Pro-Life: Expressing the Highest Ideals of the Left


Courtesy of Life Matters Journal. The first installment of this essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 5 Issue 8 — October 2017.


Thanks to Val for a lot of research, and for the good feedback on the writing.

1. What Happened to Liberals’ Hearts?

“How had I agreed to make this hideous act the centerpiece of my feminism?,” Frederica Mathewes-Green asked in 2016. Just a little later that year, pro-choice advocate Camille Paglia wrote, “Progressives need to do some soul-searching. . . . A liberal credo that is variously anti-war, anti-fur, vegan, and committed to environmental protection of endangered species . . . should not be so stridently withholding its imagination and compassion from the unborn.” Conservatives have sometimes derided the left as “bleeding-heart liberals,” but what happened to liberals’ hearts regarding the unborn?

Explaining the shifting positions of liberals on abortion seems to be a tale of oppression, altruism, and – in the case of many liberal leaders – opportunism.

The oppression I refer to is the horrific oppression of women for millennia, which naturally led to a backlash that was overdue and highly justifiable for the most part, but that in at least one important way—attitudes toward abortion—went out of control. Altruism, or compassion, is a character trait that is stronger in some people than in others; and even between people of equal compassion, some have more tendency than others to try to translate that compassion into governmental responsibility. That tendency leads people to gravitate toward liberal politics. Altruism can be directed both toward pregnant women and their unborn children, but liberals tend to direct it disproportionately toward pregnant women for reasons I will explain below. And opportunism? The opportunism of some pro-choice politicians and other leaders is related primarily to the out-of-control aspect of the backlash and secondarily to money.

Jon Haidt, who researches in moral psychology, likes to list six possible dichotomies that various thinkers have argued about in trying to ground a secular morality. He says that liberals try to ground right and wrong overwhelmingly on the foundation of care/harm, whereas conservatives appeal also to the foundation of liberty/oppression and four other foundations. Whether or not liberals are naturally endowed with any more compassion than conservatives, I think they are much more inclined to try to translate their compassion into governmental responsibility.

In the history of liberal politics, the forces of oppression, altruism, and opportunism played themselves out against the backdrop of what I see as the main psychological source of the divide between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. That sharp divide seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn. Are the unborn full-fledged members of our human family, or are they something much less significant? A greater liberal emphasis on caring for the underdog would seem clearly to lead to a pro-life position if liberals see the unborn as full-fledged members of our human family. If, however, they see them as something much less, then understandably their caring would focus instead on pregnant women, they would see no need to pay any regard to the unborn, and they would become pro-choice. I personally am strongly pro-life, but if I were to perceive the unborn as insignificant, I would find it abhorrent to try to restrict what a woman can do with her body.

“The sharp divide seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn” is my own conclusion based on countless discussions about abortion with a range of people. And following from that conclusion, I naturally think that in general, the two-thirds (or so) of rank-and-file Democrats who identify as pro-choice must think of the unborn as something fairly insignificant.

When I say that the sharp divide “seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn,” some may ask, what about bodily-rights arguments, which concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is indeed fully human, yet claim a right to kill it nonetheless? But I think that the understanding that the preborn is a full-fledged member of our human family is, in fact, virtually sufficient to entail a pro-life position. Viewing the ranks of pro-choice apologists, I get the impression almost always that those who concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is truly a human being, yet claim a right to kill, make that concession only for the sake of argument. Very few of them – perhaps only Camille Paglia, mentioned above, and Naomi Wolf – have made that concession in their hearts. I think that almost anyone who really sees the unborn as our little sisters and brothers, will quickly dig a little deeper and discover the weaknesses in bodily-rights arguments.

Charles Camosy, relying significantly on the writings of Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life of America, relates an historical account[1] that I would summarize as follows:

As of the 1968 general elections, neither major party could be called pro-life or pro-choice. Events at the 1968 Democratic Convention led to activist groups of different kinds, in the aftermath of that convention, gaining more control than they had had before over party policies; and pro-choice activists succeeded in initiating their party’s tilt toward the pro-choice position.

This created an irresistible opportunity for the Republican Party to appeal to pro-lifers (just as if the Republican Party had been the first to tilt either way, it would have created an irresistible opportunity for the Democratic Party to appeal to the voters opposite to the tilt). And things have continued to polarize ever since. For his 1972 re-election, Republican President Richard Nixon used pro-life sentiment to successfully begin attracting Catholics away from the Democratic Party.

“In 1976,” according to Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, “the pro-life movement was still overwhelmingly Catholic and mostly politically liberal . . . but by 1980, there was a new group of pro-life activists: evangelical Protestants [overwhelmingly Republican].” But as we will see, the biggest spike in liberal conversions from pro-life to pro-choice – which is our focus in pondering what happened to liberals’ hearts – seems already to have occurred in the 1968-1972 period.

Ideologically, the pro-choice movement might have found more affinity with the Republican Party than with the Democratic. A key factor, possibly the key factor, in the way things fell out seems to have been that the pro-choice activists, as activists with a new party policy to propose, simply found the Democratic power structure easier to break into. I won’t insist on this view, but it’s consistent with the contributions of Democrats to the pro-life movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which indicate that as of 1972 the Democratic Party had not long been pro-choice in ideological terms.

In fact the pro-life movement that opposed the late-1960s calls for abortion rights (calls that foreshadowed Roe v. Wade) was led importantly by stalwarts of the civil-rights movement and of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and by liberal politicians. Jesse Jackson was both a civil-rights leader and a politician, and was at first vehemently pro-life. The priests Daniel Berrigan and John Neuhaus were co-founders of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam; both were pro-life, and Neuhaus was the keynote speaker at the first pro-life rally to be held on the National Mall. Edward Kennedy wrote an open letter in 1971 opposing abortion on demand. Williams finds even more significant the fact that the pro-life movement used the same ideological framework and language of human rights as those earlier movements.

As Democratic Party policies shifted in favor of abortion rights, liberal politicians shifted with them. Nat Hentoff wrote of Jesse Jackson: “But as Jesse Jackson decided to run for president in 1984, his fiery pro-life rhetoric suddenly subsided.” Hentoff didn’t expressly accuse Jackson of hypocrisy, but he concluded his article as follows:

I then asked Jackson about another form of execution. I told him that in speeches I often quote what he wrote as a pro-lifer. He looked uncomfortable. I asked him if he still believed what he said then. “I’ll get back to you on that,” he said. He hasn’t yet.

The opinion of Nat Hentoff, alone, is not enough to convince me that any individual politician is a hypocrite. We can’t know, simply through the images we find in the media, what is in any one person’s heart. But I can see how politics would have a special appeal for those whose ambition overrides their integrity, so I feel sure that in the cases of many politicians, if not in Jackson’s case individually, the conversions to a pro-choice position of Democratic leaders must have been opportunistic. Outside of elected office, also, any movement that offers a chance to become a hero to a large, vocal group or to cash in financially is sure to attract some who have such banal motivations (this would not exclude the pro-life side). The appeal of pro-choice feminists as a huge and motivated voting bloc or audience would have been hard to resist.

While opportunism might explain the shifting positions of Democratic leaders, however, rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party would not have felt the same compulsions of allegiance that politicians did, and it seems that many of the rank and file also must have undergone a conversion to pro-choice. The Washington Post of Aug. 25, 1972, reported that when Gallup asked whether “the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician,” 59% of Democrats agreed (among Republicans agreement was at 68%), and that “support for legal abortion ha[d] increased sharply” since the previous survey five months earlier. The report did not explicitly say that Democratic (liberal) support had increased since the previous survey, and I could not find earlier surveys asking exactly the same question or giving a breakdown by party. A Gallup poll in November 1969, however, had found only 40 per cent of all Americans in favor of a law “which would permit a woman to go to a doctor and end a pregnancy at any time during the first three months.” Such a huge number of pro-choice converts must have included many who would call themselves liberal.

Let’s try to find the inner reasons why people might have been converting to pro-choice during the years 1968–1972. First, few people would have been converting due to bodily-autonomy arguments. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” was not published until 1971, and it takes time for academic thinking to trickle down and affect popular opinion. I believe that pro-choice arguments leading up to Roe v. Wade were largely arguments about women’s attaining career equality with men; about controlling population growth; about the fear that if a woman does not have access to a safe abortion she will seek out an unsafe one (the “back-alley abortion” argument); and, for seven Supreme Court justices, about a rarefied argument concerning privacy under the Constitution. Moreover, some people may have come to take the abortion-rights movement more seriously as women took over the leadership that had previously been held by men.

But few people would say that anyone should have the right to kill a full-fledged member of our human family for a job, or to control population, or so that killings of such persons can be carried out in safety, or to protect the privacy of the killer, or because of who recommends that right. Thus the above arguments would not fully explain how Mathewes-Green’s “hideous act” became a cornerstone of liberal politics. I wrote before, “if liberals . . . see [the unborn] as something much less [than full-fledged members of our human family], then understandably their caring would focus instead on pregnant women, they would see no need to pay any regard to the unborn, and they would become pro-choice.” For this reason, I think that many liberals around the 1968–1972 period must have actually found in themselves different intuitive perceptions of the unborn than they had held before.

Would that have been psychologically possible? Well, I get the impression that with people who have not thought much, in an individual capacity, about the nature of the unborn, their perceptions are extremely malleable. After all, except for a few surgeons, no one has ever seen an in utero fetus with their own eyes, and even if we saw an early fetus, that would not help us much to assess its moral value without some deep thinking. So if those who have not thought much about the topic are told repeatedly that the unborn has a soul, they will believe it has a soul. If told in secular terms that it is “a distinct, living and whole human being,” they will believe that. If told it is just tissue, they will believe that. I think that the last of those is what happened to liberals’ hearts – or perhaps not exactly to their hearts but to something in their minds closely related to their hearts.

The above arguments for abortion rights gave people incentives to find in themselves different perceptions of the unborn that led in the direction of dismissiveness. These arguments also gave incentives for the crystallization of a dismissive perception of the unborn where there had been no clear perception before. I think that psychologically such changes would in fact have been possible given two factors that were then present: first, the fact that many people were just beginning to think about the matter for the first time; and second, what seems to have been a concerted effort at dehumanization by pro-choice feminists. People’s still-formative perceptions were influenced in the direction of dismissing the unborn.

Pro-choice advocate Naomi Wolf has explained that “Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the foetus isn’t a person. . . . An account of a pre-Roe underground abortion service inadvertently sheds light on this: staffers referred to the foetus – well into the fourth month – as ‘material’ . . .”

That would be consistent with the picture that we get from Daniel Williams. Williams relates that in 1967 the National Organization for Women decided to demand women’s full control over their bodies, and that their adherents undertook to justify that control by claiming that the unborn were less than human. (I assume that they chose that course because they then had no other means of justification; Thomson-style arguments that claim to establish such a right to bodily control even if the unborn are fully human were not yet available to them.) Their adherents proceeded to develop what Wolf calls “a lexicon of dehumanization.”

I don’t think that a spike in conversions to pro-choice between 1969 and 1972 following upon an apparent intensification of the push for dehumanization in 1967 was just a coincidence.

In a 1980 article in The Progressive, “Abortion: The Left Has Betrayed the Sanctity of Life,” Mary Meehan wrote:

…it is out of character for the Left to neglect the weak and helpless.

The traditional mark of the Left has been its protection of the underdog, the weak, and the poor. The unborn child is the most helpless form of humanity, even more in need of protection than the poor tenant farmer or the mental patient… The basic instinct of the Left is to aid those who cannot aid themselves – and that instinct is absolutely sound.

As we saw earlier, liberals are, if not the voters who care most, then those who try hardest to translate their caring into governmental responsibility. So Meehan is of course right that liberals should be pro-life – if the unborn are perceived as full-fledged members of our human family. If they are perceived as something much less, the contention would not be true. But I have discussed elsewhere why I am confident that the former perception will prevail.

2. The Highest Ideals of the Left

I would call myself a member of the left, if we have to use such simple concepts. I volunteered with the Delta Ministry briefly in Mississippi in the summer of 1965. I was evicted by police from a university building in 1969 in an anti-Vietnam War protest led by Students for a Democratic Society. A few days later I marched to free Huey Newton, defense minister of the Black Panther Party (though I soon came to realize I had little knowledge of whether he was innocent of the charges). I support universal health care, as long as it is real health care and not abortion or other forms of killing. I think that eventually most industry should be owned by cooperatives or by governments.

To explain my view on abortion in relation to the ideals of the left, let me go back to that 1969 Vietnam protest, with the understanding that I don’t want to start an argument about that war. I have much humility about my understanding of history and geopolitics. I have great respect for American Vietnam veterans. All that matters here is what my perception of the war was at the time I protested it. What motivated me to join that action in 1969 and other anti-war events was a sense of outrage at what I perceived as a devastatingly violent onslaught being perpetrated by the strong against the weak, in another part of the world. Entirely innocent and entirely defenseless sisters and brothers of mine in Vietnam seemed to account for untold numbers of the slaughtered, while those who seemed to me the worst aggressors operated with complete impunity.

Abortion, if we don’t euphemize, is a devastatingly violent onslaught by the strong and relatively strong against the very weakest and most innocent of our sisters and brothers, all over the world. Legal abortion is not the moral equivalent of imperialistic aggression (if the Vietnam war really was imperialistic aggression, as I saw it then), but it is by definition slaughter of the innocent and defenseless with impunity, and the numbers of victims are on a scale that cannot be compared with the relatively modest numbers of victims in mere military wars. Abortion is one more human manifestation of might makes right, and it awakens in me much of the same sense of injustice and outrage as did Vietnam. Not only do present laws (which call for a unilateral decision) mandate might makes right, natural circumstances are also conducive to might makes right, because a woman and a doctor alone have the physical capacity to carry out the abortion. I think that if the balance of might were different and therefore state power were required to carry out the death sentence, the unborn would get a much more equitable hearing (a day in court), and therefore many outcomes would be different. The ease of abortion obviates the deeper and more soul-searching assessment of the justice of the situation that would occur if the intended target were someone who could resist. Thus those already born are flatly taking advantage of the helplessness of those not yet born.

I think that the impulse to defend the weak is one of the highest human impulses. Defense of the weak is normally undertaken without thought of personal gain and hence with minimal thought of self. It is altruistic. And as a species, we have gradually been learning that happiness for an individual involves identification with something greater than oneself. As the abstract of a 2008 psychology study said,

. . . we hypothesized that spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.

Atheism advocate and neuroscientist Sam Harris recommends and teaches meditation. Meditation is a technique other than altruistic conduct through which one can lose one’s sense of self. Harris says that through meditative exercises, “[Certain] people have lost their feeling of self, to a great degree, and with that loss [have] come incredibly positive experiences.” He suggests that there is “a connection between self-transcendence and living ethically,” because self-transcendent experiences can involve “forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical. . . a phrase like ‘boundless love” does not seem overblown.”[2] (See also “Sonder: The Key to Peace?” The word “sonder” has been coined for a state of mind out of which consistent affirmation of life in all one’s actions must inevitably flow.)

The loss of the sense of self, however it is achieved, will have some of the same effect for ethical living that Harris claims for meditation.

Harris and most other scientists are confident that such mental states must have an adequate neurological explanation and do not require the religious explanations formerly ascribed to them. Whatever explanation for them may eventually be found, I think of states of transcendence, self-sacrifice and universal love as the highest good that human beings can aspire to. And I think that whatever may be the failings of liberal politics, the liberal principle of defending the weak is the one principle, not only on the left, but anywhere on the political spectrum, that is most conducive to going beyond our normal pettiness and our ordinary boundaries.

Some voices will say that while the unborn are indeed weak and defenseless, they are not human beings, or not persons, and are not deserving of our compassion. But I think those voices have been sufficiently dealt with elsewhere. However great the tragedy of the abortion issue, it is a transformative opportunity for society.

We need to be clear: The quality of a civilization can be measured by the respect it has for its weakest members. (Jerome Lejeune, “the father of modern genetics”)


[1] Charles C. Camosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), hardcover, pp. 22-24.

[2] Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), p. 14.


You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World