What’s the goal of the pro-life movement?
Most would say its primary objective is to overturn Roe v. Wade. The court case has inspired and motivated pro-lifers for decades, urging them on into battle against Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other organizations that fight for abortion.
I’ve been part of the pro-life movement since childhood: participating in Walks for Life, helping with bake sales, sorting baby clothing donations, and volunteering weekly at a local pregnancy resource center. During that time, I came to know the many faces of the pro-life movement: women with regrets over their past abortions, families who adopted and fostered children in need of homes, ladies who spent their days counseling and caring for moms and potential moms-to-be. The pro-lifers that pro-choicers hate—vehement and angry protesters at Planned Parenthood clinics, radicals who threaten or shoot abortion doctors—were never a part of this world. It was a deeply Christian, pacifist, and local cause, animated by compassion, not belligerence.
Nevertheless, the pro-life movement of my childhood was also deeply political. On a state and national level, pro-lifers always voted for pro-life candidates. Most described themselves as “one-issue voters,” for whom the sanctity of human life was and always would be their primary motivating force. If asked why, I’m guessing they would have responded in unison: they wanted these politicians to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Much, however, has changed this year. Pro-lifers have been forced to confront a deeply concerning dilemma within their cause. They’ve been forced to ask themselves: can they vote for a “pro-life” candidate who lacks chivalry and common decency? Can they vote for a politician whose record is pro-life, but whose personal life is characterized by corruption, harassment, and hypocrisy?
Roy Moore has made this question a particularly sharp and relevant topic for pro-lifers. Despite the “fake news” protests of some within the conservative movement, the evidence against Moore—evidence of child molestation and sexual misconduct—is strong. Many within the political, journalistic, and religious worlds have urged pro-lifers not to vote for Moore. Yet despite this, recent polls show him leading Democrat Doug Jones by five to six percentage points.
Why are so many Alabamans determined to vote for a man who allegedly harassed a 14-year-old girl? The simple—yet frightening—answer is this: Roy Moore votes pro-life. And if Moore were elected, as Pat Buchanan recently pointed out, there’s a chance (slim at best) that Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Other Republicans have urged conservatives not to let Moore’s bad character prevent them from voting—he’s not a moral leader, they argue, just a political pawn. To them, the ends justify the means.
But in this battle for an illusory Supreme Court victory, other vital components of our political and cultural moment are being set by the wayside. From a political perspective, as Georgi Boorman recently pointed out, voting for loathsome politicians will distance swing voters from the GOP—and, more importantly, from the pro-life cause most often associated with it.
“Independent voters hate hypocrisy a lot more than they hate abortion,” Boorman writes. “Conservatives of the party of ‘family values’ fall harder and farther when they sin than liberal Democrats do.” Roy Moore may win Alabama, but his unpopularity (as well as the widespread disapproval of Donald Trump) could result in a momentous swing to the left in future months and years, thus erasing any possibility of congressional victory for the pro-life cause.
But the problem with Moore is also cultural and social. It lies in the distrust and suspicion of pro-lifers that is likely to result from his election. Leaders in the pro-choice movement—particularly Planned Parenthood—have successfully billed themselves as the pro-woman side in the abortion fight. Imagine how much more clout and power their argument will have if men like Moore dominate the “pro-life” side. How can pro-lifers say they care more about women and their welfare when they vote for child molesters and sexual harassers?
Roy Moore isn’t the first of his kind, after all. There’s a very strong argument that Donald Trump—a man with a rather sketchy and offensive past when it comes to women—was supported by Christian conservatives primarily because his rival, Hillary Clinton, was vehemently pro-choice (even to the point of supporting legal late-term abortions). For most pro-lifers, backing such a candidate would be unconscionable.
But in practice, we’re seeing the impact a candidate like Trump has on the pro-life cause. Neil Gorsuch’s nomination was a considerable win for conservative and pro-life voters. But Trump himself is so odious to the left, and to many young people, that the possibility of conversion to their cause wanes with every month of his presidency. The image he paints—of a boorish, misogynistic party that wants to control women’s lives and futures—becomes more and more palatable to the left, as well as to swing voters on the abortion issue.
In October, we discovered that the supposedly pro-life Congressman Tim Murphy had tried to convince his girlfriend (with whom he was having an affair) to get an abortion. Yet despite the hypocrisy of this, many within the pro-life movement were reluctant to condemn his behavior outright—because of his on-the-record statements against abortion. One pro-life advocate called Murphy an “honorable” person, and said she was “not ready to cast a stone at him.” And as one can imagine, the hypocrisy of Murphy cast a shadow on the entire pro-life movement:
Tim Murphy proves that for many conservatives being pro-life isn't truly about abortion, it's about seeking control over women. Reject them.
— Jesse Belt (@MrJesseBelt) October 5, 2017
Oopsies, did Rep. Tim Murphy accidentally reveal that GOP's abortion stance isn't about morals but about controlling women's bodies?
— annalise (@annalisepasztor) October 5, 2017
What happens when the faces of the pro-life movement are hypocritical congressmen, sexual harassers, and men who brag about grabbing women’s bodies without permission? The recent spate of Handmaid’s Tale-inspired protests is one indication that the pro-choice movement can and will adopt increasingly passionate, morally superior language and rhetoric in response, gathering voters to their cause. Congress’s inability to defund Planned Parenthood—despite Republican majorities in the House and Senate—is another indication that, despite supposed political advances, conservatives are still losing the battle on a popular cultural level. And if pro-lifers lose there, political victory is impossible.
With men like Trump, Moore, and Murphy standing for the pro-life movement, it’s nearly impossible to overcome the loathsome picture pro-life adherents have painted for themselves. As David French recently put it at National Review, “‘Child-abusing senators against Roe’ strikes me as perhaps the worst possible message to a culture in desperate need of persuasion.”
What would happen if GOP congressmen were somehow able to nominate more conservative Supreme Court judges in the next few years, stating as their goal the overturning of Roe v. Wade? It’s not difficult to imagine the political uproar and fervor the left would conjure up—the anti-woman rhetoric they’d employ, the nightmarishly dictatorial and patriarchal picture they would paint of the pro-life movement. Pro-lifers’ political “win” would result in wholehearted animosity across the nation. The abortion-industrial complex is not going disappear overnight, after all, and the massive clout of Planned Parenthood—especially in Hollywood and the Democratic party—will not be easily dissolved.
In short, we cannot force a judicial, political victory that the country is not ready for culturally. Fighting abortion is more complex. It must involve local ministry and assistance, cultural persuasion, and social winsomeness. Political battles must be secondary to all this—not because they aren’t important, but because the deep polarization of our political parties is ill-suited to the complexity and potential bipartisanship of the pro-life cause. The pro-life movement has never belonged to the GOP. Its underlying motivations are spiritual, personal, and philosophical—and thus transcend politics and politicians. It’s inspired by compassion, a zeal for life, and a passion for the oppressed and vulnerable. Many progressives might understand and support the pro-life cause, were it not so often couched in specific political and partisan terms.
To overturn Roe v. Wade requires much more than a set number of conservative Supreme Court judges, or a majority of “pro-life” congressmen in the House and Senate. It requires pro-lifers to change the hearts and minds of voters—especially the nation’s young people. Because so long as there is demand and widespread support for Planned Parenthood and its ilk, illegalizing abortion will be next to impossible.
Of course, this does not readily answer the question of who pro-lifers should vote for. But supporting an oppressive and abusive politician contradicts the heart of the pro-life philosophy. Voting for Roy Moore shouldn’t even be an option.
There are some more progressive pro-lifers who have argued that until the movement begins supporting a more vigorous pro-family policy (with generous paid parental leave, support for poor single moms, etc.), it will gain little to no ground. For these pro-life advocates, a Democratic candidate with vigorous support for welfare and relief is more pro-life than a callously pro-big business Republican candidate.
It’s an interesting and worthwhile argument. But even this should be secondary to a resurgence and reinvigoration of the local sphere of the pro-life cause: supporting and volunteering at PRCs that help single moms, donating to local organizations that assist the poor and vulnerable, seeking ways to help and protect women within one’s community and neighborhood.
The politicization of the religious right has led to a dangerous cultural blindness, in which Christian conservatives often ignore societal and even moral warning signs in order to make tiny political gains. Many seem completely oblivious to the long-term ramifications of their actions. Unless and until pro-lifers realize their battle is first and foremost a cultural one, they will turn the entire nation against their cause—and likely lead to its doom, for at least the next few generations.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.