Lately it seems like abortion proponents have fallen in love with pointing out what they see as a glaring hypocrisy in the pro-life position: that those supposedly pro-life types are only pro-life when it comes to a fetus, but hate the lives of those who are already born.
You’re not pro-life, they say, merely pro-birth. So let’s call this “the pro-birth objection.”
It’s a tempting move because, like so many rhetorical tricks, it seems to easily settle the question. Why debate a pro-lifer when they don’t even care about living people? But, of course, it is a trick. And a dirty one at that. And the use of such tricks must be called out.
One problem with the pro-birth objection is that it tends to assume that everyone who is pro-life people is a traditional political conservative who holds a whole suite of other supposedly non-life-affirming positions such as opposition to gun control and support of capital punishment. Of course, as supporters of Secular Pro-Life well know, those with a pro-life stance are not necessarily uniform in their other politics or beliefs. I’m pro-life — how do you know I’m not against capital punishment?
Of course, many on the pro-life side do hold other traditionally conservative views, but then responses tend to get bogged down in the particulars of policy. If one is pro-life, shouldn’t one be more compassionate towards refugees? Well, who says they aren’t? And now we are off into the minutiae of the politics of the day.
But such policy debates ignore the bigger, more basic, problem with the the pro-birth objection. That underlying error is that it twists the word “life” in “pro-life” by ignoring its context. Everyone knows that the “life” in this specific usage means the life of the unborn person. It is not referring to the value of life in every single context. It would be absurd to say that you can’t be pro-life and still condone killing someone in self defense. Likewise, a pro-lifer might defend killing in defense of one’s country. Or physician-assisted suicide. Or killing animals for food.
These are complex moral questions and, of course, they are all open to debate. But it’s willful ignorance and gross over-simplification to say that you’re either in favor of life or you’re not.
The reality of such moral questions is, to be sure, more complex. While I myself am both pro-life and opposed to capital punishment, I can see how support for capital punishment could be squared with the pro-life position.
One could argue, for instance, that the unborn child has a right to life and has done nothing to forfeit it, whereas the murderer has given up his right to life by taking the life of another. As I say, I don’t actually take this view, but I can see how a reasonable person could hold it without hypocrisy.
To show just how absurd the pro-birth objection is, imagine if the same trick were applied to the term “pro-choice.” If we said one cannot be pro-life without being in favor of all life, we could argue that to be pro-choice we must be in favor of all choice. Everyone’s right to choose anything, at any time.
Thus, while some have argued that a pro-life proponent must support gun control because guns take away life, we might just as easily argue that one cannot support gun control if one is pro-choice. After all, owning a gun is a choice. How can you ban smoking in restaurants if you believe people have the right to choose? What about teachers who choose to beat their students? Are you in favor of choice or aren’t you?
But of course, one can value choice when it comes to seeking an abortion and still, without hypocrisy, maintain that some choices may be constrained. Choice is not an absolute value. It must be evaluated in the light of the particular circumstance.
The same holds true for life.
This article was originally published on Secular Pro-Life Perspectives and was written by Todd Pettigrew.