Defining Pro-Life Down

I have only a brief thought on Matt Loftus’s recent essay (and follow-up blog post) on whether we should use the term “pro-life” to refer to issues other than the traditional referents.

It seems to me that you can’t make the term “pro-life” do more by making it mean less. I think that’s what Matt is getting at in his essay. Much like the word “gospel,” there’s a tendency amongst some in my tribe to want to heighten the moral urgency of certain things by using words that signal importance but not meaning. For example, you don’t have to go far before finding someone who will refer to, say, expositional preaching or love of the city as a “gospel issue.” In this phraseology, the word “gospel” doesn’t actually mean anything other than “This is really important.” The gospel is not about expositional preaching and it’s not about our love for the city. Perhaps paradoxically, everyone in the conversation where such language is used already knows this. They understand what’s being said and don’t stumble over it—simply because they already get that the point is not to say something about the gospel, but about their own sense of urgency toward an issue.

But in the meantime, something unfortunate is happening to the word “gospel.” It has started doing more but meaning less. After a few rounds, it becomes impossible to know what someone means by “gospel issue” at all, but it becomes very easy to know that you ought to care about…well, whatever’s being talked about.

I think the same philological corrosion happens when the word “pro-life” is used too much. And let me add one final point to Matt’s excellent thoughts.

The idea that we ought to talk about immigration, welfare, zoning, and other issues the same way we talk about abortion is deeply deceiving. It is an implicit concession to that odious pro-choice caricature that says that pro-lifers care about babies until they’re born. The problem with this mantra isn’t that it’s rude, it’s that it’s dishonest. And it’s dishonest all the way down. Pro-lifers are pro-life because they think unborn infants have inherent value that cannot be subjugated de facto to the will of another person. The question of whether an unborn infant is such a being is totally and completely independent of how pro-lifers think about other issues. One can be anti-abortion and the most feckless NRA advocate on the planet, and any thoughtlessness about guns does not in any way inform whether that person is authentically pro-life. Why not? Because pro-life is a response to abortion, not the other way around. Pro-life does not exist because people who are apathetic about Sandy Hook need a political pet issue. Pro-life exists because Planned Parenthood says dilation and curettage should exist. You cannot separate the word “pro-life” from the gore of the forceps.

It’s absolutely true that what we believe about human rights and digntiy should inform our entire politic. But to call issues like single-payer healthcare a pro-life matter is a most brazen kind of revisionism. While such an instinct might be well-motivated, it ultimately ends in euphemisms like “safe, legal, and rare.” You might have a good argument for single-payer, but I can promise you I have a much better argument against partial birth abortion. Those two concepts are not cousins, and to say otherwise can only strengthen the former by helping people to take their minds off the latter.

No thanks.