For anyone whose political memory dates back more than a decade or two, the term “pro-life” was pretty clear: it was understood as the antithesis of “pro-choice” or supportive of the legal right to abortion.
But increasingly, what constitutes “pro-life” seems to be as contested as the question of when life begins. Thus we see Nancy Pelosi assuring those who oppose abortion that they are welcome in the pro-choice Democratic Party, while at the same time asserting, “I don’t think that you’ll see too many [Democratic] candidates going out and saying, ‘I’m running as a pro-life candidate’.”
As Pelosi noted, “pro-life” now means not necessarily opposition to the basic right to abortion, but “how far are you willing to go on the issue” in terms of what limits should be imposed, a signaling of a certain kind of moral disapproval of the procedure while acknowledging its political reality.
This means a Democrat in a right-leaning district or state who considers herself pro-choice may accept restrictions on the procedure, such as waiting periods or mandatory ultrasounds, associated with people who identify as pro-life.
Conversely, some people who call themselves pro-life, like Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, may in fact do little politically to oppose the procedure once they ascend to the national stage, where state-level restrictions have less political resonance.
Which leads to the question: can anyone really be called pro-life anymore, and is this label still a reliable indicator of someone’s abortion politics?
The term “pro-life” dates back to the Catholic origins of the anti-abortion movement, when a Los Angeles bishop coined the phrase “right to life” for one of the country’s first anti-abortion organizations, the Right-to-Life League of Southern California. The Catholic bishops’ conference created the National Right to Life Committee the following year, in 1968, to coordinate the anti-abortion activities of state-level right-to-life committees.
The New York Times first used the term “pro-life” in a 1972 article about opposition to a film version of the controversial Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, which was created by President Richard Nixon (who disavowed the findings when the commission recommended that abortion be legalized). The Times reported that opposition to the film, which was slated to run on PBS: “has come largely from Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish and Fundamentalist Protestant groups allied in the ‘pro‐life’ movement.”
The term pro-life was claimed by those who had a religious objection to abortion based on the belief in ensoulment—that even early fetuses had received a soul from God and were therefore fully human and worthy of protection. This was consistent with the pro-life movement’s backing of various versions of a Human Life Amendment, which would amend the Constitution to state that fetuses would have the full rights of born humans:
Neither the United States nor any State shall deprive any human being, from the moment of conception, of life without due process of law; nor deny to any human being, from the moment of conception, within its jurisdiction, the equal protection of the laws.
But as the 1980s ticked on and it became apparent that there would be no HLA, even under the Reagan administration, the anti-abortion movement became more focused on forstalling women from getting legal abortions by throwing up any manner of road block—from waiting periods and creepy state-mandated ultrasounds, to abortion limitations on any kind of public health funds.
Thus began the great Democratic right-ward stampede on abortion, with more and more supposedly “pro-choice” Democrats embracing all manner of “reasonable” restrictions on abortion that left the procedure available in practice to middle-class and upper-middle-class women, while cutting off access for poorer and younger women for whom logistical and financial hurdles were most salient.
But as a new study makes clear, these restrictions do little to actually protect fetal life. A study of prototypical waiting period laws that require a woman to make two visits to an abortion clinic 72 hours apart found that, for the majority of women, such laws did nothing to dissuade them from having an abortion. And for the minority of women who were uncertain about their decision to have an abortion, “[l]earning about the procedure, meeting staff, and discovering that the facility was a safe medical environment” was more likely to increase their certainty about the procedure than to decrease it.
So it appears that most of the laws currently considered pro-life are largely about shaming women and throwing up logistical barriers that block access for women with limited resources. At the same time, we have former Congressman Tom Perriello in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary claiming to have been “pro-choice” all along even when he founded a Catholic political organization that was avowedly pro-life and voted for the Stupak amendment pushed by the Catholic bishops to limit private insurance coverage of abortion.
Perriello is giving a new twist to the old Catholic abortion formulation of “personally pro-life but politically pro-choice”—affirming that he was personally pro-choice but politically pro-life. Which just goes to show how meaningless traditional definitions of abortion support or opposition are in the current debate over whether the Democratic Party should accept those who are “pro-life.”