How Pope Francis Is Reclaiming the Meaning of ‘Pro-Life’

Pope Francis
Photo: Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto

Over the last week, news writers have been calling Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment a “pro-life” document because the pope himself equates lack of concern for the future of the Earth with a disregard for “the unborn.” If you say you care about life, he’s saying, you have to care about all life — including both the most microscopic of fetuses and the world in which they may one day live. “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion,” he writes.

This argument may excite some liberals (seeing the same rhetorical tool with which you’ve been bludgeoned turned against your opponents) and confuse others: What, really, does the term “pro-life,” even mean? Where did it come from and what values does it reflect?

It’s useful, for starters, to remember that “pro-life,” as we understand it, is largely a political coinage, not a religious one. It has its roots in the complex and holistic Roman Catholic theology of the sanctity of life, but in its ubiquitous, short-hand use does not reflect church doctrine — any church doctrine — as much as the conservative political landscape of America in the mid-to-late 1970s.

And as a political term, “pro-life” was never meant to refer to anything but abortion. In fact, it gained salience as a mainstream term when it was designed and deployed in a calculated counterattack in the abortion wars, to combat the post-Roe mantra of the left: “pro-choice,” a term that invoked a woman’s right to privacy and her authority over her own body. “Pro-life” in that context meant a regard for the rights of fetuses, yes, but it also implied an opposite set of priorities — the values held by the people who opposed Roe that social conservatives hoped would vote Ronald Reagan into office.

The term did have religious foundations, however. Catholics for at least a generation had been talking about “right to life,” and occasionally “pro-life,” in ways that were not so different from the language Francis’s encyclical — meaning a respect for everything and everyone living, including and especially the poor. Abortion was included in this worldview, which in the years after Roe prompted American Catholics who hoped to overturn that decision to form an unlikely, but pragmatic, alliance with evangelicals in the years leading up to the 1980 election. But the force known as “the religious right” was mostly driven not by the Catholics but by the evangelicals, who, at the time (and unlike their Catholic partners), were less worried about the dignity and rights of of unborn children and more worried about the influence of what they called “secularism” and the protection of “family values,” a bouquet of concerns that included a loathing of feminism and female independence, as well as a Bible-based censoriousness concerning divorce, bad language, premarital sex, pornography, the welfare state, and homosexuality.

The religious right borrowed “pro-life” as their slogan, derived from Catholic terms like “right to life,” “sanctity of life,” and “culture of life,” and as the movement grew in numbers and political power, largely under the leadership of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority together with lobbying groups in Washington, the bedrock — and radical, even leftist — Catholic connotations of the term became invisible. Instead, the phrase came to signal a whole, socially conservative worldview — and more than that, an idealized vision of a time before the current moment, when intact, churchgoing families respected authorities and had faith in institutions. “Pro-life” meant, really, “pro simpler times.” As the University of West Georgia historian Daniel Williams remarks in a scholarly article published in April in the journal Religions, “By the end of the twentieth century, even many Catholics had come to view the pro-life cause as a movement to protect the family and preserve a traditional view of sexuality, and they began linking their cause not to antiwar activism or the politics of the left, but to a conservative sexual ethic.”

Before Roe, right-to-lifers were Catholic liberals, often Democrats, whose priorities aligned with those of the New Deal. Ethel Kennedy was an early pro-lifer, a Democrat opposed to abortion as part of her Catholic conviction that all people — including those with physical and mental disabilities — deserved fair treatment and respect. As far back as 1947, a group of Catholics under the auspices of the National Catholic Welfare Conference sent a list of what it saw as essential human rights to the United Nations. These were not the priorities of the religious right of the 1970s and ‘80s — they had nothing to do with sexual mores and family life — but much more aligned with labor unions or the Occupy movement. These “pro-lifers” demanded “the right to a living wage,” and “the right to collective bargaining,” the right to care and education for all children — and “the right to life and bodily integrity from the moment of conception,” which is to say the right not to be aborted.

In 1960, in their book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child-rearing, the non-Catholic authors Erich Fromm and A.S. Neill even used “pro-life,” then a much less common term, to describe the ideal of a tolerant and nonviolent citizenry — and a set of values that appear to be in direct opposition to those of the pro-lifers of the next generation. “No pro-life parent or teacher would ever strike a child. No pro-life citizen would tolerate our penal code, our hangings, our punishment of homosexuals, our attitude toward bastardy.” In 1971, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about a student group at the University of Minnesota called SOUL. The leaders of SOUL argued that if you were against the war in Vietnam, you had to be against abortion, too. “To be ‘pro life’ you have to be for all life.’ Until the emergence of the powerful religious right, in other words, the term was a term of the left, meant to denote a Catholic view of the sanctity of life, with an emphasis on justice and dignity for all. 

In recent years, the left has tried to reclaim “pro-life.” Anti-death-penalty activists have started to point out the natural tensions in the positions of so many on the right who support it: How can a fetus retain a “right to life” when a living, breathing person can’t? “You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty. Almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world,” wrote the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright in 2011. Gun-control activists have begun to say that they’re “pro -life,” too, a position that flies in the face of the usual Republican party stance. “Those who consider themselves religious or pro-life must be invited to see that the desire to prevent gun-related deaths is part of the religious defense of the dignity of all life,” wrote Father James Martin in the Jesuit magazine America after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.  

Most interesting, though, are the growing numbers of Americans who say they support abortion rights and also call themselves “pro-life.” It’s as if the Reagan era meaning has been exposed for what it is — a political mantra meant to hold uneasy coalitions together — and the term has been allowed to breathe again. More than two thirds of Americans say they support Roe, the highest number to date, and yet growing numbers of us prefer to call ourselves “pro-life.” (Who, after all, would say they’re “against life”?) Research done in 2013 shows that more than a third of people who say they’re “pro-life” would oppose the overturning of Roe. Americans want abortion protection, in other words; it’s just that they see that questions of “life,” as well as those of “justice” — whose lives are most at stake and whose are vulnerable in situations like abortion — are not always entirely clear. It’s as if Americans are rejecting “pro-life” as a political meme and taking it up, again, as a theological one.

How the Pope Is Reclaiming ‘Pro-Life’