Are You Really Pro-Life?

About two weeks ago, Nicholas P. Carfardi of the National Catholic Reporter, wrote a brief opinion piece and asked who was more pro-life, Obama or Romney?  He argued that although Obama is clearly pro-choice, he is actually more pro-life than Romney, because Romney profits from abortions and supports cuts in federal spending that might actually increase the abortion rate. Carfardi did not go further to redefine the term pro-life or call on Catholics and other anti-abortion groups to address this term in a more nuanced and complex manner.  I wish he had, because he may have addressed the hypocrisy that lies beneath the term.  Look, as a self-exiled Catholic, I am very well aware of the Church’s stance on abortion.  I am also familiar with the history of abortion.  But that is not what I want to focus on today.  The term “pro-life” needs a new definition.  There is much more to being pro-life than just praying, preaching, marching, and legislating for the rights of the fetus.  Being pro-life means advocating for the rights of babies, children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly.  If you are going to claim you are pro-life, then you must support the life outside the womb, not just the one attached to the umbilical cord.  So, are you really pro-life?

Being pro-life means that you believe that ALL women deserve access to good prenatal health and that ALL newborns deserve good health care:  In the early twentieth century there were an estimated 132 infant deaths per 1000 live births and of the 2,500,000 babies born in the United States in the early 1910s, around 300,000 died before they turned a year old.[1]  Maternal mortality was also extremely high; approximately one mother in 154 live births died during or right after childbirth.  Since women averaged five pregnancies in their lifetimes, one in 30 might die due to complications.[2]  Persistently high infant and maternal mortality rates pushed many doctors, reformers, and government officials to seek medical and political solutions.  Prenatal care, maternalist policies, and government bureaucracy shaped the public discourse in a way that focused on maternal, infant, and child health and well-being as necessary to the future of the nation.  Not all policies were successful, but given the precariousness of labor and delivery and high mortality rates, heightened public concern, especially at the federal level, signified that maternal and infant health was no longer a private but a public affair.

Now you might ask, things must be so much better today, right?  We have the best medical care in the world, with the best doctors and hospitals making sure that every mother and baby remain healthy, correct?  Not exactly.  In 1960, we ranked twelfth in the world in infant mortality, and today, we are thirty-fourth.  In fifty years, the country that arrogantly boasts about its premiere health care, dropped twenty-two spots, during which time we also experienced tax cuts, an expanding military-industrial complex, the rise of HMOs and the GOP, the attack on the Great Society, the end of welfare, and the movement of the Democratic party to the center.  As for maternal mortality rates, we rank fiftieth.  Yes, in the world, there are forty-nine countries that do a much better job of keeping mothers alive.  In fact, since 1987, maternal mortality rates have doubled.  Why? The answer is complex, but as in the early twentieth century, race and socio-economic conditions play a huge role in the care that women and babies receive before and after birth.

There is nothing pro-life about allowing the U.S. to rank 34th in infant mortality and 50th in maternal mortality.

Being pro-life means you believe that access to good health care is a right, not a privilege: Mothers-to-be and babies are not the only ones who deserve good health care.  All individuals deserve that right.  But for the 49 million individuals who have no health insurance, and the 38 million who are underinsured, good health care is a luxury.  For the past three years, we have the heard the battle cry “Socialized medicine is EVIL!”  But it is not the first time a variation of these words have been uttered. The history behind health care reform reflects missed opportunities, self-interests rather than collaboration, and no unified grassroot movement.  Various groups, throughout the twentieth century, understood the need for health care reform, but the inability to connect the top (the AMA, politicians, economists, labor leaders) with the bottom (workers, activists) as well as the dirty word “socialism,” left the U.S. as the only developed country without universal health care.[3]

Because the problem has been left unsolved, uninsured individuals’ medical costs exceed 125 billion dollars a year, and for the underinsured, their health care costs rose as their insurance premiums escalated.  Both groups ration their health care, only seeking medical care when it becomes an emergency.  Many find that they have to choose between paying for the doctor or groceries.  And if you think both groups have no impact on your life, think again.  Those who have adequate health insurance can pay an extra $1,000 a year because of the uninsured and underinsured’s medical care costs.  At the same time, the average family, who has health insurance, will spend approximately just over $20K for health care.  In 2010, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which would stave off health care costs and ensure that 95% of individuals have health care when it is fully implemented.  It is not perfect, but the people who decry it is socialized medicine and sneer as they say the word ObamaCare, are many of the same people who claim to be pro-life.  These are the same people who will repeal and/or support the repeal of ACA when given the first opportunity, threatening the health of millions as medical care costs continue to skyrocket.

There is nothing pro-life in wanting to save a fetus in utero, but kicking its health care to the curb after birth.

Being pro-life means you believe unemployment, welfare, and Social Security are not entitlements:  On August 14, Geoff Nunberg published an excellent piece on entitlement that examined the root of the word.  It actually has two meanings, but as he points out, when entitlement is applied to the role of the government, it takes on a negative connotation.  He writes, “When people fulminate about the cost of government entitlements these days, there’s often the implicit modifier “unearned” lurking in the background. And that in turn makes it easier to think of those programs as the cause of a wider social malaise — that they create what critics call a “culture of dependency” or a class of “takers,” which are basically ways of referring to what the Victorians called the undeserving poor.”

Who are the undeserving poor or better yet, who are the deserving poor? During the twentieth century, concerns regarding who did or did not deserve government assistance were built on specific ideas of race, gender, age, and class.[4]  In short, welfare recipients (“unwilling to work”), undeserving.  The elderly and unemployed (but able to work), deserving.  But with the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the line blurred between the two.  The unemployed definitely deserved support in the beginning, but then found themselves labeled semi “welfare queens/kings” as the recession deepened and their benefits lengthened in time.  As for welfare, its “traditional” existence ended in 1996, but for the most part, the stereotype of the “welfare queen” still remains.  Additionally, Social Security and Medicare became identified as “entitlement” programs, which now casts some doubt as to whether or not grandma and grandpa truly deserve those benefits.  Each are being partially blamed for some of America’s social and economic malaise.  Those habitually unemployed could get jobs if they really looked.  Welfare recipients (which might in fact be former unemployment recipients) are just lazy and unreliable.  And the elderly?  Well, with baby boomers now retiring in increasing numbers, a group that was once respected is now considered a burden.  They have become takers and contribute to this “culture of dependency.”  Dependency on a government handout is bad, very bad.  (Oh, unless it is corporate welfare, then it’s ok.)

There is nothing pro-life in stating corporations are people, deserving of corporate welfare, but the old woman living on a fixed income shouldn’t feel entitled to her Social Security.

So are you pro-life? 

There are approximately 1.3 million abortions per year, but over 4 million babies born each year in the U.S.  4 million each year to feed, to clothe, and to educate.  4 million each year who will grow up and grow old.  4 million each year who need parents who can support their growth.  4 million each year who need a country that looks out for their well-being from the first cry to the last breath.  4 million each year who will need jobs, a place to live, and funeral arrangements.  4 million each year who need good health care.  4 million each year who might have families of their own.  4 million each year who might be in search of a good latte one day.

Look, before you hit the reply button and write some scathing comment, which I will just delete, think about those 4 million babies born each year.  Do not claim to be pro-life unless you are praying, marching, and legislating as hard to support the 4 million babies born every year as you are for the 1.3 million fetuses aborted in that same time.  And please do not claim to be pro-life if you support individuals and a political party who clearly have no interest in life, unless it’s the life of the GOP.  If you are not advocating for all life, I am not sure what you should call yourself, but you are certainly not pro-life.

[1] Kriste Lindenmeyer, “A Right to Childhood”: The U.S. Children’s Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912-46 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 43.  See also,b See Molly Ladd-Taylor, Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Joanne L. Goodwin, Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform: Mother’s Pensions in Chicago, 1911-1929 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997); Linda Gordon, Pitied but not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Alisa Klaus, Every Child A Lion: The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 1890-1920 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); and Robyn L. Rosen, Reproductive Rights: Reformers and the Politics of Maternal Health, 1917-1940 (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2003).

[2]Judith Leavitt, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)

[3] See Beatrix Hoffman The Wages of Sickness (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2001) and Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States (University of Chicago Press), to be published in October 2012

[4] See Michael Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America, 10th edition, (New York: Basic Books, 1996) and Walter Trattner From, Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America, 6th edition (New York: Free Press, 1999).

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Great piece. I have often made similar arguments to my relatives when they ask me to join them in one or another “pro-life” demonstrations. (No matter how often I voice my “pro-choiceness,” they continue to ask. It’s part of what I consider the blinders of radical conservatism.) In my classes, I choose to use the term “anti-choice” or “pro-fetus” to define those against abortion. They are much more accurate monikers. Unfortunately, the pro-choice segment of society has for far too long allowed the anti-choice segment to define the terms of the debate. As you so eloquently wrote, to be pro-life should mean to support all life, not just the lives of the unborn. The mental acrobatics one has to perform to fail to recognize the hypocrisy of opposing abortion as a celebration of the beauty of motherhood one minute then damning so-called welfare queens who dare to want to stay home and take care of their children the next has always amazed me. It’s the same kind of leap of “logic” one must make to be both anti-gun control and anti-choice. How one can argue against gun control because the government shouldn’t be THAT involved in one’s life while also maintaining that the government should decide whether or not a woman can end an unwanted pregnancy makes no sense. I once saw a bumper sticker that hit the nail on the head. It read something like “I’ll keep my laws off your guns, if you keep your laws off my body.” Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

Cheryl Lemus

Thanks Jennifer! I really appreciate your comments. I like that pro-choice advocates are using anti-choice to describe the other side and I thought before I wrote this piece that maybe pro-life was no long in use. Then of course Ryan was chosen as Romney’s running mate and the term pro-life is experiencing a comeback.


I agree with the basic argument, and I have always said to be pro-life, one must except responsibility for all life outside of the womb as well as the fetus; however, I feel the article misses the mark in many ways. First, infant and maternal death rates dropped not due to more medical interventions during labor and delivery, but due to the introduction of penicillin, that just happened to take place at the same time. The interference of the medical community in labor and delivery is precisely why we rank so high in comparison with other countries in infant and maternal mortality, as well as unneeded medical interventions like inductions and cesareans, which of course lead to the above mentioned high mortality rates. This article advocates for more money spent in prenatal, maternal, and infant care, which is lovely if the money were put towards educating women and the medical professionals about healthy, normal, natural ways to birth babies, but I doubt many midwives and other pro-natural birth and parenting advocates would see a dime of the funding. Second, the article spends a lot of time “blaming” the GOP for being less pro-life than they would like to believe themselves to be. Even though I mostly agree with this, and yes, it is true that the GOP has cut spending on welfare programs to protect and nurture life after it is no longer a fetus, placing direct blame on the GOP who probably make up the large majority of pro-lifers, does not get the point across, it only pisses people off. This article is obviously not intended for those of us who support both women’s rights and care of life of all ages, it is intended to directly question the integrity of people claiming to be pro-life, but holding little regard for social policies that would help those lives they are so eagerly trying to save. I think the writer could be more affective and reach more people by re-defining pro-life to mean acceptance of all policies that promote life, without attacking an entire community of people, the one the writer is intending to reach. Third, promoting policies that protect life of individuals outside of the womb is a step on the road to reform; education is another step and a better starting point for those with whom we may not agree. Although I think this article makes a valid point, that pro-life should mean more than marching against abortion, I think there are better ways to reach an audience, and I am leery of an article that promotes more interference of the medical community in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum care.

mary ross

Really excellent op-ed. Shared it on Facebook. I saw a video the other day when someone went to an pro-life rally and asked the people carrying signs that said “Make abortions illegal” if women who had an abortion should be arrested, and what kind of punishment should they be given. Not one had thought about that, and no one wanted to punish the women at all. Interesting, huh?

B. Goodrich

>no one wanted to punish the women at all. Interesting, huh?

Indeed. Perhaps instead of the futile argument about is it or isn’t it a human life, all of us with a pro-choice mindset should begin asking the “pro-fetus” crowd exactly what they think should happen to women who are caught trying to or succeeding in terminating their pregnancy should Roe v. Wade be repealed, because even if it were repealed all women would not stop attempting to terminate their pregnancies. The punishment for one kind of premeditated murder cannot differ from that of another type of premeditated murder, can it? And in 33 states that penalty would be execution.


I do so agree, Since I worked during my pregnancy, without health insurance, I did not qualify for medicaid and I had to prepay for the hospital stay and all the trimmings up front before I could deliver at the local hospital. The only MD willing to see me was the one who happened to also work at the “clinic” 2 days a week and I passed protesters every time I visited. I had no intentions of terminating my pregnancy but I was cursed at and spit upon for walking through the door to receive the only prenatal care I could afford. The MD at the clinic saved both my and my baby’s lives when I developed toxemia. My son is now 24 and things have not improved for young women who have fallen through the cracks like I did. I hope well presented articles like this help the world to understand the injustice we do to mothers and infants alike with our “good intentions”


These terms (pro-choice/pro-life) are interesting. I have always been pro-choice, but that doesn’t mean that I am against life. In fact, I consider myself as both terms: pro-choice and pro-life. If more programs were in place to help poor women with care for their children, then perhaps more abortions wouldn’t be necessary. If more education were in place for both genders, perhaps more unwanted pregnancies wouldn’t happen. I didn’t want to have my choice taken away as a young woman and will always support choice for women in particular, who are left with the burden of raising children by themselves in higher proportions than men. And then those same women are looked down on by our society of workers, as women with children are considered liabilities as workers, since they will have to take time off for their children’s illnesses, etc. I was often working as a very sick woman during my years as a young mom, as I had such little sick time that I had to save it for when my son was ill. I will always be pro-choice. I do not consider myself as against life. I cannot stress that enough.

Larry Adams

“There are approximately 1.3 million abortions per year, but over 4 million babies born each year in the U.S. 4 million each year to feed, to clothe, and to educate. 4 million each year who will grow up and grow old. 4 million each year who need parents who can support their growth.”

That also means 4 million each year who can be used as cannon fodder for the ReplublCLOWN party’s military-industrial complex and their endless wars.


First, I’m not a republican and I am pro-choice. But I would like to say that I don’t think it is fair to say that the GOP “clearly has no interest in life,” especially when in reference to voters who are pro-life. I think the left often thinks very poorly of the right because they view them as greedy and uncaring for those less fortunate. Usually though it is not that conservatives believe the poor aught not to be receiving healthcare and other services but more of a question of who provides them. Before government began taking on such a heavy role in welfare of it’s citizens there was an extensive network of civic organizations that served these functions. Most voters from both sides of the spectrum want a high standard of living for every American they just disagree on how to get that result.
The country has become so divided on policy issues that debate about policy has all but squeezed out debate about governance. Since government has already acquired certain functions we simply take them for granted as legitimate government duties.

As you said there are 4 million babies born each year to feed, to clothe, to educate…who will need jobs, a place to live, funeral arrangements, who need good health care, who might be in search of a good latte one day. And those 4 million each year “need a country that looks out for their well-being from the first cry to the last breath.” But if we were to let the federal government take over these roles we would be handing over choices highly sensitive to individual needs to a giant bureaucracy making more or less the same blanket policy decision to a nation full of individuals. If we let the government dictate all or even most of those things listed above we would be moving towards legislating utopia (and in a free society there will never be an agreement on what utopia really is).

We are the people, not the government, ought to be feeding, clothing, educating, and providing healthcare for ourselves. There are 4 million each year who need parents who can support their growth, and a civil society that looks at for each other. Both “sides” want this, we shouldn’t be taking every disagreement as a black mark on someone’s character..


Reese, I am not sure anyone in the government would want to take on these roles if there was an actively engaged and successful alternative. It is not that government bureaucrats in a backroom get together and decide where they can regulate and control aspects of the economy or social welfare system for the hell of it. The government is filling gaps. Government steps up to support children, sinlge moms, etc,, becuase no one else is willing or able. the government enacts regulation because business or individuals if left to their own devices would not do the right thing. So of us who are pro-choice (and I honestly support your pro-life stance) question the motive of individuals and the Republican party in particular, when their actions conflict with their purported interests (life)


There are so many points to make but there is only time for a few:

It is telling that right up front that the teachings of the very Church which would agree wholeheartedly with the statements made regarding basic human rights and society’s obligation to meet them – are discarded as irrelvant to the discussion. That alone calls into question the purpose of re-defining the pro-life term. The logic used to equate the taking of innocent human life through a direct and intentional act with indirect and unintended loss of human life is to miss the point of why abortion is paramount to (although not exclusive of) other personal and societal moral obligations to protect life. Purposely shooting someone with a gun is decidely different than the carelss discharge of the same gun. The person will be just as dead however we recognize the crime to be fundamentally different because of the direct intent of the former and the unintended or indirect intent of the latter. Just so with abortion. It is different than the death of starving children – as tragic and unacceptalbe as that is. The moral laxity allowing for the starvation of innocent children through indifference pales in comparison to the purposeful destruction of an innocent unborn person As Mother Theresa said, “We must not be suprised when we hear of murders of killings of wars of hatred. If a mother can kill her own child what is left but for us to kill each other.”

There is and always shall be a vigorous and at times rancorous debate on how best to achieve the common good. Those differences of opinion on how best to achieve that good do not define a hypocrite. Saying what you will do and knowingly and intentionally doing otherwise defines a hypocrite.
The author closes with the statement:

“If you are not advocating for all life, I am not sure what you should call yourself, but you are certainly not pro-life.”

Using the same logic we could say those concerned with the protection of the endangered white rhinocerous from poachers without actively engaging in protection of their habitat cannot rightly call themselves conservationists. In fact, those who don’t protect the habitat are just another hypocritical poacher who doesn’t really care about the animal’s survival.

It is apparent that the author is indeed sure of what to call those who don’t advocate for all life: “Republicans.” It is unfortunate that such broad brushes condemn so many good people with every bit of concern about the poor and needy as those of other political persuassions.


I was making a similar argument to someone on Facebook recently, although you have done a better job. Great post, thanks.

Rose Samsel

Excellent piece! I hope many read this and take the time ti think about it. Anyone, at any time, can find the comfortable lifestyle they were living gone. And it reaches every corner of your life, kids, house, food , healthcare, clothing, school supplies, recreation, etc. To be poor is not shameful. But it is a growing problem that many prefer to ignore,even in their own families. Pro-life should extend beyond the womb. Otherwise it is pointless. It has become another political term that has lost its meaning, like liberal, democrat, republican, conservative, and ,of course, entitlement.


Hooray! I have often felt SO frustrated as a Catholic because I AM pro-life, and will be voting for Obama again this year because even though I detest abortion and would like to see a concerted community effort to make the practice unnecessary in most cases and the current president does not agree with me on this, I could never vote GOP given all I know about their anti-life stances.


Cheryl, thank you so much for expanding the definition of prolife. I cofounded an organization, All Our Lives, based on such a broader understanding of the term. How does it help children, born or unborn, and the women who carry and/or raise them, to deny lifesaving, lifeaffirming health care services?


Reblogged this on and commented:
Today’s Sunday “Blog” from the Past is by Cheryl Lemus from Nusing Clio which was written during the height of the 2012 Presidential campaign. In the post, she asked what it meant to be pro-life. She suggested that being pro-life more than just opposition to abortion.

As part of the post, she highlighted a column written by Nicholas P. Carfardi of the National Catholic Reporter that argued that Barack Obama was more pro-life than Mitt Romney. Carfardi focused on Romney financial investments in companies that profited from abortions and contraceptives. This same type of issue was recently brought up regarding Hobby Lobby. While Hobby Lobby was suing the federal government to prevent its employees from being offered 4 different types of contraceptives in their medical insurance, Hobby Lobby’s 401k plan invested in the same companies that make these products. It highlights an interesting divide between conservative and liberal activists. Liberal activists have always been strong proponents of consumer boycotts and demands for divestment, but conservatives appear to use these tactics less frequently.

Students on college campuses have vigorously pushed university endowments to divest from various companies on political grounds. In May, Stanford University’s endowment voted to sell shares in coal mining companies due to climate change concerns. Since Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut,” liberal activists have contacted and convinced many his long-time advertisers to sever their relationships to his show.

It is strange that social conservatives have not been as pro-active on this front. While Hobby Lobby was willing to sue the government to avoid providing specific contraceptives to their employees, they either never bothered to check or did not care if they were invested in the companies producing these contraceptives. This suggests liberals and conservatives approach activism very differently.

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