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    Against Pro-Life Triumphalism

    We pro-lifers can celebrate a legal victory, but then we need to get back to the hard work of supporting mothers and children.

    By Jane Clark Scharl

    June 27, 2022
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    • Ann Van Dyke

      This article stops short of proposing those "socialist" policies that would support women who mother, such as paid maternity leave, subsidized child care, universal health care etc. Data shows that over time abortions decline under Democratic administrations and go up under Republican administrations. It's all about the safety net. And let's not forget systemic racism. Minority women are more likely than White women to have an abortion. With all due respect a few church programs to help foster families or cancel medical debt do not address the root of the problem.

    • Leslie Chavez

      Is The Plough intrinsically against abortion? Where are the articles from Christians who support laws that allow abortion, while advocating for supporting women such that they do not choose abortion, but still have a legal choice?

    • Dani Nichols

      Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I’ve struggled to put my feelings into words - as an adoptive mom I understand the great cost of life but is there anything more worth sacrificing for?

    • Gil Jardine

      Yet women who chose to terminate a pregnancy now will have to go through a potentially dangerous event whether it's pregnancy to its conclusion or seeking a less than legal abortion. What shall those raped or molested do now as well? I fear we Christians have become heartless as well as shallowly triumphal.

    • Kelly Pilkinton

      Thank you for the practical ways Christians and churches can serve. I am a foster parent and see how so much, and so many fall through the cracks. Thank you!

    I remember thinking, as a teenager, “If only we could overturn Roe, that would be victory.” I imagined how we’d celebrate, those of us who have prayed and worked for so long to end abortion, who have seen that number every year creeping up – 50 million, 55 million, 60 million lives! All those Marches for Life, the colorful envelopes in church pews asking for donations, food and clothing drives for local pregnancy centers, tiny crosses representing the lives lost – all of this, teenage me thought, was leading up to the triumph that would be the overturning of Roe.

    Well, here it is. Roe is overturned. And it’s not the victory I imagined. Yet that could be, in a strange way, a blessing, if it reminds Christians not to be triumphalist.

    This is not what many want to hear. But it is what we must hear, or the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson will become merely a Pyrrhic victory for those who champion life. This phrase refers to the Greek king Pyrrhus, who defeated a Roman army against staggering odds, but took such terrible losses that his victory became the means of his defeat.

    The pro-life movement is poised on the brink of such a victory. If in winning Dobbs pro-lifers lose their will to do whatever it takes to protect the sanctity of every human life, they are inviting a deeper and bitterer defeat. Even now, many states are taking steps to make abortion available up until the moment of birth, while those states which plan to ban abortion have not come forward with cohesive plans for how to help women navigate an unplanned pregnancy. These states will have to make dramatic social and legal changes to support women and promote motherhood.

    Pro-life Americans have a chance right now to gain ground in this struggle but can only do so by turning all their attention and energy toward practical, tangible means of demonstrating their belief in the sanctity of human life. They must include policies that protect and promote women’s health and livelihood. But it will take more than policies. For pro-life Christians, Dobbs should be a pivot point, a chance to give thanks to God and immediately turn and look for where he would have us labor next.

    The Pivot

    This kind of pivot is not new; it is how Christians have long worked for justice in the American public square. Erika Bachiochi wrote for Plough recently about the roots of today’s pro-life movement in the women’s suffrage movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – a group that included many abolitionists who turned to the fight for women’s rights after ending slavery. Bachiochi points out that early “women’s rights advocates also regarded abortion as ‘the unwarrantable destruction of human life.’ But these women were unconvinced that abortion prohibitions, on their own, would alter the circumstances that caused desperate women to abort.”

    This is certainly the case. Women have sought abortions throughout history, no matter how severe the consequences. Pro-life Americans must heed the lessons of history and recognize that making abortion illegal must go hand-in-hand with a deep reconsideration of how society treats the vulnerable.

    In the wake of the Dobbs decision, I have been praying over the scriptural mandate to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” The rejoicing here is clear: I can rejoice with everyone who has worked to overturn an unjust law that denied the sanctity of all human life. The weeping is less obvious, but clear enough: most women – and men too – who choose abortion do so in tears, out of a sense of desperation. Hardly anyone delights in abortion. Almost invariably men and women (I include men here because conception, pregnancy, abortion, and birth are not only women’s issues; the illusion that they are is a large part of the catastrophe we are in today) choose abortion in grief, confusion, or dismay. They choose it because they feel alone and ill-equipped; because they cannot imagine juggling a baby and full-time work; because their parents or partners give them an ultimatum.

    Striking at the Roots

    This is where pro-life activists must begin the difficult work of addressing the root causes of abortion, cultural, moral, or economic. This last may be where we can have the greatest impact in the lives of others, but that will require acknowledging how intractably entangled those roots are with capitalism.

    I use the word “capitalism” with trepidation, for there are few flags of brighter red than this one, few totems of greater mystic value in the West. When I say “capitalism,” I mean the undergirding ideology of a society that values humans primarily in terms of productivity and consumption. In his 2015 book The Burnout Society philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes, “Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society.” Within such a world, only achievement is valued. And the lower one is in the social hierarchy, the greater the marginalizing effect of “lack of achievement.”

    What I mean by that jargony sentence is quite simple: it is harder for a lower-class woman to take time off for maternity leave than for a higher-class woman. The “lost achievement” is greater, and its ripple effect is wider. It is also harder for a woman who already has children and has clawed her way back into a career to step out again for maternity leave, or even barring leave, for the inevitable mental and physical fatigue that comes with the first eighteen months of caring for a new human. Then there are the expenses of paying for childcare, or the lost earning potential while caring for one’s own children. And there are few financial benefits to having children to compensate for all this – because in an achievement society, children are a detriment.

    Pro-life Americans must heed the lessons of history and recognize that making abortion illegal must go hand-in-hand with a deep reconsideration of how society treats the vulnerable.

    I have two children of my own. They are four and two, and I have only just begun to find my feet again in my work – that is, in my capacity as an “earner.” I want more children. But I am overwhelmed by the reality of having to either stop working – and stop earning money – or continue to work while utterly exhausted. I am overwhelmed by the reality that to have another child, my husband and I need to have thousands of dollars or be prepared to take on medical debt. I am coming to this from a very privileged position: my husband is committed to caring for me and our children; my family supports our having children; we are part of a religious community that provides meals and childcare when things get really tough. But it’s still overwhelming.

    In many ways, contemporary Western society teaches us that children, especially very young ones, are a disruption, a burden, a liability. Our entire culture is set up to disincentivize women from having children. It is difficult in America to have a single-income household. It requires discipline and commitment from both parents, and sacrifices from the whole family in terms of lifestyle, location, treats, vacations, and opportunities. For single mothers, the situation goes from challenging to heroic.

    Some Practical Ideas

    That’s why Christians who have fought Roe cannot see Dobbs as a triumphalist moment. Celebrate if you must, but then get right back to work. There are so many areas in which belief in the sanctity of human life has yet to penetrate deeply into our society, and the tasks at hand can feel overwhelming.

    We can – must – continue to advocate for pro-life government policies. But let’s face it: at the moment the real needs of parents facing an unplanned pregnancy do not seem to be what is informing pro-life political rhetoric or the policies of pro-life politicians. While political and legal skirmishes over the criminalization of abortion proliferate at the state level, how can individual Christians and churches care for women and children in a post-Roe world?

    There are, of course, crisis pregnancy centers across the country doing incredible work to support men and women in such situations. These crisis pregnancy centers are invaluable and deserve our support, but they cannot sustain a society on their own, let alone transform it.

    volunteers building a house

    Photograph by Craig Z. Rodarte

    Some of us may have the resources to provide short-term housing for a mother in need. But regardless of our means, we can seek out single mothers and offer practical companionable help. In my experience, all mothers could use help now and again, and even a small thing like picking kids up from school or making an emergency grocery run can make a huge difference.

    We can support foster parents. Fostering Hope pairs foster families with a local church or community to provide small supports such as help driving to appointments, meal prep, and occasional babysitting so parents can have a night out, as well as simple phone calls to check in throughout the week.

    We can encourage our churches and communities to participate in a medical-debt forgiveness charity program, possibly in partnership with a local pregnancy center. Some highly ranked programs include RIP Medical Debt and Dollar For. These programs allow charities to “purchase” and resolve medical debt for pennies on the dollar, and give families freedom from crushing debt.

    These are just a few of the ways we can demonstrate that we value every life. We are not here to win. We are here to serve. Serving can include securing legal protections for the vulnerable, as we’ve seen in the efforts to ban abortion, as well as in previous efforts such as the abolition and suffrage movements. But those victories themselves are not the end goal. The fight to protect the unborn in law is only part of the ongoing fight to defend the sanctity of human life.

    Contributed By JaneClarkScharl Jane Clark Scharl

    Jane Clark Scharl is a poet and critic. Her poetry has appeared in many American and European outlets, including the BBC, the Hudson Review, the New Ohio Review, the American Journal of Poetry, the Lamp, Measure Review, and others.

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