I am a Democrat. I am a liberal. I am a socialist. I am a feminist. I am a pacifist. I am pro-life.
Stay with me. I know that last statement likely lost some of you. It’s why I avoid bringing up my pro-life beliefs at all. My position is often misunderstood and can lead me to be characterized as something I am not. So let me be clear about my pro-life stance. I believe in the existence of a human soul, and while I do not know when ensoulment occurs, I prefer to err on the side of caution. As a pacifist, I am also vehemently against violence. For these reasons, yes, I am against abortion as an elective surgery. However, it is also for these reasons that I am against the death penalty, war, torture, for-profit prisons, the military industrial complex, and most manifestations of capitalism. It is also why I support the social safety net, universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage, free public education, socialism, and gun control. For me, pro-life has always meant more than abortion.
Unfortunately, my position isn’t a popular one on either side of the abortion debate. In the decades following Roe v. Wade, pro-life has come to mean anti-abortion by almost all parties involved, and declaring oneself “pro-life” is tantamount to registering for the Republican party. When I tell people I am pro-life, conservatives assume we are on the same side, as they lump me into their debates over contraception coverage, religious liberties, and abstinence-only sex education. Liberals assume I am a single-issue voter (namely, a Republican voter), that I hate women, that I am against birth control, and that I am anti-feminist. None of these things are true.
This, in my opinion, is the crux of the pro-life debate—misuse of terms. While there is guilt on both sides, I find conservatives among the most egregious in using pro-life as shorthand for anti-abortion. Here I look towards two of the most prominent US anti-abortion organizations, the National Right to Life Convention and the March for Life. Both of these organizations market themselves as “pro-life.” The first lines of their mission statements are as follows:
“The mission of National Right to Life is to protect and defend the most fundamental right of humankind, the right to life of every innocent human being from the beginning of life to natural death” (NRLC).
“Vision: A world where every human life is valued and protected” (March for Life).
In their mission statements, both of these organizations make appeals to the protections for “every human life.” However, a closer look at their organizations reveal their priorities. Both primarily advocate for the overturning of Roe v. Wade and for the end of legal abortion in the United States. The minor exception is the NRLC’s interest in doctor assisted suicide and end of life care (both important issues in their own right), but the message remains clear. Unless you are unborn or elderly, your life is not included in the “every human life” category these organizations support. These organizations are not exceptional. Abortion dominates conversations about the right to life promised in the United States Constitution, especially on the political Right.
The hypocrisy of this narrow view of pro-life is in the blind eye it casts on the myriad of other social issues that pose far more dangerous threats to the right to life. To demonstrate, according to Guttmacher Institute, “Approximately 926,200 abortions were performed in 2014…14.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44.” In contrast, 15 million children in the United States currently live below the poverty line (NCCP). In 2014, the same year of Guttmacher’s data, 36% of the US population had no health insurance coverage (CDC) and 2,843 prisoners sat on death row in the United States (DPIC). These are just a few of the other issues that should be considered too in a true pro-life debate. However, it is hard to get people who adamantly identify as pro-life to talk about issues like abolishing capital punishment (“Those people made their choice.”), ending childhood poverty (“What about welfare queens?”), and universal healthcare (“Why should I have to pay for it?”). Prisoners, skinny kids, and sick people are not attractive. The truth is nothing is quite as marketable as an unborn child.
Ironically, fixing many of the other issues that threaten the sanctity of life, like childhood poverty and a capitalist healthcare system, could feasibly end the need for a heated abortion debate. If pro-life activists put more energy into providing comprehensive medical care for mothers and children, providing access to affordable childcare and education, and raising the minimum wage, the demands for abortions would inevitably decline. However, within the pro-life community, there is heavy encouragement of single-issue voting that favors a candidate, ANY candidate who claims to be pro-life, without consideration of their other political views. This is often framed as protecting the most vulnerable among us. The result, however, is that abortion becomes a political pawn that obscures every other issue at play. In many cases, votes for “pro-life” candidates actually exacerbate problems that increase the demand for abortions by supporting things like cutting contraceptive coverage and limiting sex education in public schools.
The moral of the story is that pro-life needs some serious rebranding. For organizations like the NRLC and the March for Life to live up their missions, they need to open their eyes to the realities “every human life” past the point of birth. They need to accept that humans come in every form from newborns to convicted criminals. They need to actively engage in activism towards universal healthcare, antimilitarism, the social safety net, and prison reform. They need to understand the meaning of the right to life as a value they propose to uphold. The problem is that these issues are outside of the interests of nearly all pro-life organizations. They always have been.
About the Author
Danielle Clapham is a PhD student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She received her B.A in English Literature at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, and her M.A. in British and American literature at Marquette University. Her research focuses on experimental realism and the politics of representation in expatriate modernist fiction. In addition to her research, Ms. Clapham also identifies as a person with a disability and a feminist. She is very active in disability rights activism and conversations surrounding education reform. When not proudly claiming the role of social justice warrior, Ms. Clapham spends her time knitting, reading, and cultivating an unhealthy obsession with tea.