November 28, 2011

A controversy arose this fall in Winnipeg surrounding the relationship between Catholic schools and anti-abortion activities such as the recently-ended 40 Days for Life campaign.

In the midst of this controversy, one letter to the Winnipeg Free Press caught my attention by its objection to the designation "anti-abortion." "Pro-life," the author of the letter said, was to be preferred over "anti-abortion."

I can imagine that "pro-life" would indeed be the preferred designation, but being against abortion does not exhaust the obligations of a pro-life ethic.

Being against abortion does not make a person pro-life. The advantage to rejecting the designation "pro-life," when speaking of those participating in an anti-abortion vigil like the 40 Days for Life, or in an anti-abortion march like a March for Life, lies in the fact that "pro-life" is not an accurate description.

Those participating in such activities have no grounds for the expectation that onlookers will read beyond their anti-abortion posturing and see the attempted fostering of a consistent and comprehensive ethic of life.


Consider Rick Santorum who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination and often has touted his pro-life credentials. This former Pennsylvanian senator indicated, in a recent leadership debate, that under certain circumstances he would permit the water-boarding of detainees being interrogated.

If Santorum's pro-life status has emerged out of the context of his professed opposition to legal abortion (and it has), but he thinks a method of torture such as water-boarding is acceptable (and he does), then his anti-abortion credentials might be impeccable, but he is by no means representing a consistent pro-life ethic.

In the 2006 film Bella, Nina becomes pregnant. Her context, New York City, is one wherein she has several possibilities to choose from in discerning the length of her pregnancy.

In Bella, Nina is able to choose what will happen to that little person developing inside of her. It has never been entirely clear to me why Bella is hailed by foes of abortion (actually, foes of legal abortion), because Nina's liberty is precisely that which foes of legal abortion would hope to overrule with government intervention.

Someone like Nina, who has a choice, can hardly be rendered an ally of those foes of legal abortion simply because she makes the right choice.

Persons like the recently-chastised Justin Trudeau, who identify a personal opposition to the choice of abortion, but nonetheless support an environment wherein a person may choose to have one, are not considered part of the anti-abortion fold, so why is Nina?

In other words, while "pro-life" cannot be assumed based on anti-abortion posturing, the designation "anti-abortion" itself is insufficient since persons exist who claim opposition and who choose life, but are not considered part of the anti-abortion fold.

Are "anti-legal-abortion" or "anti-choice" the only terms which remain as accurate descriptors?

Well, persons could, after all, be encouraged to become pro-life. As stated, being against abortion does not exhaust the obligations of a pro-life ethic, and in articulating Church's pro-life position in terms of a "comprehensive and consistent ethic of life," Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, several decades ago, suggested the examination of the relationship between the right to life and the quality of life.

A person inadequately understands what it means to be pro-life if he or she contends, on one hand, that the unborn have the right to life but, on the other hand, believes that society's responsibility to that person ceases at the moment of birth.

The unborn do have a right to life - on that there can be no question - but once alive, responsibilities surround their quality of life.


Encouraging those who defend the right to life to also find themselves alongside the weaker members of society and be equally visible in supporting the quality of life of those powerless (the old, young, hungry, homeless, the undocumented immigrants, the unemployed), Bernardin would note how persons do gravitate towards particular causes.

Nonetheless, no person should lose sight of the fact that there are multiple threats to the sacredness of life, and that the Catholic moral tradition has something valuable to say in the face of such threats.

(Kelly Wilson is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg. He is a student of Newman Theological College.)