Sunday, November 21, 2010

The mission of the pro-life movement is not to "reduce the number of abortions"

Alternative title:   If pro-lifers want to stop abortions so much, why don't they cut out all these legislative efforts and "common ground" approaches and go disrupt some abortion clinics?

Will Saletan has posted some lessons pro-lifers should learn from the recent conference with pro-life and pro-choice* activists working to find common ground.

In general, Saletan suggests that pro-lifers embrace initiatives that may lower the abortion rate at the margins, but neither legally or socially sanction abortion.  All of his suggestions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates most who call themselves pro-life.  What Saletan, and many commentators who strike similar notes (many of them pro-life themselves) is that the mission of the pro-life movement is not to lower the abortion rate.

I'll write that again: The mission of the pro-life movement is not to lower the abortion rate.

At first, this sounds absurd -- what is the pro-life movement about if not to reduce the number of abortions?

But to me, and many pro-lifers, abortion is a tremendous injustice and national shame. And people who fight against what they consider to be an injustice don't set about to reduce the incidence of that injustice; they seek to eliminate it and establish strong social and legal sanctions against it.

Those (including me) who opposed waterboarding did not seek to lower the frequency with which the US resorted to waterboarding, but to get the government to permanently set it aside. Appeals that we only waterboarded a handful of hardened terrorists did not dissuade me. And a suggestion that if I really wanted to reduce waterboarding, then I should support the war so as to eliminate the need for waterboarding would be a complete non-starter.

The same goes for every cause against injustice. Anti-war activists don't just want to reduce the intensity of the war. Civil rights activists didn't just want to reduce the incidences of segregation. And so on.

I understand that many people (including many who consider themselves to be pro-life) don't deem abortion to be an injustice on this scale, and consider comparisons to grand injustices like slavery and the Holocaust to be counterproductive.  And in the public debate, that may be the case.  My point here is in trying to explain the motivations.   Even if pro-life people were to refrain from these comparisons in making their case, it would not change that this is how they feel about the issue in their hearts.

This is not to say that reducing the number of abortions is not a laudable goal, or that some of the efforts Saletan describes aren't worthy of support, because they are. But I don't think they are the proper primary focus of people claiming to be pro-life, or that those who fail to are revealing that they're not truly pro-life.

One of Saletan's suggestions is that pro-lifers should embrace contraception, even though many pro-lifers are opposed to it, while seeing it as a lesser evil than abortion.  The assumption is that, someone who opposes abortion should be willing to compromise on any and all other issues in order to reduce the number of abortions.  But if this were the case, perhaps better advice would be that all pro-lifers should focus their energy to disrupting abortion clinics, using all means at their disposal.  Ironically, Saletan's common ground moderating advice assumes a pro-life worldview that is closer to Operation Rescue than, say, Harry Reid.

I understand that the perception of many is that there is already too much of a pro-life presence at abortion clinics and harassing women getting abortions and those working at clinics, but those engaged in these activities represent a tiny percentage of those who consider themselves pro-life, even using strict definitions of "pro-life."  If everybody who opposed abortion were to focus their efforts on disrupting abortion clinics, that would likely have a greater effect than legislative efforts or any of the items Saletan suggests.

But we don't do that.  Why?  Because the pro-life movement is about establishing justice, not just preventing marginal abortions.  And many see disrupting abortion clinics as counterproductive to that ultimate goal.

A more egregious example is Saletan's suggestion that pro-lifers should abandon efforts to restrict abortions because they push abortions later into pregnancy, which we are supposed to acknowledge is "worse."  It would be difficult to craft a paragraph that is more revealing of a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates a movement.  It is not the pro-life movement's job to make push abortions into a zone where they are more superficially palatable.

Those who work to prevent marginal abortions through some of Saletan's suggestions and others like counseling and adoption are indeed doing God's work, and deserve our support.  But that is not the same things as saying that these efforts are the proper primary focus of the pro-life movement.

* I understand that both names cover up more than they illuminate. I find it simplest to refer to the groups by their chosen names, rather than get tendentious.
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