The Price of Violence: When Dehumanizing the Vulnerable Hurts One’s Own Causes
by Julia Smucker
Last October, in one of a series of opinion pieces in Slate on how the political left should approach the U.S. Supreme Court, Christopher John Sprigman made the point that the liberalization of abortion laws that came with Roe v. Wade, without popular consensus in its favor, has proven disastrous for the left by giving the right a tangible, long-term foil against which to militate. “The price of Roe,” he summarized, “is all the progressive change we gave up when Roe helped push the center of American politics to the right.”
More recently, Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson mirrored Sprigman’s argument from the opposite side of the political aisle, warning of the steep costs to the moral credibility of “institutions on the right,” and particularly the pro-life movement (though without treating these as entirely synonymous), from willingness to associate themselves with the corrupting influence of Donald Trump.
Being a political independent in part because of the consistent life ethic, I’m resistant to the framing of life issues in conventional left/right terms. Nor do I find motivation in prospects for political advantage or disadvantage for a given ideology. Nevertheless, I sympathize with both writers’ concerns to the extent that they desire to protect human beings who are vulnerable to violence and other indignities.
Furthermore, the juxtaposition of their arguments points to a more significant overarching concern from a consistent life perspective: the promotion of public policies that hurt the vulnerable is costly not only to those directly harmed, but also to the protection of other vulnerable human beings by extension, whenever nonviolent and life-affirming policy goals become bound together with violent and life-denying ones.
Gerson, to his credit, does attempt to dissociate the pro-life movement from political “conservatism” as conventionally understood, introducing the movement in his column as having “traditionally been in a different category.” He explains, “If you believe that a fetus is a member of the human family from its first moment … then opposition to abortion is inherently a social justice issue. It is the defense of the weak and voiceless against violence.” This framework for what it means to be pro-life leads naturally into the necessity of consistency, “to care equally for the lives of women in crisis” and “for the health and welfare of children after birth,” to “be opposed to the dehumanization of unborn children and the dehumanization of refugees and migrants.” As an issue of defense of the weak, Gerson argues, “The legitimacy of pro-life sentiment is demonstrated by its consistency.”
To sacrifice this consistency for the sake of political gain is not only harmful to those dehumanized by the policies and rhetoric of “Trumpism” but also, by association, to the pro-life movement itself. Associating with misogyny, nativism and racism, abuse and cruelty, he elaborates, comes at a serious cost to pro-life claims to stand for women, social inclusion, charity and reason. The price of “the Trumpification of the pro-life movement,” then, is the very credibility of the movement’s basis in compassion.
Sprigman frames the price of Roe more in terms of the advancement of an undefined “progressive” ideology for its own sake, but to the extent that what he means by “progress” overlaps with justice toward vulnerable human beings, his point parallels Gerson’s. To serve his argument against over-reliance on the Supreme Court to effect justice, he mentions some of the more glaring examples of unjust Supreme Court decisions, such as its affirmation of slavery in Dred Scott, of detention of Japanese-Americans in Korematsu, and of discrimination against travelers from primarily Muslim-majority countries in Trump v. Hawaii. Ironically, Roe fits this pattern in a way that Sprigman doesn’t acknowledge, if one looks at it as a pattern of failure to protect human beings from dehumanization and violence. But even though Sprigman sees Roe itself as a positive by virtue of its conventional association with “progressivism,” he’s still skeptical about whether it’s been worth the obstacles it’s created to more laudable goals related to nondiscrimination. The price of Roe is not only millions of prenatal lives, but also the victimization of numerous others by the broad license given to other forms of violence and exclusion, sometimes in the name of fighting against Roe.
Both legalized abortion and the broad bigotry of Trumpism are already negative things in themselves, with immeasurable costs to human dignity. That’s all the more reason for people on both sides of the aisle to let go of goals that are counterproductive to their best ideals and belie claims of compassion for the vulnerable – ideally for consistency’s sake, but at least for the sake of the lives they do seek to protect.
For more of our blog posts from Julia Smucker, see: