Pope Francis’ recently released apostolic exhortation Evangelli Gaudium is an extraordinary document that is filled with wisdom. There are countless insights, some of which are contained in a single sentence, that are worthy of deep and serious reflection. This is true of his treatment of abortion, which is brief but nevertheless important.
Pope Francis’ approach to abortion is both strong and nuanced. He has an absolute commitment to the defense of unborn life, while also looking to address the underlying conditions that threaten these very lives. It is precisely this type of approach that pro-life progressives support. In Pope Francis, pro-life progressives have a key ally.
Pope Francis framed the issue by saying, “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.” Here the pope addresses the issue within the context of social justice. There is no special “pro-life” section; he addresses the threats to unborn life immediately after talking about poverty, human trafficking, and violence against women, all under the theme of “concern for the vulnerable.”
For pro-life progressives, this approach is greatly appreciated. The defense of unborn lives is not a peculiar deviation from our commitment to social justice, but rather is the direct result of this commitment and the desire to protect the most vulnerable. Only when unborn children are dehumanized does this reasoning appear incoherent.
The pope added, “Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.” This connection between human dignity and the defense of life is important. Pro-life progressives are often accused by other pro-lifers of being distracted by other issues or failing to recognize the gravity of the situation when it comes to abortion. In reality, pro-life progressives care about economic injustice and the exploitation of the weak, even when these do not involve the direct and intentional taking of life, because these are all rooted in a commitment to the dignity and worth of all people. Pro-life progressives defend human life because we believe in human dignity. It hardly makes sense to ignore countless gross violations of human dignity because we are so focused on a single threat, however grave it might be.
The pope noted that “attempts are made to present [the Church’s] position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.” He responded to this by saying that “this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.” Here we see another progressive theme: a commitment to universal human rights.
In addition, the pope is providing an important corrective. Because of the tendency for people to think in binary terms and use generalizations as shortcuts, the position of pro-life progressives on abortion is sometimes characterized as conservative. It is not. Even if we use a simple left-right scale that excludes libertarianism and communitarianism, the values animating pro-life progressives’ position on abortion are rooted in their progressivism. By denouncing the link between conservatism and the defense of unborn life, Pope Francis is affirming this approach.
Pro-life progressives can also be grateful that Pope Francis confirmed what many of us who are Catholic already knew: the Church will never abandon unborn children. The pope said, “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations’.”
Real progress can never mean increased exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. Pope Francis addressed progressives who support abortion rights directly, saying, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” He is challenging the stale, status quo liberalism of some progressives, who would rather fight to allow a mother to kill her own child than focus all of their energy on ensuring that that these women and their children have the resources and opportunities they deserve based on their dignity and worth as persons. Pope Francis is calling on these liberals to be more progressive.
Finally, pro-life progressives have devoted a great deal of time and energy to helping pregnant women. There is a recognition that many women turn to abortion because they feel isolated, excluded from membership in a community that will ensure that they and their children will have their most basic needs met.
So it was particularly encouraging to see Pope Francis acknowledge, “It is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?”
Instead of sugarcoating the difficult situations many pregnant women face, Pope Francis is calling on all of us to do more. He is calling for a more comprehensive approach to abortion. It is not enough to denounce abortion. It is not enough to secure legal rights for unborn children. Efforts must be made to alleviate the unjust conditions that lead many women to feel as though abortion is their only viable option.
This is the approach for which pro-life progressives are fighting. We are happy to have Pope Francis, Time’s 2013 Person of the Year, as an ally.