We shouldn’t expect coherence from the traditional abortion debate, especially given the dramatic incoherence of the “culture wars” political realignment of the late 1970s.
Small government conservatives ended up arguing for a large and intrusive government to protect and support millions of the voiceless and vulnerable, while big government liberals encouraged skepticism of government’s intervention into the private, autonomous lives of individuals.
That accident of history set the pro-life movement on a very different course, one which would go on to uproot the movement from its initial political position in the United States. As the historian Daniel K. Williams has shown, (check out this Crux Q&A I did with him on the topic), the pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade was very politically diverse, and much of it grew out of the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Indeed, one rally of that era saw pro-lifers burn their birth certificates as tools of oppression in much the same way that they burned their draft cards.
Interestingly, a new pro-life movement currently emerging in several circles (one might call it “Pro-Life 3.0”) is returning to several of the movement’s original roots. Rehumanize International, for instance, has consistently resisted aggressive violence and been outspoken in its resistance to war.
I also did a Crux Q&A with Rehumanize’s Executive Director Aimee Murphy, and if you read the piece you know that her organization recently found itself disinvited from sponsorship of the Women’s March.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the same group recently found itself disinvited from sponsorship of, not one, but two anti-war marches. Remarkably, they came within a couple days of each other.
The most recent disinvite came from the organizers of the Women’s March to Ban the Bomb, who refunded Rehumanize’s $500 and insisted that promotion of abortion rights was a non-negotiable part of what their leadership supported.
Just two days before, The Pittsburgh March Against War had also disinvited Rehumanize’s sponsorship. This coalition of organizations, remarkably, included the Anti-War Committee of the Thomas Merton Center. Indeed, the Facebook event page for the march (which has since been removed) was created by the Thomas Merton Center.
The irony of this situation was not lost on the supporters of Rehumanize, many of whom pointed to a letter Merton wrote to Dorothy Day in 1961 which advocated for victims of the violence of abortion and victims of the violence of war together:
“It seems a little strange that we are so wildly exercised about the “murder” (and the word is of course correct) of an unborn infant by abortion… and yet accept without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless and innocent adults… I submit that we ought to fulfill the one without omitting the other.”
Dorothy Day, a Servant of God and pacifist whose cause for sainthood is currently being explored by the Archdiocese of New York, was perhaps the quintessential anti-war activist of the 20th Century. Day, partially as a result of the experience of her own abortion, was also deeply against the violence of abortion.
Given the logic of the Pittsburgh March Against War and Women’s March to Ban the Bomb, it seems clear that Dorothy Day — anti-war activist extraordinaire — would not be welcome in today’s anti-war movement. The irony present in such a state of affairs is so profound as to be nearly unbelievable. But yet here we stand.
Pope Francis, who has called abortion a “horrendous crime” and “very grave sin”, would also apparently be unwelcome at these anti-war marches. This despite the fact that Francis is dramatically anti-war and has called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
What can we say about these anti-war leaders having abortion purity tests for their movements? First, it seems they have little or no sense of how intertwined the pro-life and anti-war movements have been and continue to be. Second, it reveals the actual priorities of such anti-war leaders.
Rather than enlist the support of obvious and powerful allies against war, they prefer to honor the dogma of abortion rights. What a defeat for the victims of war.
The incoherence on abortion wrought of the culture wars is not, of course, limited to those on the “left.” Pro-Life 2.0, still dominated by the logic of electing Republicans, often makes similarly inexplicable decisions.
Around the same time Rehumanize was being disinvited from anti-war marches, the National Right to Life Committee was publicly praising a Montana Republican who, just the day before, had been charged with assault for body-slamming a reporter for asking him a question about health care reform.
Happily, the incoherence of the culture wars is not long for this world. The next generation, Pro-Life 3.0, rejects this outdated model for thinking about ethics and politics. The vision of Merton, Day, and Pope Francis is coming, and it cannot get here fast enough.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics and Author of Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation.