Millennials, the Whole Life Approach, and the Democratic Party

On Monday, I spoke at the 2015 Democratic Revival at the National Press Club. Here are my prepared remarks:

My position on abortion is progressive not conservative. I believe in robust government action to protect the lives of unborn children, as I refuse to draw a distinction between humans and persons. All humans are persons. To depersonalize or dehumanize others is the first step to stripping them of their innate dignity and worth in order to take away their fundamental human rights. The gravest injustices of history follow this script, and social justice is achieved by resisting these efforts and defending the vulnerable—the poor, the disabled, the sick, the enslaved, the disenfranchised, the repressed, and those who have not yet been born.

The solution to abortion, as expressed in the #chooseboth campaign, is a comprehensive approach that secures legal protection for unborn life, while addressing the root causes of abortion, particularly the economic vulnerability faced by many pregnant women and families struggling to make ends meet who feel unable to choose life. Only a pro-woman, pro-child approach, which addresses crucial issues like healthcare, prenatal care, a living wage, childcare, and family leave can lead to the abolition of abortion. Restrictions on abortion are necessary and just, but they will never be enough. We need a communitarian approach that reflects a progressive commitment to government action and social justice if we want to build a successful culture of life.

And the truth is that this approach is needed if the pro-life movement seeks to gain ground among millennials. We need a whole life approach that includes this comprehensive approach to abortion, as well as a consistent commitment to human life and dignity on issues from the environment to the death penalty to poverty to euthanasia. We would do well to embrace what Archbishop Blase Cupich has called a “consistent ethic of solidarity.”

Authenticity is extraordinarily important to millennials. When they see self-described pro-lifers cut programs that deliver food or other basic necessities to poor children in order to cut taxes for billionaires, they see hypocrisy. They see incoherence. They do not see compassion and a commitment to social justice and human rights. And many begin to suspect that these right-wing politicians are more interested in controlling women’s sexuality than in defending vulnerable people.

The truth is that these individuals are not witnesses to a culture of life. Even if they refuse to acquiesce to the direct destruction of unborn life, their devotion to economic libertarianism and indentured servitude to corporate interests rightly open them up to the charge of being pro-birth rather than pro-life. And to be honest, many are not even pro-birth, if they do not ensure that pregnant women have access to quality prenatal care and other measures that make sure babies are born healthy.

Millennials, who are slightly more pro-life than generation X and similarly pro-life to other generations, are far more progressive on a whole range of issues than the other generations living in the United States today. They have a more favorable view of government, and they have a greater commitment to government action to reduce poverty and ensure economic justice. For instance, according to one study, over 70% believe the government should ensure that each person has access to affordable healthcare.

Perhaps this comes from growing up and entering the workforce in the wake of the Great Recession. The Great Depression and World War II produced the Greatest Generation—a generation not marked by cynicism, radical individualism, and anti-government paranoia, but one devoted to community, family, and solidarity. The Greatest Generation was not perfect, nor are millennials. But this turn from radical individualism toward community offers great potential for protecting more lives and the dignity of all. It provides great hope for the future of the pro-life movement, if it chooses the right path.

But the pro-life movement must show a consistent commitment to life and dignity to keep these millennials and to win more over to the whole life cause. It cannot be a hand servant to the Republican Party, always willing to do its bidding, while hoping to be thrown a few scraps from the table. The ignorant rhetoric of Todd Akin and others who undermine our cause must be replaced by a genuine compassion for women who are in desperate circumstances. Susan B. Anthony List and other Republican organizations that pose as nonpartisan pro-life groups and support these toxic candidates must be pushed away from the center of the movement or actually live up to their stated missions. Instead of supporting right-wing hacks and targeting pro-life Democrats for believing that healthcare is a right not a privilege, they can help to build a pro-life movement that can succeed rather than one that is subservient to Republican Party interests and complicit in vile rhetoric and policies that harm women and vulnerable families.

Feminism may be a toxic word for previous generations, but that is not the case for the vast majority of millennials. Millennials embrace more of an egalitarian ethic in their relationships and marriages than any generation in American history. We believe in the equality of men and women. And millennials who are pro-life feminists believe that women’s equality does not require the killing of their children. We must have a culture that delivers authentic freedom and equality for women without the sacrifice of their children. The pro-life movement should be committed to building this culture and achieving these aspirations.

Other demographic changes reinforce the need to embrace the whole life approach. With the rise of the nones, Americans who do not belong to any organized religion, to rely on conservative Christian rhetoric and morality is a dangerous route to take for the pro-life movement. We need an approach that can build a broad, durable coalition. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was inspired by the personalist and communitarian convictions of his faith (including the belief that each person is made in the image of God), but he recognized the need to use language that inspired people from a wide-range of backgrounds to embrace and endorse these essential rights. The rhetoric of social justice, human rights, equality, protecting the poor and vulnerable—this is the language that can build a broad coalition, including non-religious millennials, but it must be backed by concrete policies that show a real commitment to these values.

Now this does not mean that religious rhetoric must be set aside entirely or that religious figures do not have an important role to play. From my own faith, Pope Francis has shown an outstanding commitment to life—to all life. He is the Whole Life Pope. But importantly, his appeal extends beyond members of the Catholic Church. He talks about a throwaway culture that too often discards the poor, the elderly, and the unborn. He connects abortion to human trafficking and other social justice issues. He does not demonize women in difficult circumstances and facing pressure to abort their children, but calls on all of us to respond with compassion and a commitment to alleviating these unjust conditions. There is a lot to be learned in his approach.

So if the pro-life movement needs a whole life approach and it needs pro-life progressives and Democrats to truly be successful, why do Democrats need people who are pro-life?

Nearly a third of the party is pro-life. That is over 21 million people. Millions more have left because of this single issue. I’m afraid more will continue to leave if pro-life Democrats continue to be grossly underrepresented and disrespected by party elites. If the Democratic Party would like to become a majority party again, this obviously matters.

So the leaders of the party must decide what they want. To have party purity on abortion, while being a minority party in Congress, relying on winning every presidential election and using executive action or pushing something through a divided government to enact any progressive policies. Or to support pro-life Democrats who are the only candidates that can win in these pro-life districts and to regain the majority in order to support and enact progressive policies on healthcare, education, housing, childcare, workers’ rights, campaign finance reform, the protection of the environment, economic justice, voting rights, Social Security and Medicare, and countless other issues.

Should all of these be sacrificed to the idol of abortion-on-demand? Or should we look to the approach taken in 2006 and 2008 and try to win again? Should we bring back the big tent and end the abortion litmus test? That is the choice. And that choice will help to define the future of the Democratic Party and our progress toward the common good in the United States.