The New Pro-Life Movement: Been There, Done That

What would the pro-life movement be without its perennial infighting? From the absolutists vs. the incrementalists to the Seamless Garment vs. everyone else, it is a feature of our movement that just never goes away. The latest controversy over something mislabeled as “new” is evidence that there is nothing new about these internecine fights.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss recently lost her job as an English professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville after, she claimed, the school showed her evidence that she wasn’t “pro-life enough.” Bratten Weiss is one of the founders of the New Pro-
Life Movement (NPLM),
a concept that bundles the traditional pro-life opposition to abortion and euthanasia together with several other causes usually associated with the left.

NPLM advocates seem to view those other causes as being of equal importance to the life issues and frequently attack pro-lifers who don’t share their full agenda as not being truly pro-life. For this reason Bratten Weiss was the subject of a critical LifeSiteNews article shortly after losing her job at Franciscan.

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I believe LifeSiteNews overshot the mark by describing NPLM as a deliberate strategy to undermine the pro-life movement. The adherents of NPLM (or “Whole Life” or the “Seamless Garment” or the “Consistent Life Ethic,” all interchangeable phrases that mean essentially the same thing) are sincerely pro-life.

But LifesiteNews is correct to describe the likely effect of NPLM as “dissolving prolife sentiment like a pinch of salt in a vast swimming pool of almost unrelated issues.” And Bratten Weiss and her NPLM colleagues are wrong to ascribe all pro-life opposition to NPLM as the result of Catholics having a higher loyalty to the Republican Party or to libertarianism than we do to the Church or to the pro-life cause.

Some of us oppose the NPLM because we have been there and done that. And it didn’t work. At least, that was my experience.

I recently marked my tenth anniversary as executive director of Family Institute of Connecticut, a social conservative organization loosely associated with Focus on the Family. That might make me sound to an NPLM advocate like the very type of Republican-first pro-lifer from whom they wish to liberate the cause. But I didn’t start my pro-life activism with the conservative movement. I started with theirs.

I was a teenage liberal in the 1980s, a founding member of a peace group at my high school that protested the arms race in front of our town’s Vietnam Memorial every Saturday. In 1988, I was a volunteer for Al Gore in his first run for President. In 1991, as the president of the College Democrats at American University, I hosted a party for a young Arkansas Governor, who was then running for President, and his wife. At UConn Law School in 1994 I was a member of the student chapter of the left-wing National Lawyers Guild.

Through it all, I was pro-life. But I had the same disdain for the pro-lifers that my liberal friends did. When I was 16-years-old a pro-life Connecticut state legislator stated in a public hearing, “I’ve come to think that when a woman uncrosses her knees, that’s the point at which she’s made her choice.” If that comment was representative of the mainstream pro-life movement, I wanted nothing to do with it.

So instead I joined what little there was of the Pro-Life Left in the 1990s. I did a summer internship with Feminists for Life. I joined its Board of Directors, eventually becoming the Vice Chair. I was also on the Board of Directors of the Seamless Garment Network. I remember accompanying SGN to a conference in the Midwest and having dinner at the local Catholic Worker House, a movement to which I was strongly attracted at the time.

It is because of these firsthand experiences that I know that there really is such a thing as leftwing pro-life Catholics who are utterly sincere. It is also because of my experiences that I know, as a practical matter, that it just doesn’t work.

Take, for instance, the political history that hardly ever comes up in NPLM blogs.

Contrary to what you may have read from those sources, no one deliberately made the choice to turn the pro-life issue from a bipartisan cause to a partisan one, with all the attendant dangers of partisanship. Many pro-life Catholics started as Democrats and became Republicans not because we love the GOP but because the Democrats hated our guts and pushed us out.

Democrat anti-Catholicism recently went way above the radar when Sen. Dianne Feinstein questioned the fitness of a judicial nominee because of her Catholicity. But that was the sort of bigotry I regularly witnessed when I moved in leftwing circles. Their hatred for the Church was off the charts precisely because of the Church’s pro-life position and they were never going to listen to anything we had to say on the issue, as pro-life Democrat Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey learned when he was barred from speaking at his party’s convention in 1992.

Not that I didn’t try. At Feminists for Life I authored and hand-delivered a letter to pro-life Democrat congressmen and senators, trying to build a closer alliance with them. The same letter went to Vatican Ambassador Ray Flynn, the only pro-lifer in the Clinton Administration. I lobbied Congress against welfare reform, on behalf of Feminists for Life, because we thought it would be bad for the unborn. When Congressman Tony Hall, a pro-life Democrat from Ohio, made a speech defending the conscience rights of pro-life Democrats from the stage of the 1996 Democratic National Convention, we thought things were moving in our direction.

But we were wrong. The Democrats are actually more pro-abortion today than they were in the days when President Clinton was supporting partial-birth abortion. They dropped even the rhetoric of moderation, that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” replacing “rare” with “accessible,” they inserted into Obamacare an administrative mandate requiring even the Little Sisters of the Poor to fund abortifacient drugs, and they repeatedly try to repeal the Hyde Amendment, so that abortion can be directly funded by your tax dollars.

And then there is, yes, Feinstein. This is the party the NPLM wants pro-lifers to cozy up to?

Or take, for instance, what was happening on the ground level in liberal parishes with the Seamless Garment, NPLM’s precursor.

When the lay minister at my parish in the 1990s invoked “Seamless Garment,” she did not mean that the parish liberals should join you in fighting abortion. She used the Seamless Garment, instead, to explain to pro-lifers that we would not be allowed to do anything against abortion at the parish unless we were also working on several other issues simultaneously. But no one told the parish ministry fighting poverty in Haiti or the parish ministry fighting global warming that they were not allowed to work on their issue unless they were working on other issues too. This was a burden that was put on pro-lifers and no one else.

One of the people at my parish who was squashed in her efforts to start a pro-life ministry was, nevertheless, a true adherent of the Seamless Garment. She had met her husband while they were in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps together. They were completely down the line with the U.S. Bishops’ position on every issue which, in political terms, basically meant they were conservative on abortion and school choice and liberal on everything else.

If the Seamless Garment was a real thing, her husband would have been the perfect candidate for the parish’s voters when he ran for State Senate. But the parish backed the other candidate, whose only big difference was that she was pro-abortion. They even had the other candidate’s signs on their lawn.

What was done with a wink and a nod back then is now out in the open. Just yesterday, the mayor of the town where my old parish exists—and himself a prominent member of the parish who has held numerous positions there—was endorsed for re-election by the pro-abortion group NARAL.

Experiences like these are what peeled me off the Seamless Garment concept. That, combined with positive experiences of conservatives that contradicted my earlier negativity toward them, sped up my own rightward drift.

So my objection to NPLM is not out of any particular love for the GOP or libertarianism. It is simply my experience that it doesn’t work.

And for all that, I don’t fault Bratten Weiss or anyone else for trying, if their focus is on winning liberals to the pro-life movement. To the extent that NPLM’s focus is telling other pro-lifers that they are not truly pro-life unless they are on board with an umpteen number of other issues—and that does seem to be much of the NPLM’s focus—I don’t blame any pro-lifer for giving them the brushoff.

We’ve been there. We’ve done that. It doesn’t work.


  • Peter Wolfgang

    Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut, a Hartford-based advocacy organization whose mission is to encourage and strengthen the family as the foundation of society. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FIC Action.

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