Readers following facebook and other social media will likely have run across this quotation by Sister Joan Chittister posted repeatedly in the wake of the release of the notorious Planned Parenthood videos:
I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
In recent days this sentiment has been echoed by many who apparently prefer to remain aloof from the controversy while implicitly appealing to the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin's Seamless Garment, which attempted to create a consistent ethic placing abortion within a larger web of concerns, including capital punishment, warfare and poverty.
Bernardin's approach is one that I found deeply compelling three decades ago, and I thought it showed promise of breaking through the impasse between the two sides in the abortion debate. But this was not to be. In fact, since Bernardin's death in 1996, his consistent life ethic has been (ab)used more often to deprecate pro-lifers than to expand their apparently narrow horizons. Indeed, Sister Joan's remarks seem to be cited disproportionately by pro-choicers and opponents of the Republican Party.
But let's put aside for the moment the partisan purposes behind these citations and examine the inner logic of the statement itself. Is it true that one cannot be pro-life if one is not equally concerned for every item on the increasingly extensive laundry list with which detractors come up?
Consider this hypothetical case: While visiting the city pool one summer day, a young man manages to save a child from drowning after she accidentally falls into the deep end. The young man is commended for his brave deed by virtually everyone, except for a single contrarian who publicly challenges his heroic status. Where was his concern for the depth of water in the pool beforehand? Why wasn't he concerned that the child be taught to swim before being allowed to go to the pool? Where was he when the possibly incompetent lifeguards were being hired? If he had no previous concern for these factors, then his ostensibly heroic deed was really nothing of the sort. Why? Because he is addressing only symptoms when he should have been attempting to rectify the underlying causes of the near mishap. Thus his heroism is fatally compromised, and he is little more than a hypocrite.
Sound familiar? Let us return then to the pro-life movement. For the moment we can put aside the fact that many pro-lifers are deeply involved in establishing and maintaining crisis pregnancy centers and other services to assist mothers and their children through difficult circumstances. We might even grant, if only for the sake of argument, the pro-choicers' point that pro-lifers are not sufficiently attending to other legitimate issues, including those that might prompt a mother to end her pregnancy. Nevertheless, if we recognize the propriety of a division of labor in which people with limited energy and resources try to do some good while other people seek other goods, then those working to avert and perhaps eventually end abortion are still serving the cause of life and of justice. We might legitimately question their strategies, their methods and their timing, but in most cases the charge of hypocrisy simply will not stand up.
David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.