If I were to say, “I’m a fan of Harry Potter” different people could have any number of varied reactions to that statement. Some might think I’m really cool and fun at parties because I’m well versed in all things Hogwarts and wizardry. Others could think I’m incredibly unoriginal because “who isn’t a fan of Harry Potter?” And others could think I’m a bad Catholic because I’ve read stories about magic and witchcraft.
I’m not a fan of Harry Potter — that’s neither here nor there — but I am fun at parties. But the varied potential reactions to that statement prove an important point: Any time we share something with anyone else, it’s nearly impossible for their reaction to not be guided by their assumptions or understanding of what we share. We all carry bits and pieces of understanding about all sorts of things — some of those are complete understandings, but some are not. This reality isn’t a huge deal when we’re talking about the fantasy literature we prefer, but it can be a big deal when we share our convictions or beliefs with others and their understanding of those things are incomplete or just wrong.
I’ve seen this happen in a big way when it comes to the pro-life movement and the pro-life position as it’s upheld in the Catholic Church. Oftentimes, when the pro-life position is put forth — in conversation, on social media, or otherwise — people have strong reactions to it, both negative and positive. That’s largely to do with the inherently sensitive and challenging nature of the issue, but I’d also argue that it has much to do with misunderstandings about what the pro-life position stands for; I’ve come across some wild interpretations about what being pro-life is that are simply untrue. Whether you’ve believed or adopted any of those interpretations or not, I find it incredibly helpful to unpack the pro-life position for what it is not in order to maintain a better sense of what it is.
Being Pro-Life Is Not Exclusive of Issues Besides Abortion
The pro-life position is often misunderstood or misrepresented as being concerned exclusively with the issue of abortion. While the United States’ bishops have made it clear that “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship) and Pope Francis has called for our defense of the innocent unborn to be “clear, firm, and passionate,” we should be reminded that “equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 101).
Being pro-life, then, requires and demands that one opposes abortion, treating it with preeminence as an issue; but the Church is clear that opposing abortion doesn’t “excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence, and injustice,” and it doesn’t excuse leaving issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care unaddressed (Living the Gospel of Life, 23). Being pro-life isn’t about combating one threat to human life alone; it’s about respecting God as the author of all life and defending, protecting, and supporting the dignity of human life at all stages.
Being Pro-Life Is Not Anti-Woman
Because the pro-life position is often misunderstood as having to do only with the abortion issue, it has been misrepresented as being anti-woman. In other words, many believe that people who are pro-life do not care about the needs or concerns of women, especially women who are pregnant and considering abortion. On the contrary, being authentically pro-life requires that one be wholeheartedly pro-woman. There have been some who have failed to represent this reality within the pro-life movement, but the fact remains that a truly pro-life position is wholeheartedly interested in protecting the dignity of women, pregnant or not, as they fall into the “already born” category mentioned above. This pro-woman consequence of a pro-life position should compel those of us who consider ourselves to be pro-life to look for ways that we, our communities and our societies can support and uphold the dignity of women, especially those women who are facing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.
Being Pro-Life Is Not About Shaming People
Like any movement or position held by humans, the pro-life movement is not free of sin or problematic systems or thought. Unfortunately, some who hold a pro-life position have used their position to elevate their ego by claiming moral high ground and shaming those who do not join them. This, however, is not what the pro-life position is about. There is no room for overlooking or belittling those who do not share a pro-life position in the pro-life movement because doing so goes against the fundamental truth that life — at any stage — is worthy of respect. A true pro-life response to someone who is failing to protect the dignity of all human life at any stage is to compassionately listen and prayerfully aim to journey beside them to the truth.
Being Pro-Life Is Not Optional for Catholics
There are a lot of people who are pro-life who aren’t Catholic, which is wonderful. But being authentically pro-life is something every Catholic is called to. Sure, we’ll all fail in this at some level or another because we’re human, but we’re called by God and empowered by His grace to strive for a culture that upholds and protects the dignity of human life in our daily choices, relationships, communities, and societies. This is because “man’s life comes from God; it is His gift, His image, and imprint, a sharing in His breath of life… man cannot do with it as he wills” (Evangelium Vitae, 39). If we believe that God is who He is and all life comes from Him, we have to acknowledge that we do not have the power or authority to determine which life is sacred and which is not — all life comes from Him and, for that reason, is sacred. And we have to live like it in the choices we make and the communities and societies we build.
Being Pro-Life Is Not Always Easy
There always has been and will continue to be active opposition to the pro-life movement. Being authentically pro-life in all circumstances is going to be difficult, especially in those moments when it is unpopular or unpleasant. Much of the opposition to the pro-life position is based on incomplete understanding or misunderstandings of what being pro-life is actually all about. Unfortunately, this means that, as pro-life people, we’re shadowboxing with flawed ideas of what it is people believe we’re about. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how difficult it may be to remain consistently and authentically pro-life, it’s always worth defending the gift of life that God alone can give.
The associations made with and the assumptions made about the pro-life movement exist whether they’re true to what the pro-life position is really about or not. It’s not as narrow as its often presented or believed to be, but when you and I remain unapologetically committed to the whole picture of what a pro-life position stands for, perhaps some of these misunderstandings can be rectified as we aim to build the Kingdom of God in this world — a Kingdom where every human life, no matter what, is precious and sacred.
Photo by Maria Oswalt