I am Pro Life, but…

A “but” does not get much of a hearing in public discourse. It is erroneously categorized as being “wishy-washy.” The words that follow cannot fit on a bumper sticker or in a 60-second sound bite. And positions in-between either/or extremes dampen the polarization that the media and many politicians and citizens thrive on. To illustrate this problem, allow me to summarize, albeit too briefly, my views relative to the contentious pro-life/pro-choice abortion debate.

I aspire to be consistently pro-life, believing that physical life is a gift from God that needs to be both protected and helped to flourish. Therefore I oppose “abortion on demand,” independent of how one answers the thorny question of when physical life begins, since a form of life that is a “potential person” is of value.

My aspiration to be consistently pro-life takes me places where some pro-lifers refuse to go. It is not only the case that the life of the fetus ought to be protected. After a baby is born, steps must be taken to care for and nourish that person throughout life. Therefore, those of us who oppose abortion on demand should also be committed to addressing the circumstances that lead some expectant mothers to conclude that they cannot adequately care for a newborn, including addressing the persistent problems of poverty that sometimes contribute to the choice for an abortion. We also need to provide more encouragement for alternatives to abortion like adoption.

To be consistently pro-life also requires that attention be given to helping the elderly to flourish and to die with dignity.

To be more radical, my pro-life stance includes opposition to the death penalty. It also informs my commitment to being a peacemaker (although whether I am a “pacifist” depends on what you mean by that word – for an explanation, see Chapter 21 in my book Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking).

But, I also believe there may be exceptional cases where having an abortion is a morally correct choice. For example, consider the following hypothetical case.

If my wife were pregnant and medical experts told us that if the pregnancy was not terminated, it was almost certain that my wife would die, then that would be a compelling factor pointing to our choosing to have an abortion (noting that it is impossible to point to all other possible factors for or against choosing an abortion in such a hypothetical situation divorced from real life, but I cannot imagine an overriding factor in this case).

My reason for this compelling factor pointing toward the choice of abortion is that my wife has established loving personal relationships that the fetus has not. Therefore, in choosing to have an abortion, we would be sacrificing one value (the physical life of the fetus) for what we would judge to be a higher value (the combination of the physical life of my wife and the sustaining of existing positive personal relationships that my wife has already established).

My opinion in this hypothetical case reflects my belief that in our broken world there are rare cases of “tragic moral choice” where all the available options are destructive of a value to which one is committed and one has no option but to choose the least destructive alternative, in which case I believe that I should choose in favor of what I judge to be the “higher value.”

The above two paragraphs will make many pro-lifers cringe, being quick to dismiss the possibility that I am a genuine pro-lifer, because a true pro-lifer would not allow for any exceptions whatsoever. I respectfully disagree. The “but” word, and what follows that word, must be allowed, even encouraged, in public discourse about abortion.

That is not just true for the abortion issue. The options that need to be discussed when dealing with complex issues cannot typically be placed into neat air-tight either/or, black-and-white categories. I would welcome hearing the following on my TV or radio: I am for cutting the federal deficit, but…; I am for a free market economic system, but …; I am for tighter border security to deter illegal immigration, but …; I am for working to prevent future terrorist attacks, but …; I am for supporting the right of the state of Israel to exist and flourish, but … .

I am saddened by the fact that many politicians and citizens and many members of the media have little time for the more nuanced positions that typically follow the “but” word. But that is needed to work toward a healthier and more productive public discourse on complex issues.