Pro-life Progressives: Still Not a Myth

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat has pointed out the need for pro-life liberalism, which he described as a “once-commonplace, now-mythical persuasion.”  While he is right about the need for non-conservative pro-lifers, he is mistaken that pro-life liberalism is mythical.

If we use liberalism broadly to encompass all those progressives left of center, there are millions of pro-life liberals in the United States.  Yes, they are grossly underrepresented in Congress (as are pro-choice libertarians, their ideological opposites). Yes, they are underrepresented among those in academia, the media, and other elite circles. And yes, they have become more dispersed as the Democratic Party increasingly embraced social libertarianism.

But around a third of the Democratic Party remains pro-life. That’s over 20 million registered voters alone.  Throw in the Independents and single-issue voting Republicans who are too repulsed by the Democratic Party’s recent commitment to abortion-on-demand to remain Democrats and the number of pro-life progressives grows larger.

To his credit, Douthat gets a lot right in his article.  In particular, he notes the need to do more than just prohibit or restrict access to abortion:

“Now it’s also true that Ireland, like most of Europe, is to the left of Texas on many economic issues. All the abortion restrictions described above coexist with universal health care, which Rick Perry’s state conspicuously lacks.

So perhaps, it might be argued, abortion can be safely limited only when the government does more to cover women’s costs in other ways — in which case Texas might still be flirting with disaster.

But note that this is a better argument for liberalism than for abortion.

It suggests, for instance, that liberal donors and activists should be spending more time rallying against Perry’s refusal to take federal Medicaid financing than around Wendy Davis’s famous filibuster.

It implies that the quest to ‘turn Texas blue’ should make economic policy rather than late-term abortion its defining issue.”

A critic of Douthat, Scott Lemieux, a professor at The College of Saint Rose goes further, arguing that pro-life liberalism is impossible:

It’s possible for someone to believe in gender and economic egalitarianism while also thinking abortion is immoral. It’s impossible to square gender and economic egalitarianism with policies that make safe abortions inaccessible for the women who are most burdened by carrying unwanted pregnancies to term. It’s not a coincidence that American opposition to legal abortion has lodged itself almost exclusively in the party of Paul Ryan.

If by “liberalism” he is referring to the bourgeois liberalism of the left, which is rooted in materialism and animated by the quest for economic egalitarianism and gender equality, defined by equal autonomy, wealth, power, and liberty (detached from duties), then he may be on to something.  I’ll leave it to pro-life liberals of that particular orientation to contest such claims if they are untrue.

Of course, if we use the broader definition of the term, as Douthat appears to do, it’s a different story.  For millions of progressives, particularly those of a communitarian and personalist bent, opposition to abortion is entirely compatible with their commitment to equality.

Pro-life progressivism that is rooted in a commitment to community and human dignity sees liberty detached from duties as license and rejects supposed “rights” to engage in activity that is entirely incompatible with human flourishing, particularly those that rely on the dehumanization of the vulnerable. There is no “right” to murder any innocent human beings.  Those denied this “right” are not unequal, even if others avert the law, since there is a duty to not kill one’s own innocent child. Their flourishing is in no way diminished, even if the killing of one’s children would bring economic benefits.

For progressives who embrace this approach, the goal of politics is not primarily about the safeguarding of enlightened self-interest but the promotion of human flourishing and creating conditions that allow each person to reach their full potential as a person.  There is an acute need to promote the development of the disadvantaged and vulnerable, as all people are of equal worth and dignity.  Government exists to ensure that these conditions exist for all.

This understanding of equality contrasts with a leftist bourgeois understanding of equality, which is rooted in materialism and individualism.  In this worldview, political morality is shaped by contractual agreements that exist for the enlightened self-interest of all individuals who are subject to these mutual agreements.  A commitment to a certain type of equality among those party to such implicit agreements then emerges as a goal.

Yet this conception of economic and gender egalitarianism can allow for terrible crimes when “the other” is excluded from the political community and seen as outside the mutual obligations that exist for the benefit of each member.  And bourgeois liberalism’s track record contains some ugly examples of this exclusion.

Economic liberalism has paired with racism and sexism in the past, deeming non-whites and women unfit for full inclusion in the political community.  Bourgeois liberals of the left would be quick to point out that these days are long gone, that they are now the leading proponents of justice for racial minorities and women.

But not for unborn children.  They might support universal healthcare because no one knows who will one day need coverage in the face of a catastrophic accident or illness.   They might support unemployment insurance because they could one day lose their job or because it helps the economy, which gives them increased job security. They might support anti-poverty programs because they want less crime and more social stability or because they feel an obligation to another member of the political community.  The unborn child, however, can be eliminated without any such considerations.

Another future poor kid? They can kill him or her now before they become members of the political community—before they have to worry about them possibly committing crimes, relying on food stamps, or struggling to get by because they lacked quality educational opportunities. They can kill the child now and avoid the sacrifices they imagine they would have to make for such a child to live in a civilized, liberal society where their interests are safeguarded.

It is obviously a bigoted view of unborn children.  But it also reeks with class prejudice.  Implicit in this materialism is the unspoken notion that it is better for some children to be killed than for them or their family members to fail to become members of the bourgeoisie. It is better for poor women to kill their children than to possibly sacrifice a move up into the middle-class.  In their eyes, killing a child who can’t live a bourgeois childhood may be the humanitarian thing to do.

It is not a coincidence that as more elite, upper-middle class (and rich) white voters have shifted from the GOP to the Democratic party that the Democratic party has increasingly embraced bourgeois liberalism and gone from being the more pro-life party to the more pro-choice party.  Many working-class white voters have left the party in this time, while Latino and black Democrats have often been stuck voting for candidates that do not share their values and who have failed to stop the growth of plutocracy in American politics.

And for Catholics, this attack on pro-life progressivism is particularly offensive.  It is a brazen, outrageous attack on the many Catholics who embrace the Church’s consistent life ethic.  It is an attack on the legitimacy of Catholic Social Teaching, the Catholic understanding of human dignity and equality, and the Church’s commitment to life and social justice.