The “direct action” techniques associated with groups such as Operation Rescue have always been controversial among pro-life activists. Is blocking the entrance to an abortion clinic an effective way to save lives—or do such actions merely damage the pro-life cause overall? Is the use of graphic images a justifiable way to demonstrate the evil of abortion—or do such images demean the dignity of the unborn and alienate potential supporters? In general, are more radical tactics justified by the urgency of the situation, or are they spiritually and socially dangerous?
These complicated and emotionally fraught debates have been revived by the recent actions of Lauren Handy and the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU). Two camps are emerging within the pro-life movement: those who see PAAU’s tactics as impeccably righteous, and those who see them as pointless and dangerous. This dispute is just one instance of a wider problem. Over the last few years, political tensions and social media-fueled divisions in the pro-life movement have led to an internal animosity that it can hardly afford. With the recent news that the Supreme Court may be overturning Roe v. Wade, the accusations and disputes have reached a fever pitch.
Underlying much of the controversy is a more fundamental point. Those in favor of more radical tactics defend their approach as wholly appropriate in view of the evil of abortion. They further insinuate that other, less aggressive approaches fall short of taking the crime of abortion seriously; they argue that the relatively “tame” tactics used by many pro-life activists show a lack of zeal in the defense of the unborn. Some of them go so far as to claim that those who criticize PAAU and Handy are not really pro-life.
This mentality can be seen in Lauren Handy’s recent interview with The Pillar. Handy spoke about the impact of attending a pro-life protest when she was in college. She described watching mothers entering the abortion clinic as a “Saul-to-Paul” moment for her; she suddenly became truly aware of the ugly nature of abortion. At first, she couldn’t bear her newfound perspective; she was appalled at how everybody was just going about their daily lives while something so terrible was happening. She later watched a documentary on Operation Rescue and was deeply inspired:
And I saw that documentary as an 18-year-old and I told everyone, “All right, it’s time to rescue.”
And everyone was like, “Oh no, no, no, no, no, we don’t do that anymore. We can’t.”
The Pillar: Because laws had changed?
Lauren Handy: Yeah, or [people said], “The climate has changed.”
And I would ask, “Oh, is abortion murder?”
And they said, “Well, yeah.”
And I was like, “Then, then why aren’t we acting like it is?”
Contrary to what Handy seems to be suggesting here, those who reject Rescue-style tactics are not necessarily lacking in zeal or in awareness of the evils of abortion. A recent article on WPI pointed out that there are good reasons to question the efficacy of such tactics. The author said that the pro-life movement has to go about its mission in a charitable way, without making others “flinch, turn away, or label us as “bonkers.” No one is rescued when that happens.” This article speaks for the many pro-life activists who now find themselves demonized simply because they see certain tactics as harmful and lacking in true charity.
At the same time, many of those who identify as “pro-life” do very little about it, radical or otherwise, beyond voting for supposedly pro-life politicians every few years. I think the current controversy, rather than becoming an occasion for demonizing one another, can and should provide an opportunity for reflecting on the need for greater zeal—and the need for greater prudence in guiding and channeling such zeal.
As Catholics, we believe that the unborn are just as valuable and have just as much dignity as the born. We say we believe this; but do we all act as if we did? Millions of unborn children are aborted every year, many of them simply because they are unwanted or because their parents can’t afford to support them. These abortions leave lasting spiritual and mental wounds on the mothers and fathers of these children and on society as a whole. Yet, as Handy said, many of us go about our lives as if all this was simply normal. We go about our daily routines, work and eat and sleep and shop and joke and tweet, while a monstrous tragedy plays out around us.
Pope Francis has compared abortion to hiring a hitman. This comparison might seem extreme to some; but doesn’t such a reaction show that we don’t sufficiently value the lives of the unborn? Wouldn’t we react with greater outrage and determination if there was a business in town publicly advertising its assassination services? If we couldn’t prevent such a business from existing, wouldn’t its existence be a constant burden on our minds?
Or would it? Right now, there is a war going on in Ukraine. Human lives, born and unborn, are being lost every day. Whole cities have been reduced to rubble. There’s been a considerable outpouring of support; but will the world sustain this level of interest? And beyond all the Ukrainian flags on Twitter handles, how much have most Catholics changed their lives to reflect this new reality? For that matter, did we change our lives in response to the disastrous wars in Myanmar, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan?
Beyond all the violence in our world, there is the constant crisis of acute poverty and hunger. Millions of people die of hunger every year. Millions of people lack access to clean drinking water. As Catholics, we believe that Christ is present in the poor. We are all brothers and sisters—or so we say. But do our actions bear this out? Or do we justify our lives of comfort while others starve? In a way, doesn’t this make us all responsible for the death of others? What would we think of a man who ignored his starving sister on the street? And yet, isn’t that what we are doing all the time?
Maybe, when it comes right down to it, we don’t adequately value any lives, born or unborn. Why is there such a disconnect between what we say and what we do? Why aren’t our hearts filled with zeal, “burning within us”? Pope Francis provides a possible answer:
Here in Italy, you often hear people say che me ne frega when you have a problem. It means “so what? What’s it got to do with me?” In Argentina we say: y a mi que? They’re little words that reveal a mindset… One of the dangers of this indifference is that it can become normal, silently seeping into our lifestyles and value judgments. We cannot get used to indifference.
This problem is certainly not confined to Italy and Argentina! We all have some of this “so-whatism” in our hearts. Fortunately for us, Christ didn’t have this attitude. The suffering and misery of the human race moved him so deeply that he came to suffer with us. We’re called to imitate this divine solidarity. The first step in doing so, as Pope Francis says, is to open our eyes to the unsettling aspects of reality that we’ve been trying to ignore. Once we see clearly, compassion and zeal will grow up in our hearts.
Zeal by itself, of course, is not enough. Unguided zeal can lead to evil. St. Paul’s zeal for the law led him to persecute the Early Church before his encounter with the Lord. Even if directed properly, zeal needs to be tempered by prudence and caution so that we don’t make bad situations worse. Handy and her fellow activists may have made imprudent decisions; their mistakes and failings may actually make it harder to protect the unborn.
Of course, PAAU is not alone in this. All too often, the pro-life movement has been contaminated by extraneous political influences and engaged in dubious activities. Such imprudent actions and such political alliances are extremely dangerous. Not only do they hamper the pro-life cause; they risk creating wider social problems and can even turn apparent pro-life victories into defeat. The overturning of Roe may soon give the pro-life cause its greatest political victory ever. Certainly, Roe is bad law and represents a refusal to protect the weakest among us. As such, it should be overturned; but overturning it is far from sufficient.
In a 2019 article at Front Porch Republic, John Médaille pointed out that an exaggerated focus on political victories has always hampered and corrupted the pro-life movement. Political victories are irrelevant or even harmful without cultural conversion; in fact, Médaille explains that a focus on political victories can actually contribute to a loss of cultural credibility and undermines attempts to protect human life in a holistic way.
The solution to these problems within the pro-life movement, however, is not to care less about abortion; rather, the solution is to find the proper channels for our concern. We can’t make prudence an excuse for “so-whatism”. All the prudence in the world won’t replace an open heart and a willingness to sacrifice for others. Maybe we’re not personally called to work in crisis pregnancy centers or to serve as aid workers in the Global South; but we should all be “giving from our need” (cf. Lk 21:1-4) to aid the suffering and the marginalized, including the unborn who are in danger from abortion. If nothing else, we should be spending time in intercessory prayer, begging for God’s mercy on this troubled world of ours.
May God renew our hearts so that we will be properly affected by the suffering of the world. And may he give us the prudence to properly channel this zeal in the service of all of our brothers and sisters.