Is Abortion Different from Other Violence?

Posted on March 24, 2020 By

by Julia Smucker

Four Ways of Isolating One Issue

Any advocate of the consistent life ethic (CLE) can expect to encounter people who share their pro-nonviolence position on certain issues but depart from it on others. And among those working on various peace and life issues, including those of us who adhere to the CLE, there are many who feel compelled for various reasons to focus their energies on some issues more than others.

Yet I’ve often been puzzled to notice that abortion, more than any other such issue, is frequently singled out from the rest, and from starkly different perspectives. Whether friendly or hostile to the CLE, whether seeking to prioritize or deprioritize opposition to abortion, it seems the one thing many ideologically divergent people can agree on is that abortion is somehow different.

Julia Smucker

I’ve observed at least four ways this differentiation is made:

On one end of the spectrum is abortion as exception to nonviolence. Those who hold this view may connect certain nonviolence issues but reject the inclusion of abortion as a form of violence, sometimes even purging would-be allies who do include it.

At the other extreme are the purely single-issue, to whom any focus on life issues other than abortion represents an unconscionable moral compromise – at best a misguided distraction from what really matters, at worst a deliberate scheme to preserve abortion.

While the above groups are often sources of open and visceral hostility toward the CLE, there are also more mitigated forms of these positions, which may share their ideological leanings while displaying at least a grudging openness to connecting issues across the conventional ideological boundaries.

Closest to the abortion-as-exception position, without condoning abortion, is a view I call anti-anti-abortion, whose adherents may oppose abortion in principle but take pains to distance themselves from traditional abortion opponents. Those holding this view may identify as pro-life, but in a way that overcorrects from what they see as disproportionate emphasis on abortion, to the point of avoiding the issue, downplaying its gravity, or even disproportionately investing their own energies in overgeneralized complaints about those working against abortion.

Others are quasi-single-issue, conceding that other worthy life issues exist, but rarely doing so without insisting on the inherent, objective preeminence of opposing abortion. Even while allowing for some degree of multi-issue connections or granting that some may legitimately focus on other things, the idea of considering abortion as one life issue among many seems almost as anathema to many of these people as to the purely single-issue.

The former two positions are irreconcilable with the CLE, and their adherents are often overtly antagonistic toward it. The latter two may be marginally compatible with the CLE, but in a lopsided way, prone to zero-sum thinking that assumes the importance of one thing can only be stressed at the expense of another, even when dealing with life-and-death issues.

Common Explanations

But why does the divide in this zero-sum dichotomy so frequently fall between abortion and everything else?

The most immediate, though superficial, answer that occurs to me is political: for reasons that have never made sense to me, opposition to abortion has become associated with the political right, and most other opposition to violence with the political left. Arbitrary as these categories may be, political loyalties do seem to have strong pulls in both directions on the weight given to different life issues. But this still doesn’t explain why opposition to euthanasia, also typically associated with the right and often mentioned alongside abortion, isn’t set apart from other issues as frequently or emphatically.

Adherents of the four positions I’ve outlined will offer their own reasons for the differentiation. All of these are real claims I’ve heard from real people, and while I hope to represent them fairly, I haven’t found any of them convincing.

Holders of the “abortion-as-exception” view and maybe even the “anti-anti-abortion” view would claim that in contrast to their altruistic advocacy on behalf of oppressed groups, abortion opposition is all about controlling and oppressing women. This oversimplified narrative fails to account for pro-life women’s perspectives, dismissing them as internalized misogyny or ignoring them altogether. Furthermore, it ignores the ways abortion contributes to gender-based injustice by masking pregnancy discrimination and sexual abuse, facilitating gendercide, and enabling men who feel entitled to unlimited access to women’s bodies.

Those who are “purely single-issue” or “quasi-single-issue” may agree that abortion opposition is differently motivated from other issues, but in the opposite way. In their narrative, it’s pro-life activists who have more purely altruistic motives: they simply love babies and are concerned for the weakest and most vulnerable human beings, even at personal cost, whereas concern for more popular issues might be at least partly to do with scoring political points or signaling membership in an in-group. This assumption relies on a larger narrative of one-sided persecution, ignoring how point-scoring and virtue-signaling cut in multiple directions, sometimes including a perceived need to prove one’s pro-life bona fides.

Aside from questions of motive, the same people often stress the absolute vulnerability of the preborn as a reason abortion deserves pride of place among life issues, to which those who are “anti-anti-abortion” may respond that women considering abortion are often in vulnerable positions themselves and can’t simply be cast as villains in the attack against life. On its face, this is a worthy point (and generally better understood by the “quasi-single-issue” than the “purely single-issue”). This is why the best pro-life groups consider the empowerment of women integral and indispensable to the protection of their unborn children. It’s important to consider when offering pregnancy support or dialoguing with pro-choice people. The vulnerability of children in the womb and women in crisis pregnancies is always worth considering – but using either to rank abortion as of greater or lesser importance than other threats to life is counterproductive.

Another reason offered for prioritizing abortion is that life is a foundational right, without which other rights are meaningless. But why would this not equally apply to other forms of killing? In particular, a similar point could be made about the nuclear danger: if a full-scale nuclear war obliterated all human life on the planet, all the work against other threats to life, including abortion, would come to naught. This point rightly underscores the urgency of averting such a catastrophe, but it wouldn’t be a good reason to deemphasize other threats to life that are occurring now.

Similarly, the fact that abortion happens earlier in the human lifespan than other violence doesn’t make the killing of humans post-birth any less grave, nor the threats to those vulnerable to other violence any less real, nor their lives any less valuable – just as prenatal lives are no less valuable or vulnerable for being less visible.

Dealing with Limits

At this point, it becomes necessary to differentiate between two types of critiques often made of pro-life activists which, though similar, have differing degrees of merit. One critique would seem to require every pro-lifer to spread themselves evenly across all possible issues as proof of authenticity, expressed in statements such as, “Don’t call yourself pro-life unless you’re also doing x, y and z,” or, “If you’re pro-life and not willing to adopt all the unwanted babies, you’re a hypocrite.” People whose most visible work is against abortion are justified in complaining of such impossible demands, which often simply serve as an excuse to dismiss pro-life activism as a whole.

Sometimes, however, the politicization of life issues does lead to genuine inconsistencies in the application of stated values such as reverence for life and concern for the vulnerable, in the form of tacit acceptance or even outright endorsement of violence against certain human lives besides those in danger of abortion. Though far from being true of all pro-life activists, such inconsistencies belie those stated values and give pro-life activism a bad name. Confusing matters further, these two critiques are often conflated, making it easy for those who want to discredit the pro-life cause to dismiss all pro-lifers as inconsistent on the basis of the worst examples, and for those focusing primarily on opposing abortion to in turn dismiss even valid critiques of inconsistency as holding them to an unfair all-or-nothing standard.

If this standard is disproportionately applied to pro-life activism, it’s due not to any unique virtues or vices of pro-lifers but to broad acceptance – from either side – of the dichotomy between abortion and other life issues. The CLE, of course, rejects this dichotomy. But even those who fully embrace the CLE must inevitably deal with practical limits to what they can do.

Some attempt to reconcile this dilemma by advocating equal concern for human beings but unequal concern for human issues. But when the issues under discussion all deal with threats to human life or other particularly grave offenses against human dignity, this distinction contains an implicit contradiction: if certain threats to life are inherently less important because of the life stage or other circumstances in which they occur, then so by extension are the lives that are under threat. Human lives and human life issues are not so easily separated.

This doesn’t mean that all who care about life issues must give equal attention to every one, nor even that all possible issues one could give attention to necessarily have the same moral weight. But these are separate questions. A more helpful distinction, then, is between the question of inherent worthiness of issues and that of practical necessity. Nobody can work full-time on every issue, but whatever one chooses to prioritize should never become an excuse to give other forms of violence a pass, or to insist that the issues one feels most compelled to focus on are objectively worthier than all others.

Even if working on one or two issues more intensely, it’s not difficult to let our passion for protecting human beings from violence show on other things from time to time. Indeed, it should come naturally, if protecting human beings from violence is our driving concern.

Often it’s a simple matter of showing up. I’ve personally attended public events opposing various forms of violence including abortion, war, the death penalty, gun violence, anti-immigrant violence and police brutality, knowing that these events by themselves – let alone my presence there – are not enough to stop these things, but also knowing that showing up sends a message, all the more powerfully if the same people show up for different issues across the expected ideological lines.

One can write about these and other life issues, speak about them in public forums and private conversations, support nonprofits, sign petitions, and share information as the occasion arises, whatever one’s other commitments may be. With inevitable limits on time and resources and the subjectivity of personal experiences, influences and callings, it’s understandable for individuals and organizations not to expend equal effort on every issue. But ultimately, if all human lives at all stages are objectively worthy of respect, then all threats to human lives at all stages must be objectively worthy of opposition. It can only detract from this message to argue what – or who – is worthier.

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See other posts from Julia Smucker:

The Price of Violence: When Dehumanizing the Vulnerable Hurts One’s Own Causes

What Does it Mean to be Inconsistent?

Defining Reproductive Justice: An Encounter

Amnesty International’s Blind Spot 

The Redemptive Personalism of Saint Oscar Romero

Media Stories on Abortion Access

On Praying for the Military

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  1. Bill Samuel says:

    On euthanasia, in my state of Maryland, it has not followed the customary ideological or partisan lines – and this has been noted in a number of media stories. The overwhelmingly Democratic State Senate deadlocked on the physician-assisted suicide bill last year, killing the bill.

    • That’s certainly a good thing, like any defiance of the stereotypical ideological associations in favor of nonviolence! And if the left/right divide on euthanasia is less strong, that would seem to fit with my general diagnosis that it’s political or ideological identity that (artificially) drives the life issues apart – especially between abortion and “peace & justice” issues, and somewhat more mildly with euthanasia. I still feel that there may be some other underlying reason beyond any of the ones I’ve mentioned here that I’m not quite putting my finger on. Or maybe it really is just politics. I’m not sure.

  2. Julia, this is a wonderful, wonderful analysis.

    I think, however, that you have missed one important distinction: In abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia death is fully intended. But in the case of issues like exclusion of immigrants or permissive gun laws, death occurs as a side effect; it is not desired by anyone.

    For me, this makes a big difference. I don’t want anyone to intentionally euthanize me. But at the same time, I could understand a triage situation where all the ventilators would have to be used for people who have better or longer life prospects. Since I’m 75 and my lungs are not in very good shape to begin with, I would be pretty sure to die without a ventilator, but I would not feel that anybody were trying to kill me, so I would not feel excluded from the human community.

    Put more generally, I wonder whether a pro-life position has to insist on equal treatment of all human beings at all circumstances. Perhaps it need only insist on no purposeful exclusion — the most extreme exclusion being intentional killing — of anyone from our circle of concern.

    • Richard, your last sentence here makes for a good starting point. I’d say it’s the least of what we should all hold. But purposeful exclusion can also include a callous disregard for life that may result in wasteful and untimely deaths.

      To use your examples, even the most vehement advocates of the most minimally regulated access to an instrument specifically designed to injure and/or kill human beings, or at least pose the threat of doing so, will say in all sincerity that they don’t want people to be killed, but will consistently err on the side of protecting an often lethal sense of individual autonomy (dressed up in language of “freedom” with strikingly similar reasoning to how minimally regulated abortion access is dressed up in language of “choice”) rather than on the side of protecting life, however deadly the cost of such a notion of “freedom” becomes.

      Or if a person is knowingly deported back to a life-threatening situation, that person’s life is no less worthy of protection simply because his or her death was not directly intended by those who decided and carried out the deportation. Indifference to whether a person lives or dies can have the same effect as intentional killing.

      In fact, these examples do ultimately involve direct killing: homicide. The catch is that socially-approved (or at least controversial) disregard for life abets socially-disapproved killing.

      Or, for that matter, what if a pregnant asylum-seeker is detained in unsanitary conditions without adequate nutrition or medical care, and her unborn child dies as a result? Again, is that child’s life any less worthy of protection because his or her death was not directly intended? Is the child any less dead than if he or she had been aborted?

      The point is, whether human beings unnaturally die from direct intentional killing or from willful disregard for their lives, the result is the same. So if we really believe all human lives are inherently worthy of respect, then we should naturally be strongly concerned by either kind of unnatural death.

    • Another glaring example I should have added is that some are now going so far as to argue that certain people should go ahead and die of COVID, not from a shortage of medical equipment, but out of some calculation of their economic value.

      An article shared by our dear colleague Sarah points to where this utilitarian calculus leads, in a way that illustrates precisely the moral danger of downplaying the gravity of disregard for life because it’s not direct killing:

      “Similar to VerBruggen and Lt. Gov. Patrick, Reno finds ways to devalue the lives of the elderly, this time by sidestepping core Catholic beliefs about the inherent dignity of all human life–undermining the basis for the pro-life movement–and reducing the entire cause to nothing but being “against killing.” As his argument implies, since the virus is doing the killing and not us, we aren’t violating the Fifth Commandment, even if we intentionally raise the risk that more people will die from the disease.”
      https://wherepeteris.com/now-the-elderly-need-a-pro-life-movement/

    • To be clear, Richard, I’m not accusing you personally of making that kind of cold calculation of people’s value, but simply trying to illustrate the seriousness of disregard for life even when it doesn’t involve intentional killing.

  3. Tom Taylor says:

    Good blog and discussion. I often have wondered about the singularity of the abortion issue, so I appreciate the perspective offered here.

  4. Richard Stith says:

    Apropos of Julia’s main concern in her blog:

    The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the fundamental reason why abortion is sui generis is simply that the fact and the accusation of mothers being encouraged and enabled to tear their children apart is as graphic and horrific as anything else we can ever imagine taking place. (Reminds me of that famous painting of Kronos devouring his son. Think of the government and newspapers announcing “Good for him! We need to enable that more often.”)

    That fact drives pro-lifers to focus on removing any public approval for abortion. That accusation drives pro-choicers to focus on getting more public approval for abortion. So the cycle escalates endlessly.

    Put another way, other types of violence seem to generate a consensus that they are evils, albeit with one side saying they are “necessary” evils (permitted for the sake of a greater good). But with abortion, one side says it is good while the other says it is evil.

    • I have all too often had occasion to argue (particularly in Christian circles) that violence must never be celebrated as a good, even if we set aside questions about justification. For example, while war in the abstract is not generally celebrated as a good in itself, the killing of specific enemies in war often is. Think of all the celebratory clamor at the killing of Osama bin Laden, or the rejoicing at the testing of the first atomic bomb. The latter, of course, is before my time, but I remember seeing a video (I think this was in my high school history class) in which two men were smiling broadly and saying, “It’s brighter than a star!” “It’s brighter than two stars!” And the US Navy also has billed itself “a global force for good.”

      Euthanasia is also sometimes promoted as a good, dressed up in euphemistic language like “death with dignity.” As I noted in the post, alignment on the pro & con sides of this issue tends to have more overlap with abortion than other life issues, yet it doesn’t get separated from everything else with the same vehemence.

      Of course, I know we fundamentally agree that abortion – like (I hope) any violence – is an evil and not a good. But unfortunately it’s not the only violence that has ever been called good. And it’s also worth noting that in addition to those calling it an evil and those calling it a good, there are also those in a quieter, mushier middle who do view it as more of an unpleasant necessity.

      The underlying question that’s bothering me here is why do you, personally, feel such a need to keep abortion so categorically distinct from all other violence? I believe abortion is evil *because* it’s violence, but we don’t seem to have the same starting point.

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