A primer on pro-life progressivism

Pro-life progressive?  What is that?

Pretty much what it says on the tin. Pro-life progressives hold positions which are generally identified with the left end of the political spectrum in the United States (such as it is). They tend to be pro-labor, economically liberal, and generally in favor of government playing a role in helping people. They believe that we have not yet eradicated racism and sexism, and believe the government has a role in that task too. Many are pro-LGBT rights. Many oppose war and the death penalty. And they – I should say, we – oppose abortion.

Our opposition to abortion doesn’t contradict our other progressive stands, but flows from the same sources. Many, but not all, pro-life progressives have religious convictions which inspire them to regard every human life – including the lives of the poor, the sick, the “enemy”, and the convicted as well as the unborn – as sacred. Religious and secular pro-lifers alike don’t believe there should be human beings who are considered disposable non-persons. We look at history and see the tragic results of past attempts to draw that line. We see that it brings out the worst in people. That doesn’t mean that we are blind or indifferent to the challenges and injustices faced by pregnant and parenting women. It only means that we believe we must find nonviolent solutions to those problems whenever it is physically possible.

Views on the legality of abortion vary among progressive pro-lifers.  Some agree with the political agenda favored by more right-wing anti-abortion groups, and are for overturning Roe v. Wade and passing laws restricting or banning abortion. Others believe that the legality of abortion is a settled question, that Roe v. Wade will never be overturned, and that we should spend our time and effort on persuasion and practical means of abortion reduction. Still others are skeptical whether a political effort dominated by the right wing can be trusted to legislate in a way that is just for both women and children.

Pro-life progressives reject the framing that says we must choose whether we are on the side of the woman or the fetus. We believe that it represents a false dichotomy, imposed by a patriarchal society in which the public sphere has been traditionally reserved for men, who of course do not bear children. The result is that our public institutions, such as schools and the workplace, are hostile to the needs of those of us who do bear children and who are disproportionately tasked with their care.

We want a humane social welfare system – not because we want people to be dependent, which is a lie of the right, but to enable poor women to raise their children with dignity. We want family leave and universal health care. We want fathers to take equal responsibility for their children. We want to end discrimination against mothers in employment and education. We want to empower women to choose healthy sexual relationships. We want girls to grow up knowing that their worth doesn't depend on the ability to get a man. We want every woman to love her body, to be knowledgeable about it, and to have access to safe and reliable contraceptive methods if she chooses to use them. We don’t believe that every woman wants or should want to be a mother, but we believe that every woman who is a mother should be able to be one.

Why should pro-choice progressives care?

Progressives should not be prevented from working with each other on all the causes we have in common because of our disagreement on abortion. The corporatists and the warmongers love it when the left alienates potential allies. I understand the position of progressives who insist on ideological purity on the issue of abortion – they view it as a fundamental right, necessary to women’s freedom and human dignity. I would not ask anyone to compromise their commitment to women’s freedom and human dignity; however, I would ask them to keep an open mind toward people of good will who disagree with them, to consider that theirs may not be the only valid viewpoint, and to work with us in our many areas of agreement.

Most pro-choicers are not pro-abortion; like us, they would much prefer prevention of unplanned pregnancy and support for pregnant women so that no woman feels that abortion is her only choice. We are much more likely to achieve those goals if we work together.

Pro-life progressives can make the case to other abortion opponents that they should support contraception and sex ed, and other social measures that help to decrease abortion. While they may not entirely trust us, we have more credibility than pro-choicers do among abortion opponents. In addition, preliminary research by Dr. Rachel MacNair indicates that the “consistent life” argument is effective in moving some abortion opponents to a position against war and the death penalty. Pro-life progressives are the ones who can make that argument.

Recent surveys of incoming college freshman show that this group is more anti-war, pro-gay rights than its elders. They are increasingly declined to identify as conservative or religious. Yet, they are also more opposed to abortion than the nation as a whole. Losing those young people to the right could doom us to another generation of Reagan/Bush-style governance.

How can we work together?

Some pro-lifers on the left characterized Barack Obama as the “real” pro-life candidate during the 2008 election. That’s overstating the case, to say the least – at least to a consistent-life-ethic supporter, no major candidate was fully pro-life. President Obama believes, or at least upholds as a matter of law, that non-disposable human life begins with the birth of a viable infant. (He’s not all we could hope for on issues of militarism and the death penalty, either.)  That said, he does share many of our goals.

The President recently announced his new plan for an abortion-reduction program – as part of the expanded White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. While having the plan at all is a step in the right direction, I had hoped that the abortion-reduction program would be under Health and Human Services, or possibly a revived White House Office of Women’s Initiatives and Outreach. Basing the program there would have shown that President Obama understands that the problems driving women to abortion are not just personal, but systemic. Pro-life progressives, and pro-choicers who see abortion reduction as a worthy goal, should work together to campaign for policies at all levels of government aimed at empowering women to prevent pregnancy if they choose, and empowering pregnant women to carry their children to term.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but illustrates the many ways in which we can find common ground.

Prevention of unplanned pregnancy

  • Public schools should offer fact-based, comprehensive sex education. They should eliminate abstinence-only programs that don’t teach students vital information, promote a particular religious view of sexuality as “the expected standard”, reinforce gender stereotypes, and use shame and stigma to discourage sex. Young people should be encouraged to delay sexual activity until they are mature enough to be able to take responsibility for their partner's needs and for the needs of any child who might result, and to practice safer sex. A key component of sex education should be media literacy, so that young people learn to decode the mixed and often toxic messages about sexuality that they are bombarded with every day.
  • Safe, effective contraception must be available and affordable for every sexually active person. One way to improve contraceptive availability and effectiveness would be for insurers to pay for prescription contraception, and in particular to pay for six months' or a year's worth of birth control pills at a time to minimize the possibility that a woman will miss pills. Research into male contraception such as RISUG and reversible vasectomies should be given higher priority so that men can take more responsibility for prevention of pregnancy.
  • Drug and alcohol use plays a role in a large percentage of unplanned pregnancies. Excessive drug or alcohol use impairs judgment and can cause a couple to forego contraception "just this once".  Drugs and alcohol can also facilitate sexual assault. The Obama administration should undertake a public education campaign comparable to "Don't Drink and Drive" (I suppose “Don’t Drink and Fuck” is an unlikely slogan).  In general, consensual drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than as a criminal issue. Not only is this a more effective approach to solving the actual problems of drug abuse, but it would have the added benefit of not devastating low-income, especially minority, communities by imprisoning disproportionate numbers of those communities' young men.

Helping women bear their children

  • According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the primary reasons women give for seeking abortion are economic — that having a baby would interfere with education or employment, and/or that the mother can't afford a child. Improved public assistance, family leave, access to day care, and guaranteed health care for pregnant women and children would enable more women to choose life.
  • Feminists for Life’s reputation has taken a hit recently due to its association with Sarah Palin, but in fact it has done excellent work in exposing and addressing the problems faced by pregnant and parenting college students. Its "dream campus", FFLU, showcases the many reforms which would make it more feasible for these students to complete their educations. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act would fund pilot programs as a first small step toward making the dream a reality. The act was introduced in 2005 and again in 2007, but it has not yet been reintroduced in the 111th Congress.
  • Another major reason given for abortion is relationship instability. The government can't heal broken relationships, but it can use the bully pulpit to encourage men not to abandon their partners and children, and it can help promote the economic stability that tends to boost family stability.
  • Pregnant women with substance-abuse problems need access to treatment, and an assurance that they won't be prosecuted if they seek it. They also need to know that if they get treatment early in the pregnancy, they have a good chance of giving birth to healthy babies.
  • Women who are carrying children with disabilities often lack the support they need to choose to give their children life. They are given grim prognoses for their children's futures, (even for conditions such as Down Syndrome, when people with DS often live happy and fulfilling lives), and they may not be informed of the existence of support groups for families living with disabilities. Many doctors simply assume that they will or should abort. As a result, the abortion rate for children who have been diagnosed prenatally is extremely high. The "Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act" recently signed into law is a good start. Improved support for and awareness of perinatal hospice would also be a great gift to parents whose children are not expected to survive long after birth.
  • Finally, we need to look at what works in other countries. I would expect the Obama administration – unlike its predecessor – to value input from the rest of the world. Secretary Sebelius (assuming she is confirmed) should convene a summit of health officials, social scientists, and pro-choice and pro-life advocates from the many nations that have achieved low rates of abortion, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Let’s find out what they're doing that works, and figure out how we can adapt it to our society.

I’m a pro-life progressive.  Where can I find people like me?

It’s not easy. Few organizations really represent us. Feminists for Life and Democrats for Life are at least friendly to progressives, although both accommodate conservatives as well. Consistent Life is an umbrella organization for groups and individuals “committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today's world by war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment and euthanasia.” LGBT individuals and their allies should look into the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians.

Grassroots organizing of pro-life progressives has been a long time coming, and the Internet gives us the ability to find each other and work together. I invite everyone who identifies as a pro-life progressive, or thinks they might, to join us in the budding organization All Our Lives.

(Originally published March 2009 in the online journal Shared Sacrifice.)