Answering Objections to the Consistent Life Ethic from Mainstream Pro-Lifers

Posted on September 18, 2018 By

by John Whitehead

Advocacy for the consistent life ethic (CLE) requires making the CLE more comprehensible and appealing to those with very different philosophies. Consistent Life Network Vice President Rachel MacNair offered valuable guidelines for discussions about the CLE in her blog post, “Tips on Dialogue.” Taking a cue from her post, I offer thoughts on how to talk about the CLE with one particular audience: people who are strongly pro-life—that is, opposed to abortion and usually also euthanasia and assisted suicide—but are resistant to the other causes that fall under the ethic: opposition to the death penalty, poverty, war, and so on.

Effective dialogue with what we might call “mainstream pro-lifers” requires understanding why the CLE is unpersuasive or even off putting to them. My own reading of pro-life literature and conversations with pro-lifers suggests they have three broad objections to the ethic. (One useful resource is a Human Life Review symposium on the CLE that includes critiques from mainstream pro-lifers.) These objections overlap and the same pro-lifer might make more than one of them. We can still distinguish among them, though, and they require different responses. No response is guaranteed to be persuasive, but I can at least offer some tentative ideas about how to address the three objections.

Objection 1: Voting Implications

The American political party most closely identified with opposition to abortion is the Republican Party. For this reason (among others), mainstream pro-lifers and pro-life organizations tend to support Republican politicians. Linking opposition to abortion with positions—such as greater government action and spending to help the poor—that aren’t generally associated with the Republican Party (and may be associated with parties such as the Democrats or the Greens that support abortion) is probably going to alienate mainstream pro-lifers. They will be put off because linking these issues implicitly calls into question their partisan loyalties and voting strategy—without offering a reliably anti-abortion alternative.

The response to this objection is a simple one: we should tell mainstream pro-lifers that the CLE is a non-partisan philosophy that doesn’t demand a change in their party membership or voting strategy. As CLE advocates know, the American political system rarely, if ever, offers satisfactory candidates: different CLE advocates accordingly try different approaches to political engagement. No political approach is so obviously superior to the others that we should risk alienating potential sympathizers by insisting on a particular approach. Our goal should be to spread an idea and build a movement across party lines, not to boost one specific party.

When speaking to mainstream pro-lifers, we should make it clear that embracing the CLE is compatible with voting Republican—or at least is no more incompatible with it than voting for any other party. (Meanwhile, when speaking to social justice activists concerned with ending poverty, racism, or the death penalty, we should make the same point about embracing the CLE and voting Democratic, Green, Socialist, etc.)

Objection 2: Substantive Disagreement on Issues

Some mainstream pro-lifers object to the CLE simply because the ethic includes specific issue positions they disagree with. Some abortion opponents believe the ongoing use of the death penalty or military force is wholly justified and should be continued indefinitely. For these pro-lifers, the problem with the CLE is that the ethic combines correct moral-political views (abortion and euthanasia are wrong) with incorrect ones (the death penalty and war are wrong).

This objection is far harder to overcome than Objection 1 because it is about substantive disagreement on issues as opposed to differing political strategies. To win over pro-lifers with this objection requires convincing them to change their mind on the death penalty, war, or other issues, which is a large, complex challenge that I won’t attempt to address here. Nevertheless, productive dialogue becomes easier if we can at least identify what the real source of disagreement is.


Objection 3: Defending Pro-Life Legitimacy

This final objection is the most subtle and hard to describe, but it is real and significant. Moreover, as a CLE advocate, this objection is the one I personally sympathize with most.

Pro-lifers—even those who might feel ambivalent about the Republican Party and issues such as the death penalty—might nevertheless avoid the CLE because they perceive it as de-legitimizing the cause of defending the unborn. Those who support abortion, and in some cases even CLE activists, have been known to criticize mainstream pro-lifers using arguments and language based on the CLE or which resemble the CLE. This criticism essentially amounts to treating pro-lifers as at fault or unworthy of respect if they don’t address issues other than abortion. As a result, mainstream pro-lifers have a very negative reaction to linking opposition to abortion to other issues.

I think pro-lifers can see such linkage as calling into question their activism on behalf of the unborn. To insist a pro-lifer must also work against poverty, the death penalty, and so on comes across as saying those concerned with protecting the unborn have to pass a moral/ideological test before their work against abortion can be granted legitimacy.

Such an underlying attitude toward pro-lifers is really nothing more than a curious double standard. The generally accepted principle that activists are “allowed” to specialize or focus on a single issue is somehow not applied to pro-lifers.

This double standard was on display this summer, when pro-lifers were criticized for not condemning the Trump administration’s policy of separating the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents. As odious as the child separation policy was, criticizing an activist group for not taking a stance on an issue outside its area of focus is strange—how strange becomes clear if we apply this criticism to a non-pro-life group.

If someone were to criticize an immigrants’ rights organization for not speaking out against, say, the nuclear arms race, such a criticism would be rightly regarded as eccentric and unfair. Certainly someone would be foolish to dismiss the cause of immigrant rights simply because immigrant rights activists aren’t at the forefront of nuclear abolition efforts.

Or consider a more pointed scenario: if a mainstream pro-lifer criticizes a racial justice activist who’s working against police brutality for not also working against abortion, a great many people would be justifiably outraged. Such a criticism would be equivalent to the infamous “All Lives Matter” slogan that so many black Americans and other racial justice activists justly found objectionable.

Criticizing activists for not addressing issues outside their declared focus makes sense only 1) if you’re simply trying to find a reason to make the activists look bad or 2) if you regard them as being on a kind of ideological probation. Under the terms of this probation, if the activists demonstrate their commitment to approved issues the critic regards as important, only then may they legitimately be allowed a commitment to the issue they care about most. If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, however, this probation approach is a dismal method.

Many mainstream pro-lifers can regard CLE advocacy as just such an attempt to attack or de-legitimize pro-life activism. Linking opposition to abortion to opposition to other kinds of violence and injustice is taken not as an attempt to defend life more broadly but rather to make the legitimacy of anti-abortion activism dependent on other types of activism. The rhetoric of certain CLE advocates can add to this impression: “If you were really pro-life you would…”; “you are just pro-birth, not pro-life”; and the like.

Addressing this objection requires CLE advocates to provide clear affirmations of mainstream pro-lifers’ work against abortion. If pro-lifers know you appreciate and share their commitment to defending the unborn and aren’t challenging that commitment, that’s a valuable step toward constructive dialogue. With your shared commitment to defending the unborn established, you can then discuss what other threats to life you should work against as pro-lifers.

Final Points

Mainstream pro-lifers can simultaneously have two or all three of these objections to the CLE. Disentangling the objections and dealing with them separately is then important. Also, sometimes mainstream pro-lifers can express their objections in unclear language: criticisms of the CLE for “diluting the pro-life message” or “lumping together very different issues” may express Objections 1, 2, 3, or all of them. The highest priority during dialogue is to determine if the pro-lifer substantively disagrees with you on other issues such as the death penalty or war or if the objection to the CLE springs from other concerns.

I have identified a few approaches to discussing the CLE with mainstream pro-lifers. Discussing the CLE with different audiences—activists for racial justice or peace, for example—would require addressing different objections and making different arguments. CLE advocacy thrives on diverse people and approaches, and we always welcome further recommendations for productive dialogue.


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  1. Julia Smucker says:

    I don’t find it so easy to sympathize with the third objection, as it seems to me to stem from a kind of zero-sum logic that assumes that caring about multiple life issues necessarily means caring less about abortion. True, we shouldn’t apply that same logic hypocritically by subjecting individuals and groups working against abortion to overly strict ideological litmus tests in order to qualify as pro-life. But there is a distinction to make here between, on the one hand, focusing on a particular issue without necessarily taking an explicit position on other issues (which is particularly understandable for organizations); and on the other, actively favoring certain forms of violence, or explicitly opposing support for those who are pregnant and parenting, or showing outright hostility to the idea of connecting abortion to anything else. It would not be fair to suggest that a person or group is not truly pro-life simply based on the former, but for the latter it would be a valid critique.

    • Thank you for your comments. I would offer a few comments in reply:

      1) If a person or organization explicitly takes a stance on one of the life issues that we as consistent life ethic advocates would disagree with–if they endorse the death penalty, say, or some ongoing war–then of course we should say we disagree and try to persuade the other person to change their mind. That holds for anyone, whether they be pro-life activists or any other kind of activist. I would classify such a discussion of a specific disagreement as falling under what I identified as Objection #2 to the CLE.

      2) Even in these cases of explicit disagreement, I am not sure of how persuasive or productive it is to call someone’s pro-life bona fides (or their social justice bona fides or peace bona fides, depending on what their passion is) into question. I think it is more constructive to affirm the areas of agreement and common ground. That might make the person more amenable to discussing points on which we disagree.

      Perhaps I am misunderstanding your point, though. Please correct me, if so.

      Also, let me put my own question to you: is there an alternative way of engaging mainstream pro-lifers on the consistent life ethic that I did not mention in this piece?

      • Julia Smucker says:

        I think there are two questions at play here: first of all, there is the question of engagement vs. critique, which has always been a difficult one for me whatever the issue. I very much believe in the importance of seeking common ground, and at least meeting people where they are as a starting point when seeking to persuade, but I am also (partly by temperament) inclined to call people out on inconsistencies or what have you. On this point, it’s largely a question of balance – the need to engage critically and critique disarmingly. I honestly can’t say I’ve mastered that balance.

        The second question, I suppose, is how clear line is between objections 2 and 3. It seems to me that in emphasizing the importance of affirmation so strongly, you end up conflating two different kinds of critiques (objections to the objections, you might say): 1) that people who are only or primarily working against abortion are not really pro-life because they’re not working on this or that issue; 2) that people who oppose abortion yet support other violence and/or are hostile to the CLE are not pro-life fully or consistently or enough. I hear you saying we should *never* question anyone’s pro-life bona fides, without acknowledging that there are some versions and contexts of such questioning that are fairer than others.

        There’s another distinction, I guess: there is the question of fairness and the question of effectiveness. It almost sounded to me like you were implying that because questioning how pro-life someone is isn’t the most effective way to persuade, such a critique is never fair. Not that I necessarily take that to be your actual position, just that you weren’t being careful to distinguish between the validity and the effectiveness of critiquing people for being single-issue. My point is that whether such critiques are made provocatively or persuasively, sometimes they do have merit.

        I’m just thinking too that maybe a means of critique that is both fairer and more effective is to focus the critique on the idea rather than the person: say, “discrimination against pregnant women is not pro-life,” or, “cheering violent deaths is not pro-life,” which leaves room for anyone to put themselves on the pro-life side of the equation (or else to have to consider how to reconcile the dissonance), as opposed to, “YOU are not pro-life,” which is more ad hominem and likely to be heard as a threat to self-perception.

        I do think that questioning whether certain *positions* are pro-life, if raised thoughtfully enough (and again, I don’t claim to have fully mastered this technique!), can actually be an effectively thought-provoking way to leverage common ground, by framing things in pro-life terms or whatever language is most likely to resonate with someone, and making clear that this does include real and substantial shared concerns. One can question an inconsistent position by appealing to pro-life principles (or peace principles or whatever – which to me are different ways of saying the same thing, but that’s why I’m CL).

        • These are all excellent points, and I don’t think I would disagree with you on any of them. We want to persuade other people and, as you say, that involves not only engaging them on common ground but critiquing and challenging them on those points where we disagree with them. That is a difficult balance to strike–I certainly have not mastered it either–but we should seek it.

          To persuade by engagement/critique can certainly involve appealing to someone’s principles and showing how a position s/he holds is not consistent with those principles. Persuading someone who makes some variant of Objection #2–that is, persuading someone who explicitly supports a threat to life opposed to the CLE–might well involve such an argument about consistency. We should be civil and avoid the ad hominem (and here I think your comment that critiquing the idea rather than the person is very well taken) but discussing consistency in these situations might well be appropriate.

          I think where we may differ–and this may be a difference of emphasis or subjective reactions more than real substance–is how to regard people who make Objection #3. In your original comment, you said that “I don’t find it so easy to sympathize with the third objection, as it seems to me to stem from a kind of zero-sum logic that assumes that caring about multiple life issues necessarily means caring less about abortion.” Moreover, in the part of your comment above where you discuss the effectiveness vs. fairness distinction, you say that critiques of people for being single-issue “made provocatively or persuasively, sometimes they do have merit.”

          That is my sense of what the sticking point is. I am not entirely sure of why this is the sticking point and would be interesting in hearing more details from you about your views on what you think the valid critique of people who make Objection #3 is.

          For my part, I would just elaborate a bit on why I sympathize with people who make Objection #3, even though I obviously believe in working against the death penalty, poverty, racism, and war along with abortion and euthanasia.

          First, I don’t think there is anything wrong with focusing on a particular cause or issue. We all have only so much time, energy, and expertise, so some degree of specialization is inevitable. Moreover, some people are more inclined toward specialization (while others are more inclined toward linking issues holistically), and I think that is perfectly valid. Such single-issue specialization is not identical to CLE advocacy but it is not necessarily opposed to it either.

          People who have been moved to oppose abortion and specialize on defending the unborn might be uninformed about other issues, or uncommitted, or ambivalent. I can sympathize with that condition; not all of us have opinions about everything or are moved to try to have them.

          If someone is legitimately focusing their activism on one particular cause s/he feels passionate about and is uncommitted or otherwise not involved in other issues, I don’t think that person is doing anything wrong. Or at the very least, I don’t think s/he is doing something so blatantly and egregiously wrong as to justify severe critique. Perhaps encouraging or challenging this single-issue activist to expand her/his horizons somewhat would be appropriate. Certainly I don’t see anything inherently inconsistent or hypocritical in what this single-issue activist is doing.

          If such a single-issue pro-life activist hears someone say “Pro-life is more than just being about abortion” or “We need to be more truly pro-life, not just pro-birth” or “If you are really pro-life you need to work against the death penalty, poverty, and racism, not just abortion,” that activist might understandably interpret that as a criticism of the basic legitimacy of what s/he is already doing. In that sense, such comments are ineffective means of persuasion.

          More than that, though, if such comments genuinely are intended as critiques of the legitimacy of what single-issue pro-life activists are doing, then I would judge them not only to be ineffective but actually to be unfair. Or at least I would judge them to be overstated. I think that people who are engaged in activism for a good cause deserve more credit than that, even if their activism is not (yet) as holistic or wide-ranging as CLE advocacy is.

          This is why I sympathize with people who make Objection #3. I have encountered too many people who seem to dislike single-issue pro-lifers intensely and use CLE rhetoric or principles to attack them. That doesn’t seem fair to me–especially if these critics do not apply the same scathing treatment to other single-issue activists.

          Those are my thoughts, such as they are, but again I welcome further clarification.

          • Bill Samuel says:

            I also struggle with the third point. I think a couple of basic points need to be considered to put this (and the perspective of the blog post as a whole) in context:

            1. The meaning of the term “pro-life” is legitimately in dispute. Those John is calling “single-issue pro-lifers” often see it as applying exclusively to the abortion issue (but sometimes to a different package of issues, e.g., many include opposition to same-sex involvement, but not including key life issues such as war and the death penalty).

            So what is the meaning of “life” in “pro-life”? Obviously not all life is preborn. I personally would not use the term “single issue pro-lifers” or the term “mainstream pro-life groups” because of the implication that only preborn lives matter. I would use “anti-abortion” rather than “pro-life” to be more precise, and to reflect my view that all human lives deserve respect.

            2. Context matters a lot. In a one-on-one dialogue, it is important to stress common ground and often not to argue terminology but rather use common ground to dialogue on basic principles. In a more public setting, especially where those hearing or seeing one’s statements are diverse in their views, it becomes more important to make the distinction between standing for life and just opposing abortion.

            I personally think it is sometimes appropriate to call out mainstream anti-abortion groups for their disrespect of some human lives, either through their direct statements or by their identifying with others (parties, politicians, groups, etc.) well known for their disrespect of certain human lives. IMHO, mainstream anti-abortion groups have caused a lot of harm to the pro-life cause, turning off people who foster respect for human lives in contexts other than abortion. Many natural allies of us steer clear because of the stereotype of “pro-lifers” which has a lot to do with the actual posture of mainstream anti-abortion groups. The Consistent Life Network does often mention comments by others along this line in its Peace & Life Connections e-letter.

          • Bill Samuel says:

            I just checked several mainstream anti-abortion groups’ Web sites. I could not find on any of them anything about maternity leave.

            We all know that a major reason for the high abortion rate in the USA is the lack of the kind of safety net which exists in all other advanced countries. Women abort because they are desperate. But even on such a matter so closely related to abortion as maternity leave, where the US is one of only 2 countries in the world to not require it, the mainstream anti-abortion groups are silent.

            So even on the issue of abortion, these groups are not fully pro-life. They aren’t willing to support measures that would have a clear effect on the abortion rate. This exploration confirms my commitment to not call such groups “pro-life.”

  2. Diane E Keeling says:

    I struggled with this issue a lot the last couple of years. I participated in the first Women’s March, but found out later that the pro life women were not allowed to march with the group…so last year, I didn’t participate. It seems hypocritical to me to silence the voices of anyone who you do not agree with. This side choosing and animosity has got to stop if we are to accomplish our goals of humanity and inclusiveness.

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