by John Whitehead
Certain historical episodes of nonviolent resistance to injustice are famous: the Indian struggle for independence; the American civil rights movement; or the Arab Spring uprisings come to mind. However, many people who are aware of such episodes aren’t familiar with the larger history of nonviolent resistance nor with how such resistance can be used most effectively. For those wishing to learn more about nonviolent resistance, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (2021), by Erica Chenoweth, is a good introduction.
Chenoweth is a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who has written extensively over the past decade about how nonviolent civil resistance is more effective than violence in overcoming injustice. This latest book provides a clear, popular overview of the topic, presented in the form of answers to possible questions about nonviolent resistance. Consistent life ethic advocates and other activists will find the book a valuable guide to why and how nonviolent methods of resistance can succeed.
Changing the Power Balance within a Society
The book defines “civil resistance” as a “method of active conflict in which unarmed people use a variety of coordinated, noninstitutional methods—strikes, protests, demonstrations, boycotts, alternative institution-building—to promote change without harming or threatening to harm an opponent.” (p. 28) Such resistance differs both from violent rebellion and activism that works purely within official institutions, such as voting for candidates in an election. Indeed, as noted, civil resistance may involve creating parallel political or economic institutions to the official or mainstream ones within a society.
Civil resistance campaigns seek to overturn some unjust status quo, whether a repressive regime, a colonial occupation, or a social injustice such as racial segregation. Civil resistance works to achieve such goals by exerting enough pressure to get people and groups supporting the unjust status quo—the military, business leaders, religious or other influential institutions—to shift their support to the resistance campaign. This support may take the form of actively helping the resistance or merely not working against them: security forces, for example, might refuse to use violence against resistance members.
These loyalty shifts don’t require those in power to agree that the current situation is unjust, merely to recognize that their interests now lie in siding with the resistance. For example, economic resistance techniques such as strikes and boycotts can create enough economic pressure to make business leaders support the resistance campaign’s goals.
Achieving such a crucial loyalty shift generally requires that the resistance campaign has a large, diverse membership; uses diverse resistance tactics; and remains disciplined and resilient even when they encounter state repression. Chenoweth emphasizes that successful resistance campaigns don’t rely solely on protests or other public demonstrations. Less confrontational methods, such as boycotts or staying at home rather than going to work or school, can exert pressure in ways less vulnerable to repression.
Another point Chenoweth frequently repeats (with an urgency that seems born of frustration) is that successful civil resistance campaigns require a high degree of organization and long, careful planning and preparation. A loosely organized movement that takes to the streets without a clear strategy is less likely to succeed, she argues.
However, a successful civil resistance campaign doesn’t require a single charismatic leader, such as a Gandhi. Relying on such leaders makes a campaign vulnerable to collapse should the leader be imprisoned or killed.
Chenoweth cites a variety of quantitative studies, many of which she conducted with collaborators, to support her claims about civil resistance, including civil resistance’s superiority to violence. Of 627 campaigns that occurred between 1900 and 2019 and that aimed to overthrow governments or create new nation-states, over 50% of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded within a year of the campaigns’ point of greatest popular participation. In contrast, only about 26% of violent campaigns during this period succeeded.
She also cites a 2014 study that examined 46 mass killings between 1989 and 2011. The study concluded that campaigns can succeed even in the face of violent government repression of nonviolent protests, provided the campaign is well organized. Also, another study cited notably concludes that nonviolent campaigns generally suffer far fewer deaths than armed rebellions do.
Chenoweth offers plausible arguments for why nonviolent resistance campaigns tend to be more successful than violent ones. Nonviolent campaigns attract larger, more diverse followings because they are less dangerous, don’t require people to overcome scruples about using violence, and are open to people not suitable for military service. Nonviolent campaigns also earn more sympathy from the general population (Chenoweth cites a variety of opinion surveys from various countries on this point). Last, nonviolent campaigns make defections by state security forces more likely, while violent rebellion makes such forces more likely to close ranks.
Chenoweth also addresses the hard cases of resistance to genocidal or otherwise extremely violent regimes and offers a blunt, sobering assessment: “genocidal or totalitarian regimes…are difficult to confront with any kind of resistance, violent or not… nonviolent resistance does not always work, even when many people are using it together,” but “taking up violence may be even more disastrous” (pp. 156, 157).
Problems and Limitations
Although Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know contains much that will be useful to consistent life ethic advocates, this is not a consistent life ethic book. Chenoweth writes sympathetically of public suicide by self-immolation, questionably regarding such protest as “nonviolent” (p. 82). The book’s few mentions of pro-life activism are generally negative, with Chenoweth suggesting that such activism might be an example of how nonviolent resistance can sometimes be immoral.
Moreover, Chenoweth’s argument for nonviolent resistance is essentially pragmatic—nonviolence is preferable simply because it is more effective—and she largely refrains from condemning violence on moral grounds. This attitude will likely be disappointing to pacifist, and many non-pacifist, consistent life ethic advocates.
Civil Resistance also fails to address some crucial questions about nonviolent civil resistance. The book’s focus is various struggles within states, in which the government being challenged is either some homegrown regime or a more or less established colonial regime. What is not addressed is how to struggle against aggressive foreign states that have not yet established control of another state. Granting that nonviolent civil resistance is more effective than violence in challenging an established regime, would such nonviolent resistance also be more effective than violent resistance in stopping an invasion by an outside state? The answer may well be “Yes,” but the book doesn’t address the question.
Another largely unaddressed question is how to deal with nonviolent civil resistance that is used for bad ends. While one might not categorize pro-life activism this way, certainly scenarios in which civil resistance is used to thwart or disrupt just laws or policies are easy to imagine. The January 6, 2021, Capitol riot was hardly nonviolent, but purely nonviolent resistance could have similarly disrupted the conduct or ratification of an election. How should governments and activists respond to harmful civil resistance? How do such cases fit into a larger theory of civil resistance? (Chenoweth makes a few attempts to talk about this issue, but they are under-developed.)
Despite such limitations, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know is a solid introductory guide to civil resistance’s methods and potential. Consistent life ethic advocates should read it, ponder it, seek out other works on the topic (the book contains a list of suggested resources), and decide how best to employ nonviolent resistance in their own work.
For more of our posts on the theory of nonviolence, see:
Remembering Gandhi at 150: The Power of Nonviolence and Respect for Life
by Sarah Terzo
A book published in 2010 revealed that the military had a policy that all servicewomen who became pregnant had to abort or face discharge – and this policy was in place before Roe vs. Wade, when abortion was still illegal throughout the United States.
The U.S. military’s purpose is to wage war. Killing enemy combatants, fellow human beings, is part of that mandate. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that an industry based on killing wouldn’t value the lives of preborn children either – or, as it turns out, the right of women to choose to have their children.
Requiring Abortion – before Roe
In 1970, the Department of Defense issued a policy permitting military hospitals to commit abortions on military members and their spouses. In 1970, abortion was illegal in most states, and was only just being legalized (usually with heavy restrictions) in a few. In fact, that year New York became the first state to legalize abortion for any reason up to 24 weeks for all residents and nonresidents.
Military hospitals, however, were performing abortions even in states where the procedure was legally banned.
In addition, the military required servicewomen who became pregnant to have abortions or face discharge.
Records show 4,041 women in the Air Force alone were discharged for getting pregnant and refusing abortions from 1969-1971. Possibly 7,000 women across all military branches were discharged because of pregnancy from roughly the late 1940s to the mid-1970s.The number of women who aborted is unknown.
An Air Force regulation read:
“A woman officer shall be discharged from the service with the least practical delay when a determination is made by a medical officer that she is pregnant” or “has given birth to a living child,” unless the “pregnancy is terminated.”1
Military policy required female Air Force officers who became pregnant to abort or lose their jobs. A pregnancy would end a female officer’s military career – unless she had an abortion.
The Susan Struck Case
Captain Susan R. Struck, a career officer in the Air Force, became pregnant while serving as a nurse in Vietnam.
At first, she planned to have an abortion. The Guardian quotes her:
“But that night I had a dream,” recalled Struck, now aged 75, speaking in a joint interview with the Guardian and WNYC in the city of Sierra Vista, Arizona, some 50 years later.
She dreamed about the fetus, and being called “Mommy”, and the next morning she says: “I sat up in bed, and I said, ‘No way. No way are they going to do this. Susan Struck is not going to fall for this crap.’”
Struck was also a Catholic, and this influenced her choice to have her baby.
She was able to hide the pregnancy for seven-and-a-half months, but received a discharge notice when her pregnancy was discovered.
She gave birth to her child, a baby girl named Tanya, and put the child up for adoption.
Her punishment was discharge, but unlike Air Force officers before her, she decided to fight back. She went to court, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawyer assigned to her case was Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice. She obtained a stay of discharge, but it turned out only to be temporary. She lost both in the United States District Court in Seattle and in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Both sets of judges ruled that she could be discharged for her refusal to get an abortion.
Though it first was sought during her pregnancy, at this point her discharge was purely punitive. There was no reason Struck couldn’t resume her duties. Her pregnancy was over, her baby gone. She wouldn’t be impeded by a medical condition or the need to care for a child. But the Air Force was determined to discharge her anyway.
The case was appealed to the Supreme Court. But perhaps fearing bad publicity, the Air Force changed its policy. According to authors Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, it did not reverse the policy. Female Air Force officers who became pregnant would still face discharge if they didn’t have an abortion. What the Air Force did was allow officials to waive enforcement of the policy in individual cases. They then waived the policy in Struck’s case in 1972.
There is a discrepancy in sources here. A military-sponsored website implies that the policy was abandoned, not revised. The Guardian, another source, is ambiguous on this point, saying only that the discharge would no longer be ‘automatic.’ Whether Greenhouse and Siegal have it wrong or whether the military is trying to sugar-coat its history is unclear.
Because Struck was no longer facing discharge, the Supreme Court dismissed her case as moot.
Interestingly, this whole event played out while abortion was illegal in most states. Abortion wasn’t legalized until Roe vs. Wade in 1973.
It’s likely that members of the fledgling pro-choice movement knew about Struck’s case. However, there doesn’t seem to be any documentation that they ever publicly addressed or opposed the coerced abortion policy. They focused all their attention on legalizing elective abortions across the United States. They didn’t rally to defend Struck’s right to have her child. This was despite their professed commitment to women’s “right to choose.”
I have read contemporary books by early pro-choice activists such as Bernard Nathanson (who later became pro-life), Larry Lader and Malcolm Potts and perused many early pro-choice documents. I have never seen reference to Struck’s case.
It’s hard to see a bigger violation of the “right to choose” than women being forced to abort under pain of their careers being ended. Yet pro-choice forces didn’t advocate for the women suffering under the military’s policy.
Despite winning the lawsuit, Struck faced so much hostility that she left the Air Force anyway and became a pediatric nurse. She eventually established a relationship with the daughter she placed for adoption.
Another coerced abortion policy was in place in Great Britain. According to pro-choice feminist Janet Hadley:
[T]he British military had a policy of kicking women who became pregnant out of the service if they did not abort. If a woman was found to be over 16 weeks pregnant, she was discharged, even if she was in a clerical or office job or other noncombat position.2
As we can see, this coerced abortion policy applied to women whose jobs wouldn’t be compromised by the physical condition of pregnancy. It wasn’t limited to potential combatants.
One victim of the policy, a telephone operator at the Women’s Royal Navy Service, who had an abortion, said:
They gave me a weekend to think about it. It was like I was going to the dentist to have a tooth out. There was no compassion and no counseling… My boyfriend didn’t want to know, I had no choice.3
Women went to court to challenge the policy. According to a lawyer who represented the women:
There was a culture of abortion. If you went to the medical officer, you got told how quickly an abortion could be arranged and that the military hospital was lined up ready to do the operation.4
Fortunately, this policy did end, and military personnel are no longer required to get abortions in Great Britain.
These forced abortion policies give insight into the nature of the military, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. The military, whether in our country or another, puts its members in harm’s way and endangers their lives as a matter of course. It isn’t surprising that in addition to not valuing its members’ lives, it tends not to value their right to choose against abortion. Nor is it surprising that an industry predicated on killing would have no scruples about mandating more killing.
- Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, eds. Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling (New York: Kaplan Publishing, 2010), pp. 198 – 199
- Janet Hadley Abortion: Between Freedom and Necessity (Great Britain: Virago Press 1996), p. 102
- “Abortions Test Case for Army” Guardian March 28, 1994
- Hadley, p. 104
For more of our posts on similar themes, see:
Various people took screenshots and offer reflections.
Sen. Katrina Jackson was a really inspiring keynote speaker. The spirit she exudes is wonderful and it set the tone for the conference. The other speakers I heard from the workshops I attended and the closing session were also excellent. Those planning it did a great job of getting a diverse set of speakers. The conference delved even deeper than the issues themselves with a lot of focus on how we act towards others with different perspectives, which reflects the spirit behind the Consistent Life Ethic of respect for each and every human being. There was much excellent dialogue among the attendees which was encouraging to all.
Inclusivity and bridge-building were running themes throughout, not simply in a touchy-feely way but brought alongside the need to acknowledge tensions and human complexities. A key piece of advice given by keynote speaker Katrina Jackson, and echoed by several panelists in the breakout sessions I attended, was to take the common ground we have with people we’re working with on specific issues as a starting point; when people have seen our genuine passion for things they are also passionate about, this can eventually create openings for meaningful dialogue on points of disagreement and can prevent others from putting us into a box (or us from putting others into a box, for that matter). This resonated strongly with my experience as a consistent-lifer who’s been involved in advocacy on multiple issues.
At this great conference’s closing session, which was co-hosted by Darren Calhoun and Carol Crossed, a theme that came up repeatedly was living with tension. Darren and Carol brought up the tension between admiring historical figures’ virtues and accomplishments while also recognizing their hateful attitudes and actions. I thought this theme was also relevant to other issues participants discussed over the course of conference. Katrina Jackson’s talk made me think of tensions involved in working with people on a single issue we agree on, even as we disagree on other issues. Sarah Terzo and Sophie Trist’s session on writing made me think of the tension between writing’s, especially fiction’s, artifice and its possibility of getting at some truth. During Carol’s session on depolarizing conversations on life issues, we discussed how to be honest without alienating people. Defending life involves living with the tensions created by trying to balance so many different concerns. We must each negotiate these tensions in our own ways.
For more of our conference posts, see:
When Women Lead: The Pro-life Women’s Conference / C.J. Williams
Author’s note: I recently retired from the Supreme Court of Missouri after serving as a judge of that court for 20 years. My brother, Richard Stith, a member of the Consistent Life Network, thought its members would be interested in learning about some of the death penalty decisions and dissents which I wrote while a member of the Court. I am not a member of the Consistent Life Network, and no doubt do not agree with all of the views of its membership. But, because I share the membership’s interest in the fair application of the death penalty, I have agreed to discuss some of my most important death penalty opinions and dissents. Please keep in mind as you read this or read about any legal decision that the role of a judge is to express the judge’s understanding of the law and justice, not the judge’s personal views. Because the law is complex, wise judges of good conscience may disagree as to how a case should be decided. It is through thoughtful expressions of their differing views in opinions and dissents that the law grows and improves.
The most significant opinion I have authored in terms of its impact on the law and on justice throughout the United States is State ex rel. Simmons v Roper, 112 S.W.3d 397 (Mo banc 2003), which was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons, 43 US 551 (2005). Mr. Simmons was found guilty of a murder committed when he was 17 in the 1990’s. The jury imposed a death sentence after the prosecutor argued that if he was this dangerous at age 17, how awful would he be later? This was then thought constitutional because while in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court had held that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who committed murder at age 15 or younger due to their lack of maturity, by 1989 it had held it was not cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who was 16 or 17 at the time of their crime, implicitly suggesting that such an execution would not violate our “evolving standards of decency.” Similarly, that year in a separate case the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was constitutional to execute someone who was intellectually disabled at the time of their crime under our evolving standards of decency.
So, when in 2002 the attorney general of Missouri asked the Missouri Supreme Court to sign Mr. Simmons’ death warrant, the latest U.S. Supreme Court decision would by itself indicate that was ok. But, that year, in Atkins, the U.S. Supreme Court had reversed its holding about the intellectually disabled and had held that it violated our evolving standards of decency to execute someone who was intellectually disabled.
To a majority of the Missouri Supreme Court, this raised the important question of whether the U.S. Supreme Court would find that standards for execution of juveniles also had evolved since 1989. In both cases, in the interim, additional state legislatures had barred such executions, while none had added in an approval not previously present, and more had been learned about the lack of full development of a juvenile’s brain while in their teens.
A minority of my colleagues said this was for the U.S Supreme Court to revisit if it wanted, and that it was presumptuous for us to do so, and many scholars around the country offered similar criticism. But, this view overlooked that the Missouri Supreme Court was almost certainly Mr. Simmons’ last opportunity for consideration of whether he was eligible to be executed, as the U.S. Supreme Court takes a case from Missouri or any other particular state only once every three or four years, and normally refuses cases that simply apply prior law. So, if it said he could be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court almost certainly would have denied review and Mr. Simmons would have been executed without anyone determining whether under then-current community mores, his execution was cruel and unusual. The majority of the Missouri Supreme Court explained that it believed it therefore was its obligation to determine this question. Further, we explained we believed the U.S. Supreme Court had invited us to do so by holding in their earlier cases that what is cruel and unusual varies over time, that it reflects the current community consciousness, and that evolving standards of decency might prohibit what had not been thought to be cruel or unusual in the past. So, my opinion stated, it turned out correctly, that Missouri had authority to look at the 2003 community standards and see if they had evolved to bar execution for crimes committed by juveniles.
The decision I authored for the court rejected the argument that only legislative enactments could be looked at to determine community standards, noting that the U.S. Constitution does not state that state legislatures shall decide what is cruel and unusual. Rather it broadly states that such punishment is prohibited, thereby leaving it to the courts to make this determination.
Accordingly, in prior cases the U.S. Supreme Court had looked to numerous sources in addition to legislatures, including religious and cultural and civic and medical groups. Applying this same analysis, the Missouri decision held it was a violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause to execute someone for a crime committed as a juvenile. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed using exactly our reasoning and quoting our decision twice. Execution of juveniles is now barred in the United States, and more than 70 youths were taken off death row around the country as a result of that ruling.
Another important majority decision I authored was State v. Whitfield, 107 S.W.3d 253 (Mo. banc 2003). It had multiple important holdings. First, the Missouri Supreme Court held that it believed the U.S. Supreme Court cases simply set a minimum standard which the states must follow in applying constitutional provisions, including the right to habeas corpus. But, we held in Whitfield, we believed states are free to set a higher standard. Therefore, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to apply retroactively its decision that a jury rather than a judge must find every element of a crime necessary to impose the death penalty, we held Missouri would do so. The U.S. Supreme Court later held in a case called Danforth that this was correct, that states were free to apply the right to habeas corpus more liberally than the U.S. Supreme Court had, citing in the course of its decision a law review article I wrote that had been published in the interim in the Valparaiso Law Review, “Contrast of State and Federal Court Authority to Grant Habeas Relief,” 38 Valparaiso Law Rev. 421 (Spring 2004). Whitfield also held that because the jury had been unable to reach a decision whether to impose death, that was in effect an acquittal of death, since one can be given the death penalty only if all jurors agree to impose it. Therefore, the defendant’s sentence could not be relitigated.
A later decision of the Missouri Supreme Court narrowed another holding in Whitfield, in which it had held that juries had to make the determination whether factors in mitigation of punishment outweighed those in aggravation because it is a factual question. The majority said, over my dissent, that this is a subjective decision which the judge can make if the jury deadlocks. State v. Wood, 580 S.W.23d 566 (Mo. banc 2019).
Other important death penalty dissents I have written often have involved intellectual disability and whether and how it should affect imposition of the death penalty.
State ex rel Cole v. Griffith, 460 S.W.3d 349 (Mo banc 2015), dealt with a man who had a mental disability. Unusually, this was because, while he was not found incompetent at trial, in the years he was in prison his mental competence had so deteriorated that he was hearing voices and showing other symptoms of psychosis. The majority decided that his claims of incompetence were not sufficiently credible to entitle him to a hearing, even though, as I pointed out in my dissent, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that if a threshold showing of incompetence is made at the time of execution then one cannot be executed, because it would be cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who did not understand the nature of and reason for his death. To deny a factual hearing on this key factual issue was manifestly unjust.
State ex rel. Clayton v Griffith, 457 S.W.3d 735 (Mo. banc 2015), involved what I stated in my death penalty dissent was a particularly egregious violation of the rights of a mentally disabled individual. Mr. Clayton had an injury causing him partial loss of his frontal lobe. He argued that made him ineligible for the death penalty. The majority said, in part, that he was required to show that he had this mental disability prior to age 18, and since his traumatic brain injury did not occur until he was 32, whatever it did to him did not constitute mental incompetence and therefore could not justify changing his sentence to life in prison. I argued in dissent that he was entitled to a hearing to show he was mentally incompetent as a result of the traumatic brain injury, without regard to how or when he got his injury. The requirement to show the mental disability was diagnosed before age 18 is to prevent someone faking a mental disability later — it serves no purpose where, as in that case, all agreed defendant suffered an injury which caused his mental disability after age 18. One should look to the purpose of a rule and not apply it blindly to do an injustice.
Finally, in Johnson v. State, 580 S.W.3d 895 (Mo. banc 2019), Mr. Johnson’s counsel failed to tell him that if he were found by the jury to be intellectually disabled, he could not get the death penalty. Instead, the lawyer told him he better take a plea deal for life in prison without parole because otherwise he likely would get the death penalty. The lawyer gave this advice because he did not understand the difference between intellectual disability, which if proven means you are less culpable and under the U.S. Supreme Court Atkins decision means you are not eligible for the death penalty, and mental incompetence, which means you cannot be held guilty because you did not know right from wrong. Under Atkins, even if you knew right from wrong and so were guilty, you could not get a death sentence. Had Mr. Johnson known this, he would not have pleaded guilty because the worst he could get was a life sentence, and if the jury believed his defenses that he was misled by others due to his disability, then he might have gotten a lesser sentence than that. The majority refused to provide even a hearing, although his I.Q. was without question below 70 – in fact, he tested at an I.Q. of 53. I said in dissent, “What is at stake is whether a man who is intellectually disabled must serve life in prison without parole because his counsel failed to understand the meaning or consequences of intellectual disability under the law governing imposition of the death penalty.”
For more of our posts on the death penalty, see:
Is the Death Penalty Unethical? / Hannah Cox
Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty / Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa
Racism and the Death Penalty / David Cruz-Uribe
by Rachel MacNair
Several kinds of arguments show up in most large, long-lasting nonviolent social movements. Activists often express distress about these divisions, thinking more unity would mean more success.
I’d like to make the case that instead of thinking of “unity” – an unworkable concept when dealing with large groups of people with strong opinions – we should realize that these kinds of arguments happen so constantly that it’s better to expect people to have them. We can work with these differences harmoniously.
If we’re aware of it, these differing schools of thought can actually be used to make all movements far more effective.
Not Division, But Multiplication
- the “purists” vs. the “pragmatists”
Purists say compromise is immoral and detrimental in the long run. Pragmatists argue for an “all or something” approach, believing it is immoral to allow violence to continue while waiting for purity.
These two approaches can complement each other. The purists keep the compromises from getting too watered-down. The pragmatists can use the purists to make themselves appear more moderate.
We once had a major heated debate in the division of peace psychology in the American Psychological Association (APA) on the topic of torture under the Bush administration and the APA response to it; I was president of the division during one of the years of this raging debate, 2013. I discerned that this was what the controversy was about: the purists were accusing the pragmatists of selling out, and the pragmatists were accusing the purists of posturing rather than getting something done.
I proposed to both sides the point that the two approaches complement each other. The pragmatists caught on to this immediately, and confirmed it: on the APA Council, they had been seen as a bunch of radical extremists – until the more extreme purists made a lot of noise. Suddenly, with the same position, they were the moderates, and the people more reasonable to negotiate with. Yet they did have to say that they couldn’t water it down too much for fear of the purists in their group (and of course, they didn’t want to water it down too much, so the purist agitation was a big help).
I also had an easy time explaining the two categories to the purists as the basis of the dispute. It was a little harder to get across to them why it was better to have both schools of thought rather than everybody going with just theirs.
The proposal did pass in the Council, so there was a step taken in the right direction. But all of us agreed this wasn’t the final thing we wanted to achieve. That came later with a major media exposé of the torture situation, which suddenly put everything in a new light. That exposé happened, of course, in part through the continued activism of the purists, yet the APA Council was more open to it because they had taken the previous step.
In the case of the pro-life movement, the American Life Lobby – now changed to the American Life League – split off from the National Right to Life Committee early on for this very reason: NRLC was willing to make legislative compromises to get legislation passed, and ALL was only willing to tolerate entirely good legislation. There’s a reason they changed from Lobby to League; they do better at the tasks that purists are good at.
- “reform” vs. “root cause”
There is a parable of the people of a village who awake to find babies floating in their nearby river. They immediately help the babies, pull them out, dry and clothe and feed and shelter them. This happens day after day. Finally one person decides to go up along the river to find out why on earth all these babies are being thrown in.
This parable is often told as an explanation of a radical approach – that is, one that goes to the root. The babies are obviously better off not being placed in danger than they are being rescued.
Still, while the person is searching for the root cause, the babies are still in desperate need of immediate assistance.
What if the person can’t find the root cause? Or can find it, but can’t do anything once found? Or can do something, but it takes a long time? Or gets it done, only to find that another cause of babies being thrown in the river pops up somewhere else?
Both approaches are therefore needed. Reforms and immediate aid not only help right away, but the assertive example that people care about this problem may end up being part of the root-cause solution, since apathy is likely to be part of what causes the problem. Incremental steps toward the ultimate solution may also be more workable than trying to get it in one fell swoop; still, it’s important to keep the root causes in mind rather than merely tinker.
- the “street” people vs. the “straight” people
Nonviolent “street” people argue it’s immoral to wait for normal legal channels rather than taking direct action immediately. “Straight” people believe respectability is crucial to success.
This isn’t a strict division. Both groups attend legal demonstrations. Those who may engage in civil disobedience might still lobby for a certain bill.
Still, there are usually tensions, as those desperate for respectability think those who opt for the priority of urgency are hurting the movement, and vice versa.
Again, these two perspectives provide for a more holistic movement. Those in the street who communicate urgency can be ignored if seen as crazy and not respectable. Those who are respectable can be ignored because the issue isn’t understood as urgent. Both together can bring about a greater likelihood of being listened to.
I remember a time when I was inside, attending a state convention of the National Organization for Women, when a large group of pro-lifers showed up outside. They were yelling “Stop the killing now!” as a chant. Since the other NOW conference attenders knew I had a pro-life feminist position, they came up to me to explain how they weren’t in favor of killing, and I was able to dialog with them reasonably. Without me, the folks outside would have been dismissed entirely. Without them, I would have been regarded as an eccentric and dismissed entirely. We got so much more done because both of us were there.
- the “old-timers” vs. the “newcomers”
Newcomers are obviously crucial to a movement. A movement can’t grow without them. They also bring in fresh new ideas, enthusiasm, and help avoid ruts.
Old-timers are also crucial. They have experience of what does and doesn’t work, and of what has happened before.
Newcomers who are brimming with new-found enthusiasm may also have the impression that nothing has gone on before. They weren’t there when it happened. They may think the movement wasn’t doing successful things because it hasn’t been all the way successful yet. The contempt for the experience and accumulated wisdom of those who have been working hard for years can be very painful to the targets of the contempt. (I speak from personal experience.)
- the “single-issue” vs. the “everything’s connected”
A focus on a single issue has greater clarity. It allows more people to work on a problem, since widely divergent views on other issues don’t matter.
A focus on multiple related issues has greater coherence. It allows for a greater sense of community among people who are concerned with inter-relationships in a larger context: various peace issues, feminism, civil rights, anti-poverty, and so on. The consistent life ethic, of course, excels in this way of thinking.
The different approaches are useful in different contexts. Because there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, some discernment about what’s called for in specific situations is helpful.
We in the Consistent Life Network take the multi-issue approach as a matter of organizational mission. That doesn’t mean that individual blog posts or items in the newsletter can’t be focused on a single issue. Many of our sympathizers and member groups are focused on a single issue, and we encourage that – for those situations in which it’s the most helpful.
We all take first one side and then the other when it comes to newcomers and old-timers, but on everything else, some people will firmly decide on one side rather than the other. If we’re more conscious of how these can actually all fit together, we can stop having frustrations that we do one way while other people do another. We have to, because these differing perspectives are bound to show up, as demonstrated by the observation that they practically always have.
But they also don’t have to be clear distinctions. I, for one, commonly find myself on either side in each of these, depending on the circumstance. Individuals can always choose one, the other, or both, with some discernment.
For more of our posts on similar topics, see:
by Rachel MacNair
A freelance writer recently interviewed me on this question: Why is it that U.S. states tend to divide out, with some having the death penalty but passing restrictions on abortion, while others fund abortion and don’t have the death penalty? You can see the list here of death penalty states and abortion-funding states; while five are both and ten are neither, the rest do divide out. A similar pattern can be seen in countries world-wide.
From a conventional political point of view, it’s a conservative/liberal distinction. But from a consistent life ethic perspective, it is indeed puzzling.
What Do Conservative and Liberal Mean?
Right-wing and left-wing aren’t rigidly distinct categories. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty makes excellent abolition arguments from a conservative viewpoint, as of course do all conservative consistent-lifers. Conversely, the liberal and radical consistent-lifers show that opposition to abortion is quite capable of being cast in liberal principles.
When I was growing up, I was taught:
conservative = wants to keep things the same
liberal = wants some changes
reactionary = wants to go back to the way things were
radical = wants things changed down to the root
But if you go with that understanding, then positions would surely change from issue to issue. Some things should be conserved, some reformed, some changes we did turned out to be a bad idea and we’re better off dispensing with them, and some things really do need changing down to their very foundation.
Under this scheme, all pro-lifers are radical, by definition. While reforms along the way to the goal are acceptable, the ultimate goal is a change to respect human life, a societal change down to the very core.
This works fine for me. I was raised to think that “radical” is a good term, one I could be pleased to apply to myself. It applied not merely to avoiding wars, but getting to the root causes of war so the idea wouldn’t even come up. It applied to getting at the root causes of racism, and the death penalty, and poverty. Reforms are better than not having reforms, but I was in the group that regarded liberals as too right-wing.
Yet the only people I commonly hear calling pro-lifers “radicals” are our opponents, and they intend it to be pejorative. They mean “extreme,” and imply being extreme is a bad thing. But they clearly don’t mean left-wing by the term.
Still, even if it’s badly over-simplified, for the sake of insight, I’m going to use the no change/yes change distinction to answer the question as to why states and countries divide out as much as they do on which of the two forms of violence – executions or abortions – they prefer.
History of the Death Penalty: Keep Things the Same
I find that I get unanimous agreement, including from military people, when I make this point: The only reason we have wars now is that we’ve had them for thousands of years. If we hadn’t had them all this time, and someone suggested them as an innovation, no one would buy it.
The same applies to racism. The color of a person’s skin could have genealogical implications with associated positive views of heritage. But the idea that some shades of skin color are to be seen negatively while others show superiority is so silly on its face that there’s only one possible explanation for its existence: there’s a history. Without that history, if it were proposed fresh now, it would be laughed out of consideration.
I’d say the same is true of the death penalty – and the racism it’s associated with. If executions hadn’t been happening all along, they wouldn’t work as a sudden new innovation now.
All the innovations in this area have been toward fewer executions: apply them only to serious crimes like murder rather than mere pickpocketing; make the methods more “humane”; stop putting them on public display.
But for people who live in death penalty states or countries who want to keep things the same, that means tenaciously holding on to the death penalty.
History of Abortion: Changes
We’ve had feticide and infanticide throughout history as well, but there have been three major innovations:
1. Patriarchs – understood as the Head of the Household – used to decide whether or not a woman got an abortion, and her opinion on the matter was irrelevant. If she sought it herself, it was often to hide having been sexually abused in some way, or it was adapting to a harsh and judgmental society that was indifferent to her real needs. The concept that it’s a woman’s right to choose is a startling new innovation of the 20th century. The 19th century feminists never understood it that way. Large numbers of women now, especially those who’ve had abortions and are now active in the pro-life movement, don’t see it that way. But a large number of women do, and it’s the way it’s commonly presented in the mainstream media.
2. Abortions, along with childbirth, used to be harshly unsafe to the mothers. They’re still not as safe to women as proponents make them out to be, but medical technology has improved enough that asserting it as safe isn’t as obviously off the wall as it would have been in days of yore.
3. Eugenics, the idea of breeding “better” people, arose in the 19th century and had an especially strong following in the early 20th century. It’s more in disrepute now – as seen by Planned Parenthood removing Margaret Sanger’s name from their Manhattan center because of her eugenic and therefore racist views – but the philosophy lingers in pro-abortion rhetoric. At the time, eugenics was understood as what progressives believed. They saw themselves as following science, rather than religious superstition.
This gives some background for why abortion slipped into being perceived as the left-wing position. It constituted change.
Conclusion: The Workable Innovation
My experience is that the consistent life ethic offers a more logical and principled way of figuring out what to favor and what to oppose. It’s a coherent philosophy. Unlike the various kinds of violence, it’s something that could be offered as an innovation and people would buy it, as we currently observe.
It’s not that we don’t find instances of it in history, even ancient history – Judaism, early Christianity, ancient Greece, the Chinese philosopher Mo Tsu, etc. But when we find it, it’s always an innovation, and it always faces opposition from people who want to keep things the way they are. Even if they’re violent things.
For similar posts, see:
More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting [intersectionality]
by Thad Crouch
(see at the bottom for a link of a video of the author speaking the same content)
Taxes for Violence
This month, several pro-choice congressional representatives introduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage bill to repeal the Hyde Amendment and allow federal funding for domestic abortion violence for any reason to any woman receiving federally funded health care or insurance. Some representatives also introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act to repeal the Helms Amendment and allow federal funding for international abortions.
Hopefully, these bills won’t pass. Yet it may prove helpful to consider how pro-life taxpayers might respond if Hyde and Helms were repealed. Such laws would violate not only the right to life; they would also violate the rights to freedom of conscience and religion.
Financial self-help author Vicki Robin says “Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for” when we work. This implies that our use of money is a use of our life energy. Forcing pro-lifers to put our lives’ energies toward violating unborn humans’ dignity is also a violation of our own consciences and human dignity.
Would you choose to risk prison and property seizures or comply with a law to pay for abortion violence?
Imagine how you might feel if your paycheck or home were seized to fund killing unborn humans in their mothers’ wombs. Would the fact that, if you paid your taxes, some would also go to some good, conscionable purposes make it ok for you?
Stop reading for a moment. Slowly take a deep breath. Think about it. Feel it.
We might be surprised as pro-lifers to learn how easily we could avail ourselves of experienced, practical advice and decades of wisdom from the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC).
Their experience shows that fear of what the IRS can do is greater than what they historically actually do to war tax resisters. The IRS doesn’t treat honest war tax resisters as evaders. There are always options to agree to an IRS payment plan, and only a few dozen out of tens of thousands of war tax resisters have been imprisoned in the last 60 years. Nearly all those incarcerations were for refusing to disclose assets, and that’s avoidable by invoking the Fifth Amendment.
Pro-lifers could take advantage of these. Yet – don’t begin a construction project without counting the costs. NWTRCC educates people to make their own conscientious decisions and teaches multiple methods of resistance.
There are legal methods such as living on a low untaxable income. There are also ways to reduce risk with illegal strategies, such as refusing to pay a symbolic amount or by putting would-be taxes in an escrow account that pays interest towards life-affirming projects. The latter allows one to withdraw those funds to avoid money or property seizures.
Many war tax resisters choose not to pay a significant percentage or perhaps even all of our taxes and instead redirect them to charities. Some of us change jobs, work as contractors, work under-the-table, and/or don’t use bank accounts to reduce risk. We find keeping our consciences clear and our life energy nonviolent worth the risk. Some of us transform IRS repercussions into opportunities for public witness, media coverage, and community support.
Pro-lifers could also introduce legislation to protect our freedoms of conscience and religion by using the model of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, which advocates for the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act. This will protect the First Amendment rights for those with deeply held moral or ethical beliefs – religious or not – about paying for war. If passed, such persons would not pay less in taxes. Instead, our taxes would go into a fund that Congress could budget for any non-military purposes.
The U.S. peace tax fund campaign has been going on since 1971. Two congressional-ordered U.S. Department of the Treasury studies showed that a peace tax fund would increase government revenue while protecting Americans’ freedom. Yet it has not become law.
Even though the government recognizes Conscientious Objection against participating in the military and killing in war — as long as it’s a deeply held sincere objection to participation in all wars without criteria designating which wars are ethically conscionable — it remains illegal to love one’s enemies and respect their lives while earning a livable income.
While the Hyde and Helms Amendments somewhat recognize how seriously many Americans object to federal funding of abortion, they don’t restrict state abortion funds. Since 16 states fund abortions, and 27 fund the death penalty, the Consistent Life Network suggests that possible future state referendums based on the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund could be used to protect conscience from state abortions and executions.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – versions of which also exist at the state level – declares that the government may not burden or restrict a person’s exercise of religion unless it demonstrates that the burden or restriction furthers a compelling government interest and is done through the least restrictive means.
The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) may more likely apply RFRA to abortion tax resisters than war tax resisters for two reasons.
- First, it may be more politically feasible in some states to pass a Pro-life Tax Fund into a law that finds its way to SCOTUS than passing a Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act.
- Second, the Supreme Court ruled that RFRA protects the religious freedom of Hobby Lobby from the government forcing them to pay insurance for employees’ birth control pills. Hobby Lobby asserted that any birth control method that kills human zygotes aborts humans. Here SCOTUS ruled that the conscience of a corporation, which is a legal person, is protected from killing an actual living human that SCOTUS does not recognize as a legal person.
Since Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., no war tax resistance case has appeared before SCOTUS, and perhaps not at any level of the U.S. judicial system. Perhaps such a case will one day appear in court. That case could argue that the government has no compelling interest since the Treasury found that a Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act would increase revenue.
Once RFRA does that, then one next logical avenue might be to create tax laws that comply with both a new RFRA precedent and existing SCOTUS precedents that eventually applied Conscientious Objection to military participation for those who object based on deeply held, sincere non-religious conscientious beliefs. Should not actual human persons have the same legal protections as a corporate “person” to object to paying for killing humans?
Culture of Conscience
Consider that the more our society can empathize with and support others’ freedom of conscience to refuse cooperation with violent or unjust behaviors, the more we can engender people’s growth from a limited ethic toward a more Consistent Life Ethic. Thus freedom of conscience is perhaps one of humanity’s most vital freedoms of choice.
Many of us campaign for a world without socially acceptable and legally permissible aggressive violence and struggle to build a society with a peace based on a justice rooted in respect for human life and dignity. A culture of conscience is a step toward that society. Supporting Hyde, Helms, and the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act is a step toward that culture of conscience.
For related posts, see:
Video of Thad Crouch with the same content as above:
by John Whitehead
Shortly after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, activists and journalists raised concerns about how governments’ response to the crisis might restrict freedom of expression and other civil liberties. More than a year later, we have a better sense of how the pandemic response has limited press freedom and the flow of information in the world.
Some government regulations to stop Covid-19’s spread—such as mask requirements or social distancing measures—are reasonable and justifiable. Personal freedom is not the only value worth defending. Protecting the lives and health of people, especially vulnerable people, warrants certain restrictions.
However, many civil authorities have gone beyond reasonable restrictions to measures such as arresting and imprisoning journalists and others for their statements or shutting down media outlets and other platforms. Such restrictions on free speech sometimes have been questionably justified as necessary to prevent the spread of false information about the pandemic.
These issues’ significance extends far beyond both the current crisis and journalists’ work. Governments with the power to intimidate people or prevent information from being shared can use such power outside public health crises to silence activists or critics, including those working to defend life. Peace, pro-life, and social justice activists are all vulnerable to such power’s abuse. Even public health can suffer because of restrictions on free expression: governments can shut down criticisms of inadequate responses to crises.
Patterns of Repression
Human Rights Watch, in a February 2021 report, says that 51 governments have arrested, detained, or prosecuted thousands of people for criticizing the government response to the pandemic or other government policies. Covid-19-related public health measures have sometimes been invoked as reasons for this repression. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimated that 274 journalists had been jailed as of December 1, 2020—a new high since the 2016 peak of 272.
Different countries offer various examples of repression. In Russia, government officials prosecuted almost 200 journalists, activists, politicians and others between March and June 2020. Their alleged crime was spreading false information about Covid-19. The Chinese government reported in January 2021 that 17,000 people had been investigated the previous year for “fabricating and spreading Covid-19-releated false information online.”
Indian authorities arrested at least 640 people, including teachers, bloggers, and others, in the spring of 2020 for supposedly publishing false information about Covid. Turkey carried out a similar campaign in 2020 against “provocative Coronavirus posts” on social media, detaining over 500 people. In Vietnam, officials required 650 Facebook users to remove pandemic-related posts and fined more than 160 of them.
Human Rights Watch also notes that at least 12 countries have shut down, suspended, or otherwise interfered with newspapers, television stations, and social media accounts because of pandemic-related reports. In Malaysia, an Al Jazeera documentary on migrant workers’ plight during the pandemic was met with a police investigation that included questioning of journalists, a raid on Al Jazeera’s offices and two local television stations, confiscation of Al Jazeera computers, and refusal to renew two journalists’ visas. A migrant worker featured in the documentary was deported.
Health workers have been among those targeted for repression. Nine medical staff in Egypt who complained about a lack of protective medical equipment and Covid testing were detained on charges including “spreading fake news” and “misusing social media.” In May 2020, Dr. Ibrahim Bediwy warned about censorship in an online message that said “Any doctor in the current situation is not safe.” Bediwy was then arrested on terrorism charges and detained until January 2021.
Even wealth is not necessarily protection against repressive measures. Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent retired Chinese businessman, harshly criticized the government’s pandemic response. He was then detained by authorities, expelled from the Communist Party, and, in September 2020, sentenced to 18 years in prison. The sentence was supposedly for various financial crimes but may well have been punishment for his public comments.
Repression of speech sometimes has been violent or otherwise abusive. In India, police beat journalists in Hyderabad and Delhi in March 2020 In April 2020, journalists in Haiti were attacked by unidentified men while investigating claims that the government’s National Identification Office was violating social distancing guidelines. In Venezuela, police detained Iván Virgüez, a lawyer and human rights activist who had criticized the official pandemic response. While in police custody, Virgüez was kept handcuffed to a metal tube about two feet off the ground for two hours and denied use of a bathroom for over a day.
Perhaps the most notable example of abusive repression of journalism is the case of Mohamed Monir in Egypt. Monir’s reporting included criticism of the government’s pandemic response. Whether as retaliation for such criticism or for other reasons, Monir was arrested in June 2020 and charged with joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media. An older man with health problems, Monir spent over two weeks in detention and eventually died—of Covid-19.
Defending Freedom of Speech
Given Covid-19’s terrible toll—almost 2.7 million deaths, as of this writing—proper public health regulations are essential. However, justifiable concerns about Covid-19 should not be used to justify repressing dissent or criticism of civil authorities. Nor should concern about false information lead us to give government officials the right to decide which information is true or false and to enforce such decisions with harassment, fines, arrest, or imprisonment. Such policies are ripe for abuse and threaten all of us who wish to protect life and are willing to criticize those in power.
For more of our posts on the pandemic, see:
For consistent-lifers saving for retirement and otherwise investing money, we offer this practical guide.
There are a good large number of mutual funds that have social responsibility criteria, generally aimed at peace and environmental concerns (here’s one list). Poverty concerns are generally addressed as part of social justice in a variety of ways. Racial equity is commonly a criterion.
Care must be taken to read the fund’s screening criteria, because some will actually include “abortion rights” as a positive in their screening. However, most ignore the matter entirely.
Abortion and Pro-Family
Nonviolent Across the Board
Below in alphabetical order are known funds that have exclusions for both military or weaponry and abortion; other issues are normally included because that’s what “social responsibility” means.
We’d be delighted to hear of other funds and will add them to the web page list if more information comes in. Send to email@example.com.
Follows the Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Catholic Investment Strategies
Follows the Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Praxis Funds with Everence
Now listed as faith-based; originally Mennonite.
Values screens: “We screen out companies for abortion, adult entertainment, alcohol, firearms, gambling, nuclear power, predatory lending, tobacco, and weapons production and support systems.”
For another of our blog posts on practical personal practice, see
by John Whitehead
Nuclear weapons kill directly when they are exploded in wartime or in tests. They also kill indirectly: obtaining uranium, the metal used to produce both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, can expose people to radiation or other hazards. The results are often harmful, even lethal. As with nuclear testing, the people exposed to these hazards are frequently those whose race or other circumstances place them at the margins of the societies acquiring uranium.
Uranium can cause harm in various ways. Breathing in uranium dust or eating uranium-contaminated food can damage the kidneys and lead to kidney failure. Inhaling or ingesting uranium or being exposed to large amounts of it can also increase the likelihood of cancer from radiation emitted by the metal. Those involved in mining or processing uranium or who are otherwise exposed to it are at risk.
Uranium Mining among the Navajo
The United States’ production of its nuclear weapons took its toll, with a grim historical symmetry, on the original victims of US foreign policy, the Native Americans.
The southwestern United States contains significant uranium deposits. From the 1940s to the 1980s, mining companies extracted millions of tons of uranium from land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah belonging to the Navajo Nation. The federal government used uranium from this land to build nuclear weapons. Work in the mines also provided Navajo men with much-needed employment. The mines, numbering over 500, eventually shut down. The consequences for the Navajo have been lasting and dire.
Miners lacked protective equipment and would bring dust from the mines home on their clothes. Debris from uranium mining made its way into the local communities. Some people even built their homes out of uranium.
Uranium-contaminated water was also a problem. Maria Welch, a researcher at the Southwest Research Information Center who is Navajo, recalls that “When they did the mining, there would be these pools that would fill up…And all of the kids swam in them.” Some people let their livestock drink contaminated water.
Uranium milling, the process by which uranium ore is converted into a more refined form, took place close to Navajo land. Radioactive waste from milling seeped into local groundwater. The most infamous incident was on July 16, 1979, at a New Mexico facility where uranium was processed. A facility wall broke, releasing tons of radioactive waste into the nearby Puerco River. Some Native American communities didn’t know about the accident for several days. Further, even when notified by the Indian Health Service not to use water contaminated by the accident, nearby residents didn’t necessarily have alternatives. Wildlife drinking the contaminated water died. The contamination spread to wells, sometimes leading to radioactivity levels 7,000 times the acceptable level. The wells were generally abandoned.
In recent years, Welch has studied hundreds of Navajo to determine the mining’s effects. She found that 27% of study participants had high levels of uranium in their urine, compared to 5% of the general US population. Within the Navajo Nation, cancer rates doubled from the 1970s to the 1990s. Stomach cancer rates among the Navajo are typically 15 times the national average—and sometimes even higher. Kidney disease has also been a problem in the community.
Helen Nez and her children drank water from a northeastern Arizona spring that contained uranium levels five times what is safe. Nez drank from the spring while she has pregnant. Of her 10 children, 4 died as toddlers. Three more children died as young adults. Her remaining children have health problems as adults.
Some efforts to redress this injustice have been made. The federal government has paid compensation to uranium miners. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done some work to clean up the contamination from uranium mining, while at least one mining company and its subsidiary have paid $1 billion in compensation and clean-up costs to the Navajo.
As of 2017, however, only 9 out 521 abandoned mines identified for federal clean-up had been addressed. The EPA estimated that financial settlements between the federal government and the mining companies would allow for cleaning up only 40% of the mines. Meanwhile, the abandoned mines continue to pose a health risk.
Sadie Bill, Helen Nez’s sister, comments, “We lost too many people.” She adds, “We don’t want our future young people to have to go through this again.”
Uranium Mining among Soviet Subjects
The Soviet Union’s uranium mining had similar health and environmental consequences among non-Russian peoples under Soviet control.
For example, uranium mining around the town of Mailuu Suu in Kyrgyzstan left significant residues of radioactive waste in the area. One result has been a cancer rate double that of the rest of Kyrgyzstan.
Another result has been higher levels of miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth anomalies than anywhere else in the country. Research in 2007 found radioactive uranium in the placentas of women in Mailuu Suu and nearby communities.
Minabar Umarova, chair of the town’s Women’s Committee, comments, “Our analysis in 2014 of health among local women and children in Mailuu Suu revealed that our town of 24,000 had 180 children [younger than 18] with disabilities. At the same time, the neighboring district of Suzak with more than 240,000 residents had only 165 disabled children.”
This contamination affects other areas as well. Landslides dump radioactive waste into a local river, which carries the contaminants into other communities, including neighboring Uzbekistan. Similar to the Puerco River disaster, a 1958 incident led to 600,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste being released into the Mailuu Suu river.
In the decades since Kyrgyz independence from the Soviet Union, Mailuu Suu has received aid from the World Bank and European Union to remedy the damage from uranium mining.
Further west, Czechoslovakia was a significant uranium mining center during the period the country was dominated by the Soviet Union. At the town of Jáchymov, a notorious mining site, lung cancer was a frequent disease among miners. Average miner life expectancy in the town was 42. Uranium mining at Jáchymov would also sometimes use slave labor. An investigation in the early 1990s found that, as in the Navajo Nation, radioactive materials would sometimes end up as building materials for locals’ homes.
Nuclear weapons’ ultimate end is to cause death. Besides their use in wartime, they also cause death during testing and when the materials to make these weapons are first produced. We shouldn’t forget the dangers of uranium mining, whether the mining is done to make nuclear weapons or to generate nuclear power. Nor should we forget that those who suffer the mining’s effects are frequently vulnerable people, far from the centers of decision-making power.
This is a companion piece to “The Affairs of a Handful of Natives”: Nuclear Testing and Racism, in which John Whitehead takes the same approach of considering racial minority groups suffering from nuclear testing, widened to all five of the major nuclear weapons testing countries.
For our posts on similar topics, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons