Religion and the Pro-Life Movement

This essay originally appeared in a PLAGAL newsletter

Sunlight washed over the hundreds of heads bowed in prayer. Bibles were being read, Bibles held aloft -- Bibles were everywhere. Crosses on clothing; crosses on posters; crosses lifted high. Though you might think you'd wandered into a prayer meeting, it's actually a typical pro-life rally. Maybe you've already begun to sense that I see a problem with it. And if you're asking, "What could be wrong with that picture?", I have a thought to share: that's what's wrong with it. The very fact that you see no problem there is itself the problem.

Don't look at me like that.

And don't get me wrong. I have nothing against people of faith (though some of them, who know I'm gay, think my middle name must be Antichrist). Faith and love are the highest expression of what it means to be human, and I know that faith has won many victories on the side of life. Also, dare I confess it, I myself am a man of faith (check your pew next Sunday; I may be sitting next to you), though that's not why I oppose abortion.

So what's wrong with the picture? Let me tell you about a man I never met.

Ten years ago I attended a massive pro-life rally on the Mall here in Washington, D.C., and it looked much as I've described. But as I strolled through the crowds, one lone figure stood out starkly, also strolling by himself but wearing a homemade billboard strapped over his chest and back. It said, "Atheist For Life". Instantly, I was burning to ask him if anyone had welcomed him or commented on his sign, how he felt at being at such an explicitly religious event, and for God's sake tell me about being a pro-life atheist. But because I'm naturally shy with strangers, I refrained. And since I've never seen him again (or any other self-identified atheist at a pro-life event), I've been kicking myself ever after. His reasons for being pro-life clearly had nothing to do with faith, but what were they? I may never know, now. Neither may you. His pro-life contribution is unique but lost to us both, possibly to the whole prolife movement (where is he now?). If so, we're all much poorer for it.

Where is he now? I wonder what he might have said to Helen Alvare, of the National Council of Catholic Bishops' pro-life office, when a year ago I heard her cite approvingly a study showing that pro-lifers tend overwhelmingly to be religious. She brings a deep and intelligent devotion to the cause of life, but I believe she made a mistake when she deduced from the study that being pro-life and having faith just naturally go together. You can also reach a different and less self-congratulatory conclusion: the pro-life movement has become so thoroughly identified with religion that it's lost any power it once had to attract pro-lifers (or potential pro-lifers) who also happen to be non- believers, or who have different reasons for championing the unborn, or those who are undecided about the abortion issue. So completely Judeo-Christianized is the movement that non-believers of any stripe either feel unwelcome and without a place among us, or else think that to be pro-life you must turn Christian or Jewish. They naturally decline to espouse the trappings of a faith they don't accept, or engage in what would seem a misleading, disingenuous compromise. So they don't; they stay away. This means we're actually attracting only those already like ourselves. That's part--only part--of what's wrong with the picture.

I write that as a man of faith. But it takes no brains to see why "baptizing" the movement so heavily is good for neither the unborn or the movement itself.

Just last night I watched a televised discussion about multiple births caused by fertility drugs. The participants were mostly medical professionals. In the midst of an otherwise hopping debate, one point drew unanimous, chilling assent: to prevent the bearing of too many children at once, implant only two or three embryos and destroy the others created in the process. My heart sank. "Like always," I thought, "these people are completely unaware they're talking about real human beings. Why are they so blind!" But I already knew why. In large part, it's a direct measure of how we ourselves have scuttled the message of Life.

That message has no compelling basis for most doctors and scientists because we've transformed it into a message of religion. And religious doctrine (which is how the pro-life message now appears), being neither provable nor disprovable, is useless to science. This alone severely handicaps our efforts among them. Even worse, though, is the burden we place on those in the scientific communities who do acknowledge the unborn child's right to life. The apparent sectarianism in which we've strait-jacketed that right discredits them, damagingly tainting them with seeming religious bias; and knowing that jeopardized credibility may ruin their careers, many feel forced to avoid the pro-life message in public or professional discourse. Let's not wax complacent, please, over those brave doctors and researchers who do promote the right to life. For every one of them, how many more have to hide in a closet of silence, a closet we ourselves have helped to build and lock up tight? This is but a second aspect of the problem we've created.

If our message is useless (even dangerous) to believing scientists, how much more useless is it to those with either a different faith or none at all. Yet another measure of our self-sabotage! We've wrapped Jesus and the Bible so tightly around the very idea of the right to life that doctors who don't share our faith see no reason to credit our message. Forget the science that compellingly demonstrates the reality of unborn human life to the open-minded; we've soaked it so completely in religion that it reeks of pious vehemence, equally useless to science and immediately discreditable. So they can't help but see us as religious zealots who try to dress up our ideology in scientific masquerade; and with such an opinion of us, they can only turn away. Who can blame them? Expecting them to take seriously the pro-life message as we now present it would strike them as demanding they forsake science itself. So they forsake us instead, stranding both us in further ideological isolation, and the unborn in continuing jeopardy of their lives.

But abortion proponents, not to mention the media, have seized on our pervasive religiosity with delight. It hands them, gratis, innumerable chances to assert with every apparent mark of accuracy, "They're trying to ram their religion down your throats!" Why shouldn't the undecided believe them, when that's exactly how it appears? We ourselves have made this possible, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Again, I write as a man of faith. I don't enjoy pointing out our movement's tendency to isolate and damage itself. Nor do I think we should hide our faith so as to curry favor. But I do emphasize that insisting on an identity between faith and message hurts the unborn more than helps them. This fact demands our attention. It's why we drive away experts in the field who might otherwise help us, and it lets our opponents declare open season on our credibility.

Just as significantly, by identifying the right to life with religious faith we deprive ourselves of a tremendous wealth of non-religious thought and experience that could be of invaluable service in the cause of life, yielding clear and well-considered reasons to be against abortion which, having nothing to do with religion, immensely broaden and deepen the pro-life movement's potential appeal to the undecided. Pro-lifers who can think and speak this way would be able to reach out to those who find "mainstream" pro-lifers, saturated as they are with religious symbolism and vocabulary, literally incredible.

I am a case in point. While I'm a believer, I'm also gay; and more often than not (for reasons unnecessary to go into here) there's no love lost between the gay and lesbian community and the mainline Christian churches. Anything as sopping wet with Christianity as the mainstream prolife movement will find very little audience among us.

Nevertheless, I often speak out against abortion in my community and usually win a fair hearing. How? By totally bypassing all religious rationale and focusing instead on what we gay and lesbian people can never ignore: our own lived experience. We know firsthand what it means to be considered less than human, undeserving even of the right to life (Matthew Shepard, pistol-whipped, strapped across a deer fence and left to die, is one example of what can happen when we're judged unworthy to live). "When anyone threatens our very right to be alive," I say, "we know that's wrong. And this tells us, among other things, to fight not only for ourselves but for any other group whose rights and lives are also threatened, to stand in solidarity with them. And that includes unborn human beings."

There in a lavender-colored nutshell is a whole new reason for being pro-life that would never occur to most mainstreamers, and it makes sense to my community. Even if they don't agree with it, they listen to it. It resonates with them, besides being new, original, and absolutely true. Moreover, precisely because it's new and original, it benefits mainstream pro-lifers as well, by significantly expanding the movement's philosophical and rhetorical base. And not least, it further benefits the movement by persuading people to join the fight who, if left unpersuaded, would never dream of taking up the cause for their own.

All this I and others like me do. If we can accomplish this, what else might other non-traditional pro-lifers add to the movement out of their own considerable store of originality and wisdom, free of any taint of religious bias? What new life might they bring to it?

The only way to find out is to let them in. That won't always be easy. Some pro-lifers will balk at "certain people" joining "our" movement, as though it's anyone's private property. Others may feel threatened, fearing that the movement may lose something of its unique character. But I don't advocate throwing faith out of the movement, as if that were even possible. People of faith will always be part of the pro-life movement and they always should be. But we must make room in it for all of God's children, including those who don't believe, like our "Atheist For Life", or who believe differently than we. And we must not merely wait for them to turn up on their own; we must actively seek them out and invite them with outstretched hand to join us. We must then let them speak as they please about their faith or their atheism, without proselytizing, without expecting them to grovel before our beliefs or to censor themselves in our presence. Put more pithily, they must be free to be themselves. In return, they will bring us the great gifts of their manifold insights, wisdom, and creativity, vastly strengthening the entire movement. They will help destroy the professional stigma pro-life scientists now endure, and open scientific minds now closed to us. They will put the lie to the opposition's treasured catcalls. They will speak to the undecided as we cannot. In short, they will bring themselves to the defense of unborn human life, and in that defense, whether they know it or not, they will truly be serving God.

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