'Pro-life' or 'anti-abortion'?

Matt C. Abbott
July 23, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

Earlier this month, Eric Sammons wrote at CatholicVote.org:

No matter the reason, by calling every issue a 'pro-life' issue, we dilute and fracture the brand. We make other, less important issues as important as the abortion issue. We needlessly divide pro-lifers over prudential issues about which we should be able to respectfully disagree.

As for me, I've come to realize that I'm no longer pro-life. Just call me anti-abortion. It's accurate, specific, and tells the whole world that I'm unabashedly opposed to child-killing.

(Click here to read Mr. Sammons commentary in its entirety.)

An interesting perspective.

I asked Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, for his take on Mr. Sammons' piece. Father Pavone's response is as follows:

Bravo to Eric Sammons for his excellent article! As I have been saying more and more in my talks, and in strategy sessions with other leaders in the movement to end abortion, the term 'pro-life' has become too big for its own good. Why, indeed, is any issue an issue at all if it does not impact human life? An argument can indeed be made that any issue worth discussing is, for that very reason, a 'pro- life' issue.

And I agree that wherever and however human life is attacked or endangered, we need to be there to protect it. I agree that human life is sacred 'from conception to natural death.' I agree that all issues are interrelated and that, properly understood, there is a consistent ethic of life.

But I also understand what Cardinal Bernardin said about what the 'consistent ethic of life' when he declared, 'Does this mean that everyone must do everything? No! There are limits of time energy and competency. There is a shape to every individual vocation. People must specialize, groups must focus their energies. The consistent ethic does not deny this.' (Address at Seattle University, March 2, 1986).

And it is that focus that we risk losing by the unacceptable expansion - and hence dilution - of the term 'pro-life.' I don't say we should stop using it; but I do say we need to get more specific about its different levels of meaning, and at the same time, use the terms 'anti-abortion' and equivalent phrases more frequently.

On a macro-level, 'pro-life' means we defend human life at all stages, while, as Cardinal Bernardin taught, we recognize the distinctions in the moral analysis of different issues and distinguish between moral absolutes and prudential judgments.

On a specific movement level, 'pro-life' is a term adopted by a movement that defends a specific group of people - children in the womb - from a specific form of violence - abortion - unleashed against them because a specific right - the right to life - was taken away from them by a specific decision of the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade.

That movement is important enough and big enough to deserve the focus of the countless people who devote themselves to it, some (including me) on a lifelong, permanent, full-time basis.

There is a need, indeed, to rediscover this focus. That is why, for instance, with the Internet TV channel I just launched, I am not just calling it PriestsForLife.TV, but rather EndingAbortion.TV. I told my staff that this focuses it more specifically. That's our mission.

This brings up what every good strategic planner and successful businessman knows. There is a difference between a vision statement and a mission statement (as there are differences between a mission statement, a strategy, an objective and a tactic).

No business can grow, nor movement succeed, without defining these carefully for itself. Some well-meaning but eminently careless people and groups are substituting the mission statement of the pro- life movement for its vision statement. Yes, the vision is 'a culture of life,' or 'respect for life from conception to natural death.' Those are not mission statements; they are statements of vision. Statements of vision are broad, idealistic, big-picture articulations of what kind of future you want.

Mission statements, on the other hand, talk about what your group intends to do to move toward the fulfillment of that vision. Who are you and what do you do? What has come to be known as the 'pro-life' movement has a mission which is much more limited and specific than 'building a culture of life.' It is, indeed, a mission to restore the right to life of children in the womb, protecting them from the violence of abortion.

One final point: some who confuse the pro-life vision with the pro-life (anti-abortion) mission also confuse the Church with the pro-life movement. They are not the same. The Church has a very broad mission which has implications for specific movements of social change. But those movements are independent of the Church and also involve many people who do not belong to the Church.

The Church speaks for herself when articulating the multifaceted aspects of 'building a culture of life' or 'promoting respect for human life from conception to natural death.' These are articulations of the principles the Church teaches. But they cannot co-opt the right of independent movements, including the pro-life movement, to define their own specific mission and to speak for themselves.

Indeed, as a leader of that movement, call me anti-abortion. It is the label of which I am most proud.