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I’m pro-life, but I strongly disagree with the religious direction the movement is being steered down, as do I the political rhetoric that is soaring because of it.
My earliest memories of pro-life politics involve blood and crying. As a teenager, I attended a church presentation on abortion with the rest of my youth group. The graphic displays of aborted foetuses, combined with the speaker’s descriptions of how abortions are carried out, caused numerous adolescents around me to break down in tears. I can’t remember whether that presentation involved a paean to the wonder of unborn life, but I do remember its reliance on sheer horror as a persuasion tactic.
Later, I joined a pro-life group. I stayed with it for a couple of years, but became disillusioned when it became apparent that the group effectively functioned as an extension of the Catholic ministry. If Australia wasn’t a theocracy, I reasoned, shouldn’t the pro-life movement work extra hard to ensure that its cause could survive in a secular environment?
In some ways, I became pro-life in spite of the pro-life movement. That is, I hold my current convictions – that abortion ends a human life – precisely to the degree that I rejected the impression that the pro-life position was rooted in either fear or overt religiosity. A politic of fear inevitably harms more than it hurts.
In maintaining my convictions, while remaining sceptical of the movement that represents them, I join a steadily increasing contingent of pro-lifers who have expressed deep ambivalence about political conservatism in 2017. Thus, when I read Matthew Lee Anderson’s Vox essay about “the peculiar ethos” motivating the contemporary pro-life movement, I couldn’t help feeling both elated and troubled.
Elated, because in challenging critics to a nuanced understanding of “how pro-lifers think,” Anderson encourages the kind of cross-ideological discussion that we desperately need right now. Troubled, because Anderson’s call to understanding also mischaracterises the concerns that progressives have about pro-life politics today.
Anderson’s essay offers an important corrective to liberals who dismiss the pro-life position as either misogyny or a theological obsession with a “clump of cells.” Anderson has various names for this feeling – “wonder,” “hushed reverence,” “natural awe” – but perhaps his best designation for this intuition is a “secular sense of the sacred.” In specifically naming this sense as secular, Anderson pushes back at construals of the pro-life position as irreducibly religious.
No matter how committed we are to preserving unborn life, all pro-lifers should be deeply dismayed by the present state of the movement. Firstly, Trump (and locally, Barnaby Joyce) has revitalised the stereotype of anti-abortion activists as inevitably, irreducibly, anti-woman.
This “secular sense of the sacred” is especially important to remember in the wake of the Women’s March controversies about pro-life feminism, which has renewed attention to such groups as Secular Pro-Life, New Wave Feminists, and Pro-Life Humanists, all of whom have made a deliberate effort to de-theologise pro-life arguments. When Anderson writes that pro-lifers find “no clearer instance of the marginalised, the voiceless, and the vulnerable than in the womb,” he captures the reason why many liberals and progressives oppose abortion: not in spite of their concern for social justice, but because of it.
Moreover, Anderson is right to point out that pro-life activists do, in fact, exhibit concern for the lives of mothers. While the Left often maligns pregnancy crisis enters as Trojan Horses for anti-abortion ideology, it’s worth noting that the pro-lifers who support these centres are sincerely trying to express compassion for mothers using them. Whatever the consequences of that support, liberals only muddy the issue when they attribute it, always-already, to misogyny draped in piety.
For all the virtues of Anderson’s essay, though, I’m unconvinced that it offers an adequate account of “what it means to be ‘pro-life’” today.
Anderson implies that his reasons for being pro-life neatly map onto those of the movement as a whole – and that, by extension, those reasons sufficiently explain, even justify, the movement’s single-minded drive to illegalise abortion. Because he is primarily motivated by “reverential awe” for the unborn, Anderson assumes that such awe propels his allies.
Because he cares about both the mother and the foetus, he assumes that most pro-lifers do. And because his position cannot be easily reduced to caricature, he assumes that critics of pro-lifers are merely cranking out strawman arguments. Anderson might have a point if the pro-life movement, as a whole, upheld the unborn while also remaining receptive to the claims of other kinds of lives; he might have a point if the pro-life movement, as a whole, treated legislation as only one strategy for defending the unborn, alongside caring for pregnant women in difficult circumstances.
No matter how committed we are to preserving unborn life, all pro-lifers should be deeply dismayed by the present state of the movement. Firstly, Trump (and locally, Barnaby Joyce) has revitalised the stereotype of anti-abortion activists as inevitably, irreducibly, anti-woman. Joyce’s obvious rhetoric (and history on the topic of birth), both in speaking on behalf of women in a recent op-ed, and robocalling members of the general public (who don’t get a say in the actual voting process), does not help. The point scoring on this issue, particularly by a man of Joyce’s ilk makes it easy to simplify the discussion, and unify against it.
Barnaby Joyce has made an extraordinary intervention into the New South Wales abortion debate, taking part in a robocall to constituents.https://t.co/z1PkHS2TiY
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) August 19, 2019
Perhaps, as Anderson argues, we oppose abortion because the embryo represents a site of absolute sacredness; nonetheless, in empowering a man like Trump who advocates “grabbing women by the p***y” and faces charges of sexual assault, we inevitably reaffirm the view that women’s lives are, indeed, less sacred to us.
The controversy over “whether the pro-life feminist is a viable species,” in Anderson’s phrasing, didn’t come out of nowhere, and it certainly won’t go away over the next four years. If we actually feel “respect” and “admiration” for women who undergo difficult pregnancies, as Anderson insists that pro-lifers do, we have a long way to go before such sentiments are visible to our sceptical interlocutors.
An alternate view