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Are pro-lifers really pro-life?

Demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington July 9, 2018. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

People who don’t like the pro-life movement often say it can’t really be concerned about the baby. Its concern stops at birth, they say, so it must have a hidden agenda, like oppressing women—especially poor minority women.

Taken literally, the complaint makes no sense. The pro-life movement says there is no right to destroy babies before birth, and the same applies after birth. The whole point is to have the same rule in both cases. And why would a movement supported by women more than men devote itself to oppressing women? Don’t people have other things to do? And why is opposing the abortion of poor minority babies anti-poor and anti-minority?

So the rhetoric can’t be taken at face value. The real complaint is that many people opposed to abortion also oppose a welfare state designed to ensure the well-being of every mother and child. And that, it is thought, proves they don’t really care about babies, mothers, or poor people.

For many the complaint goes farther. They say that the true pro-life cause is “woke” progressivism. After all, in a progressive utopia abortion would disappear, along with inequality, poverty, and prisons. And how pro-life can it be to force women to be pro-life? So non-progressive people obviously can’t be pro-life in any real sense.

As such, the complaint reflects beliefs common on the left.

First, it reflects the belief that forbidding abortion is extreme. Progressives don’t believe there is an essential human nature, and man is what we make of him. In its earliest stages a baby doesn’t look like a baby, and it can be troublesome to treat it as one, so they see no reason to do so. That makes it hard to decide when to start treating it as a baby, so they put it off until it’s born and they can look at it and decide what it is. To do otherwise, they believe, would be fanatical.

That’s certainly a non-Catholic view, so Catholics influenced by it need to reconsider their position. And non-Catholics should ask themselves whether they really want to make respect for human life depend so much on current appearance, abilities, and visibility. We need a solid understanding of human dignity. Can the progressive view supply one?

The complaint also reflects the belief that opposition to progressive measures must be motivated by greed, hatred, lust for power, and so on.

Among its most ferocious proponents, that belief is no doubt based on projection. Haters think everything is hate. With most people, though, it’s the result of incomprehension. Progressives find it hard to understand how their opponents see things. As a result, when they think something is good, they conclude that those who oppose it simply favor evil.

So the real issue is whether a comprehensive welfare state is obviously good. If it is, then there’s something wrong with the position of pro-lifers who don’t favor one.

For progressives the point is beyond argument. They accept the technocratic outlook now taken for granted in public life. That outlook tells them that rationality consists in the organized and technically efficient use of resources to satisfy human preferences. And that’s what the welfare state tries to do. Ideally it would create a system that takes care of every human difficulty that seems remediable.

As such, its construction is part of the modern attempt to turn the world into a sort of industrial process for maximizing satisfactions. It is also supported by the democratic (or perhaps totalitarian) tendency to identify government action with the action of all the citizens. For government to do something and for me to do it are the same thing.

For progressives any limitation on the welfare state is a rejection of the rational and effective way for each of us to help people in difficult situations. They believe it’s obvious what should be done, as obvious as turning up the thermostat when the room is too cold. And rejection of the obvious solution means indifference or malice.

For thoughtful Catholics the point hasn’t been so obvious. Servant of God Dorothy Day, for example, looked askance at “Holy Mother the State” and called “the social security legislation now hailed as a great victory for the poor and the worker … a great defeat for Christianity.” And Saint John Paul II famously condemned bureaucratization of social welfare in Centesimus Annus:

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients.

One reason they said these things is that they rejected the technocratic view that turns social life into the workings of a machine. Many people say that instead of banning abortion we should abolish the conditions that make abortions happen. That would work if we knew how to abolish human choice.

But we don’t. People act on their own and with those around them. They respond to experience, habits, incentives, social ideals, and what they see, but mostly they do what they choose. Hence the traditional concern for subsidiarity and for personal responsibility. Circumstances can mitigate responsibility—some abortions are hard cases for the mother—but they can’t remove it without removing our humanity. “Thou shalt nots” are necessary to a life worthy of a human being.

Experience with welfare systems, social programs generally, and Roe v. Wade itself shows how difficult it is to eliminate human mishaps. Legalize abortion and contraception, and unwed motherhood increases, because the links among mother, father, sex, child, and mutual loyalty disappear. Strengthen the welfare system, so it seems to deal with everything, and other systems—family life, mutual aid, personal responsibility—deteriorate. How could they not? The net effect may or may not be an improvement.

The point applies to other progressive demands. Every system has its own logic, and in today’s world the logic of a state system won’t be Catholic or even humane. A state system of education is a system of indoctrination, and state systems of medical care are turning into branches of the biotechnology industry devoted to maintaining human resources, scrapping them when surplus, and providing consumer goods—children, abortions, sex change operations, extended lifespans—when demand, money, and political support are there.

The modern state doesn’t care about the good life, its actions are not the actions of the people, and it can’t know what is going on in individual cases. So should Catholics want people’s lives to be ever more integrated with state systems of social welfare? If we’re concerned with the well-being of mothers and children aren’t there things we should be doing instead of promoting such systems?

Many people in the pro-life movement try to respond to that need. Crisis pregnancy centers are one example, and in my area the Sisters of Life are very active in the effort. And then there is, of course, adoption. Do Catholic critics of the pro-life movement do as much?

Not everybody can do everything. Life is complicated, people are busy, and you can oppose an obvious gross evil without offering solutions to all related problems. You can oppose a military invasion without proposing solutions that will be accepted to the security and other concerns said to motivate it. Why isn’t something of the sort true of abortion?

People—especially leaders—need to think about the total picture, and we all need to do more out of love of God and neighbor. But that applies to everybody and every issue. So why so much hatred and outright slander on this one? Progressivism now tells us that the key to a better world is replacement of traditional arrangements by a flattened-out globally administered order that looks after all human concerns. That can’t possibly be right. And if you disagree, that hardly means you hate babies, women, minorities, and the poor.

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