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The Roots of Pro-Lifers’ Dangerous Rhetoric

There is a better way to talk about abortion.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Last Friday, 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear allegedly opened fire on a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs, wounding nine and killing three. None of the dead were seeking or performing abortions, but reports that Dear referred to “baby parts” in a post-capture exchange with law enforcement suggest that the massacre may have been motivated at least in part by anti-abortion sentiment.

Family members and associates of Dear say he did not seem overly concerned about abortion, though he held generally conservative political views and largely kept to himself, living between a trailer and a remote shack in the North Carolina woods. Dear had previously been involved in various other criminal incidents, including arrests for animal cruelty and “peeping tom” charges. So far, investigators have not reported locating any manifesto, and no organization has stepped up to claim credit for the attack. Based on the available evidence, it appears Dear was operating alone.

But that doesn’t mean Dear’s motives occurred to him independently, or that his tactics don’t resemble others utilized by anti-abortion extremists over the last several decades. Since the assault, commentators have pointed out that the FBI warned months ago of possible attacks on Planned Parenthood in the wake of undercover videos released over the summer accusing Planned Parenthood officials of trafficking in aborted fetal parts. “It is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff, and facilities,” the FBI stated in a September missive, wherein the phrase “will continue” alluded to similar attacks on abortion providers and facilities that have taken place since the 1970s.  

Arson, bombings, and lethal attacks against abortion providers seemed to spike in the 1990s, leading the Christian magazine First Things to hold a symposium on the morality of “killing abortionists” in 1994. In that same year, the Southern Baptist Convention drafted its Nashville Declaration of Conscience, a statement of faith that sought to explain why “the use of lethal force is not morally justifiable” in the “struggle against abortion.”

Most of First Things’s contributors were not in favor of killing abortion providers or their patients, and most Southern Baptists likely didn’t need to be convinced of the same. But the symposium and the declaration highlight a tension inside the pro-life movement that has, as Dear’s massacre suggests, not been fully resolved. Specifically, the pro-life movement has struggled since Roe v. Wade to determine what exactly its goals should be, and how it should express them. And, with the tenor and style of anti-abortion rhetoric coming under special scrutiny since Dear’s assault, it’s worth investigating this split in the pro-life movement.

Some pro-lifers demand an abortion-only focus and searingly incendiary rhetoric, the sort that condemns women seeking abortion as murderers and doctors performing them as Satanists. On the other end of the pro-life spectrum, there are those who prefer a broad focus on all legal and social issues pertaining to the preservation of human life, and who tend to adopt more conciliatory language. Why has the former won out over the latter in today’s pro-life activism?

The answer is partly theological and partly political. In the early 1980s, some Christian pro-life figures, like Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, proposed a “consistent life ethic,” a set of priorities based on a theory of innate human dignity that directed Christians to demand support for all vulnerable lives. The consistent life ethic, also known as the “seamless garment” approach, weaves together opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia, and warfare with support for the poor and resistance to abortion. It roots its commitment to human dignity in the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God, and identifies all human life as accordingly sacred, whether they be infants or condemned murderers.

But the consistent life ethic, despite early popularity in the 80s, did not become the register the American pro-life movement thought or communicated in. One reason why, according to Boston College Professor of law and theology Cathleen Kaveny, is that “the pro-life movement saw this as a way of letting people off the hook for not being strong enough on opposition to abortion. You could say ... no party is perfect, so I’m going to go with the Democrats. But the pro-life movement felt this would be a way of minimizing the great evil of abortion and therefore was unacceptable.”

The rejection of a consistent life ethic portended a polarizing, partisan tendency within pro-life activism that persists to this day. In After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate, Mary Ziegler points out that, following the mobilization of the New Right and the Religious Right in the late 1970s, “pro-lifers pursuing political influence or shoring up financial resources could do so only by allying with social conservatives.” This is a condition that still obtains, sidelining activists whose pro-life commitments exceed abortion itself. 

“The pro-life movement is afflicted by a partisan divide over the definition or pro-life,” Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, wrote in an email to the New Republic. “When we use issues such as campaign finance reform or support for the [Affordable Care Act] to ‘discredit’ pro-life Democrats, it hurts the movement. There is a lot of animosity from conservative pro-lifers against pro-life Democrats because we don’t follow the party line on [non-abortion] issues.”

So part of the failure of the consistent life ethic was political. Those who controlled money and resources conducive to pro-life organizing were politically opposed or indifferent to the other issues advanced by a consistent life ethic, and instead focused their attention purely on abortion and how to outlaw it. Groups that would have imagined abortion as one of many troubling issues in a tapestry of American disregard for human life, and would have sought to decrease or end it with solutions that appealed to a broader sense of dignity, were gradually excluded from the pro-life movement, and the rhetoric of the contemporary pro-life movement took its shape.

But there was also a theological rejection of the consistent life ethic. Today’s movement pro-lifers believe that “unborn life is absolutely innocent, and therefore it has a certain kind of priority,” Kaveny said in a phone call with the New Republic. They do this even though Saint Augustine pointed out that “within Christian thought there is no purely innocent being, because original sin marks us all.” She added, “When you start prioritizing human dignity, you sideline the fact that God came to save us all, and we’re all in desperate need of salvation. So if what you focus on is the purity and the worth, you’re moving away from the central Christian vision that we’re one human family all together in one vision of dignity.” 

Kaveny’s observation that the pro-life movement now tends to distinguish between fetal life and the lives of, say, convicted criminals helps explain the downfall of the consistent life ethic on theological grounds. Pro-lifers do not tend to view such lives as necessarily identical in dignity, since some are more tainted by sin than others. This means that abortion remains for them a unique priority, and ending it a matter of preventing the guilty from killing innocents.

Which is what provides the modern pro-life movement with much of its incendiary rhetorical charge, and makes the use of lethal force in defense of so many slain and threatened innocents a moral conundrum. “The problem with the pro-life movement right now is that they’ve got no good reason why people shouldn’t do what this guy in Colorado did, they’ve got to make a better case,” said Kaveny. Indeed, if abortion is uniquely evil and uniquely pitched in terms of the wrong of the aggressor versus the innocence of the victims, then the case against lethal force is rather difficult to make. When the case is made, as in the 1994 Nashville Declaration of Conscience, it is usually made along the lines of the consistent life ethic, noting the equal value of all human lives in God’s eyes, and putting aside, however precariously and temporarily, the distinctions that are often made when the subject shifts to abortion itself.

Nonetheless, diversity still persists inside the pro-life movement, and some believe that the next generation of pro-life activists will resist the rhetoric of its forebears. Charlie Camosy, Fordham University professor and author of Beyond the Abortion Wars, told the New Republic that “a new generation is taking its rightful place in our public discourse.” He added, “This new generation, however, is absolutely not fighting the culture wars. We need to abandon the assumptions, rhetoric, and approach of the late 1980s and embrace a ‘whole life,’ consistent message.” 

The benefit of a consistent life ethic is, of course, that it does contain a compelling and obvious counter-narrative to the one that can be used as a justification for the murder of abortion providers and others involved in abortion work. It also contextualizes abortion in the American political landscape in a way that points toward long-term, non-violent solutions. Whether or not it ever achieves prominence in the pro-life movement will have as much to do with money and partisanship as with generational shifts in thought, the prospects for which still appear at this point rather dim.