Being against something is ambiguous, it lacks context. We don’t really know what a person is for just by knowing what he is against. On the other hand, tell me what you are for and I can tell a lot about what you’re against. Being “anti” something is also ambivalent. If I don’t know why a person is against something then I have no way to tell if their being against that thing is good or bad. A person could be anti-abortion for the sake of slavery, for example. Or a person could be anti-abortion for the sake of political power, as when the abortion is used as a wedge issue for getting votes. No one can be against anything unless they are first for something. It’s the “being for” that makes the “being against” good or evil. I don’t want to know what you’re against so much as I want to know what your values are. What you stand for tells me what principles motivate you.

The Church has its own principle that is the foundation of its “being for” human life.

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life.

The Church is not simply anti-abortion. It is pro-person and pro-life because the life of the human person is a reflection of the life of God. It is this “being for” that makes its concern for abortion intelligible. Not every pro-life principle is benevolent, however. Here’s another principle that is offered by Fr. Frank Pavone, of Priests for Life.

The right to life is more basic than the right to religious freedom, because in order to be religious, and in order to be free, you have to be alive.

The difference is subtle but important. In Pope John Paul’s formulation, the right to life is basic because it’s the life of a person that is made in the image of God, who is life itself. But for Fr. Pavone, the right to life is basic because “in order to [be anything]…you have to be alive.” It’s true that one must be alive in order to be religious or to be free, but it’s also true that one must be alive in order to have a preference for chocolate ice cream, or to aspire to be a great composer or an evil dictator. It’s a tautology, it’s trivially true. Everything the living do presupposes that they are in fact alive. But there is no basis for rights here.

If man is created in the image of the God of life, we have a moral imperative to treat man’s life accordingly. But the mere observation that only living people have rights doesn’t mean that all people have a right to live, anymore than the fact that one must be alive to like chocolate ice cream means that one has a right to life.

The problem with Pavone’s principle is that it’s a nice sound bite that purports to establish the absolute priority of abortion without actually rooting that right in God. The Pavone Principle quickly becomes “being alive supersedes all other issues”, which in the pro-life movement is interpreted as “abortion supersedes all other issues.”

This is a competitive ethic of life (this right is more basic than that one) and it’s led to a zero sum game mentality within the pro-life movement. Contrast that with how Pope John Paul II orders the relationship between rights:

the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights-for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination (Christifideles Laici 38).

Notice how the urgency and necessity of the right to life here is for the sake of the other human rights? The right to life is the condition of the others, not as being logically or temporally prior to them, but by being the heart and soul that binds them all together. It is analogous to how “being for” is the condition of “being against”.

“The entire Law of the Lord serves to protect life, because it reveals that truth in which life finds its full meaning” (Evangelium Vitae 48). The right to life is the condition of the other rights because it’s the ground of meaning for them. This is where the pro-life movement has failed. It thinks it is sufficient to just be anti-abortion. But that doesn’t work, only the Law as a whole can fully protects life. “The Christian faith is an integral unity,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote as head of the CDF (congregation for the doctrine of the faith), “and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good” (The Participation of Catholics in Political Life, 4). And also as Pope Benedict he wrote, “it would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other” (Caritas in Veritate 51). Yes, upholding the gospel of life as a whole will lead to “being for” a lot more things than abortion. But that doesn’t water down the abortion issue. It strengthens it because all the life issues rise or fall together. To stand for one is to stand for all, to undermine one is to undermine them all.

This explains why it is so hard to remain faithful to the commandment “You shall not kill” when the other “words of life” (cf. Acts 7:38) with which this commandment is bound up are not observed. Detached from this wider framework, the commandment is destined to become nothing more than an obligation imposed from without, and very soon we begin to look for its limits and try to find mitigating factors and exceptions (Evangelium Vitae 48).

Such is the fate of the pro-life movement in the straightjacket of a political party that knows all too many exceptions to both the commandment and the “words of life” that give it meaning.

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Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer. Having briefly lived amongst the cacti and coyotes of Arizona, Brian now resides in the Canadian prairies.  Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.

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