The title of the essay was tantalizing: “Democrats should start accepting pro-life liberals like me.” A pro-life pivot for the modern American left is a radical notion. It would defy the deep plate tectonics of our political parties and unsettle the short-term tactics Democrats have found most useful for attacking President Trump. In short, it is an extremely challenging moment for a pro-life leftist to try to persuade his peers to take up the cause of the unborn.
So challenging, apparently, that Patrick Day’s article for Vox does not even try. By his own ready admission, the author does not seek to persuade other Democrats of his opinion on abortion. Instead, he paints his pro-life views as private, non-rational, and drawn only from religion—then pleads for acceptance. The resulting essay, while earnest, is strangely apologetic and leaves way too many points on the board. It is less a courageous call to conversion and more a case study in political Stockholm Syndrome.
But fortunately for Day’s goals and for the pro-life movement, these caveats are actually not correct. The logic of the pro-life position is clear, compelling, and does not require recourse to religion. Far from being beyond conversion, progressives could be actually be the new blood the pro-life movement needs to make some real progress. Someone just has to be willing to make the case.
Respect for Life Is Not a Religious Princple
To begin with, let’s agree that “Don’t kill people” is not some proprietary Christian quirk. This maxim is not some arcane dogma accessible only to people who believe in Christmas, Easter, the Immaculate Conception, the efficacy of scapulars, and the Blood Miracle of St. Januarius. It is not a deep spiritual mystery only attainable to the avowedly religious after they spend a decade in daily prayer. It is a fundamental moral truth that is self-evident from the contours of natural law, and was so even before God became man.
We don’t worry that respect for life is some exclusively faith-based footnote in any other situation. Nobody thinks that an ordinary citizen who disarms and detains a would-be mass murderer is arrogantly imposing a parochial, mysterious Christianity on those around him. No, he will be thanked and instinctively feted by everyone around him.
Why? Not primarily because of law or politics; he will not receive tearful thanks or a hometown parade because people are glad he upheld his state’s law against murder. Everyone will cheer him because—whatever their faith or lack thereof—almost everyone intuitively acknowledges that human life is an intrinsic good and an ethical trump card.
Respect for human life is a plain, universally accepted principle that flows directly from our shared humanity. The Torah, the Gospels, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church can all deepen your understanding of why murder is wrong, but you don’t need to believe in any of these things to arrive at this conclusion. Just take a look around modern society. The rise of the “nones” has not triggered a national murder spree.
This brings us to the most fundamental question in the entire abortion debate. Are unborn children alive?
The Case for Life Is Universal
Let’s begin with basic biology. Is an unborn boy or girl alive in the narrow biological sense? Yes, beyond question. Nobody will deny that, from the perspective of basic biology, a fetus is a living organism that possesses the same principle of life as any plant, animal, or slime mold. It has a unique genetic signature. It has commenced growing and changing. It is busily converting nearby resources into new tissues and engaging in other tasks that only living things can attempt.
Fair enough, but is this life human? And is it unique? Yes and yes, plainly so. A zygote contains its own genetic signature, one that is utterly distinct from its mother’s genes, yet still instantly recognizable to us as human. An unborn child is neither a clone of its mom nor a nonhuman animal. It does not have the DNA of a plant, cat, or manatee. It is human. It is unique. These are empirical facts.
Given that a fetus is a human being in this strict sense, and given that every ethical system worth its salt holds it as plainly wrong to kill an innocent non-consenting human being, the burden now lands on advocates of abortion rights to cogently explain the unique exception they wish to carve.
May an unborn child be deliberately killed because it can’t survive without his or her mother? This logic accidentally legitimizes the murder of infants, toddlers, and the profoundly physically disabled. May an unborn child be deliberately killed because it lacks rationality? This reasoning would allow societies to summarily execute the mentally handicapped.
Or is killing permissible because unborn children have no conscious self-awareness at the time of termination? Even if we could somehow actually know that psychological fact, this rule would green-light murder everywhere—just be sure to catch your victims while they’re asleep!
“Are you really saying that a clump of a few cells is as valuable a life as, say, a 19-year-old person? Should parents hold elaborate funerals if a zygote is lost in the first hours after conception?” We need not say any of this. These are prudential questions about hierarchies of grief.
Most outside observers would find it sadder if an eight-year old girl died in a car accident than if a 94-year-old woman slipped away in her sleep. Does this mean the elderly woman is fair game for intentional murder? Of course not. Speaking of the 94-year old woman, a newly broadened anti-abortion movement would not even have to agree about the morality of euthanasia. Most Americans’ intuitions will immediately grasp a difference between facilitating an elderly, dying person’s willful suicide and killing a tiny baby who cannot consent.
Here’s the thing. Basic human dignity does not vary with our feelings, nor with our preferences and predilections. Nor with our social customs. Nor with the fact that life sometimes deviates in massive and disruptive ways from the careful plans we thought we’d laid. Human dignity is universal. This is a beautiful truth. And it is knowable by all reasonable people, however they see matters supernatural.
Forget the Pretend Fear of ‘Legislating Morality’
Even if progressive readers have come this far and are tempted to try out the label of “personally pro-life,” they may intuitively resist the idea of influencing public policy. This is the common position of Catholic Democrats such as Sen. Tim Kaine and Joe Biden, who put it this way in his 2012 debate with Paul Ryan: “I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others…”
The same tension comes up in the Vox essay, when Day tries to reconcile his “pro-life” position with his opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade. He writes that “forcing morality onto a public via law doesn’t work well.” But of course, to legislate on any topic whatsoever is to use government power to “force” some moral vision onto the public. There is no such thing as an amoral statute. There is no way to present a judgment that X is forbidden, Y is penalized, or Z is mandatory as a value-neutral proposition. Laws are inherently normative.
Murder is illegal because we believe it is wrong and that it harms the common good. The same goes for theft, fraud, vandalism, underage drinking, littering, and literally any other subject on which our legislatures have spoken. Every single law that exists tramples somewhat on citizens’ personal autonomy and moral free agency. This partial surrender is precisely what it means to live in a legal society. A prohibition on imposing morality via law would require us to erase every law on the books.
Real Minds and Lives Are at Stake
Let’s bury the myth that Americans’ views on abortion are intractable or outside of normal debate. The progressive movement is full of intelligent people with deep ethical convictions. If pro-life people take our views seriously, it is condescending and unethical not to try in good faith to persuade those people.
There is no real reason someone’s views on welfare spending or corporate regulation must entail a specific opinion about when life begins. And we have seen that this is an intellectual question about deep principles, not some shallow matter predetermined by identity politics. (To this point, intraparty survey data suggest that low-income Democrats, low-education Democrats, and black Democrats are all less supportive of legalized abortion than their party is as a whole. It is wealthy, white, privileged Democrats who send the party’s “pro-choice” numbers skyward.)
I know firsthand that you do not have to be a conservative or Christian to defend the dignity of unborn boys and girls. In the first years I was interested in politics, I was a mainstream Democrat with socialist tendencies who was adamantly atheistic and completely pro-choice. Today, I’m a Roman Catholic who largely sympathizes with the political right. I became pro-life before I changed my mind about domestic or foreign policy, and long before I changed my mind about God.
It all began with the startling realization that secular science offered me no coherent place other than conception to draw the starting line of our humanity. I did not need to respect Ronald Reagan or love Jesus Christ to arrive at this conclusion. I only had to reason it through.
Pro-lifers, especially “pro-life liberals,” should not concede the battle before they step into it. They should not worry more about alienating a few snarky friends than about stopping a nationwide phenomenon that is, by their own stated principles, a tragedy of cataclysmic proportions. They should give themselves the credit they deserve, rather than promise to be silent on the merits of the issue in exchange for reluctant tolerance from fellow leftists.
My fellow political and religious conservatives have effectively been “in charge” of the pro-life cause in America for decades. We are not getting the job done by ourselves. It may well be that a new generation of liberals, realizing there is no logical reason their side’s passion for protecting the vulnerable should only apply after birth, will prove to be pivotal players who help move us towards a new national consensus on this issue.
But existing pro-lifers, from the left to the right, will never know unless we respect them enough to state our case.