Unborn Life Always Trumps the Welfare State

Would you ever want to be buried alive? It’s a question Tom Stoppard raises in his absurdist drama, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. In the play, the titular Rosencrantz considers this riddle when he contemplates the experience of being a corpse in a coffin.

Even taking into account the fact that you’re dead, it isn’t a pleasant thought. Especially if you’re dead, really … ask yourself, if I asked you straight off—I’m going to stuff you in this box now, would you rather be alive or dead? Naturally, you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking—well, at least I’m not dead! In a minute someone’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out.

While Rosencrantz asserts that a human “naturally” prefers life over death, we can hardly take that position for granted anymore. Indeed, many 21st Century Catholics think that some people would in fact be better off dead in the box than alive. At least, they give that impression when they advocate for the right to kill children still in the womb.

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One justification for their position is the fear that life outside of a box is not always worth living in this country. Better never to leave it, and better never to hope to leave it.

In less metaphorical terms, these abortion-tolerant Catholics propose the following argument: pro-life Catholics who do not also advocate for causes like welfare, immigration reform, and contraceptives for foreign countries are hypocrites because they value the life of the fetus more than life after the womb. To be truly pro-life, this line of thinking goes, one must look holistically at the quality of life across an entire lifespan; therefore, the right to life cannot be more important than access to resources after birth.

During the recent election cycle, Nicholas Cardafi offered an example of this philosophy in his August 10, 2012 column at the National Catholic Reporter  in which he paradoxically suggests that Obama is effectually more pro-life than Mitt Romney. Cardafi explains that Obama’s policies have made lives better for the poor, while Romney’s former business, Bain capital, had links with “Stericycle, a major disposer of the dead bodies of aborted children in the United States” and “wealthy El Salvadorian clans, some of whom, while they were funding Bain, were linked to right wing death squads.’” According to Cardafi, Romney has profited from the deaths of others, and therefore cannot be pro-life (despite his stance on abortion). Thus, for Cardafi, the person who makes life better for others must be “truly” pro-life, whereas the person who profits from the dead must be anti-life.

Surely, this must put Catholic undertakers in an awkward position.

When self-proclaimed Catholic pundits like Cardafi advance this logic, they inspire others to reiterate it, diluting the definition of “pro-life” in common speech. Such is the case in a column by Cheryl Lemus, a self-professed lapsed-Catholic and staff blogger for Nursing Clio. After citing Cardafi’s column above, Lemus writes:

Look, as a self-exiled Catholic, I am very well aware of the Church’s stance on abortion.  I am also familiar with the history of abortion.  But that is not what I want to focus on today.  The term “pro-life” needs a new definition.  There is much more to being pro-life than just praying, preaching, marching, and legislating for the rights of the fetus.  Being pro-life means advocating for the rights of babies, children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly.

More famously, a version of this argument appeared during the Vice Presidential debates. In response to Congressman Paul Ryan’s unequivocal pro-life stance, Vice President Biden argued that he adopts the Church’s teachings on social justice to promote the welfare of the whole life and not impose his beliefs on the definition of human life on others. He suggested that this ideology trumped Paul Ryan’s concern for protecting the unborn.

Apparently, you are not allowed to be pro-life unless you are a pacifist who wants to expand welfare, and yet pacifists who want to expand welfare are usually pro-choice. (Another riddle for another time.)

Obviously, Catholics cannot dismiss caring for the needy throughout their lives. Nor do we. The corporeal works of mercy are not limited to the uterus, and the Church does plenty to relieve suffering at all stages of life.

However, the argument that a person can only be “truly” pro-life if one is also pro-welfare and a pacifist is flawed. It is not hypocritical to focus attention first on the beginning of life even at the expense of the welfare of the individual after birth.

Positions like Cardafi’s, Lemus’s, and Biden’s imply that individuals should not take action against one atrocity unless they first promise to decry every other affront to human dignity using particular fiscal strategies.

My suspicion is that this line of argument is really just a rhetorical ploy to control discourse and narrative. Uncomfortable with their own compromises on the value of human life (and how cold-hearted such compromises must seem to others), pro-choice or abortion-tolerant Catholics attempt to transfer their own shame onto their opponents. They derail the conversation with some other sympathetic and pitiable cause: “I might not care as much about babies as you, but when is the last time you visited an elderly home? What kind of ingrate doesn’t care about our venerable forbearers? You should be ashamed of yourself for not worrying more about them.”

Pro-choice rhetoricians intend to put pro-life advocates on the defensive, making them look unsympathetic to other vulnerable individuals and therefore depicting them as cruel—despite the fact that trying to save babies obviously requires a human capacity for pity and charity, and despite the fact that unborn babies are more defenseless than any other human life form.

This pro-choice rhetoric can only be an attack on character, because the logic that we should not try to save lives unless we also fight for social reforms is absurd. The idea that we need to stop focusing so heavily on saving the unborn unless we also fight for the political rights of the born is a bit like suggesting that fire departments should not bother rescuing families who are from an oppressed class, or that relief agencies should not bother sending doctors to Third World countries unless those doctors will actively speak out against local regimes.

To argue for equivalency between the right to life and other human rights becomes patently absurd (perhaps part of the problem is that the term “right” has become so misapplied that the right to life just seems like another box on a political checklist).

One can use Rosencrantz’s game to make the point:

Would you rather your child be dead and have a right to welfare, or would you rather him be alive and have to find some means of scraping by? Would you rather your child be dead and have healthcare reform, or would you rather she be alive and have to face disease without insurance?

When a human can no longer recognize how life itself trumps every other “right” we truly are a culture under the cloak of Death.

While Cardafi and Lemus and Biden find it perplexing that someone whose heart breaks at the thought of abortion might not trust government welfare programs, I find it more perplexing that someone so passionate about defending the victimized wouldn’t be in the front lines of a pro-life march.

But even this juxtaposition and comparative analysis of rights plays into the pro-choice rhetoric. The rights of the born have very little to do with the motivations behind abortion, which are distasteful and unsympathetic in most cases.

If I could be convinced that mothers and fathers were aborting their children solely based on a fear that those children would starve or lack clothing or lack shelter—if I could be convinced that the current rate of abortion was due to a lack of access to welfare—then I would be in the first ranks marching for the redistribution of wealth. I would be willing to compromise my economic ideologies for the sake of the unborn (and I would vote for a pro-life Democrat before I voted for a pro-choice Republican). But I am not convinced that most abortions occur because parents believe human rights are not being adequately protected by our government.

Indeed, statistics indicate that women who have had abortions often raise children—they are already mothers or they plan to be mothers. These women clearly aren’t having abortions because they think social or economic conditions make life unsustainable. These women don’t believe that certain social justice issues must be resolved before they will bring new life into the world. What they do seem to believe, however, is that an arbitrary degree of material comfort beyond real necessities must be secured before they will let a child be born.

I am aware that my previous sentence might sound harsh to a pro-choice reader, so I will rephrase it in the words of Dr. Vanessa Cullins, Vice President for External Medical Affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America,

Groups that become assimilated in U.S. culture and experience economic opportunities naturally decide to limit family size, because they want to take part in the American dream…. If you’re a single mother, achieving the dream is all the harder, so it makes sense to limit family size so you can shower as much support as you can on the children you have.

The American Dream has always been about surplus, not about sustenance. We dream about living a quality of life at a level that far surpasses most of the world’s population, and we enjoy luxuries that become so commonplace here that we forget how luxurious our lives are.

We are a society so devoted to this dream of material abundance that we extinguish some of our children at their earliest moments of life so that their siblings can go to a nicer school and hopefully get a job that supports another life of surplus.

We trust in paychecks and health insurance, high school diplomas and college degrees to give us a higher quality of life more than we trust in the bonds of family.

We often think that the quality of life is measured in comfort and security rather than love. Living beneath the new standard seems shameful, like an abject slavery.

Slaves have been known to commit infanticide to preserve their children from sharing their indignity.

But Christianity measures the quality of life differently, and therefore it does not claim that any material security is necessary before life should be preserved. For the Christian, the dignity of human life comes from humanity’s relationship with God. For the Christian, such human dignity transcends health, wealth, and possession of rights. Paul could tell slaves not to seek emancipation from their masters because their love for God was worth more than any human right. Paul understood that Christianity was about saving one’s eternal soul, not improving the conditions of earthly well-being.

Christ himself called the twelve knowing that this would lead to their suffering and (in all but one case) brutal deaths. The persecutions of early Christians far outstrip the dire sufferings that most Americans today face, even with our miserable economy. The most well-to-do of those who were healed by Christ faced a standard of living that would be unbearable by modern American standards. Not one person Christ brought back to life was going to have access to food stamps, antibiotics, or a university education. Yet Christ shows us that such lives were still worth living.

Thus, pro-life advocates take their lead from Christ when they place saving a life before any concern for that life’s material security.

If a Christian heard a man trapped in a box crying for help, she wouldn’t ask him whether or not his life would be well-lived or safe or even pleasant before she opened the box. Nor would she ask him if he could wait until she got back from the soup kitchen before she would try to let him out.


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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