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  • I am unashamedly pro-life, but let me tell you what that means

I am unashamedly pro-life, but let me tell you what that means



I have always considered myself pro-life. It’s not something I’ve felt a need to wear as a badge of honour, rather it has always been a default position. But terminology matters. Indeed, frequently, calling myself pro-life has drawn the derision or raised eyebrows of people around me, nuns and priests and radical ratbags alike, it has connotations.

Last week when the United States Supreme Court’s intention to overturn the 1973 pro-choice decision Roe v. Wade was leaked to the media, the socials went crazy. All of people’s closely-guarded opinions emerged in tweets and posts which ranged from thoughtful to vitriolic.

I shared a meme or two and then instantly felt my stomach lurch when I saw that the comments were getting fiercely divisive. When I saw the three dots indicating someone known for their extreme views was about to make a comment, I retreated and deleted my post. The following day I read an article by Simcha Fisher in America magazine who had written a piece called ‘I’ve wanted Roe v Wade turned over my entire life: So why don’t I feel better now?’

Fisher shared her long journey of having parents who took her and her siblings to pro-life rallies and prayed for victims of abortion, and she made no secret about the awkwardness of taking such positions. But she sums up her discomfort: ‘it is one thing to know that people think pro-lifers are dorky and uncool and to decide that you can live with that. It is quite another to know that people think pro-lifers are anti-woman and anti-immigrant and anti-poor people — and the reason they think so is because the most public faces of the pro-life party cannot seem to stop saying so.’

In my early career I worked for the staunchly pro-life politician Senator Brian Harradine who was one of the best embodiments I’ve ever seen of someone applying their Catholic faith to their political life. He did not always get it right, but for almost 30 years, he made sure that he considered each issue in the light of the common good.


'The pro-life message has the potential to be one of beauty, the sanctity of life, the protection of the innocent. We cannot therefore limit it to single-issue politics, but rather, guard it and reimagine it in such a way that we truly defend all people.'


One of Harradine’s most famous deals was his attempt to protect human life by banning the abortion pill RU486’s entry into Australia, at the cost of the partial sale of Telstra. This was highly controversial and drew the ire of many. People thought he was either mad or delusional. He was simply trying to protect the vulnerable.

One of the difficulties of being associated politically of course means we get pigeonholed, and or, make deals or conscience votes in our own lives. For me, I always had a sense that being pro-life was about recognising that every human being has value, dignity and is a unique and unrepeatable gift.

Like many others, I have always grappled deeply with the ‘guilty by association’ feeling I get when I look at the pro-life movement. I have lived with people whose association with a pro-life organisation led them to pray the rosary each week outside Melbourne abortion clinic, while other members of the same household chose to live out their faith commitment on a committee for resettling refugees and delivering soup at inner-city boarding houses.

Of course, this idea of being in favour of all life issues is not a new argument. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago defended the ‘seamless garment’ argument, also known as the consistent ethic of life approach in the 1980s, arguing that while some may be more passionate about particular life issues than others, all should be given equal weight. He said: ‘a consistent ethic does not say that everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life … it is necessary for the church as a whole to cultivate a conscious explicit connection among the several issues.’

Some 30 years later, Pope Francis echoed this in Gaudete et Exsultate (rejoice and be glad) an Apostolic Exhortation on the call to holiness. He wrote: ‘Our defence of the innocent unborn for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life which is always sacred … equally sacred however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery and every form of rejection.’ (Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate #101)

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister (who is currently travelling in Australia) in an interview in 2004 argued in a similar vein. ‘I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.’

So, what does it mean to be consistently pro-life and why does America’s overturning of Roe v. Wade matter for Australians as we go to an election? It matters, because, as the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said in their pre-election statement: ‘no political party perfectly embodies Catholic Social Teaching’, and with so many Christian politicians who wear their faith on their sleeves, this is a problem.

Roe v. Wade being overturned will almost certainly mean a return to clandestine, backyard abortions in the US and Australian politics, while milder in nature, has a tendency to follow suit. A 2014 documentary called A Quiet Inquisition lays out the consequences of such laws in stark and devastating clarity as it depicts the deep struggle of obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Carla Cerrato in Nicaragua.

In this film, this dedicated doctor faces a daily choice between following a law that bans all abortions and endangers her patients, or taking the risk to provide life-saving care to female patients with pregnancy complications. Cerrato is, as most Nicaraguans are, from a Catholic background, but also sees the results of an extreme law that means even those who miscarry could be punished by law.

Up until now, I have yet to meet or witness a person in politics who consistently applies and understands how important the seamless garment approach is, despite its clear and obvious strengths.

Our approach in this country to refugees and asylum seekers for example, particularly those who come from Muslim-majority countries has been woefully inadequate, and has often been defended to the hilt by right-wing Christian politicians. Similarly, our approach to issues such as climate, poverty, natural disasters and indigenous Australians is hardly what one could consider pro-life, or even recognisant of basis human dignity.

The pro-life message has the potential to be one of beauty, the sanctity of life, the protection of the innocent. We cannot therefore limit it to single-issue politics, but rather, guard it and reimagine it in such a way that we truly defend all people, from womb to tomb and everything in between.






Beth Doherty is Diocesan Director for Caritas Australia in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn and author of the 2020 book All the beautiful things: finding truth, beauty and goodness in a fractured church.

Main image: Refugees walk along a railway line after they have crossed the border from Serbia into Hungary close to the village of Roszke near Szeged, Hungary. (Matt Cardy / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Beth Doherty, Pro-life, Abortion, RoevWade, Poverty, Refugees



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Existing comments

Firstly, it is pure supposition to say that overturning Roe v Wade “will almost certainly mean a return to clandestine, backyard abortions in the US.”
Roe was always considered, even by pro-abortionists such as Justice Ruth Ginsberg, to be bad law. The Supreme Court had ignored the Constitution and invented a Right of Privacy out of thin air in order to justify their decision. Federalism is the core of American governance. If Roe is overturned, it will not ban abortion but will simply refer the matter back to the States—meaning the people will decide.
Since the Roe decision, 61 million babies have been killed in the US.
Other bad decisions have been reversed, including Dred Scott v Stanford holding that African Americans could not be considered American citizens (leading to the Civil War), and Buck v Bell which upheld forced sterilization of citizens with intellectual disabilities.
Secondly, the Seamless Garment compels us to accept all, not some, of the Church’s social doctrine. Yet there is a tendency to flatten all moral issues to the same level of significance (treating the minimum wage as equivalent to the deliberate taking of an innocent human life) to evade this responsibility.

Ross Howard | 20 May 2022  
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You are quite correct Ross in saying that overturning Roe vs Wade will not ban abortion but rather return the question to the states but given the gerrymandering that is intrinsic to the electoral process across the US, it's a bit of a stretch to say 'the people will decide'.

Ginger Meggs | 22 May 2022  

‘Terminology matters’

It does. ‘Pro-life’ means ‘anti-abortion’. That’s all it means. It’s a clever, catchy label used by anti-abortion activists, so useful and catchy that ‘seamless’ is the irritated response of people (strangely, even those on the same general side) who want to dilute the profile of anti-abortion by insisting that there is a competing merit in other issues which justifies a Laodicean approach of hiding the anti-abortion endeavour like a mentally deficient relative in the attic or cellar.

There is no competing merit but there are aligned merits. However, attending to the aligned merits is a prudential matter of time, energy, place and, especially, calling or vocation from God. ‘Seamless’ is just begrudging the place of anti-abortion in the spectrum of causes which should attract the attention span of the public.

‘Seamless’ is also practised inconsistently. After all, if the presence of the death penalty in the world is such an important ‘pro-life’ issue, does the author spend half an hour in her home city, once a year, with a placard outside an embassy of a nation which uses the death penalty? Just one embassy a year will do. And just for 30 minutes a year. There are quite a few embassies from which to choose. But which one, prudentially speaking? Just, as in Greenham Common anti-nuclear bias, outside the US embassy?

The Greens have amassed a program of what they would regard as a consistent whole-of-life ethic ranging from personal freedom of behavioural expression through increased spending on certain government programs to legislation concerning the climate. If we want a similar whole-of-life Christian ethic to be captured in one party, perhaps we should consider standing a Christian party for the federal and state legislatures. If you do that, discussion and debate on what to propose on the floor will no doubt prove that Church is correct in defining some matters as intrinsically and indisputably moral or immoral and others only prudentially so and subject to differing opinions.

In other words, to expand the meaning of ‘pro-life’ beyond ‘anti-abortion’ isn’t as simple as it feels. In other words, ‘seamless’ is full of seams to trap the unthinking.

If Harradine were still alive, what would he think?.

roy chen yee | 20 May 2022  
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If former Senator Harradine were still alive, he would probably try to do a deal. Like offering to withdraw his opposition to something which was unimportant to him but very important to the Government of the day in exchange for something that was of critical importance to him but unimportant to the Government. I suppose it could be called 'transactional'.

Ginger Meggs | 22 May 2022  

"Your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed". Let us also add loving babies, valuing families and spouses. This means all the attitudes that would lead to women not wanting abortion. This means a society that makes adoptions easy, so that babies who cannot be looked after by their mothers can be properly mothered. This means education, of the witnessing kind, so that young women will know what they are doing and choosing. It also means being prepared to be taken in by a certain percentage of young parents who have babies for the government assistance they might get. A law banning abortion gets it right for the wrong reason. Society has much changing to do. Law is a bottletop forced on a bottle when there is much fermenting of the contents going on. Shouldn't governments admit there are things about which laws should not be made? We have two divisions, legal and illegal. How about "We don't make laws about that!" as a third category, or "Too divided to put into law at this time". Then educate, educate, educate.

Gerard Buzolic | 20 May 2022  

I remember reading, sometime in the mid 1960s whilst still at school, a quote in 'Time' magazine by a lay Catholic Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, which goes: 'A Christian view of Man makes sense'. Bringing the terminology up to date: 'Men and Women' it makes even more sense in today's fractured world. I think what you have said here, Beth, is very much in keeping with Catholic Tradition as exemplified in my favourite author, G K Chesterton. That Tradition, properly understood and explained, liberates. So much of various modern ideologies actually enslave people to the Great Delusion, whilst claiming a specious 'liberation'. Chesterton would say that, behind the face of the prophets of this specious 'liberation' and their many acolytes, there stands a great grinning face and that it is none other than that of the Evil One. His name is Satan. I am not normally one to say this straight out, but I think, in this instance, it needs to be said. The battle between Good and Evil still rages in our public life, but we have assurance of ultimate victory. All these false ideologies will, one day, crumble into dust as did the vast self-proclaiming statue in Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias'.

Edward Fido | 23 May 2022  

You have put in front of us the disconnect between the campaign by anti abortionists/pro life advocates to ban abortions for any reason and the reluctance of our society, particularly the right/conservative side of politics to provide the essential social services for the disadvantaged in our society, who are often a family , most likely a single mum, that face major problems raising children, particularly today in an inflationary environment, where wages are falling behind, while cost of living increases.
I suspect those who oppose abortion are often ignorant of the compelling reasons that a pregnant women has to make such a life changing decision.

Gavin O'Brien | 23 May 2022  
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'those who oppose abortion are often ignorant of the compelling reasons that a pregnant women has to make such a life changing decision.'

Anti-abortion agencies do more than protest outside abortuaries. They also provide counselling and other practical support.

roy chen yee | 07 June 2022  

You appear to have opened a can of worms with your article, Beth. Perhaps the term 'pro-life' should be changed to 'life affirming'. That would again stick in the craw of the 'pro-choice' lobby. Some pro-choice lobbyists can be just as much on the nose as some pro-lifers. There is certainly a need to address the issue of the rights of the woman having an abortion with the rights of the unborn child, who has no choice. I believe, in Catholic Theology, there is provision for a doctor to perform an operation where, to save a woman's life, he or she might, as an unintended result, cause the death of the child. This is not carte blanche to perform an abortion and the woman in question needs to be consulted right through the procedure. It is the same with unecessarily prolonging life when palliative care only may be the patient's desired option. This is not euthanasia. What really concerns me these days is the overt pressure exerted by some doctors on parents whose children may have certain genetic defects, like Down's Syndrome, to abort. This is getting us closer to Eugenics. The same sort of situation often occurs in the Belgium and the Netherlands in regard to euthanasia.

Edward Fido | 24 May 2022  

I am pro-life too and genuinely respect the important parallels you draw out between the importance of value of a life and the value of being afforded the opportunities for a fair and good life. But I also do not think we should glide over the difference between the two concepts. I will not go on at length about this tortured subject except to say that I think all lives matter, regardless of race, gender, chronological age etc, etc. , that is to say, I believe in universal inclusion, no discrimination, zero tolerance for violence etc. Thus I would suggest that abortion is only justified by compelling medical necessity, genuinely irreconcilable dilemma, never by a “choice”, a preference, an election. Most medical research data bases put this criterion of necessity at a low 2–4% of the estimated total of the 80,000 plus abortions in Australia each year. Life is never, ever easy but aspiring to be the responsible adult in the room can also furnish rewards that often consumption never will.

Michael Clanchy | 25 May 2022