I have been pro-life for as long as I can remember. My family were not culture warriors: We never picketed, and I’m not sure we ever discussed the subject at home. My only memories of anything close to activism are of occasional appeals to our church to donate diapers to a local crisis pregnancy center. I was impressed by the urgency of the requests, which focused almost exclusively on the burdens disadvantaged single mothers faced and the opportunity we had to aid them. That somewhat idyllic approach impressed on me the vague but definite intuition that life in the womb was worth preserving and the woman who bore it worth supporting. This impression that being pro-life means supporting the people whose wombs bear life as much as the life itself has never left me.
My activist impulses have grown since my youth, and those instincts have been sharpened. The reasons for this are complex, and personal: Like many people, I have been intimate with those struggling to conceive and with those desperately seeking to avoid doing so. The heart-wrenching pain of infertility and miscarriage, the struggles of teenage motherhood, the fears and anxieties of an unwanted pregnancy — as I have grown older, such experiences have deepened my sense that human life is a wonderful, tragic mystery. Whatever else we think about it, the drama of conception leads to the most profound joys and sorrows, the most ardent hopes and expectations, and the most visceral fears and anxieties. In college, I would describe myself as pro-life; I now joke that I am rabidly pro-life. Only it’s not really a joke.
Yet what it means to be “pro-life” is, these days, hotly contested — and, I think, often misunderstood. The question has been unavoidable in 2017: The Women’s March was dominated by headlines about whether the “pro-life feminist” is a viable species; the March for Life was accompanied by the annual hand-wringing about news outlets naming us “anti-abortion”; the refugee ban was met by denunciations framed by pro-life concerns; and the president’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch for Supreme Court justice prompted dismissive charges of hypocrisy for the movement’s narrow focus.
Beneath these disputes lies a simple charge: Pro-lifers care about what happens in the womb, and nothing beyond it. Such a depiction is almost certainly a caricature. And yet it aggravates a real phenomenon: The pro-life movement has emphasized embryos in the womb for reasons that go to the heart of being “pro-life” itself. Without grasping the peculiar ethos that animates this emphasis, the decision by pro-lifers to succumb to the temptation of Donald Trump for the sake of a Supreme Court justice will remain an unintelligible mystery and degradation.
The ethos of the pro-life movement, which unabashedly emphasizes life in the womb, is not precisely its beliefs: Those are well-known enough, even if controversial. Ask a pro-lifer why they object to abortion, and you are likely to get a hodgepodge of reasons appealing to God, to science, and to claims about human dignity or rights.
Yet as important as those arguments are, they are better understood as articulating a conceptual structure for intuitions and perceptions that exceed their limits — intuitions and perceptions that animate the individual outreach of most pro-life activists. The pro-life outlook is more enchanted, more infused with a secular sense of the sacred, than most of our philosophical arguments allow. Identifying that ethos, and attempting to name it, is crucial for understanding how pro-lifers think — and why they are so earnestly devoted to their cause.
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