I was recently asked what kind of criticism comes from pro-life people regarding the political activities of the pro-life movement. Such criticism does come regularly, and, interestingly, it takes two contradictory forms.
On the one hand, many pro-life people claim our movement is not strong or aggressive enough politically. They complain that we do not set the standard high enough by which a candidate should be considered “pro-life”, do not hold their feet to the fire if they are elected, and do not elicit in them the fear that we can punish them politically.
In particular, pro-life people are fed up with what they perceive to be a failure of the clergy to do what is needed to stop the killing. One problem here is an unwillingness to carry out those activities that the IRS indicates Churches may do and still maintain their 501 (c)(3) status — such as non-partisan voter registration drives and voter guides that do not directly or indirectly endorse or oppose candidates, parties or their positions. Often, this inactivity is accompanied by outlandish, exaggerated, and inaccurate portrayals of what IRS guidelines require, and those who put forward these portrayals have no expertise in that area of the law.
On the other hand, a criticism many pro-life people voice is that the pro-life movement is too political, too partisan, and too identified with the Republican Party. The real weakness here is a lack of understanding of what “non-partisan” really means. It does not mean that we have to avoid any activity that in fact helps a candidate or party. Rather, it means that we pursue the goals for which our Church or 501(c)(3) organization was established without regard for whether they help or hurt a particular candidate or party.
Ironically, therefore, the very complaint that an activity helps a candidate is in the end often more of a partisan action than is the activity against which the complaint is leveled — simply because the complaint shows more concern about helping or hurting the candidate than the activity does. For instance, the bishops teach that life is the fundamental right, and that concern for this right carries more weight in our voting decisions than other issues. Now indeed, such a teaching helps pro-life candidates and parties, and hurts pro-choice candidates and parties. But being non-partisan doesn’t mean we keep silent. It means we speak no matter what, and moreover, it means that if tomorrow the parties or candidates swapped their positions on abortion, our message would not change a single word.
So, another political season is upon us. I, for one, will be more aggressive than ever. As for who qualifies as “pro-life,” I prefer to speak (and listen) in descriptive rather than evaluative terms: what is this candidate willing to do to protect the babies? Don’t give me labels, give me specific commitments.
And as for being partisan, I belong to neither major party, and will continue to challenge both to protect the unborn.