they take off to forget the evil that they did but did not take responsibility for. It is always her responsibility to avoid pregnancy by contraception including getting the tubes tied. If a female gets the tubes tied, it cannot be undone. However, if a male gets his tubes tied, it can be undone. How is it the the female always gets the blame for the killing, which it is, but the male does not. A woman has to take care of herself. She is the one who is most vulnerable and so isn’t the child born to her by a totally irresponsible male. And yes sirs, they exist. When birth control pills first came out in the 1960s they were the cause of stroke in some females. Again the male had his fun without the responsibility.

  4. JD Salyer says:

    Hello Dot,

    I wouldn’t deny that you have a point. It may be worth highlighting Mr. Cornell’s observation about the responsibility of those in authority — mostly males — to raise sons & daughters who recognize the importance of marriage, the sanctity of life, etc.

    Certainly, if a girl gets to the point where she opts for an abortion, then at least two men have probably failed, her father’s child and her own.

  5. Dot says:

    Mr. Salyer
    I believe very highly that marriage is important – for the woman and for children born from the union. In my area there seem to be too many couples living outside of marriage. In my estimation, the women are fools in more ways than one. I don’t understand your last sentence.

  6. Dot says:

    I just want to add that currently within a marriage, the birth rate is only 1.7 children per family. It has been that for a while. Replacement level for a country is 2.1 per family. Continuous below replacement level does not bear well for a country because it could see the decline and fall of the civilization. Perhaps Biden is right – open the flood gates at the southern border and let anyone come in.

  7. Dom says:

    It is disturbing to hear “Pro-life” used as a starting principle, especially from clergy. Such a thing strikes me as borderline idolatry. There is no elemental “Pro-life” principle in Christianity or elsewhere. It just seems to be a convenient (though not necessarily reasonable) bundling of more basic principles, which it then supplants. Might using “Pro-life” as a starting point eventually bring a Christian into conflict with basic aspects of the Christian covenant? This could be dangerous territory.
    I am inclined to answer “Are you Pro-life?” with a flat out “No”.
    Thank you for this discussion, Mr Slayer.

  8. Dom says:

    *Mr. Salyer.


  9. Robert Reavis says:

    Dear Dot,
    Your question about whatever became of Fathers is excellent. It is the most ignored dimension of so many different issues concerning families in our time. It is very sad to work in this field of the law where mothers can name fathers for some financial support which they call “child support”but it is sometimes impossible to collect and of course that should not be their only role. It is also sad when mothers may not know who the father actually is but can usually narrow it down to two or three potential fathers. Or that the Mother can terminate her pregnancy without including fathers in the decision. Do not misunderstand me, I am agreeing with your observations but the family is so loosely defined and considered such an archaic term by our intellectual and political leaders, I would not know where to even begin to defend real mothers or fathers against the Zeitgeist.

  10. Dot says:

    Thank you for addressing my comment. You certainly are familiar with problems between couples and the woman’s role in them.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Women do not have to take care of themselves. Far from it. When they strike out on their own, they have a Great Father to take of all their needs. They have sold themselves to Uncle Sam. They are no more to be pitied than the men who have forfeited the chance to be husbands and fathers. Women who murder their own babies are committing crimes worse than any serial killer, and, while I can understand the dilemmas that result from their own bad decisions, I cannot in all conscience deny that the death penalty is only justice. If Greek and Roman pagans understood this, why is it so difficult for “christian” Americans?

  12. Vince Cornell says:

    Compare St. Paul and his tremendous understanding of human nature in 1 Timothy 5 with the modern Christian concept of “charity = non-judgmental handouts.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that St. Paul would be outraged when the Pro-Life groups hold up women who have children out of wedlock as moral heroes simply because they decided to not murder their babies. Talk about a low bar to clear!

  13. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Today, I didn’t rob a liquor store and kill the clerk. Where’s my Presidential Medal of Freedom?