Whenever media coverage turns to the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, some pro-life advocates complain about receiving the label “anti-abortion,” a much narrower descriptor (with negative connotations) than the preferred “pro-life.” The “anti-abortion” label is seen as another example of media bias against the pro-life cause.

But a growing number of abortion opponents find the vague and ever-expanding definition of “pro-life” to be just as problematic. They may prefer “abortion abolitionists,” or they may use “pro-life” and “anti-abortion” interchangeably, seeing the latter as a worthy addition to a long history of labels indicating strong and persistent protest of injustice (think “anti-slavery” or “anti-trafficking” or “anti-war”).

The debate over the term “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” signals a much deeper divide. The pro-life movement is at a crossroads regarding how expansive its focus should be and what strategy will be most effective in ending violence against unborn humanity.

What’s in a Name?

The existence of a vibrant pro-life movement 45 years after the Supreme Court’s sanction of elective abortion marks it out from other social protests. There is no widespread movement to reinstate prohibition, or to revisit the question of women’s suffrage. In contrast, the pro-life cause continues to flourish, especially among younger generations.

But what does it mean to be pro-life? And should the focus of the movement be on ending abortion or something broader?

Broad View

In Catholic circles, many leaders have advocated for a broader understanding of what it means to be “pro-life”—a “seamless garment” of pro-life policies, that may include opposition to capital punishment, or support for the poor, or a compassionate take on immigration reform, and so on. In evangelical circles, younger leaders make the case that the pro-life movement is rooted in a biblical view of human dignity. “Pro-life from womb to tomb,” the saying goes.

Broadening the meaning of what it means to be “pro-life” is strategic. It strengthens the case against abortion by linking it up with other initiatives designed to protect and extend human flourishing. “Anti-abortion” conjures up images of the angry picketer shouting down women outside an abortion clinic. “Pro-life” puts the cause in wider context of affirming the image of God in all humanity.

Narrow Focus

The broader understanding of what it means to be pro-life makes sense to people who long for holistic and consistent thinking. But many activists believe that the broad view, by making the term “pro-life” encompass too many issues, turns away people who might be allies in one respect but not another. By confusing “pro-life” with a certain stance on immigration, or a certain view of gun control, or opposition to capital punishment, we lose momentum in maintaining unity around the central goal of protecting the unborn.

The narrow focus recognizes that people are inconsistent. This is why you will find people who affirm the value and dignity of the homeless, or of people with special needs, and yet maintain a pro-abortion perspective. Likewise, you can find people who advocate for the rights of the unborn but say demeaning and derogatory statements about immigrants. We should push for holistic thinking in our churches, but strategically and politically, the best approach is to partner with anyone, however inconsistent in their thinking, as long as they want to protect the unborn.

So, even though the pro-life movement includes work that goes far beyond opposing the legality of abortion (think of the thousands of volunteers who staff pregnancy support centers), the heart of the movement should stay focused on ending violence toward the unborn. Why not name “abortion” as the evil it is and set ourselves against it? Let’s not euphemize it with the “pro-life” term the same way abortion rights advocates did with “pro-choice.”

Broad or Narrow? 

The pro-life movement is at a crossroads. Should our focus be broad or narrow?

The narrow side sees itself as “abortion abolitionists,” in line with courageous people who sought to abolish slavery. Many younger activists find the “anti-abortion” label just as powerful as the label “anti-slavery” once was. There’s power in protesting one particular injustice.

The broad perspective pushes back: The abolitionists achieved the goal of ending slavery, but because it wasn’t unified on a broader vision of human dignity for black and brown people, the slave became the sharecropper, and segregation rushed in to fill the void.  

The narrow side pushes back again: But would slavery have been abolished apart from a targeted focus on ending that particular injustice? In order to move the needle, the focus had to be extremely narrow, right?

This is the crux of the debate. Should we demand consistency on a number of issues under the big umbrella of being “pro-life,” or should we allow for inconsistencies because we are united around a targeted, more manageable goal of accomplishing one particular achievement (overturning Roe v. Wade, for example)? Is there a way for groups with radically diverging views on a number of cultural issues (atheists for life, pagans for life, feminists for life) to focus on ending abortion?

By broadening the meaning of “pro-life,” we run the risk of alienating people who would join forces with us against the travesty of abortion. By narrowing the meaning to “anti-abortion,” we make room for inconsistencies that may seem hypocritical and harm the overall cause.

Pro-life or anti-abortion? There’s a lot riding on the name.