The right to live

Author: Dan Philpott

“Abortion opponents.” “Anti-abortion movement.” “Speeches and prayers blasted over loudspeakers.” “Conservative causes such as theirs.” These were the phrases with which a Washington Post story characterized the Jan. 22 March for Life in the next day’s newspaper.

The story appeared in the Metro section, not the national news section. An Internet version of the story contained a slideshow in which three out of seven photographs featured pro-choice counterdemonstrators, who numbered fewer than 100 in contrast to the tens of thousands of pro-life marchers. The New York Times, ABC, CBS, NBC and NPR said nary a word about the march. Behind all of these journalistic treatments lies a tired and familiar view of the prolife movement as an insular, angry religious enclave that is marching backward against history’s inexorable march towards maximal autonomy and individual rights.

Here are some alternative phrases to describe the marchers. How about “civil rights activists”? Or “human rights protesters”? Or even a “peace movement”? These terms, I venture, portray the march more accurately as a cousin of Vaclav Havel and the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989, of Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent marches of the 1920s and 1930s and of the American Civil Rights movement. I predict that the pro-life movement, like these other causes, will one day be viewed by a broad consensus of people as a bright segment of what Dr. Martin Luther King called the long moral arc of the universe that bends towards justice.

Skeptics will bristle at these comparisons, but in three essentials the pro-life movement belongs in this great tradition.

First, it is a movement for human rights. Like all human beings, the fetus possesses inalienable human rights, just as do slaves in America, Bosnian Muslims, Rwandan Tutsis and global victims of sex trafficking. Today, unborn persons amount to an entire class of human beings who are excluded from the most basic of all human rights, the right to live. In America more than a million of these humans — the most weak, vulnerable, and voiceless of humans — are killed every year, some 50 million since 1973. Two million are killed every year in India, seven million in China, and more than 42 million worldwide.

Though leading human rights organizations rarely mention the unborn, their human rights are violated in numbers that far exceed those of the greatest human rights calamities of the post Cold War era, including the genocide in Rwanda and wars in Yugoslavia, Sudan or the Congo. In pleading for the legal protection of the human rights of the unborn, the marchers advocate for nothing other than what is prescribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international legal covenants and the Declaration of Independence.

Second, the pro-life movement, like history’s other great protests, is a popular grassroots movement, easily the largest of our time. Thirty-six marches had taken place before this one, and the event has brought some 200,000 marchers (by some estimates) to Washington D.C. annually since 2003. Though other single protest marches have been larger, what other cause can boast such en masse consistency?

By and large it was a happy march. Clever and colorful banners marked civic groups and church groups from Kansas, California and Pennsylvania. A high proportion of teens and college students exuded the spirit of a youth rally. “Byzanteens for Life,” one group of Orthodox Christians called themselves. Many groups sang hymns; ours sang Notre Dame’s alma mater.

Inviting a better future

A third resemblance between the pro-life movement and previous great protests is vaguer but still important: it does not simply denounce injustice but also invites a better future. Just as Dr. King not only condemned racism but also raised the vision of a nation where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” the pro-life movement has followed Pope John Paul II in calling for a “culture of life” where even the least “useful” are valued and protected. Not one message at the march condemned women who had chosen abortion. Featured rather was the “Silent No More” campaign of women who spoke of the devastating impact of abortions on their lives. Thousands of marchers are involved in pregnancy centers that help pregnant women find viable alternatives to abortion.

Exceptions must be acknowledged. Some voices and some placards were bitter and vituperative. But these were a small minority. What I discovered at the March for Life was not the cause of the angry, the insular and the frightened but rather the cause of Saint Peter Claver, who defended the rights of the slaves in the New World in the 17th century; of William Wilberforce, the English evangelical who pleaded for the end of the slave trade year after year until finally achieving victory in the 19th century; of Gandhi and King and Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa; and indeed of the God who hears the cry of the poor.

Dan Philpott is a Notre Dame associate professor of political science and peace studies.