What is today's meaning of pro-life?

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What does it truly mean to be pro-life today?

January 19, 2023 -

A man holds a baby in his lap, his hands cupped around the child's head. © By Tamara Sales/stock.adobe.com

A man holds a baby in his lap, his hands cupped around the child's head. © By Tamara Sales/stock.adobe.com

A man holds a baby in his lap, his hands cupped around the child's head. © By Tamara Sales/stock.adobe.com

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in handing down the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the six justices in the majority forced a political reckoning. To use the term pro-life as shorthand to communicate your beliefs about the issue of abortion is now too vague. Should the meaning of pro-life be that abortion is banned outright? Or does it mean abortion should be banned after six weeks? Does pro-life mean the life of the mother too? 

To say you are pro-life in a post-Dobbs world fails to communicate the nuance now expected and required.

Admittedly, autopsy after autopsy has been done, not only on the Dobbs decision but also on its political ramifications. My desire is not for this to be yet another think piece on the issue but rather an opportunity to use the largest court case from the summer as an impetus to analyze what it truly means to be pro-life today.

When was pro-life first used? 

The first part of the word is easy to define. Pro means “for” or, more specifically, “in support of.” 

The second portion of our phrase in question is much more challenging to parse.

When we say life, what do we actually imply? 

Many things—such as plants and animals—possess the quality of life, but these seem not to fall within the scope of modern applications of the term. In our inquiry, an exploration of the historical uses of the term will help.

The first use of the term pro-life was in 1960 in the book Summerhill: Radical Approach to Child Rearing. Here, the authors spoke of how pro-life parents ought to discipline their children. From the first invocation of the term, whether intentional or not, pro-life had its parameters set. The subject of a pro-life position was oriented toward the protection of children and the promotion of their well-being.

The use of the term pro-life and its connoted meaning continued for the next decade. However, something changed within American culture throughout the 1960s. 

From 1970 and onwards, popular publications such as the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Washington Post had all invoked the term pro-life. But their meanings were exponentially narrower than that of the book from a decade prior. 

In May of 1970, The Ottawa Journal reported that a local event attendee “said he preferred to describe the group he belongs to as pro-life rather than anti-abortion. The organization believes human life exists from the moment of conception.” 

The term pro-life had assumed its final definition. 

To be pro-life meant one thing: oppose abortion. 

What is the meaning of pro-life for Christians today?

While certain, smaller political groups attempted to expand the application of the term to encompass issues such as war, nuclear weapons, and the death penalty, this attempt fell to the wayside. Pro-life was now concerned with one issue only.

The definition of the word is extremely narrow. Should Christians—who intend to faithfully embody that which God has called us to—be content with the definition of the word as we bring to bear our beliefs and convictions in the public square?

The Bible does not contain the word pro-life. Hoping the text to use such a term would be anachronistic. However, we can survey Scripture to ask how God the Father and Jesus Christ view humanity, and, in turn, discern three expectations (there are certainly more) for Christians regarding their outlook toward other humans as part of their commitment to being pro-life. 

1. We are all inherently equal.

On the first page of the Bible, we are informed that God has made humans in his image (Genesis 1:21). 

The reader is never indicated as to why this is the case, nor what about humans makes us made in God’s image. But this does imply that all humans are equal in nature, being, and form. 

Located within our commitment to the doctrine of the Imago Dei, we must ensure equal treatment, in both personal and systemic relations and interactions, for every other person based on our equality as created by God—in his image. 

2. We must offer personal and systemic care for others.

Another place we find principles contributing to the idea of how humans ought to care for and protect others is in the first chapter of Isaiah. 

Here, the prophet begins his first address to the people of Israel and condemns them for their unjust actions toward the marginalized and social outcasts within their communities. The prophet concludes with a directive to Israel by saying, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). 

Here, God instructs his people to uphold the inherent dignity and worth of each person interpersonally and systemically. Promoting the justice of others through interpersonal interactions is encapsulated by the command to “do good,” and the appeal to seek justice via systems and societal institutions is located in Isaiah’s words to plead the widow’s cause. 

3. We must elevate others into full participation in our community and society. 

Finally, Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus further paints a picture of how we are to care for and protect other humans. 

As Amos Yong asserts, it’s possible—if not probable—that Zacchaeus was disabled. He arrives at this conclusion by comparing the language of the text in Luke 19 to the language used to describe artwork from the time period. Based on cultural context, Yong diagnoses Zacchaeus with a form of achondroplasia.  Because disability was typically associated with sin back then (John 9:1–3), Zacchaeus was a social outcast. When Jesus sees Zacchaeus, not only does he choose to eat with him—an already socially outrageous action—but Jesus goes further, calling Zacchaeus a “child of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). 

By invoking this terminology, Jesus tells Zacchaeus and those around him that Zacchaeus is viewed as a child of God, a descendant of those who have been blessed. 

Further, because of Zacchaeus’ affirmed spiritual standing, he now ought to be fully enmeshed in the prominent faith tradition of the day, permitting him full participation in society and available to receive all benefits and opportunities to do so. 

One lesson we can learn from this as Christians is the responsibility we have in elevating those who are on the periphery, such as Zacchaeus, to fully equal members of our society and communities, able to receive the same opportunities and benefits as those within the social majority and not face unjust barriers that prohibit full participation. 

Pro-life beyond our comfort

By using the three stories in Scripture, we are given a more robust picture of what it means to be pro-life than what the current cultural context of the word entails. 

To be a Christian who is pro-life requires us to give much more to the cause. 

In fact, to be a Christian committed to the biblical cause of being pro-life will force us beyond the comfort of our political preferences and personal comfort as we care for life from the unborn through natural death and promote life and its flourishing at every moment in between.

Until now, I have been vague about the specifics of what a pro-life Christian stance ought to entail. To some degree, this is intentional. My desire is that the three principles above can offer a framework to analyze different issues to determine whether or not they are truly pro-life for the Christian. 

Just as James 2 reminds us that faith without works is a useless faith, so too must we keep in mind that any theory without action is a worthless idea. To that end, let us begin to think about tangible ways a pro-life framework can become actualized. Important in considering the ideas below is to remember that surrounding some of the proposals there is robust disagreement, even by well-intending Christians. The purpose is not to have homogeneous ideologies but to be well-reasoning Christians ready to articulate what we believe.

How can Christians live fully pro-life?

In my mind, pro-life issues can be categorized in three ways: 

1. Pro-life issues on which Christians broadly agree 

This includes issues such as abortion and physician-assisted suicide.

2. Pro-life issues on which Christians can disagree while remaining within the bounds of orthodoxy

This includes arguments about birth control (as I plan to discuss next month) and the death penalty (listen to relevant discussions here and read here). 

3. Pro-life issues that promote a culture of life

Finally, the third group of issues has a completely different motif to it than the previous two. While the first and the second group mainly consider the questions of death prevention and the unjust treatment of the defenseless, the third category of pro-life issues makes the turn to promoting a culture of life. 

Issues within this category might include support of paid family medical leave, supporting free birth, and committing to a robust policy of creation care.

As evidenced by the three principles above, a truly pro-life outlook strives to ensure that each image bearer is flourishing within their community so that they can live in proper relationship to others as well as with God. 

As we consider each of these issues, let us remember that we are not to be loyal to a party or social expectations. 

We are to be faithful to the God who creates and sustains all things, which includes people just like you and just like me.

This article is part two of  6 topics in biomedical ethics every Christian should be concerned about.”

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