Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Pro-Life Progressivism: Avoiding the Pitfalls

As Mark Sargent noted in his posting, I too attended (most of) the Pro-Life Progressive symposium (“Can the Seamless Garment Be Sown”) here at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis this past weekend. I also join with Mark in congratulating the organizers, especially my colleague Tom Berg, and participants for a greatly successful program, which notably drew a large audience from the community, who were not the typical attendees of a law school symposium. Mark volunteered to post further summaries of the presentations made and his observations, and I for one would benefit in hearing more from him.

Because so much was said that was positive and indeed inspiring at this symposium, it would not have been appropriate for me as a non-participant and harboring concerns to be the first to post on this event. For that reason, I deliberately delayed this posting until after someone else, such as Mark Sargent, who was a direct and thoughtful participant had the chance to relay his impressions of the gathering.

As an observer of the Pro-Life Progressive discussion, I was a sympathetic outsider looking in with great interest. I am sympathetic in that I too yearn for a pro-life witness from the political left. I remain an outsider in that I do not agree with every element of the progressive agenda, at least on the means to the ends (as I share the skepticism well-expressed on this blog by Rick Garnett about over-reliance on statist methods, and have a greater appreciation for free enterprise as the best, if imperfect, engine for economic progress). I look inside with great interest because of my fervent wish for an ever-larger and diverse witness for life; indeed, because of the powerful message for life that would be sent thereby, I’d be tempted to vote for a genuinely pro-life liberal candidate for public office – even over a conservative of comparable pro-life credentials – despite my doubts about other elements of the progressive platform.

Having thus acknowledged my perspective, and having listened carefully to (most of) the presentations at the symposium, I thought I identified three potential dangers that could undermine Pro-Life Progressivism as an authentic pro-life movement.

First, a few participants exhibited an unseemly tendency to depreciate the value of electing pro-life candidates to office and to denigrate pro-life accomplishments. The argument that pro-life candidates (at least of the Republican variety) abandon the anti-abortion cause once elected to office is overstated, objectively false, begs the question of why offering progressive pro-life candidates would serve any practical purpose, and often appears to be a thinly-veiled excuse for ignoring even the most egregious of pro-abortion records of liberal candidates so as to justify casting votes for them.

One of course can and should criticize Republican leaders who sometimes fail to place pro-life issues on the front-burner and fully exercise the bully pulpit of public office to speak against the culture of death. But one legitimately can urge even more attention to the scourge of abortion without denigrating hard-fought victories for the pro-life movement. We must recognize that the battle for life will be won mostly through small successes that build upon each other. At the federal level, pro-life members of Congress have been able to enact a prohibition on the grisly practice of partial birth abortion and continue to fend off the persistent efforts of the pro-choice left to subsidize abortion-on-demand through federal spending. While President Bush was criticized as the Pro-Life Progressive symposium for not speaking more energetically against abortion, he in fact frequently mentions the subject and devoted an entire speech to the matter at the recent anniversary of Roe v. Wade (although the news media tend to ignore those statements). At the state level, pro-life legislative successes continue to multiply, from ensuring greater information to women in trouble, protecting the rights of parents, and providing easier access to alternatives to abortion. While these pro-life successes are not yet the bountiful harvest for which we all pray, the basket is by no means empty.

If those who claim to be building a pro-life progressive movement belittle the hard work of those who for many long years have labored hard in the political vineyard and reaped many victories over the concerted opposition of the party that claims to speak for progressives, this newly-formed progressive voice simply will not be in solidarity with the pro-life movement as a whole.

Second, while some participants persuasively argued that Pro-Life Progressives are better situated to seek common ground with skeptics on the question of life, including those on the pro-choice side, such fora for dialogue must be entered with caution lest they be abused by abortion advocates who disguise themselves or their agenda. The dialogue must be conducted with integrity and always with fidelity to the cause of life.

As a frightening example of the risks posed by naive ventures in the “common ground” direction, one person in the audience of the Pro-Life Progressive symposium raised the possibility of dialogue with Catholics for a Free Choice. Much harm would come to the Pro-Life Progressive movement were it to pursue exchanges with this deceptively-named front for the abortion industry. Asking for dialogue with such a fraudulent and extremist outfit would be tantamount to expecting the abolitionists to have sought common ground with the auctioneers at the slave market. The only thing that could come from such an exchange would be to polish the tarnished public image of pro-abortion groups and abortion industry lobbyists, while distracting and dividing the pro-life movement and thereby suppressing the witness for life. To be sure, one should always be ready to reach out to people of good will who are unsettled on the issue or who are genuinely prepared to reevaluate the absolutism of pro-choice politics. But one must never allow one’s natural and generous desire for dialogue to be cynically manipulated by others to a very different purpose.

More than one participant in the symposium emphasized that, while constituting a welcome beginning, changes in the rhetoric on abortion by certain liberal political figures must be accompanied by meaningful action. While the action that should be expected was not made concrete (which brings me to my third concern below), it at least indicated that more than one member of the Pro-Life Progressive movement is attuned to the risk I describe above.

Third, the Pro-Life Progressive movement, while presenting itself both as a sincere opponent of abortion and broadly progressive on economic and international matters, seemed rather short on specifics about how to advance the pro-life cause beyond words. Indeed, more than one speaker raised doubts about whether anti-abortion legislation—with the eventual goal of prohibiting any violent taking of unborn human life—ought to be pursued. All of us agree that the culture must be changed if we are to realize our hope of one day placing abortion alongside slavery and genocide as universally-acknowledged intrinsic evils. Moreover, some of us will be called to devote our time and talents to reaching hearts and minds, rather than to engaging with politicians and judges. But the pro-life movement as a whole cannot stand by and fail to take such action as is possible now. We must save as many lives as we can today, even if limited restrictions on abortion and enhancement of alternatives are all that can be legislatively achieved at present.

Interestingly, the same symposium participants who were quick to dismiss pro-life Republicans as inconsequential based upon a supposedly inadequate legislative agenda were also the ones who seemed most reluctant to forthrightly endorse legal constraints on abortion as part of the new movement’s platform. If this cognitive dissonance is rooted in an underlying timidity about pro-life politics or an unwillingness to unite with other pro-life activists across the political spectrum in seeking always to accomplish whatever is politically possible, then it will be difficult for this new movement to sustain itself as truly pro-life as well as progressive.

I do not mean to suggest that any one of the three dangers mentioned above, much less all three in concert, were manifested in a dominating way at the Pro-Life Progressivism symposium. But each emerged from time to time. Nor do I think it inevitable that the Pro-Life Progressive movement will succumb to these temptations. Any nascent political movement will be less than fully formed and internally coherent at its birth. Mapping the pitfalls, so that they may be avoided, ought to be welcomed as advancing the cause. Mark Sargent’s earlier posting confirmed that these risks are recognized by those within the movement.

If Pro-Life Progressivism is truly to be a fourth political alternative in the country (along with conservatism, libertarianism, and secular liberalism), then it must be authentically pro-life as well as genuinely progressive. Should it succeed in becoming a viable part of the political landscape, while remaining true to its pro-life soul, we all would have great cause to rejoice.

Greg Sisk


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