Pro-Life Pragmatism

In recent days I have had a few arguments with fellow pro-lifers about the Stupak amendment in particular, and political strategy in general. While I see the victory of the Stupak amendment as a victory for the pro-life movement, they see it as an unacceptable compromise with the Culture of Death. Stupak makes exceptions, after all, for rape, incest and ‘life of the mother’, and does not address issues such as the use of embryos, euthanasia, etc.

Naturally I am not in favor of processes which require destroying embryos or euthanasia, nor do I accept that an unborn child loses its right to life because it is a product of rape or incest. When the life of the mother is at stake, as pro-life physicians point out, abortion is not necessary, even if the child will die as a result of the treatment needed to save the mother’s life. In a perfect would we would be able to enact the whole pro-life agenda across the board, and no one would be happier with that than me.

Unfortunately we live in a fallen world and a fallen society. Anyone who wants to wade through the mire of abortion politics as a pro-lifer must understand two political facts: 1) that the majority of Americans support more restrictions but not an outright ban on abortion, and 2) the majority of Americans, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, do not place abortion anywhere near the top of the list of their political priorities.

The question that we all face, therefore, is whether it is better to compromise on the issue of abortion in order to win partial victories, or to reject compromise on the basis of pro-life principles. Some of the folks with whom I argued have crafted elaborate theological arguments (from Catholic and Protestant perspectives) against political compromise. Since I studied politics and not theology, I approach the issue from a political angle.

In my view, it is those who reject compromise that are often the greatest compromisers of all. In my view, if one is going to live in society, one must be there mind, body, and soul. As I wrote in a previous post, I don’t mind if a person wants to form an alternative community on the edge of society in the interests of escaping moral and spiritual corruption; the temptation to do just that is always present for me.

Those who remain within society but decide to “opt out” politically are still tacitly consenting to the society in which they live, as much as those involved in the political process. Yet they act as if they are above it because they refuse to participate. I understand this position too, since I occupied it for many years as part of a much different sort of movement. But it is ultimately a bankrupt position that ends up justifying inertia and rationalizing failure.

If we state as our ultimate goal the recognition of the human rights of unborn children by the law, then our only options are to participate in the political process, or to organize an armed takeover of the government. I am quite certain that most of the naysayers with whom I have argued are not in favor of the latter option, or if they are, realize that it is quite impossible for the foreseeable future (it could only happen if the current government ceased to exist and a power vacuum was opened up). We are left then with the political process as the only realistic means by which to achieve our goal.

But this process has to take into account where the majority of the people are, morally, spiritually, and politically. Things are looking better for the pro-life position on all of these fronts. Young people are less tolerant of abortion than their parents, according to one poll. The social and psychological costs of abortion are becoming more manifest in all societies through declining birth rates, infertility, skewed gender ratios, and moral collapse. It is no wonder that pro-life Democrats are making a strong showing now; the cultural mood is shifting. When Rev. Walter Hoye was arrested in Oakland for sidewalk counseling, his pro-life supporters at trial were young and multi-racial, while his detractors were old white boomer liberals.

For all that, however, we are still at a point where the majority of Americans only want greater restrictions, and aren’t too fired up about it in comparison to other issues. This is a moral failing of our society, without question. It is amazing that a matter of life and death which is so fundamental to our world view can be so casually approached by the majority of citizens, but that is the reality we face. Therefore we must find ways to attach pro-life political objectives to broader political programs that the majority of Americans can accept.

In addition I see great value in striking as many blows against the abortion status quo as possible. Every parental notification law, every restriction of public funding, every conscience-protection clause; each of these make things more difficult for the abortion industry and weaken its overall position. The passage of Stupak demonstrated its loss of political influence and inability to maintain a political coalition. This is not simply a process that has taken place at the heights of power in Washington, but rather a reflection at the top of what has been taking place at the bottom in society for the last decade or so.

Thus when the purist who rejects compromise scoffs at one of these partial victories, I ask them to look at it as part of a momentum that is pushing towards the ultimate goal. The argument that “we’ve tried that for 40 years and it hasn’t worked” is false for many reasons; first, because pro-life politicians are not always doing “the same thing”, secondly, because it is actually starting to work. Not that politicians deserve most of the credit, of course not!

The point is that the cultural shift is underway, and political parties cannot ignore cultural shifts if they want to remain relevant. The growing number of Democrats who break ranks with the hard-line pro-choicers in Congress are being pulled not only by their personal convictions but by the movement of their constituencies, which are becoming less tolerant of abortion and more open to the pro-life position. It is the opposite of the process that pulled Jessie Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, and Ted Kennedy away from the pro-life position a few decades ago when it was less popular. It seems foolish to upbraid and chastise the electorate or their representatives because they aren’t going fast enough. They can, after all, go back the way in which they came.

When all is said and done, I’m actually surprised that this shift is taking place at all. I believe the Culture of Death is still a strong influence in the lives of ordinary people. It may well be that the bulk of the electorate will reach a certain point along its road towards the pro-life position and then stop, unwilling to go further. It may never support outright bans, it may never want to let go of its irrational fondness for the “hard case” exceptions. In the never-ending cultural struggle between respect for life and the celebration of death, the best we may be able to accomplish – though this is not the goal I hold for myself or the movement – is holding the darker forces at bay. Surely that is better than complaining on the sidelines.

19 Responses to Pro-Life Pragmatism

  • We win this battle by babysteps. We hedge in the “abortion right” created by Roe and ultimately end it. I support any legislation that will chip away at abortion. This is a long-haul struggle and one we must have the endurance to fight, no matter how long it takes.

  • Agreed. A purist approach is doomed in the society we’ve created. Seek perfection and sanctity inside, pray for the absolute end of legalized abortion—of abortion itself—but for the sake of saving individual unborn lives, fight tooth and nail for whatever the current clime will allow.
    “Exceptions” may eventually make no sense to anybody else, either.

  • Most great evils are NOT eliminated by one grand, uncompromising stroke. Take slavery for instance. The first step was to end foreign slave trade; the framers of the Constitution gave it a “sunset” date of 1808, 20 years in the future. Then came the various attempts to keep a rough balance between free and slave states as new states entered the Union, via measures such as the Missouri Compromise.

    When it finally became impossible to hold the “house divided” together via compromise, and despite major setbacks such as the passage of the Fugitive Slave Laws and the Dred Scott decision, then came the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. And even then the task was far from over — it took ANOTHER 100 years to roll back the racially discriminatory laws that attempted to keep blacks “in their place” even though they were legally free. So I would not expect an evil as great as abortion to be uprooted overnight either.

  • I guess I am not a politician. As a mother, I have no problem not compromising. I refuse to become complicit in the murders of those babies who you suggest we should sacrifice to assuage our consciences.

    I am also not a theologian. It seems simple to me, however, that we face this predicament as a result of our human condition. “The poor will always remain with us”. I trust God to take care of the babies murdered in spite of my best efforts. I won’t add to the evil by becoming complicit.

    This may not make sense in the political or ‘worldly’ world, but it makes sense in my life, striving to raise up a generation of people who know their own value. A value that cannot be compromised.

  • Like the title, Joe. Might use that term myself.

  • I would rather have an amendment that prohibits public funds for all abortions. But as I understand it, the Stupak amendment extends the provisions of the existing Hyde amendment to the new legislation and makes them permanent (the Hyde amendment has to be renewed every year). Although I don’t think that the Hyde amendment goes far enough, I do think that extending the same, already agreed upon and widely supported terms to new legislation is the right way to go. It was a choice between trying to ban all federal funding of abortion (which is not going to happen) and banning NONE.

    Much as we hate to admit it, the plain truth is that many people really don’t understand or believe that an unborn baby is a person, especially very early on in the pregnancy. Many people who are not in favor of abortion in most cases don’t see that a child conceived in rape or incest is no less a child. They are horrified by the whole idea and do not think about the child. But many if not most of them do not believe in elective abortion, and part of our challenge is to show people that the vast majority of abortions have nothing to do with rape, incest, or the mother’s life being in danger. Almost all abortions are of healthy babies by healthy mothers who have not been victims of some traumatic sexual act. But that is who they think of when they are reluctant to ban abortion. And that is why it is so difficult to get complete bans passed by anyone, anywhere in this country.

  • Excellent post, Joe. I wholeheartedly agree.

  • I think you’re missing the mark here. Incrementalism is licit in many circumstances, but never when it explicitly authorizes evil acts.

    There are certainly ways to work incrementally without an explicit authorization of evil. For an easy hypothetical example, a law banning third trimester abortions would be licit. A law that banned third trimester abortions while stating that first and/or second trimester abortions will continue to be legal would be immoral–even though both laws have the same effect in practice.

    To put it another way, this debate is rather like the classic ethics debate of the hostage who is told “You go kill one person, or I will kill 50.” We cannot accept this Doug Kmiec-ian results-based morality otherwise.

    None of us so-called “purists” expect that we will have some key moment that ends abortion in one fell swoop, as Ms. Krewer suggests. We simply recognize that building a culture of life requires a commitment to the dignity of every human being. And though the civil rights struggle took well over a century to end slavery and segregation, it wasn’t won through compromise. It wasn’t won by people who said, “You say blacks should be considered 3/5 of a person so let’s split the difference and agree on 4/5 of a person.” Though the progress of this movement was incremental, this battle was won by the purists, who didn’t settle for less than justice.

    Let’s not forget that the Roe vs. Wade decision used a so-called life of the mother exception as a doorway to dehumanize the fetus. Justice Blackmun wrote that our claim that a fetus is a human person who is guaranteed Constitutional rights is fatally flawed if we are to allow for an exception–in this case the so-called life-of-the-mother exception.

    Any compromise that explicitly authorizes the destruction of human life reinforces the notion that there are cases in which it is acceptable to take an innocent life. And until we demand what is just, rather than what is politically expedient, we will lack credibility.

  • It’s a tough call for me. On the one hand, any restrictions or road blocks you can put up to slow, thwart and hopefully eventually stop abortions seems laudable to me. On the other, you don’t want to appear to be flinching on your principles by acceding to certains lives being subject to compromise (those conceived through rape, incest, etc.).

    I guess one consideration that may tip in favor of supporting the Stupak amendment is the direction it moves the issue. If this were 1972, and abortion was illegal in most states, but the feds were thinking about funding it through healthcare legislation, I would probably be against the whole thing. As it stands now, this appears more a push away from abortion that towards it. At least, I can see that position. Still, it makes me uneasy.

  • Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is not a sensible strategy. It would be like opposing Lincoln’s Emacipation Proclamation because it did not cover slaves in states not in rebellion.

  • There are ways to be incremental without compromising.

  • I agree with the attitude expressed by Joe in this article. I have two quibbles, though.

    First of all, it’s not simply a choice between political involvement and revolution. Those are the only macro choices, but on the micro level is the day-by-day progress we make through conversation, clinic protest, financial aid for alternatives to abortion, and example. Now, that can be an excuse for doing nothing and claiming that you’re doing your part – you see this among politicians a lot, who say that we need to change the culture of death, but only say it once every two years. But it’s not completely fair to say that the non-political person is doing nothing.

    Also, while I support every legislative gain we can get, we have to recognize the potential drawback. We are always at risk of creating the perfectly socially-acceptable abortion scenario. You can see this in the exceptions in the Stupak amendment. We may persuade everyone on the fence, encode every restriction against acts that the populace feels squeamish about, and have no argument left against, for example, the morning-after pill.

  • Well done Joe. I am in full agreement. I don’t see incrementalism as compromising principles. If we were satisfied with Stupak in the sense of, “OK, we’ve won this battle, now we can relax,” that would be a problem. But that is not the attitude of the pro-lifers who support it.

    As the rabbis say, “He who saves one life saves the world.”

  • Steve,

    You can’t just lump in the Civil War with “the civil rights movement.” The latter couldn’t have existed without the former, and the former was a bloody war that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

    The notion that black people count as “3/5″ of a human being to balance out the population differences between the states WAS a compromise – not some kind of hard position – without which the Constitution may not have been ratified. Those representatives of states that abolished slavery after the revolution had to choose between a racist Constitution or no Constitution.

    A compromise is nothing but a temporary truce between opposing parties. It does not have to become the status quo – it remains in effect until one side gains the power to press on further. We have to remember that it is not only we who compromise – in recent years it has been the radical pro-aborts who have had to compromise because of our growing influence and power. The day will come when we no longer need to compromise at all, because they will have become a voiceless and powerless political minority.

    I’ve said this for a long time – if you aren’t willing to go to war over abortion, then you must be willing to compromise UNTIL final victory can be achieved. With half the country currently in favor of keeping abortion legal and less than a quarter willing to ban it in ALL cases, I doubt we would win Civil War Pt. II.

    The only other option is effective inertia. But this brings me to Pinky’s point.


    I totally agree that the non-political activist is doing their part. Sidewalk counseling, alternatives, CPCs, educational programs and events – all are essential. No political pragmatist would reject any of them. I have great respect for people who engage in that work.

    But as I said in my post, if the ultimate goal is to acquire LEGAL recognition of the human rights of the unborn, the final victory has to be a political one. It isn’t our only goal – our immediate goals are always to help people who are in need and save what lives we can, and we don’t need politicians for that.

  • As far as this analysis goes, I find no problem with compromise. But the Stupak Amendment may enable MORE abortions for victims of rape or incest. So is that acceptable?

  • I’m sorry I didn’t see this before.

    As much as I despise this ridiculous and unfair ‘exception’, I don’t know how I can justify to myself allowing 99% of the abortions that have nothing to do with rape to be federally funded because these moral midgets want to allow 1% to be.

    What we are faced with here is a sort of hard-headed, irrational moral position that isn’t likely to be overcome any time soon. Those rape babies have been marked for death by our society, and I would like to defend them – and I think we can, eventually. Clearing this first hurdle, though, I think, is a necessary first step without which the second step cannot take place.

  • The exception is a loophole. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the goal is to eliminate 99% of abortions. The goal is to have legislation that includes abortion funding. The focus has been sidetracked , and now the ‘unreasonablemess of hardcore prolifers’ is supposedly ‘endangering the progress’.


    Try looking at the history of abortion is any country. Howabout the UN’s stated goal of open access worldwide. How about activist courts?


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