[Editor’s Note: MT Dávila is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, Massachusetts. She is a member of the New Pro-Life Movement, which believes the most effective means of reducing, and potentially eradicating, abortion comes through lessening the demand rather than the supply. She spoke to Charles Camosy about how the pro-life movement can expand its reach.]
Camosy: You identify as a member of the New Pro-Life Movement. Can you say more about this?
Dávila: The NPLM are whole-life/consistent ethic of life folk who have in one way or another parted ways with the longer-standing pro-life movement. Many who identify in the NPLM were active participants in the March for Life, and continue to be, and quite active in other pro-life efforts at the parish, local, and national level. But all identify elements about the “old” pro-life movement that they feel demonize women in crisis pregnancies, fail to attend to concomitant policies that might help keep families together earning a just wage, and fail to attend to whole-life issues such as the death penalty, the use of force, and immigration.
More specifically, the NPLM is unequivocally against abortion, but holds a range of positions on the effectiveness of criminalization for the task of reducing demand. After careful study, these pro-life thinkers and activists have determined that criminalization or efforts to overturn Roe-v-Wade have so far failed to make a serious dent on the demand for abortions nationwide. It seeks to provide the wider pro-life public with a diversity of arguments for life that include the dignity of women, universal health care, guaranteed living wage, and other avenues that might more effectively reduce demand.
Other important avenues for abortion prevention that we pursue include support for crisis pregnancy centers, and, for some of us, allowing the use of certain kinds of contraception to avoid crisis pregnancies. This last point has garnered criticism against a number of us. But we consciously wanted the NPLM to reflect a more expansive vision of what could be considered a pro-life stance.
Almost all who want criminal penalties for abortion want it for the physician and not for the mother. Dr. Kermit Gosnell is in jail right now for violating abortion law in Pennsylvania, for instance. And one objection I’ve consistently heard from this group of folks to the New Pro-Life movement is that, in other historical struggles for basic legal rights for vulnerable populations, we haven’t shied away from criminal penalties. What, in your view, makes prenatal children and abortion different?
I think there are two different – yet related – sets of legal questions happening here. There is the question of criminalizing parties to an abortion, at specific points in the baby’s development, and then there’s the question of establishing legal personhood protections for the fetus, making harm done at any stage for whatever reason (such as drug use while pregnant). I honestly struggle with both of these approaches. I separate them.
As someone who integrates anti-abortion views with strong views on racial justice – you have an important voice which sometimes doesn’t get heard within the pro-life movement. What was your take on this year’s March for Life?
Let me preface my answer by saying that I have so far been less than tangentially involved in pro-life efforts. So, I give my impression of the March for Life as an absolute outsider.
My impression of the March for Life is that it is an event mainly for those marching, for educating new generations in the history of reproductive choice legislation in the nation and engaging them as pro-life activists and advocates. This is an incredibly worthy goal.
Raising a teenage girl as well as three other children, I am noticing how little they know about questions of reproductive rights and the Catholic Church’s consistent ethic of life. The general assumption in educational circles is that the law of the land is right and unquestioned. So, it is up to families and religious education programs to address these topics with children in age appropriate ways. To me the March for Life has performed this task of conscientization splendidly.
Having said that, it operates under a number of assumptions that I find troubling: 1) A narrow reading of what constitutes a life issue – this and last year’s March for Life had some welcome expanded views – such as signs that used the term feminist in a positive light, presented immigrant justice as a life issue, and advocated for universal health care; 2) Conversely, issues that were left out were those that at least publicly greatly impact communities of color and their life prospects, such as jobs, education, immigration, criminal justice reform, gun violence. One might say that the March for Life cannot be a March for Everything that Is unjust. But the truth is that many communities’ needs to transform their life prospects, keep their kids in school, offer good solid jobs, etc., have had to wait for their life issues to come into focus for the movement. This is some of what the NPLM wants to address.
Finally, there is the question of the efficacy of advocacy on Capitol Hill. I am personally struggling with the question of legislation. On the one hand I agree that just because no law is going to satisfy my demands for the respect of the special situation of personhood presented in a pregnancy doesn’t mean that we should advocate for no law at all. But I am not convinced that any law that restricts abortion or protects the personhood of a fetus is good either.
What is at stake for me here is whether there are pro-fetus laws that ultimately further criminalize women in crisis pregnancies, pushing them further into the crisis, leaving no avenue for restoration of the situation. The March for Life and the pro-life movement need to challenge themselves – ourselves, all of us – to consider legislation that more comprehensively upholds human dignity and provides for crisis situations. On this particular topic no day of advocacy, march on Washington – whether it’s the March for Life or the Women’s March – or other such effort is going to replace ongoing and challenging conversation across the ideological spectrum for developing legal language that will safeguard the human dignity of all.
But statistics show that African Americans and Latin Americans are more anti-abortion than are white Americans. What, in your view, can the pro-life movement do to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of color?
I have stated in the past that a nation that was birthed in large part due to the financial success of slavery of human beings, and violent land grabs from other human beings, should not be surprised to lead the world in the promotion and normalization of abortion. Our sense of success as a nation rests upon disposable human beings. Why should the protection of children be the exception to this rule? It extends to the epidemic of gun violence, the entrenchment of the death penalty in so many circles in the U.S., private prisons and detention centers, sweatshops within the U.S. borders, and other conditions that take life for granted.
The old pro-life movement makes no mention of this history or current circumstances. Add to this the fact that it continues to give its support and endorsement to deplorable candidates with horrible records on healthcare for all, equal pay for women, children’s education, jobs with justice and unionization, without making any demands that these so-called pro-life candidates change their platforms to more accurately reflect a whole-life perspective.
As a woman and a Latinx I cannot ignore this when I look at the pro-life movement. It’s political alliances in the past and up to now have very clearly left Latinx and Black communities excluded.
Politically the pro-life movement needs to begin exploring third-party candidates and making clear demands of Democratic and Republican candidates for the sake of promoting whole-life policies that will also address abortion reduction. This will require much more than the rubber stamping of whoever happens to be the Republican candidate that most loudly yells “pro-life.”
Additionally, the pro-life movement needs to build relationships with activists working in Black and Latinx communities for the things that matter to those communities. Many Black Lives Matter activists have asked whether the leadership and participants of the Women’s March would ever show up to a Black Lives Matter rally, march, or day of action and service. The same could be asked of organizers and participants of the March for Life.
We need to establish relationships and alliances based on the issues that matter to these groups, to our neighbors and friends, that go beyond the limited lens of the traditional MFL and the old pro-life movement.
Many thousands of the people attending the March for Life this year identified as feminist, and many more were explicitly focused on the good of women and mothers. And yet there seems to be an antagonistic relationship between the March for Life and the Women’s March. Do you think there is any hope of integrating these two sets of concerns?
The Women’s March might need to have some conversation with the NPLM. A number of us attended the Women’s March with NPLM gear and signs, even though their organizers have openly suggested that there is no room for pro-life marchers in the Women’s March.
I think that frankly they are reacting to tactics from the old pro-life movement that vilified women, especially feminists, because they did not believe there was such a thing as a crisis pregnancy, and rarely held up signs that signaled recognition of the personhood of the mother. I think it will take a few more years of Feminists for Life attending the March for Life before activists such as the organizers of the Women’s March begin to see the shift in the conversation.
I think last year was a missed opportunity when the Women’s March rejected the request from Feminists for Life and other groups to officially sign onto the Women’s March agenda.
[Editor’s note: Feminists for Life did not request a partnership with the Women’s March; however the pro-life New Wave Feminists was not allowed to be listed as a co-sponsor of the event.]
The NPLM is hopeful that efforts toward new language of personhood that is cognizant of the mother’s dignity, of what constitutes life issues, yielding somewhat in the contraception debate, and other shifts from the old pro-life movement will yield collaborations with the Women’s March and other feminist organizations.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Dávila attended the 2018 March for Life. She did not.