Pugnacious Pro-Lifers: Striving for Unity in the Pro-Life Movement

Any of the activities of the pro-life movement do not bother pro-abortion forces, largely because they underestimate the power of the truth. One thing they do not underestimate is the power of unity. Pro-abortion forces fear unity among pro-lifers. In fact, they hear it so much they hallucinate about it. In many of the court cases that have been brought against pro-life persons and organizations, charges abound of grand, highly organized networks and “conspiracies” to bring an end to the abortion industry. When we in the leadership of the pro-life movement hear these descriptions, we laugh as we wonder when we might be able to actually achieve such a level of unified action.

The reality, of course, is at once much more simple and more complex. The pro-life movement consists of people of goodwill who are moved to do something about the sheer horror of abortion. There is no one leader around whom they rally. Rather, in a multitude of different places and different ways, pro-life people use whatever resources and talents are at their disposal to strive to stop the killing.

There is a spirit of unity, cooperation, and a sense of the “common cause” among pro-life people all over the world. Yet there is a longing for greater unity. Most want to see an end to unnecessary duplication of efforts and the sometimes bitter disputes over strategic points. Knowing that our time and resources are so limited, it makes sense not to want to see them wasted.

House Divided

There are literally thousands of pro-life groups across the United States, with an amazing diversity of sizes, structures, and strategies. We need to consider that such variety, in itself, is not an undesirable thing. It is an inevitable reality and is, in fact, a gift. One does not need to belong to any specific religion, political party, nationality, profession, or social category to be able to appreciate what is at stake in the abortion tragedy. To grasp the significance of a life-and-death issue, it is enough to live.

Another source of the variety of pro-life organizations is the fact that abortion is a problem of many dimensions and stands at the intersection of many diverse phenomena. Differ therefore, to deal with these dimension groups can and should arise, unity. When abortion is seen as a political and legal problem, with a solution lying in the change of law, various legal and political groups will arise. When seen as a social problem, requiring an organized outreach to women in need, movements to provide counseling and alternatives to abortion will arise. When abortion is seen as a religious problem, a wide variety of religious groups will arise to bring the power of God’s word and grace to bear on this tragedy. When seen as a problem of education, a wide range of educational efforts and groups will arise. Abortion will also be seen in relation to its various causes, such as contraception or sex education, giving rise to groups that, as they fight abortion, will focus on these root problems.

Variety in pro-life groups is also a function of the special skills and graces that individual organizers will have. Because of the need to bring the skills of many professionals to bear on the defense of human life, organizations which assist those professionals to highlight the pro-life dimensions of their work will come about in a rightful diversity.

The point is that the diversity we see among pro-life groups is a sign of the health of a movement that is actively addressing the many facets of the problem it is seeking to solve. Diversity is not the same as division; neither is unity the same as uniformity. In what sense, then, does a lack of unity in the pro-life effort exist? I will speak of a lack of unity in terms of service.

Heart of the Division

This brings us to the heart and core of the problem of disunity, and it provides a stunning irony for those involved in fighting abortion. The attitude that builds unity rejoices when the Kingdom of Life is advanced. It does not focus on where that advance comes from, neither does it care who receives credit. It is more interested that the victory of life, not any particular person or group, moves forward. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, I must decrease”; so too says the pro-lifer in regard to the victory of life itself.

One who has this attitude does not feel threatened by the pro-life progress made by another person or group. One commits oneself to progress. Therefore, the progress of the other is, in fact, one’s own. The attitude of disunity, on the other hand, makes one group feel threatened by the growth and success of another, even if that growth and success achieve precisely what the first group desires.

Here is the irony. This describes the problem of abortion itself. A mother feels threatened by her baby. She feels that her child’s life means that her own life cannot advance. A conflict arises in a relationship where there should be the greatest unity.

Why is it that we have not been able to overcome this phenomenon of mothers rejecting their own children? For a mother to give herself to her child, even when the pregnancy seems to create impossible demands, means to overcome the division between your life” and “my fulfillment,” and to realize instead that mother and child both find fulfillment precisely in giving themselves to each other. To communicate this, we need to discover and to live it, not just personally but structurally, not just as individuals but as organizations.

That is where the unity of the movement exists. Just as the mother does not absorb the child, so the legitimate autonomy and diversity of pro-life groups should not be collapsed into one. Just as the mother must not reject the child, pro-life groups cannot reject one another as a threat to “one’s own fulfillment” or advancement.

These duties of unity could be translated into several concrete tasks:

1. Take advantage of opportunities for personal con-tact. There is no substitute for concrete, personal contact. Leaders need to come together. Meetings can be tedious and at times very unproductive. Yet often what can be achieved has nothing to do with what is written on the agenda. The meeting can become an opportunity to see the human side of another leader. It can be a chance to hear him explain for himself a position we thought we understood. It can provide the context for a more personal knowledge and appreciation of life another’s struggles. One of the initiatives I have always promoted first he pro-life leaders’ retreat. A retreat gives us a chance to look at our lives and our commitments with a calmer mind, a rested body, and a clearer eye. The environment of prayer and grace enables us to have new insights, or new strength to carry out the insights we already have. Retreats pro-life leaders make together can renew the movement.

2. Read one another’s newsletters. One of the key expressions of the vision and strategy of leaders and groups is found in their newsletters. If leaders take time personally to read newsletters of other organizations, they will not only have the benefit of under-standing the positions and experiences of other groups, but also will give those groups the opportunity to be heard directly.

3. Promote one another’s resources, events, and Web sites. To promote one another’s literature and educational tools, according to various models of collaboration, is a key manifestation of the spirit of unity described above. We can do so in our newsletters, mailings, talks, conventions, personal contacts, Web sites, television and radio programs, and any number of imaginative ways. This promotion enriches the content of our own ministry to the public and benefits everyone else besides. The message of the Gospel of Life is not owned by any of us; it is entrusted to all of us. The people to whom we speak that message, likewise, are not “our” people or “their” people. They are people whom we are all privileged to serve.

Practical Applications of Unity

PROTESTANTS AND CATHOLICS ON THE STREETS: Prayer is at the heart of the pro-life movement, and praying in front of abortion facilities is a logical corollary of the fact that our brothers and sisters are being killed inside. When Christians of different churches gather at those sites, there can be tensions regarding, for example, whether or not Catholics should pray the rosary in such a setting. There are certain parameters of justice, of course. One can never deprive individuals or groups of the opportunity to worship according to their beliefs, neither should one ever feel pressured to betray his or her faith. But unity is such a key value that at least on some occasions, Christians should take the steps necessary to visibly express that unity when praying at abortion facilities. The reading of Scripture is just as acceptable to the Catholic faith as is praying the rosary. If I am with Christian brothers and sisters who are not comfortable praying the rosary, it is no betrayal of the Faith for me to pray the psalms with them instead. Common prayers, readings, litanies, and songs can unite Christians in front of killing centers, where the difference should be that between life and death, not between the followers of the Author of Life.

PARISH AND DIOCESAN PROGRAMS: Often tensions arise in relationships between individual pro-life groups and the Catholic parish or diocese within whose territory those groups wish to operate. There can be legitimate reasons why a parish or diocese may not be able formally to support a particular activity. A lack of endorsement does not mean a compromise on principle.

A good rule of thumb, both for the parish or diocese and the individual group, is to go out of one’s way to inform and communicate with one another, as early as possible, regarding particular programs and activities being planned. The planning of a regional or national event in a given city should involve communication with the bishop of that territory in the earliest stages. The same should be true of smaller events in local parishes.

IMPERFECT LEGISLATION: One of the most divisive strategic tensions in pro-life circles is between those who work for legislation that improves the current state of the law but does not prohibit all abortion, and those who only support legislation without exceptions. It helps to distinguish the two questions: Is the support of imperfect legislation morally acceptable? Is such support the best practical way to reach the ultimate goal of protecting every child? Tensions are often caused by confusing the two questions and making a difference in strategy (question two) into a conflict about adherence to moral principle (question one).

The wise counsel of the Joint Committee on Bioethical Issues of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Great Britain is helpful:

Those who choose the stricter course should not adversely judge those who promote imperfect legislation, provided that the actions and attitudes of the latter are consistent with all other guidelines … nor should those who promote imperfect legislation make adverse judgments on those whose preference for the stricter course seems to hinder the pursuit of the politically possible. Either group’s adverse criticism of the other may undermine the common effort—to extend the equal protection of the law to all. (Briefing 89, Vol. 19, No. 14, July 7, 1989)


I have been immensely inspired by the dedication and generosity of pro-life people in every part of the United States and, now, throughout the world. By no means are any of the problems touched upon here dominant elements of the movement. One must already go pretty far beyond self-interest to seek the good of those who, for now, cannot love in return. We should be confident that whatever difficulties we do face in our movement can be overcome. After all, we follow One who has conquered death itself. As someone once told me, everything after that is a “mop-up job.”


  • Fr. Frank Pavone

    Father Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life and the co-chair of Pro-Life Voices for Trump.

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