By Arthur O’Sullivan
In the previous issue of Binghamton Review, the pseudonymous author “El Lento” published an article titled, “The Problem with the Pro-Life Movement.” Being “pro-life” myself, I’m used to defending my beliefs in all the conventional ways: No, pro-lifers don’t just have a control fetish. No, Republicans generally don’t want to kill babies once born. No, you can’t prove “scientifically” that abortion is right or wrong. And so on, and so on, and so on. The abortion debate is as interminable as it is stagnant. It surprised me, therefore, to find that El Lento’s piece was a conservative critique of the pro-life movement.
As I read through it, I found myself nodding along. This mysterious “El Lento” was making a lot of sense. As a religiously challenged person, I too found the pro-life insistence on Christian dogma alienating. Many believe that to be pro-life, one MUST be an ultra-traditionalist-catholic or fringe evangelical. The more recent “March for Life” rallies have not dispelled this stereotype. All too often, I would explain to pro-choice friends and strangers that it’s perfectly reasonable to be both an atheist and pro-life at the same time, only to get the fluoride-stare.
Figure 1: The stare I get talking to pro-choice liberals about my views. (Or talking to girls at parties.)
Like most things in politics, the evidence right in front of people (e.g. my existence) is nothing compared to what they read on conspiracy sites like The New York Times. If Michelle Goldberg says that anti-abortion advocates simply intend to torture women, then that’s just how things are. The fact that certain “pro-life” policies actually do hurt women does not help this stereotype.
El Lento’s insight on the pro-lifers who don’t care about the Constitution also hits the nail on the head. The greatest defeats and greatest victories of the pro-life movement are found in constitutional law. Depending on who sits on the Supreme Court, our founding document has been used to justify both positions. The Warren and Rehnquist courts both “found” constitutional grounds for abortion-on-demand (up to some arbitrary limit). Now, the Roberts court has devolved the legislation back to, well, legislatures. All this was achieved through the shrewd politics of American democracy. Those who disregard it are in danger of losing everything due to sheer unbridled stupidity.
Altogether, El Lento believes that “pro-life” activists must stop being hypocrites: they must stand up for freedom, as well as life. They must stop worshipping Trump and appeal to a broader base. Despite this, they can not sacrifice their principles for political or rhetorical reasons; they can not compromise on hard issues.
Though sounding good in theory, this is where “El Lento” rapidly derails. Just as he saw two main problems with the pro-life movement, I saw two big issues in his thesis.
Let’s start with the less emotional issue: El Lento criticizes Nikki Hayley, former UN Ambassador and Republican Presidential candidate, for her “15 weeks” federal ban on abortion.
Hayley reasons that while Americans are intransigently divided about abortion, most could not defend killing a 15 week-old fetus. Therefore, a federal proscription on abortions past that window (with prior abortions being regulated by state legislatures) is the only feasible compromise on the issue.
On this, El Lento disagrees vehemently. Any sort of compromise, he reasons, does a discredit to the core philosophy of the pro-life movement. If abortion really is murder, then you can not ‘meet the other side halfway.’ After all, there is no real difference between a fetus at 15 weeks and one at 14 weeks, 6 days, and 23 hours. Why should a “practical” pro-lifer ferociously protect the first, but compromise on the second? Doing so, in El Lento’s eyes, displays immeasurable hypocrisy among “pro-life” advocates.
My response to this is simple: compromise is the best we have. In an ideal world, abortion would not only be gone, but irrelevant. In Eden, all pregnancies are happy; all children are wanted and cared for. But we have fallen from Eden. Pregnancy and childrearing are difficult things, and so many interests (hedonistic, economic etc.) push towards their avoidance. It’s easy, then, to view destroying a “clump of cells” as a catch-all response. Framing this act in terms of “liberation” and “right” simply galvanizes its defenders. Now that the practice is widespread and accepted, forcing the maximalist position will only further entrench the pro-choice establishment. Thus, “no compromise” on the federal level will see no progress in deep blue states. One should never abandon the authentic principles of being pro-life, but our country survives on compromise.
Perhaps El Lento considers abortion akin to slavery. Compromise, whether in 1850 or 2024, only strengthens the evil institution. Supposing that’s true, the only way to stop abortion is either through John Brown-style bloodshed or, horribile dictu, civil war. Leaving aside its practicality, would that be a moral end to the “pro-life” movement? Man murdering Man to save hypothetical Man? Entertaining this prospect is beyond the pale. I doubt El Lento seriously believes this, but I see no other resolution for his “convicted” pro-life stance.
Finally, El Lento’s stance on women who procure abortions is inherently broken. He argues that most cases, while sympathetic, still constitute an act of murder on the part of the woman. To illustrate, he analogizes most abortions of convenience to an impoverished teenager robbing and murdering a store-owner so that he can afford college. He argues that since the latter should obviously be punished, so should the former; “pro-lifers” who disagree discredit their own beliefs.
This argument is prima facie ridiculous. Aborting a fetus, unlike murdering a store-owner, is both legal and accepted in much of the country. Further, this hypothetical store-owner can not be described as “holding back” the teenager from a good future. As things stand, pregnancy does exactly that. This in no way justifies abortion itself, especially if made illegal nationwide. It does, however, mitigate the real-world action. Refusing to prosecute women who have had abortions does not discredit the pro-life movement. It strengthens it.
In his article, El Lento confuses principles with dogma. Although he’s correct in saying that much of the “pro-life” movement discredits itself to the public, his hardline stances on abortion laws and their punishments would only make things worse.