What the “Intrinsic Evil” Argument Reveals

There is a fundamental divide in the anti-abortion movement that is often masked by the right’s decision to utilize the language of progressives to broaden their appeal.  Behind this divide is a disagreement over the primary reason to prohibit abortion.  For many on the right, the impulse to ban abortion comes from the desire to prevent people from committing a grave sin.  The general inclination toward limited government is superseded by the desire to promote individual morality.  This is where intrinsic evil comes into play; it reveals this as the primary motive. The concept of intrinsic evil indicates that a particular action is immoral in all circumstances.  Therefore government officials can feel comfortable banning it because it is always wrong, and they must, otherwise they are cooperating with evil—intrinsic evil.

We see this when right-wing anti-abortion Catholics rail against “social justice Catholics” and demand a strict segregation between abortion and virtually every other issue (sometimes gay marriage, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research get thrown in the mix, while other intrinsic evils are ignored).  We also see it in their strategy, which is all about restricting access to abortion and overturning Roe v. Wade.  There is little effort to identify and remedy the underlying causes of abortion, the conditions that lead many women to seek abortion even when they believe abortion is immoral.  If something further should be done to help women choose life, they believe it should be done through private initiative and charity, not government action.     It is really about limiting individual sin, not alleviating social injustice.

Of course, many people see the act of banning a sin as an unwarranted mixing of religion and politics.  Thus, anti-abortion activists on the right turned to progressive rhetoric in order to broaden the appeal of their cause.  Mehdi Hasan describes the result of this decision, saying, “Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and ‘defending the innocent’, while left-wingers fetishise ‘choice’, selfishness and unbridled individualism.”

Right-wing talk of equality, defending the weak and vulnerable, and similar themes  often mirrors the language of the other main group of anti-abortion activists, pro-life progressives, for whom government action to prohibit abortion is driven primarily by their broad commitment to human rights, social justice, and government action to promote the common good.  For them, there is no sharp division between a belief in social justice and opposition to abortion as they are both inspired by the desire to promote the common good and establish a just society.  A belief in the dignity, worth, and equality of every life motivates their entire worldview and permeates their political agenda.

Just as many on the right sincerely care about the life of the unborn child, many pro-life progressives are deeply concerned about the impact of abortion on women; however, the desire to protect the lives of innocent children is still paramount for pro-life progressives.  They are focused more on the rights of the child, while the duties of the mother and doctor are an important, but secondary concern.  And they are just as concerned about that child starving to death or not getting adequate cancer treatment when they are five, as they are about protecting that same child’s life prior to his or her birth.

The pro-life progressive approach to abortion involves more complex, nuanced policy positions than the right-wing approach.  They are not simply attempting to prevent individual sins, but overturn structural injustice.  And they are not opposed to robust government action to achieve this goal.  Pro-life progressives therefore focus on increasing support for pregnant women and their children in order to save individual unborn lives and build a more just society.  They support increased access to quality, affordable healthcare and childcare, an end to all forms of discrimination against pregnant women, increased resources for young mothers, efforts to reduce unemployment and poverty, and a variety of other programs that they believe will leave our communities with fewer women who feel compelled to have an abortion because they face social and economic uncertainties and insecurities.

Of course, this is not the whole story.  There are pro-life conservatives who cynically use the intrinsic evil argument for purely partisan purposes.  And there are pro-choice social justice Catholics who only highlight the irrelevance of the intrinsic evil distinction and the inconsistencies of right-wing pro-lifers to discredit them and downplay the importance of abortion.  In addition, there are those who embrace the “intrinsic evil” trump card because it simplifies voting and allows them to escape the prudential reasoning required for those committed to the common good.

Beyond this, there are divisions in both camps.  Pro-life progressives occupy a great deal of ideological space, ranging from radical lefties to everyday liberals to communitarians to moderates to radical centrists to genuine compassionate conservatives to Theodore Roosevelt Republicans.  Many of them will disagree on the best way to protect unborn life, just as they might disagree on the best way to establish universal access to quality, affordable healthcare and the best way to eliminate chronic homelessness.  What unites them is a belief in the value of each life and that government has a responsibility to actively ensure the protection of each life and create conditions that allow each person to live in a way that is consistent with his or her dignity.

Outside of this range, there are those who view the protection of unborn life through the prism of social justice, but have gradually moved closer and closer to free market fundamentalism and have pretended like Church teaching has followed in their wake.  They therefore share the right-wing position that increased government support for pregnant women, young mothers, and children is not necessary and that one can be authentically pro-life simply by making abortion illegal.  Finally, there are those who view abortion primarily through the prism of private morality, yet believe the government should do more to help the aforementioned groups in order to reduce the abortion rate.  So the picture is more complicated than a simple Manichean portrait, but it does not change the central divide at the heart of the movement.

The problem with the right-wing embrace of progressive rhetoric is that it exposes the entire anti-abortion movement to charges of hypocrisy.  When an Ayn Rand-loving man child who normally talks about makers and takers, the glory of individualism, and getting government out of people’s lives starts talking about human equality and protecting the vulnerable, those on the opposite side of the issue and on the fence are bound to scoff and question his sincerity.  Even many pro-life progressives struggle to take it seriously.  Yet these individuals are often the face of the anti-abortion movement, and this badly damages the anti-abortion cause.

So should pro-life progressives tell right-wingers to stop using progressive rhetoric on this issue?  No.  The truth is that another division exists, one between those who come to believe the rhetoric they are using (even if they only apply it way too narrowly) and those who do not.  The former should not be mocked for their intellectual incoherence, but prodded to further embrace the commitments that naturally flow from the principles they are espousing.  An imperfect commitment to human equality, social justice, and human rights is better than an outright rejection and it is something to be built upon.  In this sense, this might provide an opening to persuade these people to accept a more consistent approach to politics based on the desire to protect all human life and promote all human flourishing, to help them develop an authentic commitment to the common good.