President, for Life

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It is always painful to criticize someone you admire and consider a friend. But Jonathan Last—now the executive editor of The Bulwark, one of these new NeverTrump websites—has allowed his Trump skepticism to color his attitude, not just toward the March for Life but the pro-life movement in general. He gets a lot wrong along the way.

Everyone can certainly understand Jonathan’s concern that the Democratic Party now shuns pro-lifers within their own ranks. There is no place for them in what Ramesh Ponnuru called the “Party of Death.” Take, for instance, Kristen Day of Democrats for Life America. Ms. Day was completely shut down by Pete Buttigieg earlier this week at a  rally in Iowa. Mayor Pete balked at her suggestion that he court pro-life voters for the 2020 election. It’s painful to watch. You feel bad for Ms. Day, but you also realize how far removed she and her movement are from even the periphery of the Democratic Party. It is deeply regrettable that pro-life Democrats cannot gain any traction. They are up against massive amounts of money and power in their party.

Many pro-lifers started out as Democrats. I did. Nellie Gray, the founder of the March for Life, began as a “pro-labor Democrat.” But we haven’t had a home there for decades.

Jonathan is especially unhappy that Donald Trump became pro-life and accepted an invitation to speak at the March for Life in person, the first president ever to do so. Jonathan doesn’t believe Trump truly is pro-life because Trump has never “really [had] much truck with ideas about inherent human dignity.”

Jonathan cites the separation of illegal alien families at the border—a policy established well before Mr. Trump took the reins, and one that’s far more complicated than lefty talking points allow. He cites the case of Francisco Galicia, who was improperly detained by border security because they did not believe his identification was authentic. I am not sure what Trump had to do with this. Also, the Trump organization apparently sent out incorrect crime statistics on murders by race during the 2016 campaign.

Jonathan argues that these instances demonstrate that Trump does not believe in a “consistent ethic of life.” I am sorry to see that Jonathan has bought into the seamless garment, which is an effort by politically liberal Catholics to elevate things like the minimum wage to the moral level of 1.2 million abortions per annum.

Jonathan does not believe Trump is sincere in his pro-life beliefs. For me and many others, his sincerity is not relevant. I have always assumed he was not a true believer. He came our way because we brought him. He was probably pro-choice if he ever thought about the issue, which I doubt he ever did. But, when the time came to announce his candidacy, he knew he had to talk pro-life. (This, by the way, is one of the great victories of the pro-life movement. One cannot run for the GOP nomination without at least mouthing pro-life. One must assume Jonathan finds this problematic, too.) Trump also doesn’t care about elite approval, which means he has been willing to suffer their disdain when he acted pro-life and dared to stand in public with us.

I would point out that Trump has done more for the pro-life cause than any previous president. Jonathan pooh-poohs much of what Trump has done because the next pro-abortion president can reverse much of it. Too true. The Mexico City Policy, which forbids taxpayer money supporting abortion overseas, for instance, is a political football that is usually reversed on the first day of Democrat and Republican administrations. Still, he has done these things and much more than the true believer George W. Bush ever considered.

Jonathan asks, “Should the pro-life movement be welcoming Trump at the March for Life?” There is a central error here. I would argue that there is no such thing as the “pro-life movement.” It is not a single thing. The pro-life movement is broad and deep and vast, and this is our strength. If you are called to pray in front of clinics, there is a place for you. Do you want to challenge the leases of abortion clinics? You can do that, too. Sit in your dorm room and do phony phone calls to Planned Parenthood? That’s what Lila Rose did at UCLA, and she became a pro-life powerhouse. Do you want to help out at a crisis pregnancy center? There are thousands. You can even start one up, if you are called to do so. Or do you want to work on legislation at the local, state, national, or even international level? Join us!

I could go on and on and on about how multi-faceted it all is. People are sitting around a kitchen table or in a dorm room somewhere, cooking up the next pro-life initiatives. I think Jonathan’s complaint and his error are that the pro-life movement is one thing—the political thing—and that is simply false.

Related to the seamless garment claim, Jonathan also argues that pro-lifers should avoid narrowing the movement to abortion alone. I don’t know where he has been. Pro-lifers still work on bioethical issues, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and many others related to the taking of human life. And guess what? All the above—from the prayer warriors to the sidewalk counselors, legislative lobbyists, and political consultants—came to the March for Life.

Jonathan says that “lasting progress comes from changing the culture.” There are two errors packed into the claim that politics is downstream from culture. I would ask if the culture was prepared for abortion-on-demand or even gay marriage? No, they were imposed on the culture by elites. But the culture becomes comfortable with legal changes, even those that have been imposed upon it. The other error is the implied assumption that pro-lifers are not working on changing the culture. Most of the pro-life movement is concerned with changing the culture. I would also point out, pace T.S. Eliot, that “there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” Still, we hang around and fight.

Have pro-life efforts been harmed by too close an association with the Republican Party? We have heard this for decades. In all those years what has happened? The percentage of people identifying as pro-life has grown. According to annual polling by the Gallup organization in 1995, only 33 percent of Americans called themselves pro-life. Today it is 49 percent. The number has gone up five points since 2015.

On the other hand, in 1995, 56 percent of Americans identified as pro-choice. That number today is 46 percent. According to the Marist Poll, an overwhelming percentage of Americans want serious regulation of abortion; this includes those who identify as “pro-choice.”

Even before Mr. Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016, I wrote a column in these pages about how he “brings out the worst in our best.” I had in mind certain Catholic intellectuals who were all bent out of shape about the man and saying silly things they otherwise wouldn’t have. Jonathan has many good points—even in this column—but he desperately needs to get his Trump goggles adjusted. Of course, he would probably say the same thing about me! I sincerely hope that one day in the future we will sit down and chuckle about all of this.

Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images

Austin Ruse

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Austin Ruse is a contributing editor to Crisis Magazine. He is the author, most recently, of No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic (Sophia Institute Press, 2021).

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