Is being “pro-life” pro-life enough?

This discussion is not new but the call to make “pro-life” a term that encompasses nearly every compassionate cause has gained ground as a new generation reaches voting age. 

A columnist at Religion News Service recently, the day before the election, called for the pro-life label to be “rescued” from those who believe abortion is the killing of a human person. Jonathan Merritt’s column was the same old stuff about how anti-abortionists are hypocrites who care too little about the already born, and he seemed to be primarily worried that evangelicals might vote differently from him. We’ve faced the accusation of hypocrisy for decades from those who never knew us. Wherever it turns up, the list of things lacking from the convictions of pro-lifers sounds a lot like a party platform, a pro-abortion one.  

But some who are actually against abortion on demand also support broadening the term to include everything from criminal justice reform to immigration reform to fighting climate change. Let me make two arguments against redefining a term its detractors seem to think is no more than brilliant marketing by hypocrites. 

First, those who want to make “pro-life” mean “everything compassionate” do harm to the term without helping anyone. If a term works for the anti-abortion movement, it doesn’t mean that it will improve the priority of everything else you shove under it. It’s like other identities or slogans: it begins with a specific meaning. Making it mean everything will make it mean nothing. In some cases, making it mean nothing is the agenda. 

Here’s an example of how this dissipation of meaning works. “Evangelical” at one point had a specific meaning, intended to distinguish those who believe in salvation by grace and the inerrancy of Scripture from increasingly liberal Protestants. Now, used popularly in the press, it means any Christian who is not a Catholic. Universalists call themselves evangelical in some cases, as do those who doubt the truth of the Bible, as do open theists (who believe God is limited in knowledge and power). There was no reason to coin a term if it would include unorthodox Christians alongside biblical ones. We already had that. The need was to identify one group as different from another. Now, to refer to yourself as “evangelical” requires a lengthy explanation. 

My second argument has to do with message. Pro-lifers have been saying from the start that we believe a nation that legalizes and funds abortion for any reason and at any stage lacks a commitment to life. When we say we are pro-life, we are saying the nation is not. Legal abortion on demand is the most egregious reason we believe this to be true. Our nation is wrong-headed about other things, but this one is most terrible in our generation. You can’t say that about every cause you consider life-affirming; only one thing can be number one.   

Our nation spends billions on health care for the poor and food for the hungry. We corporately decry our racist history. We don’t generally agree about environmentalism, but we also have a truckload of regulations about clean water and air quality. Regarding these issues, you can always make the argument that we don’t do enough, quickly enough, but you can’t argue that we, as a political body or culture, do nothing. These causes have advocates among the powerful and the support of more law than you can lift.  

Abortion is as different from hunger as homicide is from neglect. We should not do anything to muddle that distinction.

So long as we, as taxpayers, fund the nation’s number one abortion provider, abortion is not just another life-related issue. So long as some politicians, for fear of the abortion lobby, deny medical treatment to a child born alive accidentally during an abortion, we are not a pro-life nation, regardless of how generally compassionate we are. This is an evil thing we do and praise rather than a good thing we do inadequately—a sin of commission, not of omission.  

I’d add in closing that the accusation that pro-lifers neglect the already born—orphans and single moms, the poor and the elderly, the hungry, and those suffering from natural disasters—is puzzling. Where this work is done, you can’t turn around without running into a Bible-spouting, pro-life Christian. Maybe we don’t do enough, but saying we care only about the unborn is slander. Pro-lifers work on important issues as well as on the ultimate one. 

Stick with “pro-life” to describe the unique work of those fighting for the helpless ones who have too few friends in Washington. People who are not pro-life do not get to tell us what to call ourselves. 

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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