In my years as a seminary professor of ethics (Knox Theological Seminary, 2000–2008), I saw few things more sinister and devious than the seemingly innocuous statement, “a biblically shaped commitment to the sanctity of human life compels us to a consistent ethic of life that affirms the sanctity of human life from beginning to end.”
That’s not because life isn’t sacred from beginning to end, but because those who use it do so consistently to hide serious ethical confusion.
Recently a group calling itself “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden,” spearheaded by long-time leaders of the evangelical Left Ronald Sider and Richard Mouw, released a statement that begins, “As pro-life evangelicals, we disagree with Vice President Biden and the Democratic platform on the issue of abortion. But we believe a Biblically shaped commitment to the sanctity of human life compels us to a consistent ethic of life that affirms the sanctity of life from beginning to end.”
It continues, “Poverty kills millions every year. So does lack of healthcare and smoking. Racism kills. Unless we quickly make major changes, devastating climate change will kill tens of millions. Poverty, lack of accessible health care services, smoking, racism and climate change are all pro-life issues.”
What many people won’t recognize is that this statement twists the meaning of “pro-life.”
As I demonstrated in my booklet “How Does the Creation Care Movement Threaten the Pro-Life Movement?,” this use of the term “pro-life” runs directly contrary to standard dictionary definitions, all which define “pro-life” as opposition to abortion — not opposition to hunger, not opposition to poverty, not opposition to practices that lead to poor health — opposition to abortion.
Merriam-Webster defines it tersely: “opposed to abortion.” Collins defines it in two slightly different ways: in American usage, “opposing the legal right to obtain an abortion”; in British usage, “(of an organization, pressure group, etc) supporting the right to life of the unborn; against abortion, experiments on embryos, etc.”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “supporting the belief that it is immoral for a pregnant woman to have the freedom to choose to have an abortion (= an operation to end a pregnancy) if she does not want to have a baby” or “opposed to the belief that a pregnant woman should have the freedom to choose an abortion (= the intentional ending of pregnancy) if she does not want to have a baby.”
On Wikipedia, “pro-life” redirects to “Anti-abortion movement,” which begins, “Anti-abortion movements, also referred to as pro-life movements, are involved in the abortion debate advocating against the practice of abortion and its legality. Many anti-abortion movements began as countermovements [sic] in response to the legalization of elective abortions.” Significantly, it immediately adds, “Abortion is defined as the termination of a human pregnancy accompanied by the death of the embryo or fetus.”
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So in Standard English usage — American and British alike — “pro-life” describes opposition either (most commonly) to abortion, a procedure that, if it achieves its intended purpose, produces a dead baby, or to (not therapeutic procedures intended to heal but) experiments on embryos that also produce dead babies.
Far worse, “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden” demonstrates two serious failures in ethical thinking: the failure to distinguish between intentional and accidental harm, and the failure to distinguish between death, on the one hand, and lesser harms, on the other. The Bible clearly makes those distinctions, with important consequences (see, for examples, Exodus 21 and 22).
By failing to make these distinctions, “Pro-Life Evangelical for Biden” obscures the meaning of “pro-life” and undermines the pro-life movement.
In abortion, every “successful” procedure intentionally kills a human being. Poverty, lack of health care, and smoking often lead to poor health and sometimes to death, but none of them involves someone intentionally killing another person — and neither does climate change, regardless whether you think it’s catastrophic and primarily manmade or benign and primarily natural. And while racial bigotry does involve unjust intent, it rarely leads to intentional killing.
Another serious ethical failure in this statement is confusing negative rights (against harm) with “positive rights” (to benefits). As I demonstrate in my booklet Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, negative rights are consistent and enforceable, but “positive rights” are inherently self-contradictory and unenforceable. Your negative right against assault and battery doesn’t contradict any right of mine. My “positive right” to a “universal basic income” or “adequate health care” can only be enforced by the state’s willingness to violate your negative right against the forcible taking of your property to pay for it.
Negative rights are the implication of true, Biblical justice; positive rights are the expression of Marxist/socialist egalitarianism.
Thoughtful Christians, no matter which candidate they prefer for President, should see right through “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden.”
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and author of over a dozen books on Christian theology, ethics, and economics.