Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Pro-Life Progressives

I hope I have made it clear in this blog that I am a proud and committed political progressive. (You can decide whether a conservative theological commitment rhymes with a progressive political agenda, but for me that is my calling, and it seems firmly biblically based.) As such, I feel that what is commonly called a "pro-life" posture is mandatory: We are called to "choose life" and to work for well-being in our own lives and in the lives of all whom we can affect. We are messengers of Our Lord, who came that we "might have life and have it abundantly." I think that Christians must constantly strive to establish and live a "consistent ethic of life."

Unfortunately, the terms I placed in quotation marks are often highjacked and claimed exclusively by a less-than-progressive branch of the political family, who refuse to grant the terms any other meaning than "anti-abortion." This pro-birth movement ignores or opposes programs and policies which enhance or protect life, broadly and logically construed, contributing to the decline in the integrity of political discourse. For them, pro-life has nothing to do with the life of the child after birth, with issues of poverty and disease and inequities in access to health care, with war, with near-abandonment of public education, with capital punishment. It is purely a matter of getting a baby born -- period. That is as cheap and illusory a use of the term as I can imagine. (As a consequence, I am inclined to call most "pro-life" movements, pro-natalist.)

As a progressive who is a member of no political party (and no, I am not quoting Mark Twain, who said "I'm a member of no organized party. I'm a Democrat."), I have had my curiosity piqued by the arrival of the organization styled "Democrats for Life." Friends who are pro-life Democrats (in the broad sense of the term, as I use it here) are excited to have a vehicle for making this point of their progressive agenda move. But I have been skeptical: I haven't spent much time on the matter (after all, it's easier to remain curmudgeonly and cynical with fewer facts, you know), but I have feared that it would simply be a bunch mostly of conservative Democrats who have a problem with abortion.

Well, this brief by the head of the organization, Kristen Day, allays some of my resistence. In her paper, she lays out a broad perspective on "life" -- one that is much broader than I had expected to see. Oh, it is evident from the specificity and the amount of space given over to abortion, that that is a primary focus of the organization's work. That, in and of itself, is not a reason for either surprise or rejection. But there is the suggestion that this group may actually get it -- that abortion is a symptom of and contributor to greater problems, including (as I noted above) poverty and the general lack of political concern for children whose parents are poor. (That an incredible number of abortions are intended simply to make life easier for well-to-do woman who can't be bothered to have a baby right now is a manifestation of other cultural problems.)

I am now inspired to look more closely at this group. I have a little hope that there is a movement that will lobby for a full slate of life-supporting and -affirming legislation. (Hope springs eternal, I suppose. Contrary to most people's opinions, I really am an optimist -- I'm a Christian, after all.)

In any event, it is way past the time when self-styled "liberals" (not a very helpful term, it seems to me, given its heritage), "progressives," "Democrats," "leftists" (where I count myself when I want to be blunt), and the rest begin seriously to grapple with a consistent politics. That the Democratic Party has been captured by an unreflective, knee-jerk pro-abortion(-rights) philosophy is an irony that I can't overlook. And neither should they!

"Democrats for Life" may be a welcome voice in the debate and a force for bringing the Democratic Party to its senses.

One request, though: Can we find some other way to deal with babies who face abortion than "pre-born"? I have no ideal what that phrase is supposed to accomplish (and I have heard and seen it used by people who should know better). "Unborn" or "in utero" or something -- but "pre-born"? You can be moral and literate.


Chip Frontz said...

Hopefully "Democrats for Life" will be true progress in the Democratic Party. They are as captive to their ideological maniacs on the far wing as they accuse the Republicans of being.

Here is where I see the difference between abortion issues and other "life issues." Abortion is a first-order moral question. It involves direct action to terminate the life of another human being who cannot speak for himself or herself. As such, it is of higher priority than other questions of treating others, which are fraught with more ambiguity. For example - are the poor helped more by an extensive welfare system or by job-training programs? Are the education needs of our citizenry best served by funding public schools from the federal level, or by providing school vouchers? Does a nationalized health insurance system lead to inadequate care because of lack of funding? Eve Tushnet has linked recently to an excellent article suggesting that the homeless problem of the late twentieth century was in part created by overzealous codes officials who shut down cheap, basic housing in the name of "safety." Was living on the streets really safer?

These I see as secondary moral questions because they are disagreements as to how best to achieve a relatively just and equitable society. They are disagreements as to how to live together. Christians should be active in promoting their best thinking, working for the good of all (Galatians 6).

To put it another way - the Fascist and Communist governments were not evil because they did not deliver proper economic opportunity and adequate health care. These are flaws in any political system, and should be addressed. The Fascist and Communist governments of the twentieth century were evil because they commissioned murder.

And I don't see how "progressivism" as a political movement is useful. Progressivism seems to say that the nature of humanity is to, well, progress, lending credence to the new and discrediting the old. I don't see how you can use the "progressive" label in the civil realm and not in the theological. Just my 2 cents. Convince me!

Lee said...

There's a good post at the Catholic legal blog Mirror of Justice that speaks to this:


The author makes a point similar to Chip's - that in addressing the issue of abortion we have to keep the principle of non-violence central. As Chip points out, the question of killing and when it's permissible is a more foundational moral question than the ways to acheive, say, equitable health care or the alleviation of poverty (not that those aren't important!).

Dwight P. said...

I don't disagree (except perhaps in some of the details) with either of you. But the point of my post is that for most pro-natalists, there are no other-order considerations. There is no discourse on the far right about HOW to feed the sick or insure the poor; there is simply the stark response, "Let them eat cake." "Life" does not equal "birth," except for the pro-natalists who style themselves "pro-life." Be anti-abortion if that is what you are (the liberal aspect of my progressivism doesn't allow for me to write abortion off for ever and in all cases -- even though it conflicts with the pacifist me). But call yourself what you are. (To open another hornet's nest: Euthanasia is not murder in most cases; assisted suicide, yes, but not murder. Now, suicide is wrong, but you can't analyze assisted suicide in the same paragraph with intentional murder. Incidentally, as a lawyer, I can cast all these things as homicide -- the killing of a person -- but I must analyze them differently, morally and legally.)

As for nomenclature: I'm actally rather proud of the "progressive" label. (My grandfather was a founder of the progressive Nonpartisan League -- NPL -- in North Dakta, and I almost worship my grandfather.) It doesn't necessarily judge the present as bad and something new as good. It promotes Progress, yes, but tends (and I stress trends, because there were some very retrogressive aspects to historic progressivism -- even Grandpa's) to define that as supporting those who need support -- and if at the expense of those with means and power, so be it.

I buy that impetus -- in politics and in theology. I simply know of no tradition for using the word "progressive" as an adjective to theology. But I also realize the difficulty in calling myself a "conservative." I use the word in its "purer" form, I think, to indicate a desire to maintain the best of the Tradition, while not simply repristinating it.

I maybe shouldn't have started on this: It's early, and I'm not making much sense.