Toward a Progressive Pro-Life Ethic

I’ve posted the occasional pro-life rant on this blog, but I’ve never seen this blog as a particularly political one, in part because I don’t consider my political views to be all that interesting (they’re sort of a generic, post-evangelical “I-don’t-want-to-call-myself-progressive-but-I-guess-that’s-what-I-am”-ness, in case you’re wondering). However, this blog seems to get a lot of hits when I write about abortion, so let me see if I can use that (sort-of) platform to try to do some  good in the world.

As I’ve said before, I am a registered Democrat, and I subscribe to the political position generally called “pro-life” (which, according to Democrats for Life of America, is true of about one-third of Democrats, for whatever that’s worth). Some people see this as a contradiction, but I don’t. Progressivism, insofar as it has a philosophy, is about standing up for the interests of the disenfranchised, and that’s what opposing abortion is about. Most progressives see themselves as protecting the interests of the collective, and that’s what opposing abortion is about. As far as I’m concerned, pro-abortion liberals (and, by corollary, anti-abortion conservatives) are the real contradiction.

However, I have no desire to play the “you’re-a-hypocrite-no-you’re-a-hypocrite” game.

There are plenty of people whose entire argument for legalized abortion is that those opposed to it are misogynists; this is unfortunate if true, however, it has literally nothing to do with the question of whether abortion is morally right or culturally desirable. (Additionally, I would argue that many of the people arguing for abortion are doing so from an outlook of misopedia, which is just as toxic to society as misogyny.) The reality is, while I may occasionally call myself “pro-life,” I remain a pragmatist in conviction. I see little purpose to drawing lines in the sand or beating others over the head with my ideology; the only thing that matters to me is results — in this case, how can we reasonably reduce or eliminate abortions?

In other words, I regard the choice between “pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-war” candidates and “pro-choice, pro-healthcare, pro-downtrodden” as a clear false dichotomy, and I think the country is in desperate need of a third choice — a progressive pro-life ethic.

I’m not a political philosopher, or even a pundit or a politician; I’m just a dude with a blog. However, I’m probably as qualified as anyone to call for the creation of a new, consistent ethic of life and progress. Let me tell you what I’m envisioning:

1. It must be progressive.

Those of us who choose to call ourselves progressives do so for one main reason: we believe in the possibility of progress. The word “liberal” is essentially obsolete because the initial goals of liberalism — democracy, equality before the law, freedom — have already been achieved. Yesterday’s liberals are today’s conservatives. To call ourselves progressives is to affirm the achievements of liberalism but also to affirm there is still progress to be made. People are still experiencing all sorts of injustice — for their skin color, their gender, the circumstances of their birth. We can — and should — do better.

The upshot is that a progressive pro-life ethic must, by definition, be about the future. It must be about making things better. This is actually a natural fit, since a society hostile to children or reproduction has no future at all. By the same token, a progressive pro-life ethic must stress that it is not opposed to abortion because it is looking to impose an archaic social order. We are not here to keep women in the kitchen, or to mandate childbearing for all families; we are here to save the lives of the downtrodden — a goal that is right at home in the field of progressive thought.

2. It must be pro-life.

Obviously it needs to be pro-life as well, but if we’re going to use the pro-life label, that means we need to be in favor of protecting all life. In other words, we must fight for universal healthcare, fight against the death penalty and wars of aggression, fight hunger, fight poverty and fight disease. This is another case where I see the pro-life position as more at home on the left than on the right.

3. It need not be faith-based.

This might get me in trouble, but I don’t see a pro-life outlook as being either a necessary or a sufficient condition for being a Christian. Do I think an honest reading of Scripture reveals it to be contrary to the nature of God? Sure. But it’s also a practice that Scripture never directly addresses, so I don’t think I can say definitively that the world’s pro-choice Christians are “wrong.”

What I can say definitively is that using excessive religious language in opposing abortion alienates those who would otherwise be our allies. There are pro-life agnostics, there are pro-life atheists, and there are pro-life people of all religions. I know this because some of those people read my blog. If we’re excessively religious in our demonstrations against abortion, we’re deliberately holding these political allies at arm’s length, and when human life is at stake, we can’t afford to leave voices and votes on the table.

I also can’t help but feel that using religious language to condemn abortion sends the message — intentionally or not — that the only reasons to oppose abortion are religious ones. That’s silly, of course. The inherent value of human life is (thankfully) something we all agree on in this culture, and it’s what we owe much of our progress to. Rhetoric emphasizing shared values is likely to get us a good deal more traction than religious tirades.

4. It must accept that abortion will always exist.

That is to say, it needs to be pragmatic.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that we need to be okay with every, or any, abortion that occurs. What I am saying is that we must be aware of the fact that realistically, we will never completely eliminate abortion from the face of the earth.

Let me use a different issue as an example. If we are advocates for, say, gun control, it is entirely right and proper if we personally hate guns with every fiber of our being, yearn for their complete elimination from the face of the earth, and look forward to the day when we will beat our swords into ploughshares. However, this attitude in and of itself is not a model for public policy — no law or set of laws will ever eliminate guns or the need for guns. Good policy is policy that reduces the number of guns in circulation, reduces crime rates, and keeps guns out of the hands of criminals. If an all-out ban on guns would be counterproductive to these goals, then we ought not to seek an all-out ban on guns.

Similarly, we can be as morally outraged about abortion as we wish to be, but in practice we should seek legislation that will be genuinely effective in reducing the number of abortions that occur. Living in a democracy means compromise, and living in the real world means we will never get to create the utopia we want.

On that note:

5. It must be pro-birth control.

Please understand that I’m not implying that you are wrong if you disagree with birth control morally. I certainly understand the position, and the more I think about it, the more I lean that way myself. That being said, though, the goal of progressive, pro-life political action should not be to strong-arm people into living by our own personal moral codes, but rather to save lives. Nearly all research confirms that access to birth control is an effective way to prevent abortion, so we should embrace it politically. We don’t have to embrace it personally to do so; the two are essentially unrelated. I’m all for holding people to a rigorous moral standard on the personal level or the church level, but on the level of public policy, it is always moral to save a life.

6. It must believe in a public safety net.

This is the “progressive” side of “progressive pro-life.” The pro-choice Left likes to call the Right hypocritical for caring so deeply about children still in the womb but abandoning them as soon as they’re born, but the Left is equally hypocritical in the opposite direction. A progressive pro-life ethic, then must be in favor of supporting life for all, from conception to death. This means universal healthcare, a livable wage for all, access to quality education, and support for those unable to find work. On the one hand, these are valuable ideals to work toward simply because they are the right thing to do; but on the other, they have the added benefit of discouraging abortion. A majority of decisions to abort are made for primarily financial reasons; therefore, if we’re serious about preventing abortion, we need to work to make children less of a financial burden.

I realize my conservative friends, many of whom agree with me on the abortion thing, bristle at this kind of talk. I say we should work together to ensure a minimum quality of life for everyone, and all they hear is “Free stuff for all!” To them, let me just say this: I agree that we need to encourage people to work hard, but unfortunately the free market doesn’t value a lot of really valuable work — for instance, the raising of children. I agree with you guys that “Life Is Hard,” but I don’t follow you to your conclusion: “Therefore, we ought to make it even harder.”

7. It must be “big-tent” in its approach.

The essence of progressivism, I would hope, is a belief that progress can be made. This means we must be goal-oriented and not unwilling to form coalitions, even with those with whom we may disagree deeply.

The polarized pro-life/pro-choice nature of the abortion issue has resulted in nearly four decades of political tug-of-war that has gotten us literally nowhere since Roe vs. Wade. But the thing is, there’s actually broad agreement among most people in this country. Almost everyone agrees that the fewer abortions that happen, the better. Almost everyone agrees that earlier abortions are preferable to later abortions. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone committed to reducing the number of abortions that occur is an ally, regardless of what label they use for themselves.

The reality is this: the U.S. literally has some of the most permissive abortion laws in the world. We’re only one of a handful of countries that allow abortions after 20 weeks, and the others include such bastions of human rights as China, Singapore, North Korea, and, um, Canada. Wendy Davis made headlines a few months ago for filibustering a bill that would have brought Texas’ abortion laws roughly in line with those of some of the more liberal countries in Europe — and she was hailed as a hero for doing so.

I mean, wow.

It’s endlessly frustrating to me that the vast majority of us claim we want to reduce the number of abortions that occur in this country, but we can’t even pass basic laws that would nudge us in that direction. And without presuming to understand all the complicated factors in play, this seems to be at least partially because both sides are so terrified of imaginary slippery slopes that they’re completely unyielding and uncompromising. The Left sees any restrictions on abortion as inevitably leading to a police state where women are forcibly impregnated at gunpoint, and the Right sees any abortion rights at all as inevitably leading to public orgies and mass extermination of “useless” people (which, in their minds, I believe includes anyone who’s not an entrepreneur). Making any progress on this issue requires both “sides” to let go of some of their paranoia and come to the table to find common goals.

So, let’s do that.


8. It need not exclude men.

If the last couple points got me in trouble with conservatives, this one should sufficiently cheese liberals off.

There’s an attitude common among pro-choicers that men have no right to have an opinion on abortion because they’ll never have to deal with the burden of having to make the decision to abort. (One august commenter on this blog once eloquently told me to “grow a uterus or stfu.”) The underlying assumption is that one who is not proximate to a moral decision has no right to pass judgment on it — but we all know this is nonsense. Or, at least we live as if it is.

Compare the common Vietnam vet slogan “You don’t know, you weren’t there” — in reference to the entire villages that were burned to the ground, including their women and children, in the heat of the conflict. The premise is that, had I been there, I would have done exactly what those soldiers did. And, odds are, I probably would have. But that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do, and it doesn’t mean I’m wrong to decry the act as immoral. If anything, my distance from the heat of the moment puts me in a better position to judge it dispassionately.

And I know a lot of people will get really offended by that, and I admit the metaphor’s not perfect, but please understand that I’m not trying to “mansplain” to poor, hysterical women that their actions were immoral; all I’m saying is, it is possible to have a valid moral opinion of an act that you yourself did not, or cannot, commit. Society is based on that principle. None of us will ever be in the exact same position that any given criminal was, but we still prosecute them, based on the assumption that a lack of crime is a good thing.

Abortion, too, is an issue that affects all of us. We all want to live in a world that values life (because, hopefully, such a world would value our lives as well). We all want to live in a world where children are safe (because we all used to be children, and many of us have children, and without children we have no future). We all want to live in a world where all of us have the opportunity to live a peaceful and productive life, preferably at the expense of no one.

It’s up to all of us to create such a world.

9. It must communicate calmly and dispassionately.

I think it goes without saying that the last few decades of the abortion debate have generated a good deal more heat than light. The shouting match amounts to little more than indignation from both sides — a HOW DARE YOU DENY THE RIGHT TO LIFE on the one hand and a HOW DARE YOU TELL WOMEN WHAT TO DO WITH THEIR BODIES on the other. Neither accusation is really fair, but they’ve both become secret handshakes for their respective subcultures, and the debate has become more about feeling morally superior to the “other side” than it is about moving forward.

A progressive pro-life argument must avoid epithets and accusations and must assume the best of its opponent, starting from commonly held values and arguing its position from there. This is because having respect for an opponent is the right thing to do, but also because it’s the way to get things done. I seriously doubt being called a “baby killer” has ever changed anyone’s mind about anything.

10. It can be pro-family and pro-church, without being dogmatic.

This, my final point, might be a little too far down the rabbit-hole for most, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that religious conservatives and secular progressives share a common goal of building a world where every individual has the opportunity to live a happy life free from want and fear. The only real difference appears to be a disagreement in how to get there, with conservatives advocating for ever-nebulous “family values” and liberals yearning for more social programs. Without (I hope) painting with too broad a brush, this leads to accusations of various things being shoved down sundry throats — religion, government, etc.

I think we’re all better than this.

You don’t have to be pro-religion to acknowledge there’s some data supporting its positive effects in people’s lives. It’s possible to acknowledge the positive effects of stable families while realizing that they aren’t an option for everyone.

Along those same lines, it’s possible to affirm families, religion and government all at once. Why argue a false dichotomy when we can simply affirm what works, where it works? The ideal we strive for should be one in which everyone — families, churches, individuals — work together to affirm human life in all of its forms. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t require government at all, but we don’t live in a perfect world.


All of these are just the shadows of ideals — the barest outlines of what I hope and pray will grow into a robust and challenging culture of life. I wouldn’t presume to set myself up as the leader of a movement; I just ask that anyone out there of like mind work to develop and argue for these ideals.



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12 thoughts on “Toward a Progressive Pro-Life Ethic

  1. Well thought out, and sensible. Your comments about starting from what we agree on (rather than what divides us) applies to all kinds of other issues, too, not just abortion. We don’t make any progress in any direction when we’re too busy shouting at each other to put our heads together and get something done.

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  3. Luke,
    I sort of agree with this post. That is to say, I agree that progressives can and should be pro-life, and that a pro-life progressivism should look the way you describe it. But I myself am definitely not a “progressive”, so I can’t really agree with the “progressive” part of “pro-life progressive.”
    (I’m not really a conservative, either, as that term has come to be understood. But my wanderings from 1960s liberalism, through movement conservatism, to whatever it is that I am now is a rabbit warren you don’t want to get lost in.)
    I’m curious about something, though. You identify as a progressive, and clearly believe in the core ideas of progressivism. Since one of the core ideas of progressivism is feminism, how do you reconcile that with belonging to a Church body which refuses to ordain women to the sacred ministry?

    • Wow, I could probably write a whole post about that. But I’ll try to be succinct…

      In the first place, I’m more of a reluctant progressive than anything. It’s not a label I’m excited to apply to myself, and I more or less wound up there because I see it as the least-broken political viewpoint at this moment in history. That’s all, really. My theological commitments trump my political commitments in every way.

      In the second place, I have absolutely no idea what the word “feminism” means. I have yet to meet two self-described “feminists” that agree on anything at all, and the fact that every “feminist” feels the need to qualify the term with a modifier (“radical feminist,” “sex-positive feminist,” “Marxist feminist,” “progressive feminist,” “Christian feminist”) is ample evidence that the term is a pretty empty one. I think Bell Hooks once wrote “Feminism is for everybody,” which…is okay, I guess? But once you’ve defined it that loosely and generally, what’s left?

      I guess I would call myself a feminist, insofar as I think the sexes are equal in dignity and should be treated equally in the eyes of the law — but I don’t see how that precludes the possibility that their Creator has called them to serve in different ways.

      • Wow, I could probably write a whole post about that.

        I bet it would be worth reading. However, I think this:

        I don’t see how that precludes the possibility that their Creator has called them to serve in different ways.

        … covers the matter pretty well. It also displays an ability to make distinctions and to think for oneself that is pretty rare these days.

        I guess I would call myself a feminist …

        I would not. To the extent that “feminism” is a coherent body of thought, I have concluded that it is simply false. To be sure, it is true that “the sexes are equal in dignity,” but we did not need the ideology of modern feminism to tell us that. And though the sexes are equal in dignity they are quite different from one another in a myriad of other ways, so that a simple-minded application of “equal treatment in the eyes of the law” results in a great deal of injustice.

        That, plus the fact that an ideology that tells us that it is fitting for mothers to slay their own children in order to achieve a false and chimerical “equality” is not to be trusted.

  4. Very interesting piece on abortion which I agree with, and I congratulate you on being sensible, thoughtful and a provider of hope for progress here.
    As a cultural anthropologist, and, yes, a progressive, I would have to say that widespread practices of infanticide among primitive cultures — the newborn gets put out on a rock and the father goes out and brings it into the fold (or doesn’t) — are the low-tech equivalent of moder-day abortion. Or abortion is the high tech version of infanticde.
    Whether anyone can buy this analogy or not, the important point isn’t the analogy, it is the underlying rationale. The primative father , or his family, typically bases the decision on economic reasons. Is there food enough? Or Perhaps the conditon of the new born enters in — is it deformed ? Or perhaps the mother is young and unwiling or ashamed.
    I’m not judging these rreasons, just saying they appear to be the same ones we have today.

    These turnout to be the same reasons given today.

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