Every year since 1974, thousands of people have come to Washington, DC to rally against Roe v. Wade. Protestors argue that pregnant women should be stripped of the ability to choose whether or not they want to have an abortion. Referencing the unborn fetuses pregnant women carry inside their bodies, these anti-abortion advocates call their demonstration the “March for Life.”
Politicians who support these efforts use similar language. Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, for example, declared the “simple truth that all human life is sacred” to be the most recent march’s inspiration.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) January 27, 2017
Yet neither Rubio nor the vast majority of marchers can credibly claim to have “pro-life” views.
I do not think fetuses should be viewed the same way as people, but let’s imagine you disagree with me. Suppose, based on that disagreement, you believe an abortion kills an innocent person. You think enabling the death of innocent people is wrong, and you thus think abortion must be opposed in all circumstances. Isn’t that a “pro-life” view?
Well, it depends. The logic of the ostensibly “pro-life” part of that reasoning is that, because X kills innocent people, and because killing innocent people is wrong, nobody should be able to choose X for any reason.
Here’s the problem with that logic: “X” could be any number of things. Drone strikes kill innocent people. More generally, war always does. So does the death penalty. And many other policies, while less active and direct than drone strikes, war, and putting people to death, effectively kill people. Refugees are potentially given a death sentence when the countries to which they’re fleeing don’t let them in. Thousands of people die each year due to inadequate access to health care. And societies’ refusal to invest in substantial benefits for poor people both here and around the world leads to preventable deaths all the time.
People who truly have a “pro-life” position, therefore, oppose all of these things. Those who are anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-inclusive immigration, pro-universal health coverage, and pro-substantial benefits for the poor in addition to believing that fetuses are people and abortions are wrong may have a coherent, “pro-life” philosophy.
Needless to say, that’s not a description of Rubio. He, like so many other anti-choice Republicans, opposes aborting fetuses but none of the preventable deaths mentioned above.
That doesn’t mean Rubio wouldn’t offer a justification for his positions. He’d likely argue that drones, refugee bans, and military actions save more innocent lives than they sacrifice, that the death penalty is reserved for bad people who deserve it, and that providing health care and money for poor people slows economic growth, discourages work, and harms the very people such measures are intended to help. He’d be wrong about all of these things – the United States perpetrates far more violence than we prevent, there are innocent people on death row, and meeting the needs of poor people, which we have the resources to do, would be perfectly consistent with a strong economy and boost long-term economic mobility – but that’s not the point. The point is that Rubio does not allow the idea that “all human life is sacred” to guide his policy positions. Instead, he balances the sacrifice of human lives against other things he thinks are important and decides which he thinks matters more.
In the realm of abortion, Rubio and others have decided that a fetus’s right to be born is more important than a woman’s right to make a personal, intimate decision about her body. Again, if you believe fetuses are people and that life starts at conception, that may be a defensible position. But if you also oppose raising taxes on rich people to provide health care and other basic needs to kids after they’re born, or if you support war, or the death penalty, your position definitely isn’t “pro-life.” If you contend that “human life is sacred” only when that belief deprives women of rights but not when it consigns innocent people to death or cuts a little bit more into your fortune, you don’t really believe it.