Does the Pro-life Cause Have the Wrong Allies?

A recent blog post at Secular Pro-Life addresses the question of whether or not the pro-life movement has the wrong allies.  It does.

The post notes, “When the pro-life movement is allied with fiscal conservatives, who are inclined to cut social programs, it’s all too easy for abortion supporters to accuse us of not caring about people after they are born.”  Conversely, “The Democratic Party, with its historic concern for those who cannot speak for themselves, would seem to be a better fit– in theory.”

The Democratic Party is a much better fit, both theoretically and practically.  Pro-life progressivism is based on a far more coherent political philosophy in terms of its understanding of the role of government and the protection of human life and dignity.  In fact, in the 1970s, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to oppose abortion, and Congress was filled with pro-life Democrats.

It was only in the mid- to late 1980s that abortion became strongly associated with party identification, according to scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  This is a relatively recent development, and it is not irreversible.

In the post, the argument is made that the Democratic Party is “married to abortion.”  That’s true if one focuses exclusively on party leaders and activists.  Overall, however, one third of the Democratic Party is pro-life.  Pro-life Democrats are elected at state and local levels across the country, even in deep blue states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.  These numbers would be considerably higher if so many pro-lifers who oppose economic libertarianism had not left the party over the past 40 years.

It is true that wealthy pro-choice liberals have disproportionate control over the party’s agenda.  This can only be countered by organizing a large grassroots network of pro-life Democrats.  Every time another frustrated pro-lifer flees the party, given the reality of campaign finance rules and closed primary elections, they make this more difficult.

And they hurt the cause by joining a party married to anti-government rhetoric, whose top priority is minimizing taxes on the wealthiest Americans.  It’s not a myth that many self-identified pro-lifers are not that interested in protecting life from threats other than abortion.  Some critics want to say that pro-lifers are really pro-birth or pro-baby.  That’s a bit charitable.  You can’t oppose access to affordable, quality healthcare for pregnant women and deserve the label “pro-birth. “  You cannot be completely indifferent to infant mortality rates and be reasonably identified as “pro-baby.”  And the basic incoherence of this type of worldview rightfully exposes many pro-lifers to the charge of being hypocrites or insincere in their commitment to defending innocent human life.

Framing the pro-life cause around the themes of equality and human rights and backing up this rhetoric with a commitment to policies that reflect these values, for both the born and unborn, is a far better strategy.  This rhetoric and worldview is also far more appealing to Millennials, many of whom are not affiliated with an organized religion, yet still have a strong belief in social justice and other values.  The pro-gay marriage movement has found the right formula to appeal to Millennials and its support has grown rapidly.  The pro-life movement cannot keep relying on the extremism of the pro-choice movement and its continued use of hyper-individualistic rhetoric to prevent the pro-choice cause from making similar inroads.

The devotion of the pro-life movement to the Republican Party has led to the endorsement of candidates that have embarrassed and discredited the movement.  This includes candidates whose understanding of women’s bodies and pregnancy is as sophisticated as the theory of where babies come from put forward by Maude Apatow’s character in Knocked Up.  It also includes Scott Desjarlais who opposes abortion, except in the cases where he pressures his wife and mistress to abort his own children.  Numerous pro-lifers stood by these ridiculous and repulsive candidates until the very end.

But is there hope for a new Republican party?  The post argues:

Rather than the usual dry talk of waste, balanced budgets, and so on, they have shifted their messaging to focus on the debt we are leaving to our children. In short, they’re saying that they do care very much about people who are already born, and using that as a basis for their fiscal conservatism. That could be a harmonious fit with the pro-life position.

Repackaging existing policies designed to aid the wealthiest Americans is not going to fool Millennials or anyone else who sees pro-life conservatism as incoherent or hypocritical.  Further, the elected Republicans using this rhetoric were not serious about debt reduction.  A balanced-budget plan that starts with large tax cuts for multimillionaires and billionaires and ends with no projected balanced budget for decades is more properly called a tax cut plan.  The argument that we must slash essential programs that help the neediest Americans so that we will not be in a position where we might have to slash essential programs that help the poor in the future is patently ridiculous.

It is not impossible to envision a Republican Party that is more open to those with a whole life perspective.  In the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss, many are arguing the party needs to move in a more moderate direction.  If the party does shift in this direction, three options appear most likely.  First, it could moderate its position on immigration and eliminate its hateful, divisive rhetoric (the 47%, makers v. takers, etc.), while basically maintaining its current understanding of social, economic, and foreign policy conservatism.  Second, it could moderate its position on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, weakening its commitment to both, while reaffirming its commitment to its current economic agenda.  Finally, it could develop an economic agenda that actually addresses the concerns and needs of working and middle-class Americans and/or one that tackles the budget deficit, while maintaining its opposition to abortion.

While the third might seem to be the best way to expand its electoral appeal, the first two are more appealing to the wealthy supporters of the party.   They would rather see the party move in the direction of a Marco Rubio or Bobby Jindal or a real life Arnold Vinick (of the West Wing) than see a genuine compassionate conservative or tax-raising budget balancer alter the direction of the party.  And over the past decades, these supporters have been the most powerful in the party.  As Jonathan Chait notes, “The Republican Party has been organized around defending the material interests of the very rich — largely by defending low top tax rates as its maximal policy goal.”  Change is always possible after a loss like Romney’s, but it is not clear that this organizing principle will change.

The pro-life movement’s devotion to the Republican Party has not just led to the endorsement of fools, but to coordinated campaigns to eradicate pro-life Democrats.  It is difficult to overstate how counterproductive this is.  Any movement that requires one party reaching and maintaining a durable supermajority to achieve its goals is doomed to failure.  The two-party system is not an endangered species in America.  Bipartisanship is necessary for success.  Gaining equal ground in the Democratic Party will be a challenge, but it is a fight worth undertaking. 

The biggest reason why the pro-life movement needs progressive allies is because the Republican strategy, which relies on the appointment of enough conservative Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade and return the issue of abortion to the states, would neither result in the legal protection of unborn life nationwide nor address the underlying causes of abortion.  Only a comprehensive approach that guarantees constitutional protection for unborn lives and addresses the economic and social needs of pregnant women and children, born and unborn, can be fully successful.

The biggest obstacle to the pro-life movement finding its natural allies is that many important pro-life activists are highly partisan and would be devoted to the Republican Party regardless of its position on abortion.  The pro-life movement is filled with people who think food, healthcare, and other basic needs are privileges to be earned, not rights based on human worth and dignity.  I have seen pro-life leaders who are Ayn Rand devotees.  Others spread the prosperity gospel.  If the pro-life movement wants to be successful, it does not just need new allies, it needs new leaders.