The pro-life cause must not be coopted for other aims
Christians who oppose abortion are often subjected to arguments from various Christian influencers that, when you boil them down, go something like this: If you are truly pro-life, then you must support [fill in the blank]. We are told that being pro-life requires us to adopt very particular views on contestable issues like environmental, criminal justice, social welfare or immigration policies. This argument often fails at a basic logical level, but worse, it often neuters the moral case against abortion and is used by enemies of the church to prove the church’s purported hypocrisy.
Karen Swallow Prior’s latest column at RNS – “Being pro-life demands sacrifice — for a pandemic, too” – is just the most recent example. In Prior’s article, the basic gist is that pro-lifers demand much of mothers when they seek to require mothers to carry their unwanted pregnancies to term, and therefore we should similarly be willing to sacrifice much to reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 to others.
This form of argumentation depends on eliding two very different types of moral arguments. The case for a pro-life abortion policy is straightforward and in some sense sui generis. All the action is in the question of whether an unborn fetus is a human person, a premise that Christian scripture and tradition answers in the affirmative. Once one accepts the premise that an unborn fetus is a human person, then there is a relatively straight-line application to policy. The syllogism is simple: (1) the unjustified intentional killing of a human person is murder, (2) elective abortion is the unjustified intentional killing of a human person, and therefore (3) elective abortion is murder. To be sure, there is much more that can be said regarding policies around the edges on abortion – e.g., consideration can be given to policies that aim to encourage procreation to happen within the context of stable, committed relationships. Consideration can also be given to the creation of social safety nets that make single parenthood more feasible. There may be different views on the prudence or the likely effect of such policies, but regarding the question of whether elective abortion should be legal, there is only one answer a Christian can make.
But while a prohibition on murder is a bright-line rule deduced directly from the unified voice of Christian scripture, tradition and natural law, COVID-19 policies necessarily involve weighing competing goods (i.e., cost-benefit analysis). Every person at some time or another has engaged in back-of-the-envelope, cost-benefit analysis with respect to daily activities. Consider how we undertake small marginal risks in exchange for other goods all the time; driving is the paradigmatic example. Another classic example is industrialization, which creates benefits by making basic goods necessary for life more affordable, but imposes costs (e.g., pollution, which creates very small incremental health risks that can be managed, but can only be reduced to zero by stopping all industrial production).
Because our knowledge of the novel COVID-19 virus is rapidly evolving, there is significant haze around both the “cost” and the “benefit” sides of the ledger that need to be weighed in appropriate COVID-19 policy decision-making on lockdowns, masks, vaccines, etc. This haze is thickened by the fact that the public has been given many good reasons lately to be skeptical of the public health officials who would ostensibly assist us in this cost-benefit analysis. And given Big Pharma’s track record with the opiate epidemic and recent support for puberty blockers, it is certainly questionable whether Big Pharma should get the benefit of the doubt in this case, particularly since they have little downside risk thanks to the liability protections that Congress has given to vaccine producers. There is also the problem of balancing competing goods that may be incommensurable. For example, lockdowns or mask mandates might confer a benefit of slowing COVID-19 transmission, but at the cost of hampering or entirely prohibiting the fundamental human good of social interaction. It’s not obvious why public health experts (rather than individuals and/or local mediating institutions) should get to make the call on weighing those incommensurable goods.
Because the moral arguments around abortion and COVID-19 policy (or environmental policy, criminal justice policy, social welfare policy, immigration policy, etc.) are not remotely analogous, there are pernicious effects to borrowing pro-life rhetoric to support one’s favored COVID-19 policy. In such argumentation, the logical meaning of being “pro-life” morphs into something more like a principle that says we must minimize or eliminate physical risk to life or health without accounting for other basic human goods. Yet as we have said the pro-life argument is absolute and necessarily inflexible (rather than a prudential), since the prohibition on murder is a rule of divine justice that doesn’t look to balance competing goods. Eliding the “pro-life” position on abortion with a maximal precautionary approach to COVID-19 creates a risk that the wrong type of argument is read back into the anti-abortion argument itself, weakening its force. In other words, COVID-19 policy related arguments like “take precautions against unnecessary risk to life” or “believe the science,” when deployed in the context of the abortion debate, can create the false impression that the anti-abortion position depends upon goods-balancing or trusting the science.
To wit, Prior calls the logic behind COVID-19 precautions and the anti-abortion position “the same logic”:
The logic of that bumper sticker slogan “Don’t like abortion? Don’t get one” doesn’t work when your position against abortion is founded on the desire to protect the lives of the innocent and vulnerable, not yourself, whether or not the rest of the world believes the science.
But, this column isn’t just about abortion.
I have a hard time with a lot of folks who are on my side of the aisle on this issue, yet inexplicably fail to apply the same logic to the precautions asked for during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Emphasis added).
The logic of anti-abortion and COVID-19 precautions cannot be considered “the same logic.” The question of abortion is fundamentally not a prudential, scientific question. COVID-19 measures, on the other hand, clearly depend in part on input from science and goods balancing.
And instrumentalizing the pro-life argument for contestable policy arguments has a more troublesome effect. It provides ammunition to enemies of the church who seek to justify their continued apathy regarding the intentional taking of human life and who are all too happy to point out purported Christian hypocrisy. Christians who come out differently on COVID-19 policy are thus used as exhibits proving that Christians don’t care about life at all, and that the anti-abortion stance is merely a pretext for controlling women’s bodies. In a similar vein, the instrumentalized pro-life argument can function to create false equivalencies between political options (i.e., “the GOP is pro-life regarding abortion, but the Democrats are pro-life regarding immigration and COVID-19. Hard to say who’s better!”)
Pro-life Christians should stop using and giving quarter to the instrumentalized pro-life argument. It’s imprecise, and that imprecision downgrades the quality of ethical discussion and while also arming enemies of the church who are eager to employ the argument to the derogation of true justice. Scripture and our Christian theological heritage provide the right tools to sift through complex ethical debates with far more precision. Think, for example, of the very detailed and rigorous ethical analysis regarding just war that we can find in Augustine, Aquinas and the magisterial reformers and then recall how all of that has often been neglected in favor of simplistic hand-waving about how being pro-life requires one to oppose a particular foreign intervention (or to support a particular foreign intervention). Christians are intellectually impoverished, and our society becomes less just, when we reach for the easiest argument, rather than the best argument.
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