Whole-life or Pro-life
It was a delightful experience being in Washington, DC last week and meeting with leaders from across the country and even around the world who take the pro-life issue seriously, and who, like me, have made it the focus of their entire working career. But what emerged at those meetings is evidence of two growing fissures within our movement which are concerning to me. At the very moment in which we need to be unified about who we are and what we are trying to do, at the political level, at the grassroots level, pregnancy center, crisis intervention, and at my level working around the world, we have these fissures that are growing within our movement.
There is a growing debate over the language of pro-life. Are we a whole life movement or are we a pro-life movement? The whole life advocates want to stress that we should see ourselves as a whole life movement because being pro-life tends to be focused narrowly on the unborn child. And of course, if you are pro-life, you want to communicate that you care about life at all the points on the continuum from conception to natural death. One leader said, being pro-life doesn’t mean championing for the unborn life alone, but rather advocating for life at all stages. This is a pretty powerful argument. I think everybody agrees that life is valuable, full of dignity, made in the image of God from beginning to end, but this is really offered as a particular critique against the pro-life movement. This writer seeks to purify the pro-life movement of its inconsistencies. A pro-life movement that ignores infant mortality rates, starvation, or the degradation of the environment simply does not deserve the label pro-life. Only a whole life approach can make the pro-life movement authentically pro-life. I think this is a particularly harsh criticism, and it basically is saying that you are a hypocrite if you stand in defense of the unborn who are legally being killed at the same time advocating for a whole host of social and political policies that improve life according to that perception (whether it is education, food, maternity leave, and so on and so forth).
I have come up with seven holes that I see in the whole life argument, but I am just going to summarize them in this taping by using an illustration which I think is often more penetrating than all the academic points. It comes from Scott Korff, who is my friend and co-author with the book Stand for Life, and he gives an illustration that I think is worth processing. It highlights the weakness of the whole life approach in a way that helps us resist the need to accept responsibility and burden and to spend all of our resources on a whole continuum of issues, rather than to recognize that it is legitimate for us to spend our time and our money on efforts in defending the one group of people in our society today that are legally being targeted for murder. Scott writes:
“Joe found a young girl unconscious in her upstairs closet. By the time he got there, the structure was a raging inferno. No one else dared go inside, scooping up the girl. He took his only exit straight out the window of the second story and into the bushes below. The girl lived. Joe sustained three cuts and two sprained ankles and an avalanche of questions. The media wanted to know how he planned to pay for the girl’s food, clothing, and healthcare now that he had rescued her. A pastor asked if time spent saving the girl from temporal flames might be better spent saving people from eternal flames. The social justice coordinator at a local parish insisted that if Joe truly cared about saving lives, he would care about all life and spent equal time rescuing poor workers from rich corporations.The local congressman asked if Joe supported tax hikes aimed at reducing the fire risk. Joe’s response, he just kept looking at the girl.”
The point is that rescuing the innocent from being intentionally killed is completely, fully, and wholly legitimate all by itself. For example, if you are helping with an afterschool program for poor, inner city children in their junior high age range, nobody attacks you for only caring about life. It is legitimate all by itself. You do not have to justify your action by also showing that you care about people who are sick, people who are elderly, and every other form of need. Why is it that only the pro-lifers are being called hypocrites? Because they are defending the unborn. And I think it is just simply because people are still wrestling with whether that should be a priority. In my view, it is a priority. It is a preeminent moral crisis when people are being intentionally killed. And it is a preeminent crisis for us as the people of faith to make sure that we are responding according to God’s word, which says, rescue the innocent and hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter, they will run away from this battle. Do not let people put a burden on you that God has not put on us. The call to rescue the innocent is already challenging and we gotta stand on it as God’s word and God’s calling and keep on doing it with all of our might and effort.