Symposium: Whole Life v. Pro-Life?
Reprinted from Human Life Review
Written By: Kristan Hawkins
We asked participants to respond to one or more of three questions: 1) Should people who defend the right to life of the unborn and the dying call themselves “whole-life” or “consistent-life” rather than “pro-life”? 2) Does defending the right to life today require particular political commitments? 3) Is the “whole life” movement really a newly fashioned “seamless garment”—Cardinal Bernardin’s “linkage” movement of 1983?—The Editors
Diluting the anti-abortion cause with vague terms like “whole life” threatens our movement’s goal of abolishing abortion. The “pro-life” brand is damaged enough without causing further confusion. In the past 11 years, Students for Life has visited more than 1,600 college campuses and now serves more than 1,200 student groups annually. When we go to a campus to start a new group or help recruit for an existing one, we don’t ask students if they are pro-life or pro-choice because the most common response we get is, “Huh? What does that mean?”
The term “pro-life” has already become almost meaningless for millions of Americans. A survey by the Institute for Pro-Life Advancement found that 53 percent of millennials believe abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances, with 17 percent saying abortion should never be legal and 36 percent saying it should be legal only in extreme cases. However, only 36 percent of those millennials identified as “pro-life.” Poll after poll of all age groups over the past few years reveal similar gaps between respondents’ opinion on the legality of abortion and their identifying as pro-life.
At the core of what we do is a commitment to ending the greatest human-rights injustice our world has ever seen. Since it was legalized by the Supreme Court in 1973, abortion has taken over 55 million innocent lives. This is a horrific tragedy that rightly deserves a movement dedicated solely to stopping the killing. Respect for the dignity of human life begins with protecting the most defenseless and innocent members of our human family. Winning this argument will have effects that spill over into other debates.
“Whole life” or “consistent life” proponents will argue that merging abortion with other issues like the death penalty, poverty, or nuclear proliferation in one movement is necessary to convince people that we’re really serious about being pro-life. They then demand ideological purity on a whole range of issues that aren’t necessarily connected, an approach that reduces the potential number of people who will join our movement. It is hard enough to get people who agree that abortion should be illegal, no matter the circumstance. By bringing in other issues, we limit our ability to build a winning coalition. We should want as many people as possible to feel they can be part of our movement. We ought to expand the tribe, not limit it.
I believe the best way to do that is by being anti-abortion.
To achieve our mission, we need to be completely focused on it, in the same way any successful business or organization remains focused on its mission and what it does best. By giving in to mission creep and trying to do 100 things well, we won’t do anything well.
Just consider the Women’s March movement that began last January. While it turned into a Planned Parenthood rally in most places, there were marchers holding climate-change signs, Black Lives Matter signs, anti-Israel signs, signs demanding criminal justice reform and LGBTQ rights. The Women’s March has since embraced nearly a dozen causes, which they ask their supporters to take action on. But the movement is ineffective because it’s not focused on one, singular issue.
Choosing to focus my resources on abolishing abortion doesn’t mean I don’t care about other issues. Two of my children were born with a genetic disease; their lifespans depend on having access to the best healthcare in the world. My heart breaks for those trapped by human trafficking and modern slavery. I long for the day when there is no more war. To imply that I am indifferent to these and other challenges, as do those who insist on the “whole life” perspective, is demeaning and insulting. Abortion is enough of an injustice that it deserves its own movement, with strategic goals, concise messaging, innovative tactics, and a focused mission. There should be armies of people working in different movements with different specific missions, but all demanding respect for the dignity of all human life. These movements can work in concert, whenever possible, but should not be combined into one.
The term “whole life” was coined to make being against abortion more palatable to political liberals who would never call themselves “pro-life,” a term they view as Republican, conservative, and Christian. It was an outreach tactic for bringing more liberal-leaning Americans to our movement.
Sadly, those people who identify with the term “whole life” are focusing less on trying to bring new people in from the outside and more on trying to convince those already in the “pro-life” tribe to switch their membership. Instead of expanding our movement, we are dividing it.
We have seen this happen with “whole life” and other modified pro-life terms before. One notable pro-life feminist posted on Facebook during this past election season that it was impossible to be both pro-life and a feminist, and she was choosing feminism over pro-life in how she voted. I can’t tell you how many times—long before the 2016 presidential campaign got underway—I’ve met pro-life Democrats who, at the end of the day, vote for the pro-abortion Democrat over the pro-life Republican candidate, using the “whole life” justification.
The question is: Why do so many feel the need to qualify the pro-life label? Many millennials I’ve spoken with say they add something before or after calling themselves “pro-life” because they are afraid to be associated with our damaged brand. If being “pro-life” were socially acceptable, young people wouldn’t rush to say, for example, “I’m pro-life—but I’m also a feminist.”
At Students for Life, we don’t dance around abortion. We don’t try to deceive people with fluffy language. So we’re using terms like “pro-life” less and less and just getting to the point of exactly what we are: anti-abortion.