The New Pro-Life Movement: Neither New nor Pro-Life
Now that the practical choice is between coughing Clinton and terrifying Trump, the Seamless Garment crowd is making new attempts to co-opt pro-life sentiment in favor of the vociferously pro-abortion candidate – that is, Clinton. This New Pro-Life Movement is supposedly bolder, more sincere, more consistent, and especially more "prudent" than the old (and conservative) one.
It's wise to wave aside some of this with a sneer – especially the tried-and-false dilution of the pro-life message with the goofy pretense that opposing capital punishment makes innocent lives safer. But it's also wise to take seriously a more profound falsehood: that the way to advance pro-life goals is to throw our full support behind the welfare state.
Oddly enough, one of the most prominent proponents of this viewpoint is Mark P. Shea, whose self-written Wikipedia listing describes him as "an American author, blogger, and speaker working in the field of Roman Catholic apologetics" and whose forays on behalf of broad pro-lifery display all the telling logic and rhetorical effectiveness of a banana slug in the noonday sun. Shea is fond of telling us such things as that the invasion of Europe must be encouraged by pro-life Christians, maybe because Jesus was a refugee, too. It's pointless to ask him whether little German girls ought to be raped by Jesus stand-ins. Indeed, it's pointless to offer counter-argument to anything Shea says, since he never offers argument. He makes assertions and accuses anyone who disagrees with him of defying the Magisterium.
But Shea refers us to Matthew Tyson, whose presentation of the New Pro-Life Gospel is more explicitly reasoned and cogent. Tyson reasons thus: pro-lifers have put all their authentic plastic fetal models into the wrong basket. They've been working to elect Republicans for years. They've concentrated on changing the composition of the Supreme Court. Yet time and again, the Court has handed them defeats, and legalized abortion has continued unabated. Therefore, pro-lifers must address the "root causes" of abortion – by expanding various welfare programs so women will not feel forced to seek the destruction of their children.
Like all the most effective lies, this one has a limited truth behind it. Efforts to establish a pro-life – or even a strict constitutionalist – Supreme Court have proved less than encouraging. Tyson is right that both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey were decided by courts on which Republican presidents had appointed a majority of the justices. (He's certainly wrong, however, to characterize these courts as featuring a majority of conservatives.) Why has this strategy proved a disappointment?
One reason is that pro-life conservatives haven't managed to place all their most favored nominees on the Court. Please recall that Robert Bork was President Reagan's first choice for the vacancy left in 1987 by the retirement of Justice Powell, and that Douglas Ginsburg was Reagan's second choice. (Ginsburg withdrew his nomination over marijuana use, arguably a necessary qualification for Democrat presidential candidates.) Instead of Bork or Ginsburg, we got Anthony Kennedy – the "conservative justice" liberals love to flatter, and the deciding vote in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. Why is it that we got Kennedy instead of Bork? Because Bork was borked by just such Democrats as the "pro-life" Tyson proposes to vote for. Let's hear it for a progressive pro-life attitude!
Whole Woman's Health is certainly the most extreme pro-abortion decision ever rendered by the Court – and it's important to look at who, aside from Kennedy, rendered it. We have Stephen Breyer (a Clinton appointee), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a Clinton appointee), Sonia Sotomayor (an Obama appointee), and Elena Kagan (an Obama appointee). One of the reasons the grand pro-life strategy for the Supreme Court hasn't delivered is that voters like Shea and Tyson have labored to thwart it. Tyson mocks conservatives for electing Republicans in an effort to influence the composition of the Court: supposedly, in conformity with the commonplace definition of insanity often attributed to Albert Einstein, conservatives do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Is Tyson saner because he intends to the same thing over again (that is, vote Democrat) and get the same unacceptable result?
Tyson boils the whole pro-life emphasis on the U.S. Supreme Court down to a single question: can pro-lifers overturn Roe v. Wade? He concludes – reasonably, though not unassailably – that they cannot. Yet is this the only question of importance to the movement that is likely to come before the Court? Whole Woman's Health shows that it is not. Texas's perfectly sensible restrictions on abortion mills could have stood without overturning Roe. They didn't stand because a Democrat-influenced Court is inevitably devoted to expanding Roe. This is a process that will continue if the insouciant Mr. Tyson gets his way. Will the Court overturn state requirements that only a physician can perform surgical abortions? Following the example of California's legislature, a Democrat Court almost certainly will. Will the Court restrict even further the First Amendment rights of abortion opponents? A Democrat Court will. Will the Court lift restrictions on fetal tissue procurement and sale? Yup – if the Democrats prevail. Mandatory abortions for mothers deemed unfit? Don't count it out. After all, Hillary is a big admirer of Margaret Sanger.
It's all coming down that great big pro-abortion highway, folks, and "pro-lifers" Shea and Tyson are, in effect, cheering it on. None of this stuff really matters, after all. What really matters is "focusing on why." What really matters is "thinking deeper." What really matters is expanding the welfare state in every way imaginable.
An entertaining deficiency in Tyson's argued thesis (and Shea's unargued one) is the assumption that pro-lifers should practice something that can only be called vital utilitarianism. Just as Jeremy Bentham thought ethics should focus on the greatest good for the greatest number, the new "pro-lifers" think our only concern should be the most lives for the greatest number. In this assessment, questions of principle are mere distractions. American law is establishing an expanding right to kill? Who cares? We can't change that anyhow and shouldn't even try. The only question is, how can our heroes Shea and Tyson save the most lives? Photos on their websites should let the critical reader know just what unlikely action heroes Shea and Tyson would be. More important, utilitarianism of this sort, even if it's not explicitly hedonistic, isn't an ethical theory consistent with the Catholic faith.
Despite their ethical confusion, our new "pro-lifers" insist that the smart and prudent thing for pro-lifers to do is to support every state program for making lives easier, work less necessary, and businesses more likely to collapse. Only that way – and not by maintaining pro-life principles – can we truly call ourselves pro-life.
This is the most offensive part of the argument because it is so hypocritical. Expanding the welfare state too is the same old thing expected to produce new results. Tyson indicates that aborting mothers are women in poverty who feel they don't have options. But why are there so many single mothers in poverty? Shea and Tyson probably don't remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan – although, as a liberal Democrat, he would certainly have won their vote. Way back in 1965, Moynihan first began to assert that the expanded welfare state wasn't good for poor people, and especially for poor blacks. Experience since then has only tended to strengthen his distrust of such expansion. Shea and Tyson like simplifications, so I'll give it to them simplified. Welfare programs contribute to the breakdown of the family, and the breakdown of the family contributes to the abortion culture.
In the interest of diluting the pro-life message, Shea especially is strongly committed to undermining the Second Amendment and portrays his enthusiasm for gun control as a pro-life stance. Since Shea lives to examine others' consciences, he likes to interpret support for the Second Amendment as idolatry, rendering the gun rights stalwart a devotee of "The Gun Cult." But where does most gun violence in America actually occur? Gun homicides occur mostly in the inner city – where welfare programs have long been busy, in effect, destroying the black family. Wyoming, a largely rural state, has the highest per capita rate of gun ownership in the country – yet it maintains a low level of gun homicides. The difference is that families in Wyoming have not been ravaged by welfare to the same degree and for the same length of time as those in, say, Chicago. To Shea's eternal shame, the measures he is recommending to save lives from abortion (measures that will actually do no such thing) are the same measures that brought about the gun violence he abhors.
The New Pro-Life Movement isn't new. It isn't pro-life. And it can't even manage to be consistent in its own mistaken priorities.
Tom Riley is well known as a poet of the formalist school and maintains a blog entitled Flammeus Gladius.