The upcoming event Life/Peace/Justice: A Conference on Life Issues, which will be held in Philadelphia, PA on March 29, 2014, will feature discussions on topics relevant to life issues, ranging from euthanasia and abortion to unjust war and human trafficking. Confirmed speakers include: Kelsey Hazzard (Secular Pro Life), Jason Jones (I am Whole Life, Movie to Movement), and Serrin Foster (Feminists for Life of America). You can view a tentative schedule (some speakers are not yet confirmed) here.
Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Aimee Murphy, an organizer of the event and the Executive Director of Life Matters Journal, to discuss the event and her larger efforts.
Robert: Why did you start Life Matters Journal?
Aimee: I started Life Matters Journal because I saw a niche in the pro-life and pro-peace movements that was not being filled. My goals were twofold: to engage young people in a consistent ethic of life, and to host and perpetuate dialogue on these ever-pertinent issues of human rights and human life. Consistent Life, a more than 25-year-old group, has done an ample job at providing a network for peace-and-life-minded individuals and organizations. But I didn’t see youth getting involved in a consistent, intellectually honest ethic of life because they felt it was outdated or they wouldn’t “fit” in the existing movement. I see one of our roles as bringing this consistent ethic of life to a new generation, and in so doing, also encouraging young people to adopt this philosophy and take it with them in their own activism efforts, whatever their pet cause may be. Our main mission states our aim: “to end aggressive violence through education and discourse.” Dialogue and open lines of communication are of highest import when we work to change hearts and minds, and Life Matters Journal itself was the seed of an idea planted while I was at Carnegie Mellon University (a very liberal, secular “New Ivy” university), and our pro-life group was gaining no ground with students on campus. The main reason behind this? No one would engage our arguments because they assumed we were right-wing religious extremists who held inconsistent values of human life. Once we established ourselves as nonpartisan, non-sectarian, and adhering to a consistent ethic of life — you would be amazed! — students actually began to engage us in conversation, and in so doing, make the connections about human rights and human life on their own. The key, of course, was opening the door to communication, and I believe that our policies (much the same as my student organization at university) do this more than amply.
Robert: You talk about changing hearts and minds. How well do you think the pro-life movement does that? Is that a top priority for everyone in the movement?
Aimee: Changing hearts and minds is integral to producing and perpetuating a culture of peace and life: you may enforce laws til you’re blue in the face, you may yell and hold graphic images til your voice goes hoarse and your arms hurt like the dickens, but if you do not change hearts and minds, abortion (and other acts of aggressive violence) will continue, even if clandestine and illegal.
There are some organizations dedicated to changing hearts and minds, there are some that don’t have that focus and instead work on law and policy, and there are others set in their ways that close down the avenues of communication with a swift, single blow. I don’t think it’s the top priority of every organization in the movement, but I think each different organization (as long as not so intentionally divisive or utterly compromising) may be necessary in their own way.
All of that being said, I think that the pro-life movement, in general, would do well to realize the breadth and depth of individuals who want to help our cause and do not feel welcome – whether that be because of their religion (or lack thereof), their sexual orientation, or their politics. While religion and political parties and sexual orientation matter (and may matter deeply and as for religion…of the ultimate importance), our shared humanity and saving the lives of fellow human beings is of the most immediate importance. A fireman does not ask another for their religious affiliation, political party, or sexual orientation before entering a burning building to save the lives of those trapped inside; I do believe that we need to open the doors of our movement wider than we have in the past.
Finally, I’d like to make a mention of the audience we are often trying to reach in the U.S. when we want to change hearts and minds. Our generation of millennials is more secular (atheist/agnostic) than past generations, yet also more pro-life. I think the pro-life movement has a responsibility to future generations to reach the millennials who’ve been lost in the culture war. Science is on our side, and we have the ethical foundations to change hearts and minds using facts before we shout “God says so.” Speaking as someone who came back to my Catholic faith long after I had become pro-life, I know that as a secular teen who was barely agnostic, I would have rolled my eyes at faith-based speeches and arguments for the pro-life cause. This is not to say that the religious heritage of the movement must be lost, but I really think we would do ourselves a big favor to “rebrand” the pro-life movement as one based on facts and science – a human rights issue – instead of on our faith in whatever religion or God we profess.
Robert: How do these ‘whole life’ or ‘consistent life ethic’ issues fit together? What would you say to critics who argue that abortion is so important, it is a mistake to group it without other issues of
Aimee: The issues in the consistent ethic of life (abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, unjust war, torture, embryonic stem-cell research, human trafficking, suicide, abuse, etc) fit together inasmuch as they are aggressive acts of violence, violations of human life and dignity. This is the root of why they fit together; it is not that they are of equal moral weight or that they are at every level comparable. I would posit (and I hope all would agree) that based on sheer numbers, abortion is the most grave act of human rights violations of our generation: as such, I believe it should be most important and take precedence in the work that we do. But in so doing, I do not condone other acts of aggressive violence, and I retain my voice that values each and every human being’s life at all stages, in all circumstances. I would put forth a sort of story that, in my mind, lays out why I think the consistent ethic of life is integral to pro-life work and human rights work in other areas: A woman, visibly just barely pregnant, is walking down the sidewalk, towards an abortion clinic. You hand her a pamphlet listing her options, and hand her a coupon for a free ultrasound at the mobile unit just down the street. She looks up at you in tears and embraces you, exclaiming that she “never wanted to do it anyway.” Eight months later, after your help and that from the CPC, she gives birth to a beautiful baby boy. His name is Shawn. You love him, you gave so much to save his life… But 19 years later, he’s fallen into trouble. His mom had to work 3 jobs just to keep them afloat, and he fell in with the wrong crowd. He was involved in a burglary that turned into an accidental homicide. He pulled the trigger. Because he’s black and poor, he’s more likely to be sentenced to death. But you love him. You know he’s a good kid and he just made a mistake (as we all do, we’re fallen human beings). You fight to keep him off death row, you want him to have all the time possible to repent and give back to society. You want him to be rehabilitated. Or, an alternative scenario: But 19 years later, his mother had married a man from Pakistan when Shawn was still a preschooler and she had taken him with her. Shawn is a Muslim by consequence and much less by choice, and he certainly does not fall in the militant category. He prays for peace and does his utmost to promote peaceful, nonviolent solutions. But he gets caught behind enemy lines on his way to visit a friend one day. He is struck by a drone sent down by U.S. planes. The basic moral, of course, is that Shawn’s life is the same human life from conception to natural death. There is no sweeping, broad “preborn rights” inasmuch as we fight for the right of every preborn human being to live. To value human rights at all, I posit, we must fight for the life of every human being. (This, of course, does not include the stipulations for warding off an aggressor and protecting self or community in self-defense, which I may elaborate upon later.)
Robert: What role does religion play in your efforts? What role should it play in promoting a pro-life/whole life message?
Aimee: Personally, as a Catholic, I find my faith to be a rejuvenating source of “living water” and inspiration for my work. Christ himself told us “whatever we do for the least of these, we do for [Him],” and “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you: bless your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I find His example as quite the inspiration and without my faith I’m sure I would become easily discouraged and exhausted. I love spending time in front of the Eucharist to remind myself why I do what I do!
Of course, my personal faith is not the official religion of Life Matters Journal (or Life/Peace/Justice Conference). Our goal is to educate and promote discourse, and in so doing, I find that opening the dialogue to all faiths to be the most fruitful and educational. This is not to say that faith has no place in the conversation, but that we invite everyone to the table to save lives together. I am so much looking forward to having a whole slough of engaging and educational speakers join us for the Life/Peace/Justice Conference! We have a docket planned that presents so many different issues from a variety of perspectives.
Robert: Which speakers are you looking forward to having at the conference? What are the arguments they will be bringing to the table?
Aimee: I’ll just mention the ones I am most looking forward to at the moment, because it’s so hard to choose who might be my favorite! Jason Jones, of I Am Whole Life and Movie to Movement, will be speaking for us about presenting a respect for the human person at all stages in our political activism from a more conservative perspective, while we hope to see Kristen Day of Democrats for Life and Mary Meehan present a similar case from a more liberal ideology as well. I am excited to see these pro-life and pro-peace activists teach us about working across party lines and helping to protect the foundational right to life.
Serrin Foster, of Feminists for Life, is a longtime friend and hero of mine, so I am thrilled to see her again and hear her witness for pro-life feminism and the history of feminism in the fight for equality for all humankind. And Bobby Schindler, founder of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, will give an unforgettable witness for the rights of disabled and elderly to life in the face of the threat of euthanasia.
I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to a Witness to Innocence exonerated death row inmate yet, and this might be the most gripping tale that I may get the chance of hearing at Life/Peace/Justice. These men and women who stand up against the death penalty in the U.S. are amazing witnesses of the risk we run of executing innocents with capital punishment.
Alas, these are just a small handful of the topics we hope to address (including abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, torture, unjust war, suicide prevention, embryonic stem-cell research, human trafficking, and more!), but it would take pages to cover the minutiae of what we hope to see discussed in our time with Life/Peace/Justice 2014. Our schedule includes both a secular and a Christian witness panel for some different topics, help for campus pro-life groups, and a forum for all attendees on practices, policy, and efficacy in our respective marketplaces of ideas. Our goal is both to educate and promote a discourse!
Robert: It would appear that no one will be speaking about the “responsibility to protect” or humanitarian intervention (including armed humanitarian intervention) at the conference. In the past, many ‘consistent life’ leaders have pushed their personal preference for pacifism and excluded others who support just war theory and the use of military force to protect the innocent from mass murder. Are such supporters of force intentionally excluded from this conference? Is there a place for strong supporters of military force to protect the innocent from mass murder in the consistent life/whole life movement?
Aimee: The official position of Life Matters Journal as an organization (but just one among many working on this event) is to “end aggressive violence through education and discourse.” As such, most on our board adhere to a strict interpretation of Just War Theory, though some on our board, and many involved with our work consider themselves pacifists and we welcome all, regardless of position on this particular spectrum against aggressive violence to join in the discourse. I, myself, adhere to Just War Theory due to my ethical foundations in the belief of human life as a basic human good to be protected regardless of circumstance, but I would not spurn those who support a slightly more interventionist approach as reprobate! While we do not have a speaker or panel this year directly speaking on Just War practices or Pacifism and the ethical gobbledygook that is therein involved (we are hoping to soon confirm a speaker who might tell their own story about being a Veteran for Peace, but this is slightly different in the exact quality of the presentation), I do hope to see in the future of Life/Peace/Justice an in-depth discussion on these matters.
I personally do believe that there is a place in the Consistent Life Ethic movement for individuals that support a strict Just War Theory approach to protecting human beings under attack, as I am one myself. I believe that Just War principles can be applied to defensive action of self and community, and that the principles of self and community defense could likewise be applied to our practices in wartime, or to come to the aid of one under attack. But Just War principles are many, and I would posit that our governments are not nearly so discerning as to make the just choice in most cases in our modern world. I do hope that such a witness (not mere Pacifism, but holding our military powers to a higher standard as in the Just War principles) would actually be quite effective in changing hearts and minds and bringing about a culture of life.