Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Consolidating the Pro-Life Movement: Another Kind of Toughness

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 01, 2009

Phil Lawler has written persuasively about the need to get tough with people who claim to be pro-life but who are really traitors or time-servers, and he has also called us to hold pro-life politicians accountable for more than rhetoric through a strict evaluation of their performance in office. I agree wholeheartedly. But I would like to add to Phil's requirements another sort of toughness which may be even more important, the kind of toughness that will enable us to winnow out what is relatively useless to the movement as a whole, to jettison what doesn't work, and to consolidate what does.

The largest group of messages I've received in this discussion has identified a single enormous and undeniable problem in the pro-life movement, and one that ought to be under our control to remedy. I am referring to the confusing fragmentation of the movement: the plethora of groups working on different kinds of projects; the bewildering array of claims for the importance of each issue and the effectiveness of each organization; the fragmentation of available resources; even the infighting among different pro-life organizations, especially the political infighting between what we might call the gradualists and the all-or-nothings. users have rightly put their finger on this neuralgic point.

Thus Fred Schaeffer (Vero Beach, FL) expressed the secret hope of many when he wrote: “What we need is for some organizer or organization, with the clout to pull it off, to motivate many organizations into a huge gathering, for a long period of time, and then we might have something.” Alvera Keene makes the same point: “My suggestion is that all the pro-life organizations join forces…. It seems we get so much pro-life material and it is very confusing.” The same goes for Dick Schenk of St. Louis: “There are far too many pro-life groups. I am inundated by requests to sign petitions, to send in postcards, red envelopes, etc. to our legislators. We are asked to contribute to national, state and local organizations…. What is our focal point?” And Charlotte Vogel (Warsaw, MO) writes: “My first request always is to somehow consolidate the culture of life effort.”

Before going on to provide the arguments for consolidation, it is only fair to consider what is to be said against it. After all, there are at least four advantages to the present state of affairs: First, each person and group is completely free to work in the way it thinks best and most important. This may mean that the number of people involved, with all their various interests and gifts, is greater than would be the case in a consolidated effort. Second, in this way nearly every aspect of the culture of life is addressed by somebody; nothing is left out or ignored. Third, there is no pro-life bureaucracy to discourage or weaken whatever effective initiatives may be launched. Fourth, we can learn by trial and error what works and what doesn’t.

Whether we ever change course based on what we learn is another matter. Here the argument for consolidation is very strong.

The first consideration in this argument is that a lack of coordination is always a bad thing. The fact that nearly every aspect of the culture of life is being addressed by somebody (and usually by quite a number of independent somebodies) means that nobody is making a prudent comprehensive decisions about how pro-life energies can be directed most effectively. The fact that there is almost no effort to consolidate even similar undertakings means that many small and/or ineffective organizations are competing for time, attention and dollars. The fact that there is not even a central clearing house or overall watchdog organization means that each group is free to make uncontested claims about its own importance and its own effectiveness. It is hard to ignore pleas for support from organizations with laudable pro-life goals; but it is even harder to figure out whether these organizations actually ever accomplish anything significant.

In connection with this last point, we must consider the tendency of all groups to be self-perpetuating—and especially those with fierce counter-cultural leaders accustomed to being in charge. Many of these groups provide incomes to their leaders and some of their staff. Those who run each group have a natural tendency to want to keep their efforts in the forefront with a significant share of potential pro-life revenue. This is closely related to the problem of time-serving, which Phil has already touched on. Given the uncoordinated diversity of pro-life groups, and the overwhelming tendency of people to entrench themselves in whatever it is they are doing, we undoubtedly have many pro-life leaders who insist on doing the same thing, year in and year out, with little or no change in strategy, regardless of results, as long as they can continue to persuade others to provide financial support.

Without any bad will at all, the problem of keeping one's group going, of keeping one’s position, can easily become more important than success. I confess I feel this way sometimes about my work at I like to write; I want to write; how do I keep things going so that I can write? The more important question, of course, is whether I am doing any significant good by writing. For a writer, the question is somewhat simpler to resolve because financial support for one's writing is a direct indication of its importance to others. But financial support for a pro-life organization may come more from effective marketing to people with a general devotion to the larger pro-life cause. All of this calls attention to an inevitable human tendency which we ignore at our peril.

We need to find ways to coordinate the activities of the pro-life movement and to develop strategic goals. We need to put mechanisms in place that tend to reward effectiveness while correspondingly reducing the number of dubious claimants to our support. Addressing useless proliferation in some way must be part of the “get tough” attitude Phil Lawler has been talking about.

 Discussion in order:

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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