Even if the recent faulty poll placing a majority of Americans in a "pro-life" category were true, this could never establish that such attitudes resembled the Pat Robertson or Scott Roeder sense of "pro-life." Instead, many (perhaps a majority of) Americans are are extremely morally uncomfortable with abortion, and dissatisfied that militant choice proponents so often sidestep that moral ambivalence and seem to lash out the hardest against those who sit on the fence. Because of GOP system failure, the constant exposure of hypocrisy and misleadership among the conservative evangelical camp, and the violence encouraged by Operation Rescue and people like Robertson, and perpetrated by pawns like Scott Roeder, it is now necessary to qualify the term "pro-life" with conservative or progressive.
The conservative pro-life imperative is now in shambles, and ironically more doctors will be able to perform more abortions with less political and cultural resistance as a result of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. More importantly, the right-wing pro-life (hereafter rwpl) position is inexorably tied to that violence. The conservative pro-life movement has been delegitimized by the anti-abortion violence it has to own, since its adherents can't make a coherent case as to why they, themselves, are not also morally required to kill abortion doctors (see Damon Linker's fine discussion of this at his blog). This is evident in the way rwpl leaders, ministers, bloggers, commentators, and public statements have either clumsily attempted to distance themselves from Roeder's act, put Tiller's medical procedures on par with Roeder's act or, in some cases, openly celebrated Tiller's murder.
Stopping doctors from performing abortions or women from having them done now requires violence. If Roe were ever to be overturned, that would still be true. In a world of restrictions, people will continue to seek abortions, and the harms of unequal access will possess an even greater magnitude than they do now. It is for this reason that the rejection of the violence of Roeder exposes the logic of violence, a different quality of violence to be sure, behind those who insist on establishing legal restrictions on abortion prior to changing the social contexts from which abortions emerge.
No progressive pro-lifers are ready to hold their breath and vote Republican. It doesn't outweigh. "Republicans who claim to be pro-life also often have anti-life policies that are completely in collusion with the social and economic structures that compel abortion," says Kevin Clarke, interviewed in the important 2004 Sojourners article "No Place to Stand." Now, there is a place to stand politically, even if the third party that will support such pluralism hasn't been completely built under it. The people are waiting, and so is the space.
The Democratic Party itself is a uniquely bad place for pro-lifers because most of the Democratic leadership doesn't even want a _discussion_ of the matter. Pro-life progressives find themselves uncomfortable on several levels in that party. Independent progressives, greens and democratic socialists, on the other hand, love political discussions and philosophical arguments too much to shun colleagues who wish to include concern for the unborn in a larger progressive agenda. Yes, those debates will be robust. But they will be guided by principles the two major parties cannot currently provide: a commitment to rationality unfiltered by mass media and corporate ideology (unlike the Democrats) and a wholesale rejection of associating with irrational religious extremists (unlike the GOP). The problem with Democrats for Life is that they can't get their priorities straight. Restricting access is not a winner for pro-life progressives, but DfL pushes for those things (inside a party that will never allow it, of course). It puts them in bed with partners they don't want to share a bed with, even for a night.
Reasonable people with moral or other objections to abortion have only one direction to go. That direction has been available to them for some time. Progressive, feminist, and socialist pro-life forces have been quiet members of the scene since conversations about reproductive rights emerged in the 1960s. Feminists for Life has been around since 1972. The essays by feminists and socialists concerned about abortion, some of the best ones collected in a wonderful anthology, Swimming Against the Tide: Feminist Dissent on the Issue of Abortion, edited by Angela Kennedy, made me realize that there is a voice for those who see an ultimate end to abortion as fully consistent with progressive politics: Extending moral consideration to a wider and more diverse circle of living existence, and constantly expanding the meaning of "majority." Many religious progressives were inspired by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who spoke out against nuclear weapons, the death penalty and abortion and popularized the "consistent life ethic." Such believers still hold to his declaration that "When human life is considered 'cheap' or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy."
Rozalyn Farmer Love is a third-year medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. In an editorial today in the Washington Post, she describes growing up in a staunchly anti-choice home, a conservative religious home, and about feeling a common thread with those opposed to abortion even as she completes medical school. Of late-term abortions, she writes:
It wasn't until I spent time in ultrasound rooms during a research job in graduate school that I began to see late-trimester abortions in a very different light. In one case, the patient's baby had just been diagnosed with a lethal congenital anomaly. The high likelihood was that it wouldn't survive after birth for more than a few minutes. As long as the baby remained in her mother's womb, however, she would live. I asked the physician what this woman's options were. The answer was, not many. She could choose to continue the pregnancy, but then she might be waiting for almost 20 more weeks to give birth to a baby that would never take more than a few breaths on its own. She was past the point where she could legally terminate the pregnancy in Alabama. If she could get an appointment in Atlanta within the next week, she might be able to have the procedure there. Beyond that, there were only a few physicians in the nation who would perform an abortion in such a case.
I could hardly wrap my mind around the agony that this woman and her husband must have been facing. They needed a caring and compassionate physician to help them through this dark moment, and if they chose not to continue the pregnancy, they also needed a physician who was both skilled enough and brave enough to provide them with the care they needed. They needed Dr. Tiller.
The new political space I am talking about is especially made for people like Ms. Love. If she goes to the Democrats, they will tell her she needs to get over her moral qualms (or the Democrats for Life caucus will tell her to help take the Roe plank out of the party platform). If she goes to the GOP, she will be told that doctors should not ever perform abortions. Someone might even shoot her.
The rwpl's hegemony over America's moral qualms with abortion has resulted in a singular religious view, with only skepticism as its alternative. However, there is a pluralistic religious basis for finding abortion morally objectionable and regrettable, but not worthy of a murder charge, and not worthy of preventative assassination. That alternative is the view that most people "on the fence," and quite a few people on both sides, hold whether they're explicitly aware of it or not. This type of belief requires empathy (a term that conservatives have attacked in a different context, although those attacks, too, demonstrated why the progressive move towards interconnectedness and care scares the shit out of the GOP and the corporatocracy). It requires a commitment to religious pluralism. It requires a sense of interconnectedness and mutual submission. It requires humility. It does not require the abandonment of core Christian beliefs, though it might demand of its adherents a skeptical attitude towards the pronouncements of purported Christian authorities. Such skepticism won't scare off those who are drifting towards progressivism, though, since they are probably a corollary to the increasing number of Americans professing agnosticism and atheism. We are slowly drifting towards the liberalization and democratization of religion, and progressive Christians would rather work with nonbelievers than potential Pat Robertsons or, to be sure, Scott Roeders.
The convergence of consistent life folks and reproductive rights adherents also holds the best chance of developing political, economic and cultural solutions to unwanted pregnancy, poverty, and irresponsible parenthood. Since the only solution that would satisfy all parties in the abortion debate is one which renders unwanted pregnancy either impossible to begin with (a question of technological possibility) or completely without material inconvenience (a question of political economy), these are the directions we should take our debates. Progressives now control all sides of the abortion debate. Pro-life consciousness is the consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life and death. The reproductive choice imperative is an acknowledgement of the fundamental needs of women. No other political entity can absorb those currently (but not inevitably) paradoxical positions.
To hold this position, we need to sustain and even encourage the vigorous debate between those among us who are anti-abortion and those who are committed chiefly to women's reproductive rights. Right now, the ranks of the latter outnumber the ranks of the former but--this is the important part--this will change. More and more progressive-minded Christians and others will walk away from conservatism as they see that in the abortion debate, as well as in most other political debates, the far right, apocalypse-informed view of conservative Christianity is ultimately either a resignation to a fallen, ugly world, or a ruse for the powerful, a stalking horse for future neoconservatives to mobilize uncritical human resources.
What is especially important about this convergence is that, while those on the left have always felt confident in saying "progressive is pro-life," few people entertained the slogan "pro-life is progressive." Tied to the patriarchal, violent, apocalyptic Christian subculture, it wasn't anywhere near progressive. Tied to an emerging group of fair-minded, socially-committed activists, it has the potential to take the national debate about abortion to an entirely new level: a progressive level. Economic justice is pro-life. Anti-war is pro-life. Anti-death penalty is pro-life. Universal health care is pro-life. Punishing women for sexuality is pro-death. Insisting on abstinence education programs that undoubtedly fail is pro-death.
Moreover, it is precisely the unresolved nature of the abortion debate that can and will drive us to be like-minded in building a world without a death-imperative, without forced choices and false moralizing. In other words, pro-life and pro-choice progressives can continue to debate about abortion, but within a larger frame of agreement about the world we're working toward. Eventually, that debate will become very different, much more beautiful, complex, and educational, than it is today.
I'm declaring the relevant part of the abortion debate to be post-violence, post-restriction, and post-conservative. I imagine fair-minded people may find exceptions to this declaration, but my guess is that an increasing number of pro-lifers will move in that threefold direction in the months and years to come.