Last night Yale’s campus pro-life groupafter a year in which they participated in meetings and even helped raise money for the organizationbecame the first group in living memory to be denied membership in the Social Justice Network of Dwight Hall. Billing itself as an “independent” and “non-sectarian” center for public service and social justice, Dwight Hall at Yale is a group that seeks “to foster civic-minded student leaders and to promote service and activism in New Haven and around the world.” Though legally independent, it is the university umbrella organization for service and advocacy, encompassing dozens of member organizations that address almost every conceivable issue, from the environment, to gay rights, to Palestinian statehood.
Membership would have given Choose Life at Yale (CLAY) access to a variety of resources, including coveted meeting locations, use of Dwight Hall’s vehicles for service projects, and a seat at the table during Dwight Hall’s freshman recruiting events. But most of all it would have affirmed the conviction of CLAY members that the cause they served, whether by marching in DC or volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center, was a legitimate component of social justice.
Social justice is a term that has perhaps been used too indiscriminately for its own good, and members of Dwight Hall’s Social Justice Network might be surprised to learn that the term arose from the writings of a reactionary Italian Jesuit. But regardless of the history, it seems to me that if social justice means anything, it has to recognize the social nature of the type of justice it describes. Social justice is about our relationships with one another and with institutions, not our individuality and autonomy. That’s why, contrary to many of my friends on the right, it makes a good deal of sense to me to describe inescapably communal issues such as environmental degradation as the proper subjects of social justice.
There’s a deeper truth that can be expressed in the term, though, in an age in which justice simply expressed is so often seen solely as a matter of individual autonomy. Social justice helps to remind us that humans are social by nature, and that nearly all of our decisions carry social consequences, often far greater than we can see. It can express the truth that the presence of the homeless on the streets of one of the wealthiest universities in the world is not merely a matter of the right to a hot meal and a roof, but is also the breakdown of a relationship between members of a community. Social injustice is a communal failure to love.
It’s this sense that made Choose Life at Yale a natural fit for the social justice hub of Yale. Pro-lifers at Yale have long gotten over the idea that they’d get anywhere arguing with their peers about whose right to autonomy trumped whose, and so they charted a new direction. They took up their cause as a matter of social justice. They realized that abortion has never been solely a matter of a baby’s life and liberty. It’s about the desperation and hopelessness of the mother that walked into the clinic. It’s about the grandfather who will never put that little girl in his lap. It’s about the classmates who will never sit next to her, and the boy who will never work up the courage to write her that awkward poem. It’s even about that friend who she would drift away from over the years, the successful sister who would make her insecure, and the God she’d curse when she lost her job and then her mortgage. The biggest lie in all this is that the choice to end (or to save) a life is a solitary one.
We don’t know why Dwight Hall denied membership to the pro-life group. The ballot was secret and the count unannounced, and the established procedure (perhaps ironically for a social justice organization) allotted only sixty seconds for CLAY to make their case while strictly banning any further discussion. We know it couldn’t have been perceived religious differences, since Dwight Hall already contains Christian, Jewish, and secular groups. We know it couldn’t be CLAY’s political advocacy, because Dwight Hall endorses advocacyeven legislative advocacyas part of its mission and a core component of many of its groups’ activities.
Perhaps it is because CLAY’s work cuts too close to the core. Perhaps it makes many of Dwight Hall’s leaders uncomfortable to be challenged by the witness of pro-lifers taking time from their week to serve women in need, whether in order to ease their choice for life or to help them heal after they have chosen otherwise. Perhaps it challenges their comfortably individualistic assumptions about abortion because it is too close to what they themselves do when they feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or care for the sick. Perhaps it makes some of themif only for a brief momentrethink the meaning of the call to love and serve. That would explain why they have to push it away so quickly and quietly, because they know that this is how social justice movements begin.
Matthew Gerken is a former president of Choose Life at Yale.