RSS
Why I'm a pro-life liberal
A genuine pro-life position supports the lives of mothers and children rather than simply their births
 
Allowing a wide latitude for human life.
Allowing a wide latitude for human life. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Though public opinion on abortion actually reflects a very nuanced debate, with opinions based around factors like the pregnancy's term and the reason for termination, there are really only two positions debated in the media: ardently for the unrestricted availability of abortion regardless of motive, or ardently against abortion under any circumstances — and how dare anyone suggest otherwise. And since these positions tend to cleave along party lines, a stance on abortion that shows a political affinity different than the typical Left-Right divide is almost untenable, at least if one hopes to be depicted honestly and consistently by the media.

So I confess: I am a pro-life leftist.

I consider my position to be a specific set of political motives and goals that don't fully align with either side of America's abortion debate. Since the Left generally objects to the idea that ending the life of a fetus isn't a protected right, and the Right disfavors any insistence that a culture of life has broader implications, I'm bereft of a political home on this issue.

I oppose abortion because I believe it is contrary to Christian ethics. I should preempt this point by noting that it is typical of Christian ethical thought that multiple wrongs can be stacked atop one another. Such is the case, quite generally, on this issue: Abortions are as much the result of a culture inhospitable to life as they are to the weak sources of support that arise out of that culture and the decisions of individual mothers.

Even if it is challenging to settle the question of when, exactly, "life" begins, it is clear that abortion negates whatever life there is. Moreover, the significant possibility that the fetus is alive is enough under most Christian ethical formulations to favor avoiding any action that might end such a life, much in the way that a Christian would be warned against firing a gun into a box if it was possible that someone might be inside it. Human life is significant enough, in other words, to allow wide latitude for.

That latter point is what necessitates the leftist part of my position.

While pro-lifers rally around a culture of life, the sum total of such a culture seems to be for them one in which abortion is vigorously prosecuted and everyone has knockoff, Livestrong-esque wristbands decrying the evils of terminating pregnancies. It's not a convincing picture. While their arguments are in the right spirit, the tactics of the movement vary from the extreme and directly antithetical to a culture of life, such as the murder of abortion providers, to the useless and cruel, such as the harassment of women seeking abortions at clinics, to the performative and weak, such as standing around with tape on their mouths. Very little of the imaginative power of organizations such as Bound4Life and LiveAction goes to answering that echoing Christian ethical question: What then should we do? It's not enough to say what we should not do.

The pro-life leftist position maintains that human life is so significant, so inherently valuable, so irreplaceable that it should be the central subject of political concern. This view requires, therefore, that since we care enough about the outcome of pregnancy to insist against abortion, then we must continue to care about the outcome when abortion is no longer a legal option. To me, this requires a culture agreeing to put its money where its mouth is — that is, to provide robust support programs that render feasible the entire process of childbearing and childbirth, from pregnancy to child care to the total span of family life. Programs that immediately come to mind include universal health care, which would obviate the incredible expenses of pregnancy, often costing in the thousands of dollars out of pocket; government-supported parental leave and policies protecting the employment of mothers; and a no-strings-attached child allowance.

A 2013 study featured in the journal BMC Women's Health found that financial reasons were the primary motive for 40 percent of women who sought abortions. In fact, financial concerns were the "most frequently mentioned theme" in women's explanations of why they needed an abortion. Other concerns included a lack of insurance, a lack of adequate housing, and a lack of stable living conditions. The study's authors note that for women seeking abortion, the decision is rarely simple; most women expressed multiple reasons that in culmination led them to believe they could not become mothers, and financial reasons were frequently at the core of those stacked concerns.

What people who are genuinely interested in reducing abortion need to understand is that all of these factors are mutable. As a society, we are capable of seriously impacting the child poverty rate with transfer programs, as Matt Bruenig (full disclosure: he's my fiancé) has demonstrated at Demos by illustrating how state-funded support programs account for different countries' child poverty rates. As Bruenig shows, there is nothing especially mysterious about Finland, Sweden, or Norway that allows them to have such low child poverty rates — they merely choose, politically, to funnel their resources into preventing economic stress on parents and children. Accordingly, it's frequently the case that countries similar to the U.S. but with more robust social programs have lower rates of abortion: There are about 20 abortions per 1,000 women in the U.S., 7.8 per 1,000 in Germany, 14.3 in Denmark, and 11.1 in Finland. The needle, it appears, can be nudged.

In my view, a genuine pro-life political position takes its commitment to human life seriously, and is therefore willing to commit to supporting the lives of mothers and children rather than simply their births. I do not believe harsh punishment is the way to address the challenges facing mothers and infants that tragically conclude, at times, in abortion. Yet penalty seems to be the one way those operating under the "pro-life" banner feel comfortable expressing their commitment to life, which is why I find the usual right-wing anti-abortion approach underwhelming and incomplete. Compassion isn't cheap, and it's defined by its longevity: If we are to take seriously a cultural commitment to life, which I believe we should, then we'll conduct ourselves with mercy and sensitivity to the difficulties that bring women to choose abortion, and will commit ourselves to concrete political change aimed at reducing those struggles.
 
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and received her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is currently working towards her PhD at Brown University. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week