The last few years have witnessed a stunning development in the pro-life movement, one worth considering.
The problem: More and more pro-lifers refuse to discuss abortion. A new wave of pro-life leaders insist that victory will not be gained if the debate centers principally on the morality of killing the unborn.
Paul Swope calls it “a failure to communicate” when right-to-lifers focus primarily on the unborn instead of on the felt needs of women. “The pro-life movement must show that abortion is actually not in a woman’s own self-interest,” he says. Reframing the debate will enable the movement to “regain the moral high ground in the mind of the American public.” The message is clear: Focus on the life of the mother, not the death of the child.
But it’s hard to imagine how appealing to self-interest could be an effective general strategy. Here’s why: It’s almost always in a woman’s short-term self-interest to abort. This is precisely why the pro-abortion side has been effective. A focus on felt needs favors death, not life.
How can we “regain the moral high ground in the mind of the public” if we retreat from the moral debate? The whole point of an ethical argument is to turn people from selfish interests to what is right. Felt needs are the problem, not the solution.
This approach completely sabotages the pro-life position. Crisis pregnancy centers do not exist to handle pregnancy (hospitals and clinics do that). They handle crisis pregnancies, those that will likely end in abortion. They don’t exist for the woman, strictly speaking, but for the child whose life is in danger. Women should not have abortions precisely because abortion is a moral tragedy. If not, then why oppose it?
By contrast, this new tactic implicitly promotes the vice of selfishness instead of the virtue of sacrificial motherhood. Ideas have consequences, and this one may have, as Frank Beckwith observes, “the unfortunate consequence of increasing the number of people who think that unless their needs are pacified they are perfectly justified in performing homicide on the most vulnerable of our population.”
Shifting the focus away from the unborn is morally disastrous, undermining the legitimacy of the entire pro-life case. Our position just is a moral one, period. Abandoning the ethical foundation for a trendier message means the pro-life movement no longer has any reason to exist. Instead, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Our growing reluctance to advance moral arguments and instead focus on the self-interest of the mother is a tacit admission we either don’t have a moral case to offer or that it simply doesn’t matter because it’s irrelevant. In either instance, pro-lifers have not just abandoned the moral argument, they’ve abandoned the fight altogether. This we cannot do.