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Stumbling into the Pro-Life Movement

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Jess Keating (left) doing planks with friends

Stumbling into the Pro-Life Movement

by Jess Keating

Today, thousands of women, children, and men from all over the United States will brave the impending winter storm to join in the world’s largest annual social justice demonstration. Hundreds of thousands of others will gather in cities across America to participate in local rallies for life. I am new to the Pro-Life movement, and like many things in my life, I sort of stumbled into it. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I hesitantly admitted to myself that I was Pro-Life. It was a deeply uncomfortable affirmation and one that I didn’t voice aloud for a couple of years. I wasn’t sure what it meant. Suddenly, I felt politically homeless, which for someone who grew up inside the Beltway was akin to blasphemy. I knew the kind of associations people had of the Pro-Life movement. More specifically, I knew the associations I had with it, and to be honest they were not positive. Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the 1990s, the local news never failed to portray the Pro-Life movement as small group of anti-feminist radicals showing gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses, intent on oppressing women, people of color, and the poor.

It wasn’t until my late 20s that I hesitantly admitted to myself that I was Pro-Life.

Less than a decade earlier, I had ardently defended abortion rights in a moral philosophy class employing all of the classic arguments of bodily autonomy, and economic, racial, and sex equality. I passionately explained that if abortion weren’t legal, women would suffer and die from illegally terminating their pregnancies. Even as I enumerated the standard series of arguments in favor of liberal abortion laws, which I sincerely believed in at the time, I was uncomfortable. Something rang false, though I couldn’t say what. I later learned that there is scant evidence for the claim that elective abortion has economic benefits or that it contributes to racial or sex equality. Moreover, I found that the decline in mortality rates of women procuring illegal abortions coincides with the advent of penicillin and advances in medical science, not legalization.

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Even at the time, I had questions that someone in favor of abortion rights shouldn’t have. Why did we call the unborn, babies and children, when they were planned for and wanted, but fetuses when they were not? Why did the law consider the unborn persons, in some cases, but not in others? Why were some pregnant women mothers, but others were host entities, invaded by parasitic fetuses intent on destroying their lives? Why did we mourn a miscarriage, but not an abortion? Why were there numerous ways that the law curbed personal autonomy and privacy in light of greater human and social goods (e.g. drunk driving, neglect, domestic abuse) but the lives of preterm children were somehow not deemed human or social goods worthy of protection? Why did women’s equality mean some human beings had to die? I didn’t ask these questions because they weren’t part of the script of the abortion rights movement I had been given. But they were present, even if only inchoately, at the reflexive but fraying edges of my commitment to abortion rights.

Over the next several years, I didn’t actively contemplate my views on abortion very much. I hadn’t even noticed they’d changed until I was on the phone with one of my friends and she asked me for money to help pay for the termination of an unplanned pregnancy. I was driving somewhere in Indiana on my way to visit my family, and to my astonishment I found myself saying, “I can’t. I just can’t. I’ll love you no matter what, but I don’t want you to do this.” I was astonished at the words that came tumbling out.

Perhaps it was the result of seeing so many of my students become mothers while still in high school. Perhaps it was the birth of my oldest nephew. Perhaps it was the unattainable intellectual dissonance between concern for social justice and support of abortion rights. Perhaps it was because I had also stumbled into the prayer and practice of the Church and found that I didn’t have to sacrifice my commitment to social justice in order to be Pro-Life. In fact, I found the two went hand-in-hand. Likely it was configuration of these the movements and moments that culminated in my crystallization of conscience.

Shortly thereafter, I stumbled again, this time into the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day. In her witness, I encountered someone who prayed and worked for a “social order in which all may find it easier to be ‘fully human,’” whose way of mercy denounced the power that oppresses and makes it easier to “make room for children” rather then to “do away with them,” as she wrote to Fr. Dan Berrigan (The Catholic Worker, December 1972, 2, 8). Saying no to one instantiation of the will to power and the logic violence often means that the very power and violence one stands against sneaks back in another way. But in Day I found someone who said no to it all – abortion, euthanasia, militarism, capital punishment, inhuman working conditions, and environmental degradation. Here was a woman who was unmistakably political. She protested, she wrote, she advocated, and she admonished. But she was also someone who was politically homeless; she refused to enter the realm of politics in such neatly predicable ways.

Once I encountered Day, the entire logic of abortion began to unravel and I began to see the practice of abortion for what it really was: the violent destruction of the lives of an entire class of people who are too small to speak for themselves. I realized that the violence of abortion participates in the same logic as the violence of war, euthanasia, economic exploitation, sex inequality, and slavery. It is a violence in which those with power wield it over those without power. It is the kind of violence that characterizes a throwaway culture. It is the kind of violence that enables people to declare in all sincerity that it is acceptable to eliminate an entire class of people in the name of better future. It is a kind of violence that is so decadent it celebrates itself, in movements such as #ShoutYourAbortion. We have come a long way from the arguments of abortion as “a necessary evil” or “safe, legal, and rare,” to women like, Emily Letts who filmed her abortion procedure and described it in Cosmopolitan as a “special moment” that was like “giving birth.” Such narratives are largely powered by privileged white women and are signs of a cultural decadence that attempts to make us forget the humanity of the pre-born child and the actual needs of her mother and forget that abortion is a multi-million dollar industry that wraps itself in the rhetoric of compassionate care, while doing away with the weakest and most vulnerable.

– Jess Keating is the Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives in the Institute for Church Life.