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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Falling short?

<ntent advisory: the following article contains references to sensitive reproductive health issues.

In Northfield, I once met two older parishioners at my church in January, who told me they were glad to see a college student like me make it to Mass on Sunday. One of them said that he felt that way considering that I went to a “very liberal place.” It is not difficult to detect a hint of condescension in that phrase. I felt rankled, lumped together with all the other college students as some vast, liberal monolith to be feared. Having learned facilitation techniques and the importance of qualifiers, I put my Carleton education into practice, asking, “How do you mean by ‘liberal’?” The second parishioner immediately answered, “They’re not ‘for life’ over there.” At that point, the one thought that passed my mind was, “Oh dear—not again.” I should give some more context: the two parishioners were tabling after Mass for a pro-life advertisement meant to run in the Northfield News, run every year around the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

I had a quick question for the parishioner who answered me: “Don’t you think that sounds a little disingenuous?” There is good reason to think so, not merely because I wanted to defend not only myself but also my own colleagues who she assumed dismissively about. Claiming someone being “for life” means a lot more than the one cause she was behind a table for.

Like many others on campus, the phrase “pro-life” and the position it stands for comes with untold amounts of baggage, such that it feels dangerous writing about it since most students here are pro-choice. But my own difficulty with the term stems from another place: the difficulty of claiming the term and position. Like many others here, I style myself as a “liberal-progressive” of sorts, after the radical changes to my worldview that I expect people would experience in a dynamic community like ours. Yet at first appearance, the “pro-life” position weathered all the shifts in my own political positions.  Without even naming the position, I’m reminded that I still carry the pro-life position upon hearing that DNC chair Tom Perez, a pro-choice Catholic politician in the mold of Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi, waded into the debate on reproductive health by saying the pro-choice position is “not negotiable.” I have also been reminded of it in the past few weeks hearing about the petition to the college on the lease to the Northfield Women’s Center (i.e. the crisis pregnancy center in disguise).

There are strong, careful distinctions between the pro-life position and the “anti-choice” position, a more accurate term that encompasses the opposition we often conflate with being pro-life. And yet there is still overlap between the two positions, in that for some individuals, being pro-life means being solely anti-choice by default. The past few virulent decades of the anti-choice movement, fueled by pro-lifers, have reduced the pro-life position to near synonymy with anti-choice, even as reproductive health issues are hardly all there is of the pro-life position.

The pro-life position, a political position informed by some religious traditions (mostly Christian), in fact, encompasses a greater range of interconnected issues that affect one’s life. In my case, it’s grounded in Catholic moral and social teachings, ever evolving and dynamic in recognizing and upholding the dignity of the whole person. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who viewed these issues as part of a “seamless fabric,” wrote that assaults on life “[have their] own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.” A pro-life attitude thus extends towards positions on war, poverty, violence, racism, materialism, and other grand -isms that threaten human life in all forms and places. Even environmental issues are at play, as argued by Pope Francis in his recent encyclical on the “common home” of the Earth, Laudato ‘Si. Such insightful arguments for interconnectedness would not seem alien to the liberal mindset, aware of the complexity and relation of the issues that plague and harm human life today. Being pro-life should be, must be, comprehensive, in richer ways than what the vocal, dominant individuals preoccupied with reproductive issues would have you think. Claiming someone is pro-life simply on their stance on abortion and contraceptives is myopic and horrendously narrow-minded. You’ll want to know too about their position on military power, police brutality, and income inequality, among others, to really make that claim.

After reading more about the pro-life position in my time away from home, I’ve wanted to consider myself someone who is pro-life. There are many sentiments and goals in that position that I share with those who want to seek a just and free society, coming from different moral and ethical foundations. But know I cannot embrace the “pro-life” stance completely without its baggage, and what it means for those who faced prejudiced ideas and actions done in the name of that position. With respect to reproductive health issues, I acknowledge that as a male, I will never live and know the same experiences as others who are female or face similar experiences. To claim the “pro-life” position would set me apart at face value, in seeming to fall short of the idealized political liberalism we aspire to here at Carleton.

Admittedly, what “pro-life” means for me has changed, especially in my own positions on reproductive health. While I continue to feel uncomfortable theologically and personally with our society’s capability of performing abortions, I am by no means solely endorsing the anti-choice stance, or opposing the pro-choice stance. All reproductive decisions are undeniably complicated, given the economic and social factors that we don’t get told about in Sunday school. Moreover, not everyone shares the same exact theology as I do, and I do not expect others to impress theirs on mine. Even my personal theology has changed, as I would like to see more progressive discussions on sexual ethics and contraceptives anyway.(Fun fact: there are Catholics organized towards the pro-choice cause called “Catholics for Choice.” We too are a big tent.) My divergence from mainline theology is not some ballyhooed “moral relativism,” it’s recognition for the true depth of issues and a desire to be in genuine dialogue about those issues with everyone. I don’t have time for squabbles with those who seek to keep pro-life as relating to only a few issues. I am more interested in ways that we, along with elected officials, can take the initiative to seek common ways in truly upholding the dignity of every person, from addressing the causes of poverty to combating toxic misogyny. Now that’s what being for life should look like.

I still want to be part of that grand project towards a just and free society that we strive towards. I want to make sure every person matters in our world, their lives ensured. I bet you’re committed to this too, and you’ll need all the help you can get. So sign me up, baggage and all; we can work it out.

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