Is Abortion Different from Other Violence?
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.
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.
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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