What Does it REALLY Mean to be ‘Pro‑Life’?

Have the moral or ideological failings of pro-lifers ruined the “pro-life” label? Or is the problem “seamless garment” rhetoric and insistence that everything is a pro-life issue?

The author with his two eldest children at the 2013 March for Life in Washington, DC
The author with his two eldest children at the 2013 March for Life in Washington, DC (photo: Register Files)

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Within the last week, the term “pro-life” has come under crossfire from two Catholic writers coming from almost diametrically opposed perspectives.

The Pro-Life Movement Has Lost,” writes Rebecca Bratten Weiss at Patheos, while at CatholicVote.com Eric Sammons explains “Why I’m Through Being ‘Pro-Life’.”

Each article is, in effect, the other’s worst-case scenario.

For Weiss, the pro-life movement has lost because

it no longer has a moral platform to stand on, no longer has any semblance of a claim to care genuinely for all lives, for women as well as babies, for the born as well as the unborn.

For Sammons, it’s precisely the insistence that being pro-life necessarily entails anything other than opposition to abortion that has ruined the term:

…by calling every issue a “pro-life” issue, we dilute and fracture the brand. We make other, less important issues as important as the abortion issue. We needlessly divide pro-lifers over prudential issues about which we should be able to respectfully disagree.

Weiss alleges that the pro-life movement has generally turned a blind eye (not every pro-lifer, since she still identifies as pro-life, but the movement in a general way) to racism, sexual assault, bullying, and attacks on the dignity of life and the holiness of the family.

Sammons, meanwhile, alleges that the “seamless garment” model of moral thought has had the net effect of flattening the moral landscape and obscuring important disparities in the gravity of different issues.

“The expansion of the label ‘pro-life’ has become so unwieldy,” Sammons jokes, “that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that supporting Marvel movies over DC movies is now a pro-life issue.” (Both as a Catholic deacon and a film critic, I would like to set Sammons’ mind to rest on that last point: Opinions about Hollywood franchises are not “life issues.”)

Yes, we’re “anti-abortion”…

As antithetical as these two arguments are, both writers make points worth considering.

I’m not going to try to adjudicate all their points — my own argument is somewhat different — but I will say this much. It’s true, on the one hand, that the term “pro-life” has often been abused, as Sammons alleges. Alternately used as a cudgel and an umbrella, it’s been used both to disparage or weaken opposition to abortion and to prioritize other issues and initiatives. (For example, it’s actually been argued that supporting abortion is a “pro-life” position.)

There’s also something to be said for explicitly claiming a term, “anti-abortion,” that has often been avoided by those opposed to abortion even as it has been pressed by the mainstream media. No one favoring legal protection for all members of the human community, including those not yet born, should shun the term “anti-abortion.”

After all, there is no widely used positive term for being anti-slavery, anti-racism, or anti-antisemitic. If you are against torture, prostitution, exploitation of workers, or other social evils, there is no need for a positive label. (It is true that opposition to sexism and misogyny can be expressed by the positive term “feminism” — though of course that term can also mean a great many other things — but this seems to be an exception.)

There’s nothing wrong with the term “anti-abortion.” But there’s an important case for Catholics to continue to insist on the term “pro-life” — and for giving it a much broader scope than opposition to abortion, as Weiss argues.

…and yes, we’re “pro-life” — and that does means more than just being anti-abortion

Whatever the merits of Weiss’s charges against the pro-life movement culture or Sammons’ charges against “seamless garment” thinking, it’s worth noting that the Catholic faithful are deeply invested both in the pro-life stance and even in the term “pro-life.”

There are pro-life offices in dioceses and bishops’ conferences all over the world. The first Sunday in February has been marked as Pro-Life Sunday by Catholics in Italy since 1978.

Most importantly, the term has been used by several popes — never more authoritatively or crucially than by Pope St. John Paul II in his great encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), which is significantly concerned with this topic. The Holy Father writes:

…we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the “culture of death” and the “culture of life”. We find ourselves not only “faced with” but necessarily “in the midst of” this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life. (EV 28, italics added)

Note that this “inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” emerges not solely from the legalization of abortion, but from “an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’.”

Not one or two issues, but a larger clash of cultural priorities and values imposes upon us the responsibility of “choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.”

What is “unconditionally pro-life”?

What does John Paul II mean by “unconditionally pro-life”? Here are the omitted words from the first sentence of my quotation above: “This situation, with its lights and shadows, ought to make us all fully aware that we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash…” What “this situation” is, naturally, is developed in the preceding paragraphs (EV 26–27).

To summarize these sections: After speaking of Christ’s victory over evil and death (EV 25), the Holy Father notes that “signs which point to this victory are not lacking in our societies and cultures, strongly marked though they are by the ‘culture of death’.” (“Unfortunately,” he adds, “it is often hard to see and recognize these positive signs…”)

Among such “positive signs” are:

  • Married couples who generously accept children as “the supreme gift of marriage”
  • Families who care for abandoned children, troubled minors, and the elderly
  • Institutions that support pregnant women in difficult circumstances
  • The advance of medical science
  • Organizations bringing medicine to countries afflicted by poverty and disease or responding to serious health emergencies around the world
  • Efforts to respond to laws permitting abortion by raising social awareness “in defense of life”
  • The Church’s charitable work
  • Growing opposition to war
  • Growing opposition to the death penalty
  • Growing attention to the quality of life and ecology

All of this pertains to the current “situation” comprising the “enormous and dramatic clash” between the “‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’.” All of this pertains to our “inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.”

Fundamental issues pertaining to human life

This section concludes with these words:

Especially significant is the reawakening of an ethical reflection on issues affecting life. The emergence and ever more widespread development of bioethics is promoting more reflection and dialogue — between believers and non-believers, as well as between followers of different religions — on ethical problems, including fundamental issues pertaining to human life.

Note that last phrase. The pope does not say “the fundamental issue of protecting innocent human life from extermination,” but simply “fundamental issues pertaining to human life.”

“Issues pertaining to human life” is, of course, another way of saying “life issues.”

There are two opposite errors we can make here. One is to flatten out all “issues pertaining to human life” as equally important — to deny that there is a moral hierarchy of issues and some evils are graver than others. The other is to deny that issues involving anything less than the direct taking of innocent human life can be “life issues.”

Levels of gravity among life issues

“Life issues” are broader than those issues that involve the direct taking of innocent human life, but there is a hierarchy among them — and The Gospel of Life provides a sort of taxonomy of this hierarchy.

This occurs right at the beginning, with a citation and forceful papal endorsement of words from Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes):

The Second Vatican Council, in a passage which retains all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number of crimes and attacks against human life. Thirty years later, taking up the words of the Council and with the same forcefulness I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator”. (EV 3)

Note that these “crimes and attacks against human life” are subdivided into a number of broad categories:

  1. “Whatever is opposed to life itself” (murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, suicide)
  2. “Whatever violates the integrity of the human person” (mutilation, torture, coercion)
  3. “Whatever insults human dignity” (subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery and human trafficking, prostitution)
  4. “Disgraceful working conditions” that exploit and dehumanize the worker (this appears to be a fourth category, but could be considered part of 3)

Clearly there is a hierarchy here: The gravest offenses are those in the first category, followed by those in the second, etc. Yet all are “crimes and attacks against human life.” As such, all constitute “issues pertaining to human life,” or life issues.


The inclusion of “deportation” in the third category may startle some readers — and they will be even more alarmed to see John Paul II go further in his other great moral encyclical, The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor).

Here, citing the same list of offenses from Vatican II, the Holy Father numbers these offenses — including deportation — among acts that are “‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece malum) … always and per se … independently of circumstances … seriously wrong by reason of their object” (VS 80, italics in original).

This seems shocking to many, and so it is — though not, I think, quite so shocking as it may initially appear. In spite of the pope’s seemingly absolute language, I think the reference here is to a certain class of deportations, not all deportation. This isn’t the place to argue this question; I’ll save that for another post I hope to write at some point.

For now, I’ll just say that, however we interpret John Paul II here, we should all be able to agree on this much: Whenever unjust deportations occur, whenever people are wrongly expelled from a country where they have a right to be, this “insults human dignity,” according to Vatican II and John Paul II, and is numbered by the pope among “crimes and attacks against human life.” Such deportation is thus a life issue.

The “Being Pro-life” series
Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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