Read below as Thomas Z. Horton of The Princeton Tory takes Thomas Friedman of the New York Times to school on what it really means to be pro-life.
The Real Pro-Life Stance
Being pro-life means more than opposing abortion. This much Thomas Friedman observed in his New York Times article entitled “Why I am Pro-Life.” Beyond that, Friedman falls short of presenting a coherent notion of what it actually means for him to be “pro-life.” Rather, he arrogates for himself and the social-left the title of pro-life, which he claims the social-right has misappropriated to designate those who solely oppose abortion. Friedman justifies this on the tenuous grounds that environmental concerns and gun control issues are of greater import to human life than abortion as he tacitly suggests. In addition, he implies that being pro-life does not necessitate opposing abortion, which is the most flagrantly accepted termination of life in modern American society. Friedman’s position is at best incoherent and at worst an insidious reframing of what it means to be “pro-life.”
“‘Pro-life’ can mean only one thing: ‘respect for the sanctity of life.’” Friedman correctly defines the essential nature of what it means to be pro-life. Therefore the contradiction apparent in his article is not one of semantics. We are not quibbling merely about how to define pro-life so much as how to apply this notion in the real world. At the root of the matter, we must ask how we are to translate a pro-life ideology – as defined above – into a real world stance. This is where Friedman goes astray and tries to drag the pro-life label along with him.
Respect for the sanctity of life is concurrent with the duration of life itself. It is not a temporary sentiment that comes and goes in accord with our convenience. This respect necessarily begins when life begins and ends when life ends. Of relevance to this discussion is the scientifically established definition of life as beginning at the moment of conception. To respect life means to hold it in esteem and treat it accordingly. Therefore, we should not end life (excepting instances of Just War). With this understanding, our respect for life ought to endure until life naturally ends.
Thomas Friedman makes convenient use of pro-life ideology in a limited scope that pushes to the side the months of life that occur within the womb. He argues that issues of the environment and gun control take preeminence to that of abortion presumably since those issues pertain to life outside the womb. The negative impact of air pollution on life or the potential for a bullet from an automatic weapon to destroy or harm life, Friedman claims, is more severe than that of abortion. Hence, he disregards abortion altogether. This logic is flawed.
Abortion directly impacts life. This much is incontrovertible. The voluntary act of aborting a zygote or a fetus directly terminates life with willful intent. Environmental dangers may pose dangers to life, but often through an intermediary stage and likely without willful intent. Air pollution, for instance, may lead to harmful lung diseases that then lead to death. Polluters themselves do not release toxins into the air with the intent of causing such fatal maladies. It is a side-effect of some other intent and is overlooked as a result of a collective action problem known in economics as an externality. Clearly, the environment is an indirect life issue.
Likewise for gun control. Owning guns – even assault weapons – does not pose immediate danger to life as abortion does. The distinction is that guns are tools that men control via triggers. If a man has the intent to kill and thus pulls the trigger, the moral onus is on the man, not the gun. The gun is morally neutral, as are the forceps, vacuums, or other medical equipment that are used to perform abortions. Thus, the issue of gun control is secondary to the direct issue of killing.
These points are not made to belittle the importance of environmental concerns or considerations of gun control so much as to clarify the extent of their relevance to life relative to abortion. Abortion is killing. It is the direct termination of life that began at conception. Therefore, abortion must be prioritized as a pro-life issue, and certainly not disregarded as flippantly as Friedman seems to do. No manner of rhetorical legerdemain can deny the scale of abortion’s impact on life: 54,559,615 fetuses have been deliberately killed on account of abortion in the US alone since 1973 (Guttmacher Institute). To put this into perspective, a broad estimate of the number of human lives extinguished during the Holocaust is about 12 million.
Notwithstanding, being pro-life is indeed more than opposing abortion as is the central tenet of Friedman’s critical article. It is about combatting all of those threats to life that are most direct – including but not limited to abortion. Other than abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia stand out as the clearest direct perils to life as opposed to Friedman’s hyper-emphasis on the environment, guns, education, obesity, among other such secondary issues. Among true pro-lifers, there is one consensus: that abortion and other acts of killing are unequivocally wrong. In contrast, pro-lifers may disagree on the secondary issues or how they are to be dealt with. For example, pro-lifers agree in principle on the sanctity of life but may differ on the efficacy of the EPA, programs such as Head Start, or gun-control regulations.
Friedman tries to argue that the consistent anti-abortion pro-life position is marginal in today’s society. In fact, he grossly mischaracterizes the consensus of the American public on the issue of abortion. Whereas in fact, a full 50% of Americans identify as pro-life and only 41% as pro-choice (Gallup), Friedman asserts that the “consensus says that those who choose to oppose abortion in their own lives for reasons of faith or philosophy should be respected, but those women who want to make a different personal choice over what happens with their own bodies should be respected.” This sounds more like Joe Biden than the American public.
“To name something is to own it,” Friedman wrote. Ironically, it is Friedman himself who is using words to his advantage. He takes pro-life ideology and applies it only to post-birth secondary life issues and then arrogates the label of pro-life to this position. With regards to one of the most critical issues, abortion, Friedman calls the real pro-life advocates “hard-line” and even “borderline crazy.” A rigid stance against abortion, even in cases of rape, does not imply some clandestine war on the health of women but rather an unwavering commitment to life, no matter how that life began. If one takes seriously the sanctity of life, then no Machiavellian “ends-justify-the-means” reasoning can lessen the severity of aborting a child conceived even by an act of rape. One crime does not rectify another. Common sense is enough to detect the inconsistency here. Everyone agrees that a child conceived in rape deserves full protection of the law after birth; this begs the question as to why such a child would not deserve this same protection before birth. A real pro-lifer must indeed be “uncompromising” as Friedman puts it.
The real pro-life stance necessitates an uncompromising fight for the sanctity of life from conception to natural death by first addressing those immediate threats to life as abortion, the death penalty, or euthanasia, and secondarily turning to consider those issues broached by Friedman. The rearrangement and neglect of the most important of these priorities is nothing short of a perversion of what it means to be “Pro-Life.” Friedman’s nominally pro-life stance is, in his own words, “a huge distortion.”