“Firmly Within the Historic Liberal Tradition of Respect For the Indivisibility of Human Rights”
By Dave Andrusko
Editor’s note. As a part of commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we will be publishing material all year long from National Right to Life News, going back to its early days of publishing in 1973. The following appeared in the January 1998 edition. If you are not a subscriber to the “pro-life newspaper of record,” call us at 202 – 626-8828.
Were it otherwise, the unfortunate truth is that because the communications media overwhelmingly supports abortion, the portrait of the Pro-Life Movement presented to the American public (consciously but more often unconsciously) is with occasional exceptions flat and one-dimensional.
Replete with paper-thin stereotypes of cognitively challenged religious zealots — backwater misogynists obsessed with controlling women — these subtlety-free accounts miss the rich complexity of a Movement dominated by women whose influence has steadily grown over 25 years.
Much social scientific literature on the topic hardly ranks as a model of dispassionate inquiry. However, occasionally some of the breadth of the Pro-Life Movement — both in its amazingly diverse composition and its multiple areas of concern — does shine through.
Keith Cassidy is a professor of history at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Over the years, Professor Cassidy has conducted numerous interviews with pro-life activists and supporters.
His preliminary findings have been published in various academic journals, including the “Journal of Policy History.” He is currently at work on a history of the American right to life movement.
In a lengthy interview with NRL News, Cassidy explained that in his view “the Pro-Life Movement operates firmly within the mainstream of American values.” While the question of motivation within the Movement is complex, it is clear that it is propelled in large measure by operating principles which are “firmly within the historic liberal tradition of respect for the indivisibility of human rights.”
He agreed, however, that his is a minority view. For many years there has been a tendency for journalists to dismiss the Pro-Life Movement as marginal to American society, Cassidy explained. Partly this is so because it has been interpreted as comprised of people whose opposition is confined to abortion and whose “real” motivation for that is “covert.”
The unstated reasons offered to explain why pro-lifers “really” oppose abortion include one benign, the other malign. “If malign, the Movement is said to be motivated by a desire to oppress women or to impose narrow sectarian religious dogma,” he said. “If benign, pro-lifers are thought to represent a misguided but well-meaning attempt to protect the social status of motherhood and traditional gender roles.”
In the one case, Cassidy said, “it is to be feared and loathed.” In the other, “it is to be pitied.”
The truth, in his view, belies such limited and misleading interpretations. For instance, while there are many traditionalists within the Pro-Life Movement, there has always been room for a wide range of political, religious, and ideological persuasions. Moreover, pro-life opposition cannot fairly be said to be confined to abortion alone, for, as Cassidy explained, the Movement from the first also opposed infanticide and euthanasia.
“Euthanasia obviously was not a central focus [at the time of Roe] because so much of the immediate political battle involved abortion,” he said. “But the Movement did not have to develop a `position’ on euthanasia because its core philosophy necessarily included opposition.’ [The very first issue of NRL News in 1973 carried extensive coverage explaining why euthanasia would inevitably follow in the wake of Roe.]
“The issue is the nature and value of human life,” he said. “Had a strong euthanasia movement arisen first, then opposition to that, rather than to abortion, would have triggered the rise of the Pro-Life Movement.”
In response to a question, he noted that the motivation of the “pro-choice” movement has never been subject to this kind of skepticism.
“For most reporters and academicians, there is the tendency to assume that pro-choicers’ motives are exactly as proclaimed and you do not have to read into it any agenda beyond the one they publicly announce,” Cassidy said. “They don’t need to be explained because ‘all reasonable people see it this way.'”
Intriguingly, the bedrock source for most pro-lifers’ dedication to the vulnerable can be understood to include as a “religious” component wedded to a deep civic patriotism.
When critics argue that the Pro-Life Movement is “religiously based,” this is a pejorative, Cassidy said. “What they mean by ‘religious’ is fanatical, unthinking, and anti-intellectual.”
But in fact this undergirding is not something that comes out of a particular religious denomination, Cassidy said, but is rooted in philosophical and moral affirmations that operate at a much deeper level.
By this Cassidy means what he calls a “pre-political belief system”: the firm assurance that “there is such a thing as immutable truth and a transcendent moral order independent of human wishes which makes every human life of inestimable value.” From this radically egalitarian commitment to the sanctity of all human life independent of age, sex, income, I.Q., or race inexorably flows opposition to abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.
As support for this idea, Cassidy offered the insights of Fordham University sociologist James Kelly. According to Prof. Kelly, “The main argument of the right to life movement is strikingly simple and central in Western moral categories: Each human life is singularly important and cannot be morally subordinated to the self-interests of those who are more powerful.”
Such principles are anything but narrow. They “resonate not merely with Judeo-Christian sentiments but also with putatively rational presentation of the foundations of the moral life such as the Kantian categorical imperative,” Kelly has written.
According to Cassidy, essential to understanding the Pro-Life Movement is recognition of one other component: “a profound sense of responsibility.”
Lincolnians at heart, pro-lifers “really believe this is a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Cassidy said. “They share a feeling that if they give up they would be giving up on a crucial proposition of the American creed”: equality before the law.
The overlap between the “religious” and civic motivations is in the area of the origins of rights. “Pro-lifers believe no one can give or take away human rights,” he said. “The right to life can only be recognized because it precedes the state. It is absolute, not socially created.”
Given this philosophical square one, being a part of the Pro-Life Movement “is not something you opt into and out of, like you get tired of your diet and you fall off it,” Cassidy said. Pro-lifers see adherence as a test of their commitment to (in Kelly’s words) “a rudimentary and non-sectarian moral fact.”
This highly developed sense of personal responsibility to protect the vulnerable is what “propels people in the Pro-Life Movement,” Cassidy believes. To fall by the wayside would be seen by most pro-lifers as nothing short of the “abandonment of a sacred obligation.”
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