A blizzard is set to hit Washington tomorrow, interfering with plans for the annual Right-to-Life March. There is a metaphor for the state of the pro-life movement in the weather forecast, but it is not necessarily the one that the organizers have in mind.
Those of us who care about the unborn, and believe that they have a right-to-life that should be respected in our legal structure, have been led to believe that the storm we face is essentially a function of Democratic Party politics. This is not entirely wrong: The Democratic Party has become increasingly dependent on groups like Emily’s List for the funding of its campaigns, and those groups exact a price from the legislators they help elect: They want to make sure Democrats do not give an inch, ever. No one should be naïve about the power of money in politics, and in this case, there is no counter-balancing pro-life groups with funding on the left. But, at some point, even the Democrats may recognize that if they ever want to be in the majority in the U.S. House again, they have to nominate pro-life candidates in districts like Michigan’s First congressional district, which was long represented by Cong. Bart Stupak, or Pennsylvania’s Third congressional district, where Cong. Kathy Dahlkemper waved the pro-life Democrat flag for one term, before being swamped in the 2010 GOP tsunami, a tsunami that was engineered, in part, by Republican pro-life groups that opposed the Affordable Care Act.
In his otherwise fine statement on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, now the pro-life chair at the USCCB, waded into this partisan framing of the issue. He wrote:
We see this in the rising opposition of some political leaders to the very notion of a right of conscience on abortion. A few years ago, for example, President Obama pledged to defend the conscience rights of those who do not accept abortion, and his Administration assured us that longstanding federal laws protecting these rights must be fully enforced. Yet in the final days of 2015, he and other Democratic leaders were unwilling to support the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, a modest measure to provide for effective enforcement of these laws.
The problem with the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act was not its modesty, but its partisan quality. This bill was never going to pass on account of the hold that the pro-choice groups have over the Democrats and the White House: It was a “show vote,” something for Republicans to vote for so that they could punch their pro-life ticket and demonstrate their credentials to pro-life activists.
When churchmen give credence to a partisan effort, they diminish their own credibility and they harm the pro-life cause. Let me repeat that: Churchmen harm the pro-life cause when they allow themselves to be dragged into partisan fights and make no mistake, most of the pro-life groups, like most of the pro-choice groups, are arms of their respective political parties. And just as Cardinal Dolan was right about the increasingly extremist pro-choice language, which sees legal abortion not as a necessary evil, or even a choice, but at a positive good, there is no denying the many pro-life groups are exceedingly hateful. The American Life League, the Lepanto Institute, the Susan B. Anthony List are all trafficking in hate and yet none among the bishops will call them out.
The partisanship in which the pro-life movement and, consequently the U.S. bishops, have been complicit was made obvious to all when the bishops could not get to a “yes” on the Affordable Care Act. I have heard officials at the USCCB continually misrepresent the ACA. I was frankly shocked when the National Catholic Bioethics Center stated that Catholic social service agencies should not become navigators for the ACA, citing a tendentious understanding of complicity with evil. The similar tendentious understanding of intrinsic evil, and its relationship to voting, has also exposed the ways to which the bishops have allowed themselves to be dragged into partisan language and logic that ill suits their office and damages the cause over the long haul.
Those who have tried different approaches to the pro-life cause, for example Archbishop Blase Cupich’s op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about the Planned Parenthood videos, have been shouted down by pro-life groups. Anyone who advocates a consistent ethic of life is viewed with suspicion. Abortion is still, the bishops tell us in Faithful Citizenship, the preeminent issue, even when we are voting for candidates who will have no real effect on the issue and even when Pope Francis points out that all of life on the planet is endangered by climate change.
I remain committed to the pro-life cause. I do not see how a Catholic can be unconcerned, let alone dismissive, about the tragedy of abortion in this country. But the champions of the movement do not make it easy for those of us who also care about social justice, who worry about the health care and education of children who have been born, and who see so much venom in the pro-life movement, we are rightfully unwilling to be associated with such nastiness.
The blizzard facing the pro-life movement is partly its own doing. They are isolated, one issue advocates with a lot less money and power than their pro-choice opponents. Until the pro-life movement finds ways to reach across the partisan divide, to reach people it has not already reached, they will be stuck in the snow.