Matt C. Abbott
Pro-life (dis)unity
By Matt C. Abbott
December 15, 2009

Newsflash! Hold on to your seats, folks...ready? (Breathe easy, now.)

There's division in the right-to-life movement.

There. I said it.

Actually, there has been for many years. Imagine that. And while it may not be productive to dwell too much on said division, I do think it's worthwhile to address — or, more accurately, re-address — the issue now and then.

One area of disagreement is over the use of graphic abortion photos. Some pro-lifers believe they have a place in the movement (I fall into this category, if you're wondering), but others, like Sister Anne Flanagan, a Daughter of St. Paul, don't.

In a Dec. 8 blog entry on the Chicago Tribune's Web site, Sister Flanagan wrote:

    'If this ordinance [the City of Chicago's recently-passed 'bubble zone' ordinance] achieves its goal of making it harder for pro-life counselors to approach people in a civilized way, I was told by one of the sidewalk counselors, their next move will be 'visual speech' in what is called a 'Face the Truth' effort.

    'To me, those horrifyingly grisly photos of tiny severed hands and legs and tortured little heads constitute a form of visual violence. But this sort of 'carpet bombing' (with massive collateral damage) may be the unanticipated effect of stifling people's ability to freely communicate on the street.'

Pro-life leaders Gregg Cunningham (Center for Bio-Ethical Reform), Joe Scheidler (Pro-Life Action League), Monica Migliorino Miller (Citizens for a Pro-Life Society) and Father Frank Pavone (Priests for Life) believe otherwise; they support the use of such photos. Click here to read Father Pavone's explanation and click here to read the Pro-Life Action League's explanation.

Another area of disagreement among pro-lifers is that of contraception. Catholic pro-lifers (faithful Catholics, not the dissenters) are opposed to it entirely, as it's an intrinsic evil — I fall into this category, of course — but some Protestant pro-lifers are "neutral" on or even supportive of contraception, particularly barrier contraception. I should point out, though, that the majority of pro-lifers are indeed opposed to abortifacient birth control.

Then there's the debate over whether women who procure abortions should be put in prison if and when abortion is criminalized. Some pro-lifers say that all abortion-seeking women are victims and thus should not be punished in that way; others, like myself, believe that at least some of the women could and should be imprisoned, depending on the circumstances.

Brian Clowes, PhD, director of research and training for Human Life International, has a cogent take on the controversy:

    'We should recognize that many women feel forced or compelled into having abortions. If a person is driven to commit a murder not of [his or her] own free will, then [he or she] is not as culpable. Therefore, there will often be extenuating circumstances.

    'To summarize, any woman who hires a hit man to whack her husband should be charged with premeditated murder. If pro-lifers are to be consistent, we should take the view that the woman is hiring another type of 'hit man' (the abortionist) to kill her preborn child. There is no practical difference between these two scenarios — but only if we believe that preborns are fully equal in status to other human beings.

    'Of course, abortionists do possess detailed knowledge about fetal development, and they are seldom compelled by anything other than greed to commit abortions. Therefore, there would rarely be extenuating factors in the trial of an abortionist.'

Perhaps the most talked-about division in the right-to-life movement is that of "full-protection" versus incrementalism — or, as Dr. Clowes describes it, "purity versus pragmatism."

Writes Dr. Clowes:

    'This conflict has caused the greatest split in the pro-life movement today. Many organizations advocate the 'purist' or 'no exceptions' approach. They say that every preborn baby, regardless of health or circumstances surrounding conception, is equally precious in the eyes of God, and therefore every preborn baby is deserving of protection. They believe that laws which classify some babies as not as worthy of protection as others (as with fetal deformity, rape, and incest exceptions) are inherently illicit. By contrast, imperfect but licit legislation does not divide preborn babies into classes. It treats all babies equally. Measures that treat all preborn babies as equally valuable involve parental notification or consent, abortion funding cuts, decent burial requirements, laws that require that only 'doctors' commit abortions, and tighter abortion mill regulations.

    'Other pro-life groups think that, under a system of abortion on demand, the strictly purist approach is impractical, and they advocate trying to save as many babies as possible under the prevailing conditions. Therefore, 'no exceptions' pro-lifers would oppose a ban on abortion except for rape and incest, and 'pragmatic' pro-lifers would support it.

    'The primary conflict lies in the fact that a 'pragmatic and gradualistic' approach might save the lives of more babies in the short run at the expense of jeopardizing ultimate victory (but only if the laws are vigorously enforced and a 'health' exception is not included), while the 'pure and absolute' strategy very reluctantly allows more preborn babies to be aborted in the present but enhances the probability of a final victory in the struggle over abortion.

    'A country usually has either a very strict abortion law or a very loose one. Let us take the case of a country with a strict abortion law (say one that only allows abortion to save the life of the mother). In such a case, it is illicit for pro-lifers to draft, vote for, or support a looser abortion law of any type, even if the original strict law is not enforced. The case of a country with a loose abortion law (say one that includes a 'health of the mother' exception, which is practical abortion on demand) is different. In such countries, it is licit to draft, vote for, or support any law which will could reasonably be expected to decrease the number of abortions being performed (see Evangelium Vitae, 73)'

I'll end this column with a statement (edited) provided to me by Steven Ertelt, founder and editor of the popular site:

    'Sadly, the strategic divide that has been a hallmark of the pro-life movement since the early political battles in the years following Roe v. Wade has gotten worse. There used to be a time when pro-lifers agreed to disagree, with some grumbling about differences of opinion on strategy but, largely, they did their own thing their own way.

    'That has changed, and for the worse. Now, some pro-lifers not only challenge the strategy of others but directly question their pro-life beliefs and faith-views because they have a different strategy to end abortion. Unfortunately, the situation has gotten so bad that serious divisions have resulted, causing good and faithful pro-lifers to be misled into thinking that others who have dedicated their lives to protecting the unborn are now somehow on the same pro-abortion level as Planned Parenthood.

    'The severity of the divide is such that it is seriously threatening the ability of the pro-life movement to stop abortion. At a time when we're on the defensive with pro-abortion zealots heading up every level of government, the last thing the pro-life movement needs is this constant game of one-upmanship in which some pro-lifers define themselves by, and spend most of their time engaging in, attacks on other pro-lifers.

    'Everyone involved in the pro-life movement needs to come to the understanding that we may have different methods and strategies, but we have a common goal of wanting to protect every unborn child from abortion.

    'Whether we use graphic pictures or fetal development photos, engage in direct action or have a more mild attitude, support personhood measures or legislation to stop some abortions until the unborn are protected, we all want abortion to end now. We all believe human life should be protected from womb to tomb. We are all part of the body of Christ seeking to follow God's lead. And we all have common opposition: Planned Parenthood, Barack Obama and other abortion advocates.

    'When each of us can get back to using our God-given talents in our own way that we think will accomplish the most to protect the unborn, we will begin to see success and victory. But as long as we confuse mere strategic and tactical differences with philosophical ones, more babies will die.'

© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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