People criticize pro-lifers for focusing so much on abortion. But there’s a reason we do.

Pro-life activists gather in front of the US Supreme Court at the 44th annual March for Life on January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty
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I have been pro-life for as long as I can remember. My family were not culture warriors: We never picketed, and I’m not sure we ever discussed the subject at home. My only memories of anything close to activism are of occasional appeals to our church to donate diapers to a local crisis pregnancy center. I was impressed by the urgency of the requests, which focused almost exclusively on the burdens disadvantaged single mothers faced and the opportunity we had to aid them. That somewhat idyllic approach impressed on me the vague but definite intuition that life in the womb was worth preserving and the woman who bore it worth supporting. This impression that being pro-life means supporting the people whose wombs bear life as much as the life itself has never left me.

My activist impulses have grown since my youth, and those instincts have been sharpened. The reasons for this are complex, and personal: Like many people, I have been intimate with those struggling to conceive and with those desperately seeking to avoid doing so. The heart-wrenching pain of infertility and miscarriage, the struggles of teenage motherhood, the fears and anxieties of an unwanted pregnancy — as I have grown older, such experiences have deepened my sense that human life is a wonderful, tragic mystery. Whatever else we think about it, the drama of conception leads to the most profound joys and sorrows, the most ardent hopes and expectations, and the most visceral fears and anxieties. In college, I would describe myself as pro-life; I now joke that I am rabidly pro-life. Only it’s not really a joke.

Yet what it means to be “pro-life” is, these days, hotly contested — and, I think, often misunderstood. The question has been unavoidable in 2017: The Women’s March was dominated by headlines about whether the “pro-life feminist” is a viable species; the March for Life was accompanied by the annual hand-wringing about news outlets naming us “anti-abortion”; the refugee ban was met by denunciations framed by pro-life concerns; and the president’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch for Supreme Court justice prompted dismissive charges of hypocrisy for the movement’s narrow focus.

Beneath these disputes lies a simple charge: Pro-lifers care about what happens in the womb, and nothing beyond it. Such a depiction is almost certainly a caricature. And yet it aggravates a real phenomenon: The pro-life movement has emphasized embryos in the womb for reasons that go to the heart of being “pro-life” itself. Without grasping the peculiar ethos that animates this emphasis, the decision by pro-lifers to succumb to the temptation of Donald Trump for the sake of a Supreme Court justice will remain an unintelligible mystery and degradation.

The ethos of the pro-life movement, which unabashedly emphasizes life in the womb, is not precisely its beliefs: Those are well-known enough, even if controversial. Ask a pro-lifer why they object to abortion, and you are likely to get a hodgepodge of reasons appealing to God, to science, and to claims about human dignity or rights.

Yet as important as those arguments are, they are better understood as articulating a conceptual structure for intuitions and perceptions that exceed their limits — intuitions and perceptions that animate the individual outreach of most pro-life activists. The pro-life outlook is more enchanted, more infused with a secular sense of the sacred, than most of our philosophical arguments allow. Identifying that ethos, and attempting to name it, is crucial for understanding how pro-lifers think — and why they are so earnestly devoted to their cause.

The atmosphere of a dual awe

How should we think about the embryo in the earliest moments of conception? Few questions are more significant for the pro-life movement than this one, and few expose as well the deep divides in our society’s intuitions about the world. The most sophisticated pro-lifers will at this point make appeals to science and metaphysical biology, and argue that the embryo is an organism whose maturation into an independent human being is intrinsic or internal to it — and thus it is a person and bears all the rights therein. Yet framing the pro-life view that way fails to capture the more basic and constitutive disposition pro-lifers have toward the emergence of human life in the womb: wonder.

Consider for one moment the possibility that the embryo is, as it sometimes is described, a “clump of cells.” To the pro-lifer, that clump is better described as — is — a living human being. These differing formulations, though, conceal fundamentally diverging intuitions. Buried within the “clump of cells” phrasing is the tacit suggestion that it isn’t a very important clump of cells. If that little bundle of cells someday becomes a person, well, it isn’t yet.

But for the pro-lifer, that “clump of cells” is as wondrous, as potent, as mysterious as, well, the cosmos. The recognition of the “baby” induces a hushed reverence. The universe once appeared out of nothing, a fact that reasonably seems to induce the strange vertigo of awe, but the formation of a new human being is not so different from this. The embryo contains a whole world of possibilities and adventures. The “newcomer,” Hannah Arendt once wrote, “possesses the capacity of beginning something anew.” For those weary and afraid, the opportunity for a new start that the embryo announces momentarily refreshes their spirits.

Such an atmosphere of reverential awe is the grounds for the movement’s insistence on the name “pro-life”: Our opposition to abortion and other forms of unjustified killing is grounded in this more basic, more central construal of human life as a terrible good, a mysterious wonder, a mildly insane risk that is still worth taking. Human beings are capable of the most heinous evils and exploring the vast reaches of the cosmos — and so the pro-lifer meets the early embryo as a sign of the possibilities before us.

The perpetual refrain among pro-lifers that one might abort the next Beethoven or Einstein is indicative of what theologian Karl Barth once called the “confidence in life.” If birth is a lottery, pro-lifers contend it is maybe the only one really worth playing.

This natural awe at the emergence and power of new human life is inseparable from a reverence toward the mothers who bear it. Such an admiration and regard motivates crisis pregnancy centers, for instance, to support mothers in their work of bearing and raising children. Life takes both men and women to create — but it is mothers who gestate human beings before releasing them into the wild. As philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse once argued, by virtue of her labor a woman “gives her husband the outcome of their union.”

The disproportionate authority women have over their children is inextricably tied to the magnitude of their sacrifice: In a mother’s act of bearing life, she quite literally lays down her body for another. There are thus few more reasonable responses to an unwanted pregnancy than fear and anxiety. The burden women bear in procreating and in raising a child is very real, and should — even if it does not always — preserve the movement from simply sentimentalizing the embryo or its life.

The wonder pro-lifers have for the embryo is thus inseparable from a respect, and even admiration, for those women who give life under difficult circumstances. If there is an explanation for why Catholics have formed the backbone of the pro-life movement, it is here: Their reverential deference to Mary helps contextualize the birth of the embryo, miraculous as it might be, in the context of the woman whose life is so severely affected by it.

These natural reverences permeate the pro-life movement’s ethos. While many pro-lifers are at home speaking the language of rights and respect required for democratic political discourse, we are — if our own rhetoric is at all truthful — animated by something much nearer to love. We cannot shed ourselves of the sense that there is something too powerful, something too good about the human being, to make its life or its death a matter for our choice. It is better for the embryo to go on existing, for it and for us and for the cosmos whose beauty new human life adorns and deepens.

That beauty is often tragic; life is sometimes terrible. But we go on making new human life because we cannot shake the sense that the whole business is worth it. Here, in the newness of life, we discover a concentrated form of the drama of existence in which we are all entangled.

The emphasis on embryos and the oddity of life

It is no secret that the pro-life movement’s central, intermediate-range political aim is overturning Roe v. Wade. Such an interest prompted many pro-lifers to reluctantly vote for someone who would be their most unlikely and unusual representative. Such a focus makes pro-lifers an easy topic for charges of hypocrisy.

But an emphasis on embryos in the womb is nothing more than that: a focusing of our attention and energy. It is not a denial of other urgent social causes. Yet the success of the “anti-abortion” dimension has animated critics to try to expand the meaning of “pro-life.” These days, one can only be pro-life if one supports health care reform; supports religious freedom for non-Christians; is in favor of food stamps and WIC; supports immigration reform, prison reform, and gun control; opposes climate change; affirms a sustainable minimum wage; opposes capital punishment; and is opposed to war. One writer even put together a quiz.

Such expansive construals of “life” are not new. As Daniel Williams’s new history of the pro-life movement observes, it was filled with New Deal Democrats in the beginning, and pro-life pacifists emerged in response to the Vietnam War. It was in 1983 that Cardinal Bernardin described a “consistent ethic of life,” a concept that has been a steady presence within the movement ever since.

Yet ending abortion is not only the one policy everyone agrees upon. For pro-lifers, it is also a paradigmatic form of wrong that reveals and shapes how those of us who are walking about treat each other. Emphasis is not an exclusion, but it is not a leveling, either. There is nothing inconsistent about recognizing that some injustices and the laws that allow them are peculiar, and responding accordingly.

The pro-life movement’s focus on abortion is animated not only by the sense of wonder that saturates its ethos, but by its apprehension of the startling weirdness of human life in the womb. If our reference class for humanity is the active, mature bodies of those we see around us, the early embryo appears to be a peculiarly bizarre sort of thing. Consider: It is hidden from public view, visible only through the body of the mother. If that clump of cells is a separate, independent organism, it is still dependent upon the mother’s own functioning until birth ushers it into the world. The early embryo has no consciousness, none of the first-person perspective we identify with the presence of human agency. It can even mutate into twins, a superpower we lose early in our development — so that we do not abuse it, I like to think.

Within the pro-life outlook, the hiddenness of the fetus is a microcosm of our social relations. As Gracy Olmstead observed, the Women’s March on Washington’s proclamation that “defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us” perfectly distills the pro-lifer’s beliefs. “Defending the voiceless, the vulnerable, the marginalized, is priority number one,” Olmstead suggests. After all, “voiceless,” “marginalized,” and “invisible” aptly describe life within the womb.

In the same way, the embryo’s radical dependence upon its mother crystallizes the appropriate moral response to humans in need. The radical dependency the embryo manifests changes form, but never totally dissolves. If our adult lives are no longer at the mercy of only one other person for our nourishment and health, they are yet entangled with political and natural forces that far exceed our control.

The autonomy of our lives is an illusion that our origins within the womb dispels. Such a dependency is compatible with dignity. We might even say, with some philosophers, that the dignity of the human is in part constituted by our dependency, for it allows others the glory of coming to our aid. The embryo thus invokes the strange fusion of joy and obligations that mark the best parts of our world. There is no delight like that of doing good to one another, of meeting a need that no one else can fulfill.

Treating the womb as a microcosm for the rest of society also grounds an egalitarianism within the pro-life attitude. While we appeal to people’s pragmatic instincts by pleading with them to not abort the next Beethoven, pro-lifers also are suffused with the sense that any of us could have suffered the same fate. Part of the mystery and enchantment of life is that we know so little of the person who the embryo is, and will become. We know it is the mother’s — and often, but not always, we know the father as well.

But in this thin description, the embryo is practically identical to every other embryo that has ever existed. Parents are able to meet their newborn with a real and genuine surprise, because they really are ignorant of his life. Its future is unwritten, even if not limitless, and its characteristics and capabilities are yet to be discovered. It is no more definite, no more determined than any of us were in such a state.

There is thus a kind of going “behind the veil” for pro-lifers, in that we act toward it in such a way that we ourselves might have been similarly placed. That is not to say the conditions of birth are always equal: Not every family is as well-positioned for a healthy, flourishing life as others. Yet the notion that the dignity of the human being subsists prior to any knowledge of the child and to its maturation means that, whatever fundamental rights we have in this world, we all share them equally.

What happens at the margins of life has a peculiar significance to what goes on in the middle. Births and deaths play an exaggerated role in our self-understanding, just as beginnings and endings have an outsize influence on our appreciation of novels. At the edges of life, we see human beings in conditions that our agency as adults obscures, but which often mark significant swaths of our mature lives: dependency and need, isolation and invisibility. The pro-life investment in opposing euthanasia is motivated on the same terms as its opposition to abortion, even if the form of the debate is very different — and even if it has not (yet) evoked the energy that anti-abortion efforts have.

For the pro-lifer, there is no clearer instance of the marginalized, the voiceless, and the vulnerable than in the womb — and no more profound source of wonder at the limitless possibilities that human life is capable of achieving. The early embryo looks nothing like us, has none of our capabilities, drains the mother’s resources, and often requires the mother to sacrifice many of her interests. If in these conditions one can see something worthwhile, something that can be a benefit or a blessing to the world even when unwanted, then one can start to glimpse why pro-lifers are so animated and so patient in their efforts.

Matthew Lee Anderson is a doctoral candidate in Christian ethics at Oxford University, and the founder of Mere Orthodoxy. He invites you to follow him on Twitter or email him at matthewleeanderson.84@gmail.com.


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