Ed. One of the last pieces penned by a great defender of human life and dignity. May his memory be eternal.
Whatever else it is, the pro-life movement of the last thirty-plus years is one of the most massive and sustained expressions of citizen participation in the history of the United States. Since the 1960s, citizen participation and the remoralizing of politics have been central goals of the left. Is it not odd, then, that the pro-life movement is viewed as a right-wing cause? Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about “the irony of American history” and, were he around to update his book of that title, I expect he might recognize this as one of the major ironies within the irony.
These are the issues addressed in a remarkable new book out this month from Princeton University Press, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, by Jon Shields, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. The book is by no means a pro-life tract. It is an excruciatingly careful study, studded with the expected graphs and statistical data—but not to the point of spoiling its readability—in the service of probing the curious permutations in contemporary political alignments.
The Port Huron Statement issued by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 called for a participatory democracy in which, through protest and agitation, the “power structure” of the society would be transformed by bringing moral rather than merely procedural questions to the center of political life. Almost fifty years later, Shields notes, “some 45 percent of respondents in the Citizens Participation Survey who reported participating in a national protest did so because of abortion. What is more, nearly three quarters of all abortion-issue protesters are pro-life, an unsurprising fact given that the pro-life movement is challenging rather than defending the current policy regime. Meanwhile, all other social issues, including pornography, gay rights, school prayer, and sex education, account for only 3 percent of all national protest activity.”
Shields says there are three categories of pro-life politics: deliberative, disjointed, and radical. Representative of the “deliberative” are Justice for All (JFA) and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), which have trained thousands of young people to engage in nonconfrontational pro-life persuasion on college campuses. The “disjointed” politics includes innumerable and loosely organized activities such as sidewalk counseling, prayer vigils, marches, demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations. The “radical” includes what he calls “the broken remnants of the rescue movement,” focusing on civil disobedience and the closing of abortion clinics. “In many respects [the radical] is the exact opposite of deliberative politics, except for the fact that it too is highly coordinated and organized.”
A Movement for Change
The pro-life movement is a movement for change, indeed for what some view as the radical change of eliminating the unlimited abortion license. “Meanwhile,” writes Shields, “the pro-choice movement is a conservative movement defending the status quo. Pro-choicers have little to gain from engaging their opponents and from the deliberative norms that facilitate persuasion.” And, of course, they have the establishment media massively on their side. The head of New York State Right to Life explained to Shields that “a major part of her work is simply trying to convince journalists that pro-life activists are ‘normal.’ It is hard to imagine a pro-choice leader describing her work that way.”
“The current demographic makeup of the pro-life movement,” writes Shields, “also confounds the politics of motherhood.” The conflict is often depicted as one between housewives and career-oriented women. But a striking percentage of pro-life women are university educated, and many have given up professional careers to do pro-life work full-time. Although Shields does not mention it in this connection, it is also striking how many female leaders in the pro-life cause had one or more abortions, an experience that helped turn them against the current license. He does note that surveys indicate that pro-life citizens, men and women, “are only moderately less likely to be ‘very concerned’ about women’s rights” than pro-choice respondents. “The pro-life movement,” he writes, “is actually quite diverse, and abortion politics more generally does not [as some claim] pit working-class Catholic housewives against professional, career-oriented women.” In short, it has over the years increasingly stretched credulity to claim that the pro-choice cause is a “woman’s movement.”
Read the entire article on the First Things website (new window will open).