The pro-life issue is elegantly simple. Ironically, this elegant simplicity is what makes the 2020 election such a dismaying choice.
Most of the political issues we’re confronting in 2020 are enormously complicated. COVID-19 is a generational health emergency, but how best to handle it? We don’t know. The health care system in America is broken and inequitable—do we need more of a free market, or more government intervention? We can’t agree on the best path of action.
Even the issues surrounding abortion are massively complex. Evidence would suggest that the typical woman who has an abortion does not do so with gusto, or with a guilt-free conscience. She would be far less likely to have an abortion if marriage were better supported culturally and politically in America. A woman in a stable two-parent marriage, who knows that they can afford another child, is far less likely to have a physician terminate the baby’s life. So what can government do to undergird marriage and family, especially for the poorest Americans? We don’t know.
But to evangelicals and faithful Catholics, the core ethical issue is not complicated: abortion ends the life of arguably the most vulnerable person in our society, the unborn child. Unlike many of the “structural” sins we lament, abortion happens at a specific place and time, to a living victim who does not deserve to die. That elegant but grim simplicity is one of the main reasons why the pro-life movement is alive and well almost a half-century after Roe v. Wade.
Another reason that pro-life sentiment has remained strong is that this moral issue flows with the current cultural trend toward protecting victims in America. Protecting victims (appropriately) has become perhaps the most compelling type of moral cause even for secular Americans (as seen in the #MeToo movement, the anger about police violence against African Americans, and so on). Who is a more vulnerable victim than the unborn infant?
The clarity of the pro-life cause is also the key to the enduring white evangelical attachment to the Republican Party, in spite of the GOP’s manifest faults with Donald Trump at the helm. At the time of Roe, Democrats had a deeper pro-life tradition than did Republicans, but Republicans saw a major opportunity to attract Catholics and white evangelicals with the pro-life issue. (In spite of some historians’ erroneous claims, key evangelical outlets and organizations such as Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals immediately condemned Roe when it came down).
Many white evangelicals in 2020 might appreciate a realistic alternative to the boorishness and chaos of the Trump presidency. Joe Biden may not be the most articulate person, and he may well get run over by the extreme left wing of the party, but he’s a tempting choice after four years of Trump. And yet. And yet. Biden’s increasingly hardline pro-abortion views, especially in light of his former moderation on the issue, make him a deeply problematic alternative. (See further explanation on this problem from Justin Taylor.)
I have been reading an advance copy of Daniel K. Williams’s The Politics of the Cross, who makes about the best case I have seen against a pro-lifer’s uncritical attachment to the GOP. Overturning Roe has proven futile for pro-lifers, though the looming appointment of Amy Coney Barrett has breathed new life into that old strategy. State-based efforts to limit abortions have proven somewhat more successful, thanks partly to the proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers, which provide exactly the type of financial and social support that can help tip wavering mothers over to the choice for life.
Williams notes that the Democrats’ promotion of financial support programs for the poor may have the ironic effect of being more functionally pro-life than Republicans’ opposition to Roe, which often seems more obligatory than sincere. If all working women could receive living wages, for example, it would certainly reduce the number of abortions performed out of a sense of financial or familial desperation. Single women are more likely to be poor, and unmarried women account for 86 percent of all abortions. So maybe one of the best things we could do to actually reduce abortions would be to enhance the financial and health safety net for working women (though again we would debate about what programs work to empower the poor).
In spite of his apparent recent adoption of pro-life views, and nomination of pro-life judges, Donald Trump’s longtime image as a womanizer and playboy (even appearing on the cover of Playboy itself) comes straight out of the pro-abortion culture, too, with its embrace of pornography, recreational sex, and marital infidelity. Williams argues that many Christians have a valid rationale for voting for Democrats, who (in this line of thinking) are more pro-life than Republicans in practice, though he believes that Christians who do so are under a special obligation to publicly condemn the Democrats’ rigid pro-choice stance with regard to the act of abortion itself.
And yet. And yet. Democrats, led by Biden, have moved from the 1990s mantra of “safe, legal, and rare” to demanding unlimited, taxpayer-supported abortion access as a universal right. More troubling still is Biden’s flip on the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of taxpayer money to pay for abortions. Biden, like many older Democrats—especially Catholics—used to support the Hyde Amendment, but he caved in order to become a leading contender for the Democratic nomination. As Williams notes, if Hyde was repealed, the use of taxpayer funds would likely increase the number of abortions in America by the hundreds of thousands. Their desire to repeal Hyde makes it tough to sustain the argument that Democrats are really more pro-life in practice than Republicans, however complacent the GOP may be on the issue.
There are myriad reasons why we might not vote for Donald Trump, from the administration’s constant chaos, to his race-baiting, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, and his hush payments to porn stars. But then we’re reminded of the elegant clarity of the moral case against the act of abortion itself, and it feels like we’re back to square one: only one party nominally objects to abortion per se.
This election, Christians will undoubtedly land at points across whole range of voting conclusions: reluctantly voting for Trump, reluctantly voting for Biden, voting for a third-party candidate, or not voting for president at all. I have a harder time understanding the Christian voter who is zealously enthusiastic about any of these choices. May the Lord use this season to help us to stop putting our trust in princes.