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