What is the Whole Life Movement?

At its core, the whole life movement is dedicated to protecting the life and dignity of all people. It is rooted in a belief in the innate dignity and worth of every single human being. Each human being is a person with innate and equal value, and human life is sacred. From these premises comes the belief that it is never permissible to intentionally and directly take an innocent life. But the wanton disregard for life present in unjust social structures and the dehumanization of others in ways short of direct killing are also incompatible with the whole life commitment to human life and dignity. Indirect threats to life, such as the absence of access to healthcare or food, are also fundamentally incompatible with the vision of government and society the whole life movement aims to achieve: the common good. Protecting the life of all people is intimately connected to creating conditions that reflect the dignity of every single person, conditions that allow each person to reach their full potential.

The whole life movement is not a rival of the pro-life movement. Instead, it seeks to purify the pro-life movement of its inconsistencies. A pro-life movement that ignores infant mortality rates, starvation, or the degradation of the environment simply does not deserve the label ‘pro-life.’ It becomes a mere euphemism for supporting laws that restrict access to abortion. It becomes detached from the understanding of human dignity and worth that should animate the movement. Only a whole life approach can make the pro-life movement authentically pro-life.

It has been argued that the whole life movement’s concerns are overly broad, diverting attention away from what should be the singular focus: abortion (or possibly abortion, euthanasia, and a couple of others issues—though neither poverty nor even starvation seem to make the cut). But strong opposition to one form of grave evil does not permit indifference to other forms of injustice and evil. A commitment to human dignity demands a commitment to the common good, not a simplistic focus on a single issue.

Those who embrace the whole life ethic will never agree on every issue, and their priorities will inevitably differ. But certain threats to human life and dignity loom so large that particular issues demand a place at the center of the movement:

  1. Abortion: Tens of millions of unborn lives have been lost as the government has failed in its responsibility to defend the most fundamental rights of unborn children and provide the assistance to mothers and families that is necessary to eliminate the scourge of abortion. The whole life approach demands a comprehensive approach to abortion that includes legal protection for unborn children, while also addressing the underlying causes of abortion by ensuring access to prenatal care, quality childcare, and family leave; eliminating discrimination against pregnant workers; improving the adoption process; and addressing the other whole life policies listed below.
  2. Global poverty: Global poverty results in an astonishing number of deaths each year, with lives lost from hunger and malnutrition to sickness and disease to a lack of clean water and proper sanitation. The fact that many of these are not the result of one person directly killing another in no way diminishes the gravity of this evil. Integral human development that alleviates poverty and its threat to human life and dignity is essential to building a world that values human life.
  3. Mass atrocities: From the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in DRC to genocide by the Sudanese regime to Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of mass murder to the terrorist attacks of ISIS and Boko Haram, mass atrocities pose one of the gravest threats to human dignity and the sanctity of life in the 21st Sadly, there is far too much impunity in the world for those engaged in mass murder. The whole life approach rejects the notion that those born halfway across the world have less dignity and worth or that legalistic reasoning should be used to justify inaction in the face of mass murder. While prescriptions will vary on how to end atrocities, the whole life commitment to life means embracing the responsibility to protect people from mass atrocities, whether by terrorist organizations or murderous regimes.
  4. Protecting the Environment: Being whole life means a commitment not only to those currently inhabiting the earth, but future generations, as well. The degradation of the environment kills millions each year by polluting our air and water and ignoring our responsibilities to our common home. And it threatens future generations with a less habitable earth. Protecting the environment is a pressing human rights challenge that demands immediate action.
  5. Human Rights: While freedom from want and fear have already come up, human dignity also demands the freedom of religion, speech, and other basic rights. Further, when these rights are ignored, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes often use torture, unlawful imprisonment, and murder against innocent people to perpetuate their tyrannical rule. A whole life approach would promote free democracy that protects basic human rights.
  6. Empowerment of Women and Girls: Empowering women and girls begins with confronting the grave threats far too many women and girls face: human trafficking, physical and sexual abuse, and various forms of discrimination and repression. But beyond this, the dignity of women demands their full inclusion in social, economic, political, and other spheres through education and opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential as persons. If the pro-life movement sincerely wishes to be “pro-life, pro-woman,” a strong commitment to the equality of men and women is needed.
  7. Social safety net and economic justice: The whole life belief that government must safeguard human dignity means that governments have the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that people have their most fundamental needs met, including food, clean water, clothing, shelter, healthcare, childcare, and education. If a pro-lifer ignores these issues, they deserve the derisive label ‘pro-birth.’ A total commitment to life means valuing life at of all its stages—people’s whole lives.

There are numerous other issues that some might consider equally important to these issues or nevertheless integral to being whole life. The death penalty is a concern for most who aspire to consistently stand for life, though in terms of the number of people affected, it pales in comparison to issue like abortion and global poverty. Euthanasia is among the traditional pro-life issues that are closely connected to being whole life, but thankfully it too has a relatively low impact at the present moment. The biomedical manipulation of human persons in ways that threaten human life and dignity might also be included, but again, the issue at the moment is more about preventing movement down a slippery slope than confronting and halting millions of unnecessary deaths. Strengthening the family seems important for building a culture of life, given the economic and social threats to marriage that both grow out of the rising individualism in our society, as long as the focus remains on the serious threats to the family.

Strong arguments have been made that gun control and comprehensive immigration reform are pro-life issues, given the amount of gun violence in the United States and the deaths that occur around the border each year. Unjust war certainly poses a serious threat to human life, though what constitutes an unjust or just war often finds little consensus outside of the conflicts that are transparently about the naked pursuit of power. Crime too can be considered a whole life issue, as it prevents people from experiencing the freedom from fear that is their fundamental right and ends far too many lives prematurely in its most violent manifestations. Some might include criminal justice reform—reversing the counterproductive, unjust policies that lead to high recidivism rates and ignore the dignity of those who have committed crimes. Achieving racial justice might be added with #BlackLivesMatter challenging whole lifers to ensure that our society reflects this belief. Finally, it seems hard to disentangle disability rights from the quest to protect unborn lives or the whole life movement in general.

While the whole life movement will never be unified on all of these issues, whole life supporters, voters, and activists should still aspire to be consistent in their commitment to defending human life and dignity. We need a better pro-life movement, one animated by whole life principles.