For the sake of preborn children: Is it time to dump the term 'pro-life'?

For the sake of preborn children:
Is it time to dump the term 'pro-life'?

By Leo Hunt
New Oxford Review
January-February 2010

Leo Hunt was born in Portugal in 1987 and converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 2006. He is currently finishing his final year of undergraduate studies at Seton Hall University where he serves as "political liaison" for the student pro-life group — with such misgivings as are expressed in this article.

The time is ripe for defenders of preborn human children to face a nearly unbearable fact: The pro-life movement is going to fail miserably. Is it due to the relentless propaganda of the abortion lobby and the embryonic-experimentation lobby? The appalling degeneracy in education, which renders most minds weak enough to swallow it? The stranglehold of a contraceptive and anti-child culture? Evil politicians? Well yes, those things too. But the surest guarantor of failure is the weakness and lack of principle endemic to the pro-life movement itself. In her incisive article in the February 2009 issue of the NOR, seasoned activist Judie Brown, president of American Life League, called for principled political action that focuses on the personhood of the preborn human child, rejecting any and all provisions for the murder thereof. She wisely tempered the recent optimism about a supposedly growing "pro-life" public by pointing out that nearly all Americans tolerate abortion in some cases. To which I would add that a decidedly unimpressive minority seriously opposes potentially abortifacient methods of "contraception," in vitro fertilization, and experimentation that kills human embryos.

Equivocation and exceptions

And yet, as Brown anticipated, her call is viewed as extreme or unrealistic by most of the pro-life movement. In the political sphere, most pro-lifers support not politicians who unequivocally champion the personhood of human children, but those who tolerate killing them in fewer cases. We support exception-laden legislation. We throw our energy into half-hearted causes such as conscience clauses or parental notification or mandatory waiting periods, and we allow ourselves to become accomplices in the relativization and trivialization of abortion by describing such measures as "reasonable" and "common-sense." We have come to believe that the abolition of all child-killing is somehow not reasonable!

But what is worse is that most pro-lifers really do support abortion in cases of rape, or if the child has been diagnosed with a disability, or to safeguard the life or even mere health of the mother. To remain pro-child in these cases is to be branded an extremist. Nearly everyone would rightly condemn a man for running out of a burning building and leaving his wife or child to perish. Yet, to condemn a woman for premeditating the murder of her child to save her own hide is considered insensitive at best, and more often insanely hateful. This truly signals the crippling weight of injustice that feminism has foisted upon our society.

But laments will only take us so far, and we must seriously ask how it has come to this. Could part of the problem be with the very phrase "pro-life"?

Terms of the debate

The original terms of the debate were simple and honest: pro-abortion vs. anti-abortion. Then the abortion lobby coined that hip euphemism, "pro-choice." Casting about for a positive-sounding designation of their own, opponents of legal child-murder christened themselves "pro-life." This was a defensive move, and it heralded a veritable parade of further and increasingly silly defensive moves: Eventually, anyone who opposes the extermination of preborn human babies must also be unconditionally anti-war and a death-penalty abolitionist; must not own a gun or wear fur; must be deeply concerned about the rain forests and dismiss all action films as ghastly. By making a decision based on rhetoric and image rather than clearly thought-out principle, the movement doomed its adherents to being judged based on how well they embody the rhetorical term. This move unwittingly obscured the core issue of every preborn human child's inalienable personhood in the fog of a generalized abstraction: "life."

The appalling term "pro-choice," while lacking truth, at least has the advantage of being shrewd. But the term "pro-life" is neither true nor shrewd. Nobody could possibly be truly and consistently "pro-life," although obscure groups such as the Jainists, who take care to minimize harm even to microscopic life, valiantly try. If we wish to be taken more seriously than such a group, we are in dire need of anchorage to a sound and credible principle. It is not "life," a natural phenomenon not unique to human beings, that concerns us, but rather the unique dignity of the human person. Ancient pagan civilizations may have based ethics upon some life-force, but every true movement for justice in Western civilization has been a vindication of the Judeo-Christian understanding of man's supreme and unique dignity. That insight, which is in fact irreconcilable with an abstract or trans-human loyalty, must be proclaimed clearly and boldly by those who champion human children's right to exist. Only then can we hope to be as successful as the champions for the personhood of slaves, or of all men regardless of race.

As it is, the term "pro-life" lends itself to the crudest satire. A couple years ago I heard a popular comedian mock a politician for being a "pro-life hunter." As much as this rankles for the obtuseness of the comedian, our own entrenched rhetorical game hinders the clear light that might have pierced such obtuseness.

Anchoring our minds

The principled political action so necessary to our success will never come about unless we first anchor our minds to the rock of clear principle and its inseparable handmaid, precise terminology. By identifying the concept of "life" as our goal, rather than the inalienable dignity of the human person, the movement has set itself up for every confusion and hypocrisy. Without the clear principle of the individual human child's personhood in mind, it is small wonder that so many think some abortions can be legally tolerated. Why not try to save as many "lives" in the short run as possible, if our goal is a general concept? Why not support exceptions? Herein lies a tragic corollary: If such is one's stance, why not vote for the pro-abortion candidate if he says his policies will "reduce" abortions? Why not support the harvesting of human embryos, if such research will save more "lives" in the future?

To begin with, I propose we take up the task of denouncing our movement's formidable fifth column. What can be said for those who profess opposition to abortion yet support embryonic experimentation or balk at the illegalization of abortifacients? That they acknowledge the personhood of preborn humans? What kind words can one justly reserve for pro-lifers who "sensibly" support abortion in "hard cases"? What can one say of people who declare, "I'm against abortion, but a woman who has been raped has no obligation to continue her pregnancy"? That they seriously believe the unborn creature is a human child? Please! The term "pro-choice" clearly applies to all of the above.

Would the pointing out of this distinction sow division among pro-lifers? In a sense, yes. But only in that it sheds light on divisions that are already there. It is true that a house divided against itself cannot stand. For that very reason, a portion of us needs to regroup into a new movement, one that is united by clear principle and unwavering in its integrity. Even if we must start out much smaller, such a movement, in the long run, might be our only hope against the forces of violent irrationality that smugly exterminate the most innocent human individuals decade after decade.

Personhood Movement

It could be called the Personhood Movement. It would have a very specific goal: legal recognition of the personhood of the human individual from fertilization onward, with accompanying absolute legal protection. In fact, its goal would be precisely the federal Personhood Amendment to the U.S. Constitution advocated by Judie Brown in her February 2009 NOR article. But there will never be a Personhood Amendment without a Personhood Movement.

The Personhood Movement would jettison the term "pro-life." If we must have some pithy moniker, then pro-personhood, pro-human child, and pro-child are credible options. Opponents of the death penalty or any given war would have a moral obligation to keep those causes separate from that of recognizing the personhood of preborn children. The Personhood Movement would embody this obligation by focusing solely on human personhood from conception to birth. It would drop stale slogans like "respect life from conception to natural death," unless modified to "respect innocent human lives from conception to natural death."

The Personhood Movement would keep itself distinct even from issues related to euthanasia, although this is also an intrinsic evil. The movement for voluntary suicide is not based on denying the personhood of the "victim." Indeed, the case against euthanasia warrants its own specific movement. What must concern us now, with all appropriate urgency, is legalized murder based on denying that certain human beings are persons. At the risk of repeating myself, recall that the mistaken execution of an innocent person does not deny his personhood. Even unjust war is not based upon denying the personhood of the casualties.

Chance of success

Perhaps most readers still think that our current pro-life movement stands a perfectly reasonable chance of bringing about the Personhood Amendment. Maybe it does. I would only ask those who are sure of this to point out concrete signs of it. Polls indicate that roughly 70 percent of Americans want to keep abortion legal in the first trimester. The few moves to establish a Personhood Amendment on a state level are viewed as "purist" and "hard-line" by the mainstream pro-life movement. And good luck, at our current levels of consistency, precision, and conviction, trying to persuade most citizens to illegalize abortive-contraceptive pills, in vitro fertilization, or embryonic experimentation.

I hardly know what I am asking for on the practical level, and I am aware that it cannot take off overnight. Even if my diagnosis is as sound as I think it is, it may take years for this new movement to emerge. Despite requiring an attitude of humble detachment from our entrenched habits, and probably no small amount of suffering, I am convinced it is not too late. Such a movement alone could justly boast of responding to Pope John Paul II's call to "have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their rightful names."

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