Refocusing the Pro-Life Movement: The Question of Politics
In my latest blog entry in our series on how to make the pro-life movement more effective, I addressed the need for consolidation within the movement (see Consolidating the Pro-Life Movement: Another Kind of Toughness). In considering how this might be done and what it might take to do it, I find I keep coming up the question of pro-life political activity. The reason is that in the past thirty or forty years of intense preoccupation with pro-life politics, we have accomplished very little. This question of politics is important enough to merit fuller treatment here.
Consolidation requires a goal before it can have a method. The first question in establishing the goal is to figure out what our long-term pro-life strategy should be. Should the strategic plan be to more wisely pick and choose from the scattered efforts we now have in the hope of being more effective, or should the plan call for a significant shift in the direction of the pro-life movement altogether? It is at the center of this question that we find the problem of politics. Currently, the political forces of the pro-life movement are largely unfocused, working on policy development, lobbying and legislation, the selection and appointment of judges, and electoral contests at every level and in every region. The result has been little more than a delay of America’s total political train wreck. Is there anything in the last thirty to forty years that suggests this general political effort can work even if it is more effectively focused?
A relatively non-political person such as myself, who has never had much faith in politics and is rarely excited by it, has a tendency to answer “No”. Others who are more knowledgeable politically need to be heard, but if we’ve gained almost nothing over the past generation from our current political tactics, and if we see no hope of this changing, then the first question we face in terms of pro-life strategy is whether we should either radically transform our political efforts or abandon them altogether.
First, let’s look at what abandoning or downplaying politics would look like. Tom Hardy (Sutton, MA) sent a particularly cogent message on this subject, of which the following is an abridgement:
In 1974 or 1975 I went to the first (or second) March for Life in Washington. After sloshing around in the slush for the afternoon, I drove back to NYC thinking, “When they see the size of this demonstration, they will eliminate abortion for sure!” I was young and naïve but also I was unaware of the extent to which the culture of death was already accepted by so many.
After that, we in the pro-life movement turned to the legislatures and courts as the solutions. Why not? We were in a democracy and this was the best solution. But I believe the high level, legal approach has largely failed even though it is true that many thousands of abortions were prevented by state statutes regarding informed consent, parental consent, and so on. While we have chipped away at the access, we have not won the hearts and minds of enough of our citizens. The rate of abortion is still shocking.
Many disillusioned by the results of referendums and elections gave up on the legislative solution and went into direct service to include crisis pregnancy centers and homes for homeless mothers. National and state pro-life organizations did not seem to follow but continued to work for the legislative “pot-of-gold”. While NRLC and similar state organizations highlight pending issues and legislation, there is little news about other initiatives.
Clearly it is time to re-think our strategies for success. With FOCA looming it is possible the 35 years of pro-life legislative activity will be wiped away in a single pen stroke. And isn’t it true, as Justice Scalia has suggested, that if the majority of citizens want access to abortion, it will be hard to deny them?
I believe we have to consider the longer but potentially more successful route of education. Initiatives such as prime time ads as were done by the Vitae Caring foundation, speakers in high schools and colleges, books, magazines and movies with pro-life themes, etc. should be pursued. Continuing with Phil Lawler’s Civil War theme, it has been said that the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin did as much to end slavery as the Civil War. Hearts need to be won over one by one.
Hardy's account of pro-life history and frustration will strike a familiar chord with older pro-lifers, and it leads to a key question: Is it time to abandon politics? In ancient Rome, the early Christians had no political clout, and so they perforce had to concentrate on building their own unique culture, characterized by an emphasis on the dignity of the person and tremendous mutual support. Later, when through its very attractiveness this culture had spread sufficiently, Christian politics became possible. It is hard for us to imagine that we are in the same situation, for just a generation or two ago, Christians had immense political clout in America. It is a vital task to assess how far we have slipped, and whether we have gotten to the point where Christian politics simply is no longer viable. If we have, then enormous pro-life resources are being continuously wasted.
It is possible, of course, that by abandoning politics we will hasten the day when new laws and even worse judges will outlaw exactly the kind of educational, inspirational and informational efforts (and certainly efforts at evangelization, conversion, and social support for women and babies) that Tom Hardy has in mind. Moreover, it is quite clear that some in the pro-life movement, most notably those who believe they cannot in conscience work for anything less than the complete and immediate protection of every unborn child, would regard such a shift in emphasis as a cowardly betrayal of responsibility. But although there is always the moral danger of avoiding politics out of fear of confrontation, there is nothing morally wrong with deciding that politics will be futile until the culture is transformed from within, until a larger number of hearts and minds are won through other means.
If this decision were made, the shift of both funds and energy from the political arena to such things as media efforts, private schools, Christian medical care, and support groups would be enormous. The numbers of new people who could be attracted by the positive, affirming character of such initiatives is also potentially very large. A resulting decline in cultural polarization might be helpful in ways we cannot yet foresee. Still, I wish to make clear that I am not here endorsing such a shift. I don’t yet know enough, and there remains the question of how the shift could be brought about. But this is a critical question that needs to be addressed with brutal honesty.
Or a New Party?
Even assuming that the answer to our preliminary political question remains negative—that is, assuming we do not expect our past patterns of political involvement to succeed even if we coordinate them better in the future—the abandonment of politics is not the only alternative. If we are convinced that few immediate and even fewer long-term gains are possible on our present political course, we can also conceive of handling politics very differently. For example, we can consider the alternative of a systematic and extended effort to develop a new political party.
This ideas is brought up every four years during our Presidential election campaign seasons. I have long argued that it makes no sense to concern oneself with a third party candidate solely for a particular campaign and election cycle, except as a protest vote. From the pro-life point of view, in any given election, a moral third party will always drain critical voters away from whichever of the two major parties is least bad. If that is to be the result, this ought to be pursued only with a long-term objective in mind. Given American history, which is firmly rooted in a two-party system (Americans are, after all, more pragmatic than subtle), the long-term goal must be eventually to replace one of our existing parties with a new party.
This means that we must immediately give up any ideas that we have about a one-issue party or a “pure conservative” party (such as the various libertarian, social conservative, and constitutional parties we have seen come and go in the past) . We already know that the hard core pro-life issues are insufficient on their own to carry anything like a majority of voters. Moreover, from both experience and Catholic teaching we already know (or ought to know) that “pure conservative” parties are incapable of generating widespread support, of sustaining growth over a long period of time, and of offering a sufficiently well-grounded description of the complexities of the various social issues which concern a large and diverse population.
Many commentators over the past ten years or so have remarked, wisely in my estimation, that a deliberately non-sectarian party based on the full range of Catholic social teaching (which is primarily rooted in the natural law) would appeal to many in both of our current major parties. Pro-life Republicans would appreciate such a party’s protection of the right to life across the board; pro-solidarity Democrats would be attracted by the party’s support for the economically marginalized. Republicans and Democrats of good will would also find much good sense in such a party’s emphasis on the dignity of the human person, which would presumably inform all of its discussions and proposals on questions such as war and the economy.
Of course, any sort of success for such a party would require, as Triumph magazine put it so well a generation ago, that we “transcend the dialectic” between left and right in America. Many who instinctively define themselves as conservative or liberal on all issues would have to be willing to rethink some issues in new ways so that they could support a party which represents neither American pole while consistently addressing their most important concerns with fresh insight and power. Significant discipline would be required to hold the party together over the long haul. But it is at least arguable that American civilization as we know it is on the verge of collapse, and that in the course of the next generation large numbers of voters will have reason to cast about for something new and different. A budding political party available in the right place and the right time just might do far more good than a continuation of the same old tactics.
No Decision Yet
On the other hand, it may be flat out impossible to establish a new party at this particular stage of American political history, especially since large numbers of people would be tempted to temporarily suspend their allegiance to a small budding party whenever there was a temporary gain to be made by supporting a major party. By definition, the decision to shape a new party over the long haul means a willingness to forego whatever short-term gains may be possible using the old methods. Given American history, I think it is also safe to say that the ultimate success of a new party will depend much on external factors beyond our control, factors that can produce a significant cultural shift—a crisis of American confidence, financial collapse, a tremendous influx of grace, Providence.
As I said at the outset, there is much to be said both for and against refocusing the pro-life movement in either of the two ways I’ve suggested. We could abandon politics and concentrate on winning hearts and minds one at a time, in effect building a private-sector culture of life. We could abandon today’s political structures in favor of attempting to form a new party. Each strategy would dramatically alter the pro-life effort and change how pro-life resources are used, and each has significant potential to draw in a new and larger base of support. But the mechanisms by which either shift could be effectively made are uncertain, and abandoning or altering our politics requires something of a gamble.
Nonetheless, I believe that the question of what to do about pro-life politics lies at the heart of the problem of how to make the pro-life movement effective. Politics as usual has not worked for the pro-life cause in the past, but it has drained away a huge percentage of pro-life resources. So we are left with the question: If not politics as usual, then what?
Discussion in order:
- Lost Opportunities (PFL)
- The Pro-Life Counter-Offensive (JAM)
- Not for Want of Effort (JAM)
- Spies, Traitors, and Informers (PFL)
- As the Bishops Go . . . (JAM)
- The Pro-Life Movement: Reader Recommendations (JAM)
- Promises Must Be Kept (PFL)
- Consolidating the Pro-Life Movement: Another Kind of Toughness (JAM)
- Refocusing the Pro-Life Movement: The Question of Politics (JAM)
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