What does it mean to be pro-life? Is that different (is it better, is it worse?) than being pro-birth? Is being “just” pro-birth a bad thing? What about being “anti-abortion?”
Well, in light of the Dobbs case being argued before the Supreme Court, the conversation about what being pro-life really means has kicked up again in Christian spaces.
The Dobbs case is the greatest challenge to the core holdings of Roe v. Wade in history thus far. At stake is the question of whether or not states have the constitutional right to impose pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions. This is the culmination of 50 years of blood, sweat, and tears by the pro-life movement. There is a real — though not guaranteed — hope that the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court will uphold the Mississippi law at the heart of the Dobbs case and possibly even overturn Roe and its follow-on ruling, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. I’ve often said, hoped, and prayed that I would be a part of the “pro-life generation” — the generation to end the ghastly horror of Roe and Casey, which, as Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart argued on behalf of Dobbs, “haunt our nation.” By God’s grace, and by the righteous ruling of the majority of our Supreme Court justices, we appear to be on the cusp of just such a momentous occasion.
Now, to get more details about the Dobbs case, read “Roe v. Wade in the balance: What you need to know about Dobbs v. Jackson” by John Wesley Reid. And for what you should be aware of from the recent oral arguments, read this piece by yours truly: “Top Four Takeaways for Christians from the Dobbs Oral Arguments.”
But back to the question at hand (after all, it’s been very patient as I worked through my preamble): What does it mean to be pro-life?
The question is raised because there is a certain group of Christian commentators out there who will attempt to denigrate the political activism of pro-lifers by throwing this phrase in their face:
“You’re not really pro-life, you’re just pro-birth — you don’t even care what happens to the baby after it is born.”
What do these accusations really mean? How should Christians respond? Two points to consider.
First, these Christian commentators are essentially arguing that unless you support an ever-expanding government-administered social safety net, funded by taxpayer dollars, you aren’t really “pro-life.” This is misguided for a variety of reasons. The white-hot pressing moral question at hand in our nation is not, “Will there be government-funded pre-K?”, but rather, “Are unborn children full persons deserving of life and equal protection under the law that they currently do not have in the United States?”
The debate isn’t over post-maternal care, it’s about whether or not an adult woman (or even a minor girl) is legally free to kill her child on-demand and at any moment, in some states even up until the moment of birth.
In other words, to conflate the question of stopping the unmitigated slaughter of the unborn with economic conditions or a social safety net is to miss the point. It’s essentially the same thing as arguing that we shouldn’t have rescued the captive prisoners in Nazi German concentration camps, living under the threat of imminent death in the gas chambers, unless we also supported the Marshall Plan to rebuild the European economy. Such an argument is preposterous, but let’s draw out the analogy.
Today, in America, unborn children are essentially living in the concentration camp of their mother’s womb. How so? Because at any moment the mother can take them to a Planned Parenthood or another abortion clinic — the modern-day equivalent of the Nazi gas chambers — and put them to death.
Pro-life advocates want to put an end to that. We want to remove the threat of death that hangs over the unborn. We want to liberate the modern-day Auschwitz of the womb, ensuring that children who are conceived are given the guarantee of life — enduring life in the womb and subsequent birth.
Imagine, if you will, running up to the Soviet army right before they liberated Auschwitz in 1945 and shouting, “Wait! What’s your plan to provide government-funded social safety net services for these captives? Are you really pro-life or just anti-gas chambers?”
Do you see how absurd that sounds? But that’s exactly how these Christians sound when they pillory those whom they pejoratively label as just being pro-birth.
Jon Harris in his excellent book Christianity and Social Justice: Religions in Conflict explains the historical background of this misguided argument. He traces it back to social justice advocates like Ron Sider. He explains:
“Another tactic of social justice evangelicals is to attach ‘quality-of-life’ issues to the ‘pro-life’ movement. Because evangelicals have a strong tradition of opposing abortion it is very difficult to convince them using the standard secular pro-abortion arguments. Instead, political progressives try to hijack the movement by adding social justice concerns and treating them as if they are just as important as breaking God’s direct command not to murder. Things like systemic racism, environmental issues, and even personal decisions like smoking are considered pro-life issues. Sider, in his 1987 book ‘Completely Pro-Life,’ was one of the first to make this argument to evangelicals. Sider defined being ‘completely pro-life’ as ‘defend[ing] human life wherever it is threatened.’ That is how he could go after pro-life Sen. Jesse Helms for inconsistency since he opposed abortion but also supported government subsidies for tobacco.”
But Harris successfully counters Sider’s rationalization, arguing that:
“The mistake in this thinking is comparing something like smoking, a quality-of-life choice made by adults who probably also eat cheeseburgers and fail to exercise at times, with actual murder. The unlawful taking of another person’s life is very different than choosing to drink soda. One is a sin in and of itself and subject to a civil penalty in God’s law. The other could potentially be negligent, but it is an issue of personal jurisdiction and does not usually accompany an intent to immediately end one’s life.”
In other words, don’t let anyone try to tell you that you aren’t really advocating for the unborn unless you support cradle-to-grave government spending to take care of every child ever born. Quite frankly, that’s an anti-family policy on its own merits. And supporting such an expansive, socialistic vision for government is in no way a prerequisite for being pro-life.
To recapitulate, (but not to capitulate, an important distinction), I’m essentially arguing that being pro-life is the same as being pro-birth and it is the same as being anti-abortion. A pond, a lake, and an ocean are all made out of water. They might be found in different shapes and sizes, but the content is the same, salt levels notwithstanding.
But in another sense, being pro-life does mean more than being pro-birth, but not how the hecklers mean it. How so? Well, the horrifically sad reality is that quite a few abortions involve a birth — it just involves the birth of a dead baby.
Thus, when we say we are pro-life, we are acknowledging that the baby inside the womb is alive before it is born. We aren’t just advocating for “birth” — we are demanding that the laws of the United States protect the living child in the womb up until birth.
And this is a crucial distinction because once a baby is born, it is afforded all the rights and protections of U.S. law applicable to its right to life. But as it stands, those constitutional rights and protections are not afforded to the unborn. Their humanity, their dignity, and their Imago Dei are wrongly denied by the unjust laws of our land simply because they haven’t completed gestation. They are out of sight, out of mind, and outside the law. This must change.
So, when most Christians — those who “understand the assignment” of overturning Roe v. Wade as the sin qua non of the pro-life movement — use the phrase “pro-life,” they do mean pro-birth, but they also mean a living birth and legal protections afforded to the baby before birth.
You can’t go to school unless you are born — and born alive. You don’t need a school lunch unless you are born — and born alive. You don’t need to be adopted unless you are born — and born alive.
And you certainly don’t need social services if you are dead, dismembered, and discarded in a trash bag.
So, let’s stop polluting this conversation with unhelpful distractions like “you’re just pro-birth” or “you’re just anti-abortion.” To that I respond (insert Chad-meme): Yes.
As Pastor Andrew Murch recently explained in his blog post entitled “Pro-Life vs. Pro-Birth“:
“If you are not Pro-Birth, you are Pro-Insert-A-Tool-Into-A-Mother’s-Womb-To-Crush-The-Head-Of-Her-Baby-So-That-The-Baby’s-Life-Less-Body-Can-Be-Vacuumed-Out-Of-Her-Uterus. I want to throw up after typing that last sentence. You should too. Don’t give me your mindless platitudes about Pro-Life vs. Pro-Birth.”
So, Christian, take heart and take courage. Be proudly pro-life, pro-birth, and anti-abortion. And don’t let anyone else try to shame or blame you for unapologetically advocating for the end of Roe, and the illegalization of abortion, as exponentially more important than whether or not we have taxpayer-funded social services from womb to tomb. We need to make sure the womb isn’t a tomb before we even have that conversation.
The goal of the pro-life movement is to change the law, first and foremost. Anything after that is icing on the cake. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
So, right now, we need the law changed so that it stops mothers from killing their unborn children. Until that happens, there isn’t much else to talk about. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty important.
A 10-year veteran of the conservative political movement, William Wolfe served as a senior official in the Trump Administration, both at the Pentagon and the Department of State. Prior to his service in the administration, he worked for Heritage Action for America and as a congressional staffer for three members of Congress, including the former Rep. Dave Brat. He has a B.A. in History from Covenant College and is currently finishing his Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.