Editor’s note: Barry Creamer is president of Criswell College in Dallas.
For 50 years, abortion and the wars surrounding it have become entrenched in society’s normalcy. With the overturn of Roe and Casey, the pro-life and pro-choice sides of the issue have a choice to make. One option is to reinforce the wall dividing our culture, to continue viewing those on the other side as a force to be defeated, and for us (I am a pro-life Southern Baptist, and write to the same) to become history’s clichéd oppressed-turned-oppressor. The better option is to use this legal respite for life to replace the old wall with a bridge.
The overthrow of Roe has been the pro-life holy grail. It is like creating a break in the other side’s front, leaving us the opportunity to make a bee-line for legislation and further rulings to bring an unconditional surrender. But there is another way to see the opportunity.
Roe followed the nation’s path; it did not create it. Abortion’s legality has never included the requirement to have one, yet before the end of the year in which Roe forced open legalized abortion’s door, 1973, three-quarters of a million women had obtained one. On average, more than a million women every year since have concluded that the best option is to end the life unexpectedly growing within them. Demolishing Roe means the court’s opinion has changed, but not the culture’s.
Even with Roe overturned, abortion’s legality simply reverts to the states, among and within which opinions about abortion continue to diverge. Until we infuse the entire culture with the possibility – with evidence – that respect for women and a prohibition on abortion are compatible, then a change secured only in law will be tenuous at best. We need to address the issues which variably lead women to dread or anticipate, terminate or embrace pregnancy.
The first value of the traditional pro-life position is that every human life has dignity – is distinctly valuable. Yet even from the religiously grounded position (that every human life is made sacred by bearing God’s image; the position I hold) complexities abound: e.g., whether and which treatments are required, permissible, or omissible in critical situations; or whether there are some tragic circumstances in which the only way to save one life is to end another. The best way to express this value is for life in the womb to be afforded the same respect and protection as all human life.
There are three reasons for expressing the pro-life position that way: first, it cuts the Gordian knot of complexities hinted above; second, it directly confronts the culture’s 50-year normalization of abortion as one of three options for a pregnancy (along with raising or adopting out the child); third, it distinguishes respect for unborn life from its historical entanglement with promoting fertility and – whether rightly or wrongly understood as its corollary – the subjugation of women.
Although not obvious at the outset of the pro-life movement, its second value is the rule of law. The pro-life movement is still scarred by the legacy of a few people radicalized in its early rhetoric: bombing abortion clinics; attacking and even assassinating physicians providing abortions. These actions were obviously contrary to respecting every human life. In contrast with radicals, the movement en masse has focused on changing the law through elections, the courts, or the constitution, and tightening restrictions and regulations to make abortion less available.
Additionally, that second value, respect for the rule of law, is inextricable from a third: equity, which expresses itself primarily in caring for the vulnerable, or seeking justice for those from whom it has been excluded. The issue is not that only the excluded need equity, but that those who are powerful already have or quickly find representation by their own means—one definition of being powerful.
Justice, expressed in the rule of law, is not about tilting the field against the powerful, but providing for the vulnerable what the powerful already have. The pro-life movement has consistently pleaded the case for the most vulnerable among us, children who have not developed the ability to defend themselves, not even to speak or cry out audibly on their own behalf.
The values associated with life, law, and equity obviously converge, since each value emerges from the equality intrinsic to all human beings, in attitudes toward human life, uniformity in law, and equity in the application of justice. Conflicts rise in every society where applying any of these to one person means displacing it for another.
Because conservatives like myself have stood so long on only one side of the wall, we have not listened to pro-choice arguments about those conflicts, whether real or perceived. With Roe in place, we heard only the claims we regard false prima facie: e.g., “pre-natal lives are only tissue,” or “pregnancy can be categorized as a malady.”
However, we may be able to find more common ground than we expect between the two sides, and build a more sustainable respect for pre-natal life, as we show it possible to sever the tie between other issues associated with the pro-choice movement and the issue of abortion itself. Doing so will require those of us who are pro-life to acknowledge the possibility that there is more to being pro-choice than being pro-abortion. (Conversely, of course, it would require those who are pro-choice to acknowledge the possibility that there is more to being pro-life than being anti-abortion.)
The case that the pro-choice argument finds its way from the same values underlying the pro-life argument relies on a couple of other assumptions: one, that despite enormous differences, the two sides do exist under a single government in a single society; and two, that what matters most about defining both movements is their respective center, not their extreme.
Is it possible that a single core could underly dipoles like choice and life? Consider two values underlying abortion advocacy: feminism and privacy. Feminism grounds many pro-choice arguments. While feminist perspectives range wildly from tempered critiques of misogyny to cancelation of gendered language and traditions, at its core, it seeks to overcome history’s and culture’s male bias; addressing what it sees as empowered men’s injustices against women and against other men who do not toe the line. That is, feminism is a movement to advocate for victimized and subjugated women, just as the pro-life movement advocates for victimized unborn children.
And, in abortion advocacy, the issue of privacy rivals the prominence of feminism. Privacy is the underpinning of 1965’s Griswald ruling to protect contraceptive use and 1973’s Roe. Even the language of reproductive rights: “Women have the right to decide what to do with their own body,” parallels privacy’s objections: “People have the right to decide what to do in their own bedroom.” Privacy’s role in abortion rights is only magnified by the intensely individualistic flavor of reproduction and sexuality in American culture.
In both of these cases, the goal of the pro-choice position is to end the oppression of women. Hearing an argument does not mean agreeing with it, but before dismissing these values in relation to abortion, we ought to admit there is some reason that 3,000 different women every day – a million different women every year – decide the best solution to their unplanned pregnancy is to end rather than endure it. If we want to engage the other side of our culture, then we must be willing to hear why they view abortion bans as oppressive.
Oppression implies the exertion of unjust control. Because pro-life advocates believe abortion restrictions are justified, we obviously do not agree that all laws restricting abortion are oppressive. But if those who choose abortion remain unconvinced that protecting pre-natal life is a justification for such restrictions, then they will continue to see such limitations as oppressive, especially since they impinge on the intimate and momentous context of reproduction and parenting.
A starting point for creating a different climate would be addressing a different set of issues: issues creating the context within which abortion restrictions are seen as oppressive, but which do not require us to change our understanding of the value of life nor to compromise the protections we provide it in utero.
Rhetoric is a key barrier keeping the two sides apart. Just like the Cold War in its day, the Culture War of our day has found safe harbor in a stalemate of fixed rhetoric, in this case between life and choice. We say our side is pro-life, but theirs pro-abortion, pro-death. They say their side is pro-choice, but ours anti-abortion, anti-women, anti-reproductive rights.
Both sides rely on what have become epithets characterizing larger populations in terms of their smaller extremities. (The extremities put the same pressure on their own moderate centers, by the way.) The periphery influences the center, but does not define it. So while the pro-choice and pro-life centers may diverge wildly on how to apply their core values, they do share at least some of them: specifically, that dignity should be afforded human beings, that the rule of law should prevail, and that the oppressed deserve justice.
If our culture is ever to escape dead center – a center no more securely occupied now by us (after Roe) than previously by the other side (under Roe) – then we will have to seek a means by which the other pole is no longer entirely invisible. As an example, for decades we have typically been unwilling to admit that anything other than sexual license or convenience generates interest in abortion. Admitting otherwise would have given ground to the pro-choice movement.
Pro-choice advocates have been equally unwilling to consider that lives might be lost when reproductive freedom results in abortion. To do so would have given credence to the pro-life movement. This use of rhetoric offers no hope for escaping the internecine status quo.
The first step on the path forward is for each side to begin hearing the other. We begin by listening, with respect. While we cannot determine when or whether they return the favor, we can hope with good cause that it will be sooner the more we regard them with the worth we say we afford every human.
Having listened, we may discover that the values grounding our position can address inequities that matter to the other side. For example, women still face disadvantages in the workplace. If employers hesitate before hiring a pregnant woman or even a young wife (e.g., due to potential costs for leave) then women have a reason to think twice about pregnancy. As we advocate for life we should also advocate for hiring standards oblivious to or even favoring pregnancy, such as ample family leave. That would put our money where the other side may think only our mouths have been. The list of topics is unending, and will be prioritized by our ongoing dialog.
We have held a conflictual posture for so long that our natural stance given Roe’s demise will be to continue fighting. But there is more to be gained for the value of life if we can adjust to a stance inviting peace.
Admittedly, we can only extend peace from our side, and not without risk. We may be left in the middle alone. But the only other option is for barriers to remain, the fate of future life as uncertain as our current political winds. My prayer is that we consider the benefits which will only come if we extend to every person on the other side of this issue the respect we want extended to each unborn child.