The term “pro-life” is generally known to mean opposition to abortion. But anyone who has given the topic much thought knows that it necessarily involves far more. If human life has intrinsic dignity from conception to birth, it clearly continues to have dignity after birth. And that truth has implications for how we act, as individuals and as a society. That case will be made here from the perspective of the Catholic Church, but is consonant with all Christian traditions, and indeed the philosophies and religions of many people of good will
Regarding capital punishment, the Church recognizes the possibility of its legitimate use, but also notes that such circumstances are likely to be quite rare:
The Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient…. authority will limit itself to such means…. Today, in fact,… the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.
One can argue whether or not capital punishment should remain on the books in the US, but if it does, it should only be used with great caution. Twenty-first century American prisons are extremely robust, making non-lethal means virtually always sufficient to safeguard society. Moreover, given the tragic history of wrongful convictions brought to light by groups such as the Innocence Project, we should be even more cautious about resorting to the ultimate punishment.
Regarding suicide, the Catechism teaches,
We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. Suicide… is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations.” Even for those enduring great suffering, the Catechism teaches that “putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons…. is morally unacceptable.
Just as ending abortion requires not just legal changes, but a deeper culture of life, so too ending suicide requires not only criminal penalties for those who assist in it, but medical care for those suffering from excruciating illnesses and, perhaps most importantly, adequate mental health care to address the tragic causes behind suicides. In many instances, such physical and psychological care can and should be provided by private organizations, but in some cases the involvement of the government, at one level or another, will be required to ensure care.
But a consistent life ethic must be broader than just these three issues.
If we care about babies before they are born, we must also care about them afterward. Do children have adequate health care? Ideally they would be cared for primarily by their own parents. Are wages sufficient to support a single-income home? Is there adequate maternity leave – and job security – for new mothers? Is childcare affordable for those who cannot forego the income of one parent? These are questions raised by the likes of John Paul II and highlighted in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Likewise, children require education to realize their potential, take their rightful place as full citizens, and someday support a family of their own. Is quality education available to all children? And what of the handicapped or elderly? Is there adequate care for them? As the apostle James asks, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” Or, as the Catechism puts it, “Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.” These too are pro-life issues.
Concern for human dignity must also extend to our borders. As the Catechism explains: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” This is not, however, a unilateral obligation. Hosts and migrants both have duties: “Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.”
Finally, if we are serious about human dignity, we must be horrified by the destruction of war. John Paul boldly preached: “Violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems,… violence is unworthy of man…. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.”
When soldiers came to John the Baptist, asking what they should do, he did not tell them to lay down their arms. The Church admits the possibility of legitimate war, but only as a last resort, in defense of life and society. If we call ourselves pro-life, we must take seriously the pursuit of peace. Jesus calls us to nothing less, but reminds us that the peacemakers “will be called children of God.”
But who, specifically, has the duty to see that all these things are done? The short answer is everyone. Commenting on economic conditions, for example, John Paul noted,
Primary responsibility… belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society. The State could not directly ensure the right to work for all its citizens unless it controlled every aspect of economic life and restricted the free initiative of individuals. This does not mean, however, that the State has no competence in this domain…. Rather, the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities… or by supporting them in moments of crisis.
Much the same could be said for health care, maternity leave, education, wages or other issues. Some government role is almost certain. But the government cannot, and ought not, be the full measure of our answer. The fraternal concern of individuals, acting individually and in associations, must address the demands that our brothers’ and sisters’ dignity imposes upon us.
That is an expansive vision and a high calling. And its absence from the contemporary political scene is conspicuous.
There are, however, various efforts to change that. One such effort is the American Solidarity Party (ASP). Inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement, the tradition of Christian Democracy, and Catholic social teaching, ASP “seek[s] to promote the common good and the material and spiritual welfare of all people.” It “stands for the sanctity of human life, the necessity of social justice, responsibility for the environment, and hopes for the possibility of a peaceful world.” Though a young party and still tiny, ASP has attracted attention from a variety of political commentators, including Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. It is a small start, but a hopeful sign that truly pro-life politics may be possible.