What Does It Really Mean to be Pro-Life? Should Immigration be Included?

Opinion   Timothy Brahm   Jul 13, 2018   |   12:20PM    Washington, DC

Those of you who have spent any amount of time on social media lately know that political discourse has been particularly ugly in recent weeks. Ever since the controversy began over separating children from parents caught crossing the border illegally, there have been comments about what it means to be “pro-life.” My favorite tweet from the time of that controversy came from my colleague Rachel Crawford:

There are many worthwhile discussions to be had about immigration policy, but policing the term “pro-life” is not a prudent way to start one. [Tweet that!] There are good, compassionate, reasonable pro-life people of every political stripe. This is possible because being pro-life in regards to abortion is entirely consistent with all kinds of other positions all over the political spectrum.

Consider the example of political libertarianism. Although I don’t consider myself a libertarian, I admire the simplicity and elegance of this philosophy. Libertarians often defend their position with the non-aggression principle, which dictates that force should only be used in self-defense. The libertarian then concludes that the government’s reach shouldn’t extend beyond protecting people from each other. For example, it would be appropriate for the government to outlaw murder, theft, and rape, and to use force against individuals who commit such aggressive acts, but it would be wrong to outlaw any drug use because then the government would be the one initiating force. Moreover, libertarians believe that taxes shouldn’t fund anything that isn’t strictly necessary. Therefore, under this view, welfare programs are immoral. A libertarian would argue that the government shouldn’t aggress against the taxpayers by forcing them to pay for such a program, even if it does good things. The citizens should be free to make that program if they wish to do so.

Let’s imagine two libertarians, Art and Bob, who fully ascribe to the above description of libertarianism, with one major disagreement: Art thinks human fetuses are person, but Bob does not. This means that Art considers the act of abortion to be an aggression against an innocent person, so he opposes it on libertarian grounds. Bob, however, thinks that any attempt to restrict abortion is an act of aggression against the woman, because she isn’t aggressing against a person. For this reason, Bob is in favor of legalized abortion.

Art and Bob are both obviously and undeniably being consistent. At least one of them has at least one wrong belief, but given their assumptions, they are both consistent.

Pro-life people are often held to weird standards that no one else is, and it is poison to reasonable discourse. As Scott Klusendorf points out, no one criticizes the American Cancer Society for neglecting issues unrelated to cancer. Just imagine the memes: “You aren’t pro-long life, you’re just pro-surviving cancer and then immediately dying from some other disease!” The aforementioned debate on immigration and child separation is just the latest example of this trend. People are constantly making statements like, “You can’t be pro-life unless you are pro-whole-life,” meaning that you must agree with their position on immigration and a host of other topics in order to be against abortion. Here are just a few examples from Twitter:

Click on this image for the uncensored tweet.

Maybe everyone should hold a particular position on immigration. Maybe that position should be open borders. But it is simply and obviously false to say that one cannot consistently oppose the intentional and brutal murder of children while also having a strong stance in opposition to illegal immigration.

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It is a common and aggravating game to use the term “pro-life” as a lever to force anti-abortion advocates into taking extreme positions that people on the left consider to be compassionate. I’m open to the idea that I am wrong about universal health care (I’m currently opposed), or universal basic income (I’m currently opposed), or open borders (I’m currently opposed), or any number of other issues that supposedly make me uncompassionate. But there is a very big difference between all of those issues and abortion. Abortion intentionally, and in most cases brutally, kills a living, human child. The question of how much we help other people, or rather, the question of how much we force people to help other people, is different in kind from the question of whether we allow small, defenseless people to be killed by comparatively large, powerful people. [Tweet that!]

Again, maybe I’m wrong about all of those positions. I’ve been wrong before, and I very well could be again. I might even be wrong because I’m an uncompassionate jerk. But I’m not being inconsistent. I think all of those policies are, among other things, economically foolish and counterproductive, and that has nothing to do with whether or not it should be legal to intentionally dismember living babies. Economic policy and baby-dismembering are very different issues, so a person can hold all sorts of consistent positions on those subjects. For instance, someone could be pro-abortion-choice and extremely fiscally conservative, and that wouldn’t be any more inconsistent than being pro-abortion-choice and anti-net neutrality.

It is not inconsistent for me to believe that it’s wrong to intentionally kill helpless babies while also believing that it’s morally permissible to kill in self-defense. Maybe I’m wrong about one of those things, but there is no inconsistency.

Similarly, it is not inconsistent for me to be against abortion and to believe in just war theory, to believe that sometimes a war is just and that killing enemy combatants in a just war is morally acceptable. I might be wrong about just war theory, but there is nothing inconsistent about those two positions. One position supports the intentional killing of enemy combatants, and the other opposes the intentional killing of innocent human beings.

If I justified my view about abortion by claiming that killing humans is wrong in all circumstances, then I’d be inconsistent. But that isn’t how I’m justifying my pro-life stance. I’m justifying it with the principle that it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Perhaps I should be using a different principle. If you think so, then by all means, make your case. But as long as I’m using the principle I’m using, the fact that I’m open to a just war does not make my position inconsistent.

I happen to be against capital punishment for pragmatic reasons, primarily that our country has an alarming track record of executing innocent people. But at a principled level, if we knew for certain that the person we were executing was guilty of murder, I would have no problem with it. Maybe that’s wrong, but it is hardly inconsistent to support the execution of a murderer while opposing the dismemberment of innocent babies until they die.

It is really easy to score rhetorical points by asserting that someone is inconsistent, and that makes it tempting. It may even feel right because you think they ought to believe different things. But feelings aren’t the issue when it comes to the claim of inconsistency; only the positions of the person accused of inconsistency matter.

Peter Singer believes that in certain circumstances it’s okay to kill infants because they aren’t self-aware yet. I think that’s reprehensible, but give Peter Singer credit for his consistency. By all means, criticize him for his wrong views, but don’t accuse him of inconsistency unless he is actually being inconsistent.

If we want political discourse to improve, we need to distinguish between these types of accusations. If you’re one of the people that calls conservative pro-life people inconsistent, here is my suggestion: Argue that my views are wrong. Argue that I’m being uncompassionate. Argue that I’m illogical, or bad at research, or bad at listening to people who are different from me. Those are all plausible reasons for the positions that I hold and I welcome that discussion. But if you argue that I’m inconsistent simply because we disagree on some other issue, I won’t find you persuasive and neither should anyone else. You only have two options: 1) make the case that the two positions I’m holding cannot possibly be held at the same time without being inconsistent, or 2) drop the inconsistency claim and just argue that one of my positions is wrong.

Please tweet this article!

  • Tweet: “Inconsistent” is Different Than “Wrong”
  • Tweet: There are many worthwhile discussions to be had about immigration policy, but policing the term “pro-life” is not a prudent way to start one.
  • Tweet: There are good, compassionate, reasonable pro-life people of every political stripe.
  • Tweet: Pro-life people are often held to weird standards that no one else is, and it is poison to reasonable discourse.
  • Tweet: The question of how much we force people to help other people, is different in kind from the question of whether we allow small, defenseless people to be killed by comparatively large, powerful people.
  • Tweet: Someone could be pro-abortion-choice and extremely fiscally conservative, and that wouldn’t be any more inconsistent than being pro-abortion-choice and anti-net neutrality.

The post “Inconsistent” is Different than “Wrong” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”