I present the following moral dilemma. Which is the true pro-life (read: anti-abortion) candidate?
He says he is pro-life on abortion. However, he wants to reduce abortions solely through the mechanism of making abortion illegal. It is questionable how many opportunities this person will have once in office to address this issue. However, there may be some small legislative battles that can be fought.
However, he does not support legislative measures to improve rights and standards for workers and he is against any notion of a social safety net. He fears these would reduce "incentive to work" and interfere with the workings of the "free market." He believe people are poor and struggling principally by their own choice rather than through a lack of opportunity or systemic pressures of any kind.
He says he is pro-choice on abortion. He wants to "keep abortion legal" as part of his political platform. If the opportunity were to come up, he would support legislation further cementing abortion as part of our legal structure.
However, he supports policies addressing poverty and social alienation, such as higher wages and abundant social services. He wants to keep families together rather than see them split through mass incarceration or immigration enforcement. His policies promote strong workers rights, robust maternity/paternity leave and healthcare for all.
Which of these deserves the "pro-life" vote?
As the above illustrates, the issue is not so simple. Both candidates can claim that they are pro-life on abortion.
Candidate A wants to make abortion illegal but his other economic and social policies only serve to intensify the reasons people choose abortion in the first place. In other words, while working to make abortion illegal, he may create an environment where more abortion happens in the meantime.
The reverse is true for Candidate B. He clearly wants abortion to be legal, but his other policies directly alleviate the stressors that drive people to consider abortion. Fewer abortions may actually happen as a result of his policies.
If you vote pro-life, is your goal to reduce the number of abortions or is it to make abortion illegal? Those are not the same thing. Ideally perhaps you would want to do both, but those are not usually available options in the current partisan U.S. political climate.
It also highly questionable whether making abortion illegal would actually stop actual abortions from happening--probably some but not all. People could travel or find an underground provider.
The above illustrates a rough snapshot of the two primary political parties in the U.S. Usually, it has been assumed that the "pro-life" candidate is the one who wants to make abortion illegal. But if that person also promotes policies that may actually increase abortions, then that changes everything--especially when you consider that making abortion illegal may be an unrealistic goal at this time in history.
As a Roman Catholic, we are taught that the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong and should never be supported. So how do we apply that teaching to the two candidates above? Having legal abortion does not require anyone to have an abortion, but it does make it easier. In a very likewise, parallel manner, having good economic and social safety net policies does not force anyone to carry their pregnancy to term, but they make it much easier to do so. It has often been assumed that the person who merits the pro-life vote is the candidate who strives to make abortion illegal, but I hope the above illustrates that this should not be taken for granted. This becomes even more complex as there are many other ways that life is threatened besides abortion--the death penalty, euthanasia, war, immigration, poverty, etc.
Putting too much energy into legislative battles while supporting policies that drive people to consider abortion in the meantime is profoundly short sighted, to say the least. This is what gives the pro-life movement a bad name. This is what causes people to point out its hypocrisies. By having a single-minded obsession with making abortion illegal, they turn their backs on very effective ways of saving lives right here today. They support politicians and policies that may actually increase abortions.
Some have told me this isn't a fair critique of the pro-life movement. They say it IS invested in pregnancy centers, prenatal support and so forth. While I know this to be true, I also know that the phenomenon of the "one-issue voter" tells us where the real priorities lie when the rubber meets the road--it's about legislative action.
Some Concluding Thoughts
I am not suggesting that the pro-life movement should simply give up the struggle for legislative support for pro-life positions. However, I do think it is counter-productive to attempt that when grassroots support for this legislation has not reached a high enough mark. There are many who resign themselves to thinking we should "keep abortion legal" and just try to reduce as many as possible. No, I am absolutely not saying that, but I also don't believe that legislative victories will yield the results the pro-life movement expects. But I am saying that as a strategy I think pro-life voters could prioritize reducing the numbers of actual abortions by alleviating the stressors, promoting a culture of life in the minds and heart of people and put legislative goals on the back burner. This is very feasible. Even though poverty is a huge, complex problem, we know from history that big improvements can be made in the short term with immediate results. We know what those stressors are and we know there are effective ways of addressing them.