RELIGION AND THE PROLIFE MOVEMENT

by Tom Sena



Sunlight washes over the hundreds of heads bowed in prayer. Bibles are being read, Bibles are being held aloft -- Bibles are everywhere. So are crosses: crosses on clothing; crosses on posters; crosses lifted high. Though you might think you had wandered into a Christian prayer meeting, it is actually a typical prolife rally. Maybe you have already begun to sense that I see a problem with it. Are you asking: "What could be wrong with that picture?" If so, I have a thought to share: that's what is wrong with it. The very fact that you see no problem is itself the problem.

Don't look at me like that.

And don't get me wrong. I have nothing against people of Christian faith--though some of them, who know I'm gay, think my middle name must be Antichrist. Faith and love of any sort are the highest expression of what it means to be human, and I know that Christian faith and love have won many victories for life. And check your pew next Sunday; I may be sitting next to you. Dare I confess it? I myself am a person of Christian faith, though that is not why I oppose abortion.

So what's wrong with this picture? Let me tell you about a person I never met.

Ten years ago I attended a massive prolife rally on the Mall here in Washington, D.C., and it looked much like the prolife rally I describe above. But as I strolled through the crowds, one lone figure stood out starkly. Over his chest and back, he had strapped a homemade billboard that said, "Atheist For Life". Instantly, I was burning to ask him, "Has anyone welcomed you or commented on your sign? How do you feel being at such an explicitly religious event? And for God's sake, tell me about being a prolife atheist!" But because I am naturally shy with strangers, I refrained. I have never seen him--or any other self-identified atheist--again at a prolife event. I have been kicking myself ever after. His reasons for being prolife clearly had nothing to do with Christianity, but what were they? I may never know now. Neither may you--or the rest of the prolife movement. If his unique contribution to our cause has been lost, we are all much poorer for it.

Where is he now? I wonder what he might have said to Helen Alvare from the National Council of Catholic Bishops' prolife office. A year ago, I heard her approvingly cite a study showing that prolifers tend overwhelmingly to be religious (read: Christian). She brings a deep and intelligent devotion to the cause of life, but I believe she made a mistake when she deduced from the study that being prolife and having Christian faith just naturally go together. You can also reach a different and less self-congratulatory conclusion: the prolife movement has become so thoroughly identified with Christian religion that it has lost any power it once had to attract certain prolifers, or potential prolifers: those who are other-than-Christian; Christians who champion the unborn for nonsectarian reasons, and people who are undecided about the abortion issue. So completely Christianized is the movement that many people feel unwelcome and without a place among us, or think that to be prolife you must turn Christian. They naturally decline to espouse the trappings of a faith they do not accept, or engage in what would seem a misleading, disingenuous compromise. So they stay away. This means we are actually attracting only those already like ourselves. That is part--only part--of what's wrong with the picture.

I write that as a Christian. But it takes no brains to see why "baptizing" the movement so heavily is good for neither the unborn nor the movement itself.

Just last night I watched a televised discussion about multiple births caused by fertility drugs. The participants were mostly medical professionals. In the midst of an otherwise hopping debate, one point drew unanimous, chilling assent: to prevent the bearing of too many children at once, implant only two or three embryos and destroy the others created in the process. My heart sank. "Like always," I thought, "they are completely unaware they're talking about real human beings. Why are they so blind!" But I already knew why. In large part, it is a direct measure of how we prolifers have scuttled our own message.

The prolife message as it is customarily presented has no compelling basis for most doctors and scientists because it has been transformed into a Christian religious doctrine. And religious doctrine of any kind, since it cannot be subjected to proof or disproof, is useless to science. This presentation of the prolife message severely handicaps our efforts to reach the scientific and medical communities. Even worse, it places a heavy burden on Christian doctors and scientists who do acknowledge the unborn child's right to life. The apparent sectarianism in which we have straitjacketed that right discredits them. Knowing that jeopardized credibility may ruin their careers, many feel forced to avoid the prolife message in public or professional discourse. Let's not wax complacent, please, over those brave doctors and researchers who do promote the right to life. For every one of them, how many more have to hide in a closet of silence, a closet we ourselves have helped to build and lock up tight? This is but a second aspect of the problem the prolife movement has created.

If the prolife message is useless--even dangerous--to Christian physicians and scientists, how much more useless is it to those who profess an other-than-Christian faith or no faith at all. Yet another measure of our self-sabotage! We have wrapped Jesus and the Christian Bible so tightly around the very idea of the right to life that doctors who do not share our faith see no reason to credit our message. Forget the science that compellingly demonstrates the reality of unborn human life to the open-minded; we have soaked it so completely in Christian religion that it reeks of vehement piety, equally useless to science and immediately discreditable. Is it any wonder that prolifers are dismissed as Christian religious zealots who try to dress up our ideology in scientific masquerade? Who can blame intelligent, caring people for turning away? The way that the prolife message is presented, they feel they cannot take it seriously without forsaking science itself. So they forsake the prolife movement instead, stranding us in further ideological isolation, and leaving the unborn in continuing jeopardy of their lives.

But abortion proponents, not to mention the media, have seized on our pervasive Christian religiosity with delight. It hands them, gratis, innumerable chances to assert: "They're trying to ram their religion down your throats!" Why shouldn't the undecided believe them, when that is exactly how it appears? We ourselves have made this possible, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Again, I write as a man of Christian faith. I do not enjoy pointing out the prolife movement's tendency to isolate and damage itself. Nor do I think prolife Christians should hide our religion to curry favor. But I do emphasize that insisting on a necessary identity between Christianity and the prolife message hurts the unborn more than helps them. This fact demands our attention. This is why we drive away scientific experts who might otherwise help us, and it permits our opponents to declare open season on our credibility.

Just as significantly, by identifying the right to life with Christianity, we deprive ourselves of a tremendous wealth of other-than-Christian thought and experience that could be of invaluable service in the cause of life. There are many possible clear and well-considered reasons to oppose abortion that can immensely broaden and deepen the prolife movement's appeal precisely because they have nothing to do with Christianity, or perhaps any other religion. Prolifers who can invoke such reasons can reach those who find "traditional" prolifers, saturated as they are with Christian symbols and vocabulary, literally incredible.

I am a case in point. While I am a Christian believer, I am also gay; and more often than not (for reasons unnecessary to go into here) there is no love lost between the gay and lesbian community and the mainline Christian churches. Anything as sopping wet with Christianity as the traditional prolife movement will find very little audience among us.

Nevertheless, I often speak out against abortion in my community and usually win a fair hearing. How? By totally bypassing all religious rationale and focusing instead on what we gay and lesbian people can never ignore: our own lived experience. We know firsthand what it means to be considered less than human, undeserving even of the right to life. Remember the young gay man Matthew Shepard, who was pistol-whipped, strapped across a deer fence and left to die because he was judged unworthy to live. "When anyone threatens our very right to be alive," I say, "we know that's wrong. And this tells us, among other things, to fight not only for ourselves but for any other group whose rights and lives are also threatened, to stand in solidarity with them. And that includes unborn human beings."

There, in a lavender-colored nutshell, is a whole new reason for being prolife that would never occur to most "traditionals," but it makes sense to my community. Even if they do not agree with it, they listen to it. It resonates with them, besides being new, original, and true. Moreover, precisely because it is new and original, it benefits "traditional" prolifers as well. It significantly expands the movement's philosophical and rhetorical base. And not least, it further benefits the movement by persuading people to join the fight who, if left unpersuaded, would never dream of taking up the cause for their own.

I, and others like me, accomplish all this by not relying exclusively on Christian doctrine. What else might other nontraditional prolifers add to the movement out of their own considerable store of originality and wisdom? What new life might they bring to it?

The only way to find out is to let them in. That will not always be easy. Some prolifers will balk at "certain people" joining "our" movement, as though it is anyone's private property. Others may feel threatened, fearing that the movement may lose something of its unique character. But I do not advocate throwing Christian faith out of the movement, as if that were even possible. Christians will always be part of the prolife movement and they always should be. But we must make room in it for all of God's children, including those who do not believe, like our "Atheist For Life", or who believe differently from Christians. And we must not merely wait for them to turn up on their own; we must actively seek them out and invite them with outstretched hands to join us. We must then let them speak as they please about their faith or their atheism, without proselytizing, without expecting them to grovel before our beliefs or to censor themselves in our presence. Put more succinctly, they must be free to be themselves. In return, they will bring us the great gifts of their manifold insights, wisdom, and creativity, vastly strengthening the entire movement. They will help destroy the professional stigma prolife scientists now endure, and open scientific minds now closed to us. They will put the lie to the opposition's treasured catcalls, which imply that our real motive is forcing others to convert to Christianity. They will speak to the undecided as Christian prolifers so often have not. In short, they will bring themselves to the defense of unborn human beings, and in that defense, they will be serving values common to people of all faiths and none: justice, compassion, and Life itself.


Originally appeared in the December 31, 1998 issue of PLAGAL Memorandum at http://www.plagal.org. Reprinted with the author's permission.

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