The 2014 March for Life is upon us—an event that each year, on January 22nd, manifests the pro-life convictions of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Since 1974, the goal of the March has been clear: to demonstrate an unfailing commitment to the dignity of unborn human life, and to resound a tireless cry against the atrocity of legalized abortion. The number of marchers has grown considerably in recent years, with 2013 pulling over half a million participants. As a result, it’s hard to find—at least along the East Coast—any school, church, or youth group that isn’t at least partly represented in the ranks. It’s safe to say that the March is an icon of a young generation, and its popularity shows no signs of slowing.
Yet it’s also no secret that since the early days of the March, pro-life activism on the whole has grown increasingly fragmented, and—quite frankly—a little stuck. If the ramped up participation each January signals a greater number of Americans concerned to protect innocent human life, it does not necessarily represent a growing consensus on what defending such life looks like, or on ever more nuanced prudential choices we each face in “standing for life” in our own circumstances.
The March for Life is a good thing—please let me be clear. But its merits are not absolute. And we do well—especially those of us who believe that our individual efforts can make a difference—to recall that popularity and principle are often inversely related. The very reason that the March has grown popular is, in some ways, the reason its principles are less obvious. Let me explain.
The aim of the March, as ever, is to defend life and once again criminalize abortion. But whereas in 1974 the path to that goal was clear—overturn Roe v. Wade—the last 40 years have introduced manifold new legislation, quandaries, and considerations for which pro-lifers must account. While the spread of an unmistakable “culture of death” has helped to galvanize sentiment against abortion, the actual means by which human dignity should be protected are murkier than ever. In 2014, only some pro-lifers would agree—or, indeed, even realize—that judicial process might factor meaningfully into abortion’s demise.
Beyond “mission” concerns, the March for Life faces a profound challenge, as well, since at its core, like any other social institution, it relies on the stability of local communities (in this case, moral communities) in order to thrive. It’s no secret that while numbers at the March have grown, American consensus on sexual ethics—a pillar of the “culture of life”—has wholly waned. More alarming than simple attrition, though, is the actual impact that this moral sea change has wrought: namely, an emerging belief that not only are moral values relative, if even possible at all, but that the rejection of traditional sexual ethics will have no effect on society. According to Gallup’s latest poll on same-sex marriage, for example, 22% of 18 to 29 year old Americans—a major constituency of the March—believe that same-sex marriage will harm society, while 43% believe it will have no effect at all.
It’s true that many marchers—indeed, the great majority—identify with the segment of Americans who maintain the value of consistent sexual ethics, but I’d venture that a growing number don’t. (Experience traveling to the March with schools and youth groups, for example, has taught me that it’s very realistic to find a strong desire to save babies alongside ambivalence towards “free love.”) And this trend is almost sure to continue. The same powerful sentiment that connects us to an unborn child, made even stronger through scientific progress, is also stirred in favor of those among us—an increasing and ever more familiar lot—who profess and practice a morality at odds with sexual consistency.
If I’m permitted another thesis along these lines, many of the local communities that contribute to something like the March, too, are running on fumes: Many parishes and schools that once offered supportive moral narratives have been left pockmarked by a growing acquiescence to emotion over tradition. Here, I’m not talking specifically about orthodoxy versus heterodoxy, but instead the crumbling social infrastructure that accompanies modern culture. As a result, even some of the best Catholic youth programs, which do indeed profess the faith, are set up for failure atop shaky foundations. This comes full circle when participation in the March (as, again, many of us realize from experience) is taken as a metric of success for such programs; the leap toward a new type of society—one still, sadly, out of reach—relies on a springboard that is about to collapse.
This might all seem a bit sour. Again, I’ll say, none of it makes the March for Life less good. But it should force those who promote and participate in the March to ask a new, likely uncomfortable question: Pro-life instead of what?
The answer to this is not easily gained, as Alasdair MacIntyre showed by asking “Catholic instead of what?” The pro-life identity, much like Catholicism, was conceived at least partly in contrast to prevailing and popular trends. Yet just because abortion is the common enemy of pro-lifers does not mean that the pro-life movement is a compelling force. (In fact, I think it is, but for very different reasons that I mention below.) Changing the culture, like evangelization, requires not only identifying and naming bad things, but also providing relevant answers to the questions they pose. Without both, opposition to something—no matter how carefully construed—will fail to convince. What’s more, such relevant answers must account for the background beliefs and experiences of the “other side.” In 1974, the field was arranged much differently: not only was judicial pressure the clear political choice, but there existed a living memory of communities that could sustain society without abortion on demand.
The key difficulty facing pro-lifers now is that “good” and “bad” no longer make a significant difference to how most of society sees itself. What’s more, the lack of local moral communities makes practical alternatives to abortion less obvious to individual Americans. While the nation is still split near evenly along pro-life and pro-choice lines, the staying power of moral arguments against abortion is weaker than ever. This is not because “Killing innocent human life is wrong” is any less true than before, but because our interest in evaluating this claim has effectively been squelched.
Conversely, the power of strong communities—sustainable, local, evangelical communities—has never been more intriguing. Such communities are the object of our every “social” move, even if we can’t place a finger on them. Yet for all our zeal in seeking interpersonal relationships, our method is one obsessed with “safety”—safety in networking, in the ability to unplug at any moment and remove any risk that’s entailed by opening up beyond ourselves.
To all of this—to the question of “Pro-life instead of what?”—the March for Life serves an invaluable purpose. For one, as the banner of pro-life activism, it is still an enormous prick of conscience for a “culture of death” that, despite best efforts, relies on human flourishing to survive. The tip of the spear, however, and the greatest good of the March, lies in its unique ability to produce an intellectually honest type of community, one formed around universal, timeless truths of human goodness; most importantly, a community that includes risk at its very core. This is a decisive point, since the obstacles we face today in defending human dignity are not the type that can be overcome without sacrifice—the kind that’s learned by long bus trips and sleeping on gym floors, but which bears real fruit when applied to the even riskier prospects of our daily lives.
To be pro-life is to oppose abortion, sure. It’s to desire and work to make it illegal. But it is also to live the sort of life that begets others, as well as the institutions and cultures that allow human beings to flourish. In this way, especially, the March helps us to discover our real identity.