Although I am strongly pro-life, I don’t follow the movement closely, so I’ve been puzzled by a barrage of emails, Tweets and Facebook posts that I’ve been paying semi-attention to over the past week about an internal furor over HR 1797: The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. According to the executive summary of the bill:
H.R. 1797 generally prohibits the abortion of unborn children at twenty weeks after fertilization or later, the stage during which a substantial body of medical evidence indicates that they are capable of feeling pain. The bill provides exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape, or from incest against a minor, as long as such incidents are reported to the appropriate law enforcement or government agency prior to the abortion. H.R. 1797 also provides an exception when the life of the mother is in danger. The termination of a pregnancy under the exceptions generally must be done in manner that provides the best opportunity for the unborn child’s survival.
A person who performs or attempts to perform an abortion prohibited under H.R. 1797 will be fined, imprisoned for less than five years, or both. However, H.R. 1797 prohibits the prosecution of a woman who receives an abortion in violation of the bill.
This seems like a no-brainer pro-life position to me, so I couldn’t tell what all the fuss was about from inside the pro-life movement. Today, however, noted pro-life activist Rebecca Kiessling linked to an open letter by Dan Becker to the pro-life community. I read it, and discovered that the anger comes from a perceived schism within the pro-life movement. According to Dan Becker, the question is whether the pro-life movement is “the bearer of truth concerning the image of God in man or… panderers to political pragmatism?” Given my support of Secular Pro-Life, you can probably imagine that Becker and I do not see eye-to-eye.
The proximate cause of the outrage is two fold. First, the GOP took the bill out of the hands of “pro-life hero” Rep. Trent Franks and gave it to more moderate members to sponsor. Second, they added an exception for rape and incest. In other words: they gave the bill a moderate make-over, and Becker, Kiessling (who was conceived in rape), and others can’t abide it.
What frustrates me is not so much the no-exceptions stance of some in the pro-life movement as much as it is the scorched-earth tactics that go along with it. For example (quoting Becker again):
It has been openly stated within the movement that we need to distance ourselves from the “rape/incest” debate by giving up the argument. This is a total abdication of duty and a grave moral failure that will incur God’s judgment.
The first sentence is a little strong, but it represents a genuine belief on the part of some within the pro-life community, and I sympathize with their sense that they alone will speak for the innocent and voiceless. But the second one? We’re going to start calling down God’s judgment on fellow pro-lifers? I believe that lacks discretion, to put it mildly. Of course, according to Becker, if you allow a rape and incest exception you aren’t really pro-life at all.
So here’s my take: we live in a country where there are nearly 1,000,000 abortions every year and the vast majority (90%+) are for purely elective reasons. Obviously, the greater problem is not abortion after rape, it’s abortion after consensual sex. Not only is this where the greatest loss of life occurs, but it is also where there is greatest moral clarity. Polls show that the pro-life movement has made slow but steady gains in recent decades and has finally reached a point where there are more pro-life people than pro-choice people in this country. Although the numbers swing back and forth from month-to-month, as of May 2013 (according to Gallup) it was pro-choice 45% to pro-life 48%, and pro-life has hit 50% or greater twice since 2009 while pro-choice hasn’t at all since 2008. However, only about 10% of Americans support bans on abortion that do not have exceptions for rape and incest. If you do the math, Becker is claiming that about 80% of the pro-life movement isn’t actually pro-life.
(Frustrating tangent: the perception lags the reality. Most people believe that the country is still predominantly pro-choice even though it isn’t. That’s why Democrats keep talking about pro-life legislation as part of a “war on women”, despite the fact that women are as evenly divided on abortion as the rest of the country. Once perception catches up to reality, that will cease to be a useful rhetorical weapon.)
So: would you rather work with 50% of Americans and have a real shot at reducing 90% of abortions? Or would you rather condemn them to the judgment God and work with the 10% who are truly pro-life and have no real shot at doing anything except further entrench our current laws? To me it looks like a choice between rolling up your sleeves and getting to work on something meaningful or standing on the sidelines and patting yourself on the back for keeping your shoes clean. I’ll go farther and say that as a general rule putting rigid ideology ahead of practical improvement means that you’re a fraud. It reminds me of the lyrics from Thursday’s “Where the Circle Ends”
And so often we don’t struggle to improve conditions
We struggle for the right to say “We improved conditions”
This Pharisaical / puritanical obsession is nothing but a form of prideful self-absorption. Call it “holier-than-thou syndrome”, and it’s an infection within the pro-life community. I won’t go so far as to say that they are going to earn the judgment of a wrathful God, but I think a refusal to accommodate ourselves to the reality of the constraints within which we operate as activists (Christian or otherwise) is not a reflection of higher moral standards, but of arrogant refusal to humble ourselves by accepting the limitations of this flawed and broken world and doing our best to make real, effective change within it.
Look, I don’t want to be an anti-puritan puritan. I’m happy to have Becker and Kiessling and others in the movement. Although I do believe that their particular myopia is deeply flawed, who among us doesn’t have flaws? We’re all sinners so that’s a non-issue. I have no desire to shut them up, shout them down, or excommunicate them from the pro-life movement. But I do think that other voices need to moderate their sometimes-shrill cries, and that’s what I’m doing here.