Is it not strange that the “right-to-life” movement, which is intended to honor the sanctity of human life, has resulted in so much terrorism and death? Every week reproductive clinics suffer damage, threats and even violence. Doctors have even been shot down in the name of “life.” Having received such threats myself, I have had time to think about this. I want to point out three factors that lead the “pro-life” movement toward violence. But I want to be clear that I am speaking about “pro-life” political activism, not a pro-life philosophy. It is one thing to believe and to try to pursuade others that life is sacred, it is quite another to force that viewpoint on others through force of law.
Reason number one is over-simplification. An ethical dilemma is easily resolved by ignoring either horn of a dilemma. To claim that incipient life is merely tissue ignores the ethical need to treat life as a value in and of itself. It is equally simplistic to say that the potential humanity of a microscopic organism outweighs any need or responsibility that the pregnant woman might have. Such over-simplification may sound pious, but one need only look at the sacred cows wandering the streets of India to realize where the right to life argument can lead if not balanced by other human realities.
To call a fertilized human egg a “child” may seem like an honest generalization, but is it really truthful? When I make an omelet in the morning is it really truthful to say that I am sticking a fork in an unborn chicken? Does the egg, even if fertilized, feel the fork? I would agree that, some point in the pregnancy, we are speaking of a human person, but to call all abortion murder begs the question of human origins rather than answering it.
Just as it would be violent to tie a dog to a tree and let it starve, so it is violent to disallow choices that another person may need to survive, but which we don’t want to see. It is one thing to think in black and white, it is quite another to force someone else to live in the simplistic world of our own imagination.
A second reason the “pro-life” position becomes violent is that it is patronizing by its very assumptions. To work to make abortion illegal means to make ethical decisions for other people without knowing anything about their situation. Do some women misuse their reproductive freedoms? Of course they do, just like some men misuse the women themselves. To say, however, that women should not be allowed to make their own reproductive choices is to say that their bodies do not belong to them. The “pro-life” rhetoric unwittingly dehumanizes women by not recognizing that which is most quintessentially human about them, namely, their wills. To deprive women volition over their most personal bodily functions is to dehumanize them by making them a kind of community property. Whenever we dehumanize another person, violence is never far away even if it is not we who actually do the deed.
Which brings us to our third reason. “Pro-life” rhetoric turns violent because it is so easily misappropriated. Emotionalism and name calling may begin with people who have good intentions, but they are most effective in the hands of charlatans. Most people who carry a sign saying that abortion is killing a person, would never themselves kill the woman or the doctor that they are calling a murderer, but there are those who will hear that rhetoric and act on it at face value.
Most people who consider themselves “pro-life” are outraged and saddened by the violence which comes from the movement, but those who employ the rhetoric of emotionalism, paternalism, and oversimplification are unwittingly planting the seeds of violence. When those factors are turned into law, they represent the very essence of violence against actual human persons. It is a wonderful thing to call others to a reverence for life by teaching and by example, but to force that same value on others is violent even if done in the name of “life.”