Some years ago, I spotted a quote on facebook by a nun named Joan Chittister. The context in which it was posted was that of an attempt to discredit the pro-life movement as hypocritical and unethical. Indeed it is frequently used to support abortion. It is as follows:
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
-Sister Joan Chittister
On broad principle, part of what she is trying to communicate is obvious and true: if you are pro-life, you must be pro-the-whole-life. There is a separate discussion here as to what is the best method of taking care of that whole life—at the governmental level or at the individual level—but here we are going to focus on the first part: whether the pro-life movement is really just "pro-birth" as she puts it.
As mentioned above, this quote is often used against those who believe a child in the womb has the right to life, i.e. ‘It’s all rhetoric with you people. You don’t care about kids or life, you’re just dogmatically fixated on little clumps of cells for some reason and you want to control women’s bodies. You should worry about the kids already born.’
I think those who support abortion are desperately misunderstanding what pro-life (or pro-birth) really means. To be pro-life means that we do not believe we have the right to simply kill children (however small they are at the moment) at our own convenience or until such a time as the world they are about to live in is perfect and can guarantee their every need and safety. By that logic, you could murder anyone in an abusive or poverty-stricken circumstance and be justified because you are, without their consent, saving them from the pain and suffering of their own life.
Pro-life is about a fundamental belief in the value of human life because we are all made in the image of God. In addition to that, it is very particularly about defense of the innocent and voiceless. Therefore it must start with protecting the infant in their most vulnerable moments—before, during, and immediately after birth—but it certainly should continue into a desire and sustained effort to help and protect them as they grow. Parents should care for their children. Communities should support those in need. This is why pro-lifers also emphasize the importance of marriage and families, by the way.
Also, it is for this reason that so many churches have ministries that help struggling mothers with counseling, formula, housing, public services, food, clothing, diapers, carseats, strollers, educational materials on motherhood, and job posting boards. I am grateful to have been able to volunteer at such a ministry at my old church. I saw mothers, struggling through difficult circumstances to do right by their children. I saw young women, some high-school age, making a choice to guard over rather than exterminate a life that was undoubtedly an ‘inconvenience’ to them. I have a profound respect for those who refused to give up and believe the lies that society tells them: that they have the “right” to be rid of their children.
What is a woman who decides to keep her baby—in spite of struggle, pain, poverty, fear, or uncertainty—and give that child her all? What is she? She is hope for the future. That’s the sort of woman that can change the culture in a profound way. That’s the sort of woman that maybe, just maybe, can resist the deep and despairing ruts of the poverty and pain into which she may have been born. She can raise a son or daughter with strength and conviction and persistence. She can change the world by her choices and the choices she makes for her children.
Does no one else realize how truly powerful and profound that really is? The very act of choosing life encourages still more life. It is a foundation.
Now, I am not an idealist. I know that there are far too many women who do have their children, but do not give them the care and love they need. But why? Well there are many reasons, but perhaps one is that our culture is telling them that they shouldn’t have to and it’s easier to be bitter and lazy about an undesired circumstance than to face it head-on with courage and hard work. (It's easier to give the bare minimum to your child, and you don't even have to be in dire straits to do that.) Perhaps because self-sacrifice is brutally hard. Perhaps because we all have to battle our fear, addictions, selfishness, weakness, and pain, and so many people do not even know how to begin to fight because we live in a culture that says “Myself is all that matters and I should be able to do whatever I want.”
Our culture of contempt for such an utterly defenseless life as that of a child in the womb is a culture that creates poor parents, poor choices, and destructive futures.
One pro-abortion argument says that by eliminating the child, you save them from the harsh circumstances he or she may face. They weren't wanted anyway, right? But the truth is—partly because of a culture of abortion, those circumstances are still there. They just exist around a void where a life once was. And that void doesn’t make anything any better. Indeed it will lie in wait for the next child and the next and the next. It takes putting the cart before the horse to a whole new extreme: you are saying “kill the child so that they will not have to suffer this world” while thereby creating the very world of violence and disrespect for life that you claim you would shield them from. Abortion is the “cure” that viciously perpetuates the disease.
This is the poverty of logic that exists in the pro-abortion argument. It claims—mostly as a canned argument, not as a moral conviction—that you should worry first about the whole life of the child, while denying the strength and importance of where that life begins. It is a-linear and a-logical. You have to go to the foundation of life before you can even begin to speak about how it must subsequently look. You have to allow the child to live in order to then care about their life.
If you follow the rationale of the pro-abortion argument you have put human children on the level of humanely-raised livestock: give them nice conditions if you can, kill them when you must, otherwise divvy them up for parts for the good of society.
Honestly, do you think we have so many mass shooting simply because of the mere existence of means to kill people or is it also because we live in a culture where life is so casually and ruthlessly disregarded at its weakest and most vulnerable? A culture where we tell a woman with a unique role as guardian and cultivator of LIFE, that she has better things to do, and serpent-like, convince her to kill her charge and call it something else.
The tools of mass murder and mass shootings may be readily available, but we have actively cultivated an environment in which the use of those tools for meaningless deaths seems easy in the minds of more and more people. If you can kill a child in the womb, someone who is utterly dependent and utterly helpless, it is foolish to think that this will have no effect on the collective psyche. When you withdraw rights and humanity from the voiceless you are carefully sewing together the most ruthless and heartless society—and even worse—you are doing it under the guise of benevolence. You are calling good evil, and evil good.
In this the frequent pro-life comparison of abortion to slavery in the U.S. are very, very apt; it uses biased pseudo-science (ignoring actual science), cultural conditioning, economic entrenchment, media, jargon, and nebulous phrases of ‘benevolence’ to justify the dehumanization of a large group for the benefit, succor, comfort, and convenience of those in possession of greater social power.
So why do pro-lifers appear to talk more loudly about protecting children in the womb than any subsequent needs, if they care so much about both?
Because when you live in a culture where a child has the right to live in the first place, you have a far better platform from which to encourage and assist the future of that child. You can care just as deeply about the child coming of age, as coming out of the womb, but you have to start at the beginning and work from there.
We were once a rational society. No more. The idea of beginning at the beginning seems to be out of vogue. Everyone wants to start their argument at the point of their own fancy, their own need or preference, rather than by reason. In this way, you will find yourself working very hard to keep up with the times, ever moving the markers of what lives are “valuable.” We keep wondering why we see such callousness towards life—especially towards the lives of those who already struggle, who are already at a disadvantage—well if you wonder, this is why. You cannot value that which has been dismissed at the outset.
You cannot expect human kindness writ large, if you dismiss that which is humanity writ small.
We are becoming the ‘men without chests’ of which Lewis spoke in his book ‘The Abolition of Man.’
“And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible…In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
I would add, we claim the right to kill the defenseless, and wonder why there is so much heartless violence in our world.
As a last point, it is foolish to scoff and be dismissive when someone draws the connection between abortion and eugenics. The disproportionate effect of abortion culture on minority communities shows that the racist factor of eugenics is alive an well. Sex-selection abortions shows that the misogyny of eugenics is alive and well. Screenings for various diseases and syndromes—so that you can have the option of aborting a down syndrome or otherwise ‘undesirable’ child who might be more difficult to care for—show that the Hitler-like eugenic contempt for those who are weak or disabled is alive and hideously well.
People wonder how a whole society allowed such a thing as the Holocaust. This is how. They were told it was their right. They were told it would make them stronger, richer, freer, safer. They were told it was for the good of society. And everyone agreed not to think about the gritty details of what all that ended up looking like.
Caricature, propaganda, normalization. Frogs sitting ignorant in boiling water. We’ve been boiling so long, we’re all but disintegrated.*
*I say we often in this piece. I am obviously pro-life, but when I am speaking about the darkest sins in our human nature I usually say we, even if I am talking of something I fiercely oppose. Because we are all fallen short of the Glory of God, and because this is the culture we live in.