Are You Pro-Life?

Are You Pro-Life?
by John Houk

How would you respond to the question, "Are you pro-life?" Think about it for a moment before reading on.

"Are you pro-life?" has become a sticky moral question, a contentious legal question and a hot-button political question. It is not even clear what this question really means unless you know who is asking. Often the context of this question tells us that what the asker really wants to know is, are we opposed to legal abortion. Looking more closely we can see that in this context (1) abortion is the most important, or even the only, "life issue", and (2) the way to deal with abortion is through the legal system. When faced with this question in this context I often feel like the man who was asked, "When did you stop beating your wife?" The "wife" question cannot be answered without incriminating yourself, and I, for one, cannot answer the first question either without a long explanation, which the asker would likely not find satisfying.

Catholics believe that all life is a gift from God and deserves respect, and that human life has the highest value because we are made in God’s image – "male and female he created them." So to be Catholic is to respect and reverence life. Now what does that mean? Well, libraries are full of books that try to say what that means, but certainly taking life, especially human life is a serious moral issue. A few years ago Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago made a startling suggestion which was essentially that all moral "life" issues are linked. This is startling because it was an entirely new way of thinking. In prior decades, centuries even, it was the Catholic way to deal with each life issue on its own. This allowed someone to be, for example, anti-abortion and pro-war. But the Cardinal suggested, and I am close to believing, that we should have a single set of moral principles that apply to all life issues because they are actually all the same issue. If abortion is never ever acceptable under any conditions because it is the taking of human life, then one must apply this same concept to war and say that the taking of human life in war is never ever acceptable under any conditions. Or, if there are conditions, what are they and how do you apply them to all life issues? This is not an easy moral path, but it has the potential to humanize, civilize, unify and make humble those who attempt to follow it. Aren’t those enough reasons to try it? It definitely seems better than the vilifying, divisive, arrogant path that seems to be in favor today.

Today some want to make abortion a crime, and bomb the snot out of anyone who disagrees with our global aspirations. Cardinal Bernardin would say, if he were still alive, there is something wrong with this picture.

You cannot legislate morality because as soon as you are required to do something, it can no longer be a moral (i.e., free) choice. But you can bring your moral principles to bear on legal and political issues. Enter the political strategists who think like this. – If someone is a one-issue voter how can I get them to vote for me? The answer is, tell them what they want to hear. There clearly should not be any political attempt at working through difficult moral issues because then their vote would become uncertain. If I can nail down someone’s vote by saying loudly, "I am pro-life" then that’s what I will do – and that is what we are faced with in the politics of this moral question. There are even occasional glimpses of an underlying political strategy that says, "Let’s not kill this one-issue golden goose by actually giving that voter what they want because then they will have no reason to vote for us next time."

People of good will who come down in different places when they answer the question, "Are you pro-life?" must search for common ground and not let political strategists teach morality. If you make something always a crime that most people don’t believe is always a crime, the sure result is diminished respect for the rule of law a la prohibition. The search for common moral, legal and political ground should not wait until we are faced with a cultural crisis. People of good will are by nature pro-life in the sense of respecting and reverencing life, and that’s where the search can start.