Three Kinds of Pro-Life

Time, as always, is short, but I thought I would post a few quick additional thoughts on John Derbyshire's review of Ramesh Ponnuru's book The Party of Death. I suggested before that Derbyshire was at least partly right in his criticisms. His analysis of the "frigid and pitiless dogma" applies very well to at least one broad type of pro-lifer — but applies hardly at all to two other kinds.

In my experience there are three main types of right-to-lifer, one of which is wholly admirable, one of which I find utterly reprehensible, and one of which I respect but believe to be fundamentally mistaken about the nature of political order. The admirable sort are those who volunteer their time (and often money) for crisis pregnancy centers. For them, being pro-life is not just about politics — though they do vote — but above all about directly helping mothers and children. These people do not seek out a great deal of publicity and are easily overshadowed by the noisier, more political, less self-sacrificing types. Derbyshire seems to be completely unaware that they exist. At least, his article gives no indication that he knows of them.

The second type I cannot stand. They are the strictly political, partisan "pro-lifers" who rail against anyone who dissents from their ideology, which holds that abortion, stem cells, and euthanasia (broadly defined) are the pro-life issues and that they must be fought primarily through government action. I italicize that definite article in the preceding sentence because, again judging from experience and observation, this type tends not to apply a very strict ethic of life to questions of war and peace, nor do they think very much about capital punishment, beyond whatever thinking is needed to come up with justifications for their political position.

They have always seemed to me to be motivated more by partisan animosity than by love of innocent life, as their disregard for the collateral damage caused by the foreign policy of the Republicans they vote for demonstrates. "Disregard" is actually wrong — they typically love war, because they love state power. A good cause serves as a good pretext for the exercise of political force — carried out by men in uniform, of course — whether the cause is saving innocent life in utero or freeing peoples from oppressive governments. (Though they're always clamoring for more oppressive government at home, aren't they? You don't find any civil libertarians in this category. But again, righteousness, real or imagined, is largely a means to power for them.)

Derbyshire's criticisms apply to category 2 quite well, though I have never seen in this group any "theologians, monks … grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms." The ones of whom I know are office holders, office seekers, journalists, think tankers, public intellectuals, etc. Far from being theologians or monks, many of the Christians in this category, though they talk about religion in generic terms, seem very uncomfortable admitting that their Christianity has anything to do with their beliefs about life and death. (Overt sectarian commitments can pose problems for those seeking secular power and esteem, after all.) The other two classes tend to be forthright and unembarrassed about it.

The third category is the most interesting. They're the people for whom saving lives trumps the political process. Brent Bozell — not the Media Research Center head, but his father, William F. Buckley's late brother-in-law — is a good example. Many are deeply religious and reject the secular foundations of the United States, which they see as inherently corrupt and leading more or less directly to abortion on demand (as well as euthanasia). Practically speaking, they believe in civil disobedience and some approve of sabotaging abortion facilities. There is a serious and radical critique of modernity and liberalism (in the largest sense) behind the view of life and death issues that these people have. They cannot be accused of "gaseous sentimentality" or "political correctness." I'm sympathetic to much of their critique, but I don't come to precisely their conclusions — for reasons I will have to outline later.

These are archetypes — individuals might be a mixture of two or more, and there are other, more exotic types as well (for example, liberals who are pro-life for liberal reasons, such as Nat Hentoff; "pro-life" murderers, an oxymoronic type, are something else again). By far the noisiest and most media-prominent of anti-abortionists are group 2, though, and Derbyshire's criticisms of "RTL" fit them reasonably well.


2 thoughts on “Three Kinds of Pro-Life

  1. Lee June 15, 2006 / 8:33 pm

    This seems right to me. The Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green is a good example of a pro-lifer who is active in helping women and children in need and applies her pro-life logic to issues like war and capital punishment (see this essay:

    I’m inclined to see a right-to-life ethic as consistent with strong views about the limits of state power (since governments, after all, tend to kill the most people) and therefore harmonious with a more-or-less classical liberal position. But I’m interested to see your response to those who think liberal modernity as inherently flawed.

    P.S. Just a word of appreciation for the work you folks are doing at The American Conservative. Even when I don’t agree with the pieces it’s one of the most interesting political mags going.

  2. Tim June 23, 2006 / 1:35 pm

    For some unconventional conservative commentary on abortion see Robert Nisbet’s “Prejudices. A Philosophical Dictionary.” Nisbet was all told a defender of Christianity and opposed the Supreme Court’s “Roe vs Wade” decision as it made expediency and negotiation and local solutions to the issue impossible. At the same time he decried the simplistic and moralising tone of modern anti-abortion advocacy and drew heavily on classical, biblical and Christian sources to illustrate that these sources of moral authority are less black and white than many moderns pro and anti-abortionists think.

    The whole chapter is provocative and thoughtful. A definite and worth while read. I don’t want to quote paragraphs out of context and thus risk presenting a false picture of Nisbet’s thoughts here but there is one sentence that I will throw out as a teaser.

    “It has been said that every abortion is murder of an innocent life. But if this is so, it is odd that there is no record of any religion, including Christianity, ever pronouncing an accidental miscarriage as a death to be commemorated in prayer or ritual.”

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