The Whole Life Pope: Francis Has the Right Approach to Abortion

In his historic speech to a joint session of the US Congress, Pope Francis said that the Golden Rule “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” This statement was clearly meant to include the lives of unborn children yet a number of conservatives in the pro-life movement expressed disappointment that the pope did not take a more confrontational approach.

Personally, I would have been fine with the pope taking Congress to task for its unwillingness to defend unborn life, its inaction on climate change, and its indifference to the poor. Given Congress’ deep unpopularity, most Americans probably would not have minded either if Francis mentioned some of Congress’ many shortcomings. But the pope chose a different approach, a more generous approach that reminded the members of Congress and the American people of our highest aspirations and encouraged us to fulfill those, advancing the cause of justice for all. The speech was not as radical and challenging as his brilliant speech at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia this summer, but it reflected his approach of dialogue and encounter.

For those who believe that waging a culture war is the only way to stand up for the sanctity of human life, both Pope Francis’ remarks during his trip to the United States and his general approach to life issues are bound to be a disappointment. Pope Francis flat out rejects a culture war approach that relies on hateful rhetoric, an obsession with maintaining purity in the movement, and the demonization of everyone who fails to be a good soldier. And the pro-life movement should be grateful.

Francis is showing a better way forward for the pro-life movement. The culture war approach has not carried the pro-life side to victory, even as pro-choice leaders in the United States push for some of the most extreme, libertarian abortion policies in the world. Even in the culture warriors’ dream scenario, after Roe vs. Wade is overturned by five conservative justices, the issue would return to the states, abortion would remain legal in many places, and far too many pregnant women would still lack the resources they need to not see abortion as their only option in a desperate situation. The culture war approach leads to a dead end.

Pope Francis, meanwhile, has embraced a whole life approach. He recognizes the need for a comprehensive approach to abortion that addresses the needs of pregnant women and families in difficult situations, rather than one that relies exclusively on legal restrictions. This pro-woman, pro-child approach refuses to pit the aspirations and needs of women against the lives of their children. Instead, he is saying to choose both. He does not treat women in difficult situations as the enemy, nor does he treat them like autonomous individuals who are on their own, but as members of a community, who are to be valued, loved, and supported so that both they and their children can reach their full potential as persons.

The whole life approach is also reflected in his consistent commitment to human life and dignity. Francis does not separate life issues from social justice issues. Refugees fleeing for their lives and drowning at sea is a life issue, not just a social justice issue. And Francis treats abortion as an issue of social justice and human rights, mentioning it alongside other issues, such as poverty and human trafficking. Culture warriors look hypocritical when they cut funding to deliver mosquito nets to protect kids from malaria and food assistance for hungry children then turn around and call themselves champions of life. Consistency is essential, both morally and practically, and Pope Francis is leading the way.

But will others follow? There are encouraging signs that leading bishops are also willing to embrace a whole life approach, which may be crucial for the pro-life movement as a whole. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has called for a love-based pro-life movement and explained that “an attitude of judgmental self-righteousness is not going to change peoples’ attitudes and save babies.” Instead, he said, “What must characterize the pro-life movement is a special love for the poor, the marginalized, the suffering, and especially human life that is in danger of being discarded.” He has also called for focusing on the needs of pregnant women, saying, “The Pro Life Movement has to be about saving mothers. We need to focus on the women to try to understand what they are suffering.”

Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, meanwhile, has encouraged us to embrace a “consistent ethic of solidarity”. This is a great articulation of the driving force behind a consistent commitment to protecting life and human dignity. It offers a clear alternative to the radical individualism and culture of indifference that is antithetical to authentic Christianity and behind numerous policies that abandon the most vulnerable.

Finally, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has recently expressed support for building alliances across the lines that define the culture war, including with those who identify as pro-choice, highlighting “the pro-woman, pro-child, pro-family strategy that links abortion issues with other concerns that affect women and families.” He sees efforts to link a ban on abortions after 20 weeks to paid family leave and increased assistance to pregnant women as precisely the type of alliance-building the pro-life movement should embrace.

Pope Francis’ whole life approach is not sacrificing any moral clarity by showing sympathy for women facing crisis pregnancies, recognizing other threats to human life and dignity, or seeking a more comprehensive solution to abortion that benefits from people working across past divisions. It offers the most promising path forward for achieving what should be the preeminent goal of the pro-life movement: to protect as many lives as possible. Leading American bishops are on board. We can only hope the rest of the pro-life movement joins them.