If one holds the belief that life begins at conception, celebrating Texas’ ban on abortions after detection of cardiac activity via “heartbeat legislation” is understandable. After all, we’re talking about a literal beating human heart, so we would also believe that vulnerable human beings’ lives are being saved. At the same time, it is reasonable for people to have concerns with how this law has been implemented, its content, how it will be executed, and who was responsible for passing and signing it into law. All of these are views that I believe could be held by both pro-life and pro-choice individuals, making interpreting and discussing the Texas law rather fraught. Stating concerns about this specific piece of legislation does not mean that anyone cares less about unborn children. Nor does support for heartbeat legislation mean that anyone is unconcerned about its implementation, much less that they are not actively helping people in need.
The reality is that mainstream pro-life advocacy in the US has come to focus primarily on abortion policy, often at the expense of other life issues and without regard for issues and policies that are necessary to build a “culture of life.” It is as if the movement’s fixation on anti-abortion policy and candidates has turned their “preeminent issue” into the “only issue.” This is awkward when you consider that many of the leaders in the movement insist on rejecting policies that could reduce the demand for abortion, such as childcare assistance, education benefits, and vocational training for poor families.
Furthermore, many high-profile pro-life figures such as Abby Johnson and Bishop Joseph Strickland have damaged the credibility of the movement by spreading misinformation on issues ranging from the Church’s teaching on the moral liceity of the Covid vaccines and the results of the US election.
Unserious and morally inconsistent leadership has major implications for the lives of unborn children. We cannot ignore just how lost the US pro-life movement is.
I’ve been against abortion for a long time, but lately I’ve gotten better at communicating why. It’s never been about religion or theology for me. I oppose abortion due to the bioethical and philosophical ramifications of “when does human life begin?” This took on deeper and more personal significance when I was diagnosed a few years ago as both autistic and dyslexic, and when I came to realize how deeply systemic ableism runs.
Modern developments like prenatal screening mean ableism starts in the womb, with pregnancies terminated specifically because unborn children are disabled. Unborn children’s lives are simply snuffed out because they’re disabled. None of us should stand for this. This is called eugenics, and it is disgusting. But I also realized that it is necessary to help and support families and communities to care for disabled people. This means we need a consistent life ethic. We must improve the structures and systems around parents to help them raise a disabled child, and so they aren’t led to believe abortion is their only option.
From the perspective of a pro-lifer, the fact that many abortions will not happen in Texas should be viewed as a victory for human life. But for many of us, it doesn’t feel that way. Especially during the pandemic, the leading figures of the pro-life movement have undermined the consistent ethic of life for quite some time on issues including the death penalty, immigration, and vaccination. People are noticing this hypocrisy and there’s an overwhelming sense that this is a temporary, pyrrhic victory. Many people who oppose abortion are distancing themselves from the pro-life movement due to its partisan approach and disreputable leadership. The leaders of the pro-life movement must closely examine why so many who identify as pro-life see it this way, and they should take steps to reconcile the divisions within the movement and to salvage whatever social capital it has left.
As a Catholic who embraces a consistent ethic of life, I am skeptical of many aspects of Texas’s law and how it is being celebrated by some pro-life leaders. I detest abortion and speak out against it regularly, but I worry that this law—which features a “bounty system”—could impact innocent bystanders and communities. The “bounty system” shows that the leadership of the movement has learned little from the experience of the last few years because it is working from a punitive framework that hands out punishments, rather than a restorative one that builds up structures and support systems. Instead of an internet “tip line,” why not support paid maternity leave, career training for parents, or even universal basic income? Such policies would help families have some security when faced with an unexpected pregnancy. The inclusion of even one of these initiatives in the bill would have made a huge difference in the reception of this law. The moral inconsistency is glaring.
If it is to be effective in securing legal protection for the unborn, the pro-life movement must be consistent. Fight against abortion. Fight against what leads to the demand for abortion. Do both.
Mike Lewis collaborated on this article. Click here to read an earlier version of this article on the author’s personal blog.