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What Does It Mean to Be ‘Pro-Life’?

by Donald Granberg

Dr. Granberg is professor of sociology and research at the Center for Research in Social Behavior, University of Missouri, Columbia. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 12, 1982, p. 562. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life [Deut. 30:19].

. . . the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it [Deut. 30:14].

Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves [Num. 30:17-18].

Of the three biblical quotations above, the first is a favorite directive of people who take an antiabortion stance and who claim to be “prolife.” It has also been widely used by religiously motivated participants in the antiwar movement, e.g., the Berrigan brothers.

The second passage implies that it is relatively easy for one to distinguish between the forces of life and death. We have within us the capacity to know, and we must merely listen to some inner voice and heed its guidance. The third text, however, should give us pause for further consideration and reflection. Since the same person, Moses, is supposed to have uttered both the third quotation and the first, one can’t help wondering whether he was really “pro-life” himself -- or whether he shared our understanding of what it might mean to be “pro-life.” On the one hand, he is telling his followers and us to choose life; but on the other hand, he is directing a policy of genocide in the aftermath of war, a policy under which the enemy’s sons would all be killed, the nonvirgin females in the enemy tribe also killed, and the virgin females used as concubines. The implication is that perhaps it is not so easy after all to tell what is and what is not “pro-life.”

While seeking to advance discussion on what it means to be “pro-life,” I do not propose a definitive solution to that question. If I were confident of the answer, the title of this article could simply have been “What It Means to Be ‘Pro-life.’” But such an article will have to be written by someone else or at a later stage of development.

I begin with the presumption that being antiabortion is not synonymous with or equivalent to being “pro-life.” This is not to say that they are incompatible or contradictory. Rather, they are at different levels of abstraction. Pro-life is a more generic, more inclusive, concept than antiabortion. Hence, the two terms should not be used interchangeably. One cannot necessarily assume that a person known to be antiabortion is “pro-life” in other respects.

Thus, being opposed to abortion can be viewed as a case in point of a more general philosophy called “pro-life.” What, then, in addition to opposing abortion, does being “pro-life” include in a modern industrialized society? While no one person can dictate the answer for others, certain suggestions can be made.  Figure 1 depicts a “pro-life” umbrella, designating positions on some of the specific issues that might be implied by an overarching “pro-life” philosophy:

Figure 1

Promote gun control

Oppose militarism and imperialism

Oppose TV and media glorification of violence

Prmote high fertility

Support medical research and preventive medication

Oppose euthanasia and infanticide

Oppose abortion

Oppose suicide

Promote physical exercise, blood donations, vegetarianism

Refrain from smoking

Promote highway safety, oppose drunk driving, speeding and other unsafe practices.

Promote conservation and redistributive domestic and foreign aid policies

Oppose capital punishment

If one begins with the premise that life is sacred and to be considered inviolate, what positions follow by implication? We need not belabor the abortion issue here; in fact, we can concede the assertion that prenatal life is innocent and defenseless and should, therefore, be a primary subject for concern and protection by people developing or pursuing a “pro-life” philosophy. These people would also be opposed to infanticide, euthanasia and mercy killing, especially when someone other than the target of the “mercy” is making the decision.

But a “pro-life” person would also regard as objectionable a situation in which the person being killed makes the decision to die, either at the hands of another or by a self-inflicted act. Then, of course, there is also the distinction between an action done with the purpose of killing someone, like a lethal injection, and a decision to let nature take its course without using the extraordinary means of modern medicine that are available to forestall the inevitable.

In addition to prenatal life (for which, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, the odds of an induced abortion in the U.S. are now nearly one in three) and the elderly, what of young children? Obviously, a “pro-life” person would support and encourage research designed to find the causes and cures of diseases that strike down young children disproportionately, such as leukemia. A “pro-life” person would obviously support efforts to reduce the rate of natal and infant mortality. Sanitation and other forms of preventive medicine are certainly significant developments which many now take for granted.

For children within quite a large age range, however, the largest cause of death in the U.S. is motor vehicle accidents. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the number of casualties in accidents could be significantly reduced if the following steps were taken: retain lower speed limits and strictly enforce them; clamp down on and stop coddling those who drive under the influence of alcohol; require use of safety features such as seat belts, sturdy infant car seats, airbags, and helmets for motorcyclists. It is hard to imagine that a “pro-life” person, knowing and understanding the facts, would not support such policies. They do infringe on the “cowboy” definition of freedom, but that they would save lives is essentially beyond doubt. The only real question is how many lives would be saved as a consequence.

In a “pro-life” society, certain basic needs would be assured, including a nutritious diet, sanitary water, decent shelter from the elements, a safe environment, and humane medical care. Programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, public housing and food stamps are assertions that satisfying these basic human needs should not be determined by one’s ability to pay. Structural violence in society occurs when people’s basic needs go unfulfilled because they are too poor to purchase goods or services.

On the matter of health, it almost goes without saying that the “pro-life” person would refrain from smoking, oppose government subsidy of domestic tobacco production and sale to overseas markets, encourage physical fitness, and donate blood for transfusions to people whose lives might thereby be saved. Also, insofar as a surplus existed, one might also expect the society to provide relief to needy people in other societies in the form of nonmilitary foreign aid, directly providing goods or teaching developmental skills.

The U.S. is a violent society, as reflected in the statistics showing the very high rate at which we kill each other and the frequency with which we go to war. We are a nation armed to the teeth, in terms of civilians owning guns and in terms of the amount we spend on the military.

At both levels there are sincere and well-intentioned people who believe that having more weapons makes for more safety, peace and security. Statistics, however, do not bear this out. There is no evidence that would indicate that a family is less likely to die from gunshot wounds if it keeps guns in the house. In fact, the contrary is true. At the international level, the best and most extensive tests of deterrence theory, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, offer very little support for the notion that one can attain or maintain peace by preparing for war. Much more support was found for the theory that nations that prepare for war end up going to war. Despite the slogan (“Peace Is Our Profession”) of the Strategic Air Command of the U.S. Air Force, which has been in charge of strategic nuclear weapons as well as the high altitude bombing of Vietnam, having more and fancier weapons will not make us more safe, and these weapons will not prevent war or save lives.

The “pro-life” person would be committed to peace, to disarmament, and to developing nonviolent means for resolving conflicts. The “pro-life” person would reject the “better dead than red” thesis, adopted by some of the more virulent anticommunists, since where there is life, there is hope. A “pro-life” person, if not a pacifist, would be very reluctant to go to war, recognizing that war is not inevitable and that there is nothing in human nature that inevitably leads to war. When a person opposes abortion but favors deployment of the neutron bomb, which would kill people through enhanced radiation but leave physical structures intact, it is a bit difficult to take seriously that person’s claim to be “pro-life.”

At the domestic level, the “pro-life” person would be committed to developing effective and enforceable gun-control laws, even if this means infringing on the “frontier” mentality to some extent. The “prolife” person would try to avoid and reduce the influence of the military and the gun culture -- the “economy of death,” as it has been called. Such a person might join campaigns to reduce the amount of violence on TV and in movies and would refuse to buy toy guns and war toys for children. Toys may seem insignificant, but they are a symbolic part of the death-oriented culture that the “pro-life” person would like to stand on its head.

The “pro-life” ideology might also include being a vegetarian, not so much to spare the lives of animals as for other health- and conservation-related reasons. For one, a patch of land can provide a full and balanced diet for more people if the people eat the food that grows on it rather than feed the food to an animal and then eat the animal. For another, the more we conserve scarce and nonrenewable resources, such as the oil used so extensively in modern agriculture and elsewhere, the less pressure there will be to engage in an interventionist and imperialist foreign policy and the wars that follow from such a policy. Gandhi suggested that the bountiful earth has enough to provide for each person’s need but not for each person’s greed.

Finally, there is the matter of capital punishment. Some view it as indicating society’s abhorrence of an act of murder and thus as an expression of its commitment to life. Some believe that capital punishment deters murders and thus saves more lives than it takes. Some argue that the potential innocence of a convicted murderer cannot be compared to the actual innocence of the prenatal lives which the antiabortion forces would protect.

However, the evidence on the deterring effect of capital punishment is not very persuasive, nor is it implausible to suppose that an innocent person could be convicted and executed, despite our extensive appeal system. Given the irrevocable nature of the sanction, it is an awesome responsibility. The “prolife” person who favors capital punishment needs to be asked what the limits are. If life is indeed sacred, it is difficult to see how a “pro-life” person could condone capital punishment.

Once people start rationalizing the deliberate taking of life, they are on a slippery slope. Before they know it, they are in a situation of having to destroy a village in order to save it, are in a plane over Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Could a person in an ICBM launch control center or on a submarine, ready and willing to turn the keys that would launch the missiles carrying nuclear warheads aimed to kill over 100 million people in half an hour, possibly be considered “pro-life”? If so, then it may be futile to seek limits to the killing in which one is willing to engage.

My comments thus far reflect an effort to take seriously the possibility of a “pro-life” philosophy and to examine what that might entail other than opposition to abortion. Of course, another possibility is that antiabortion people are not really interested in developing a “pro-life” philosophy but rather are just using the “pro-life” label because it will enhance their political effectiveness. Labeling oneself as “pro-life” is a form of self-aggrandizement, in part because it casts aspersions on one’s adversaries, implying that these opponents are “anti-life.” It is very unlikely that anyone would willingly seek or accept the label of “anti-life.” In that respect, the situation may be similar to those created by the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and the National Right to Work Committee; who would volunteer to be the advocate of an “insane nuclear policy” or oppose the right of people to work?

While trying to take the “pro-life” claim seriously, I have not accepted it at face value, but rather have conducted research to find evidence. In part, my analyses comparing people who are pro-choice or antiabortion make use of surveys of representative samples of U.S. adults. (A number of articles on abortion attitudes which I have coauthored with Beth Granberg have been published in professional journals from 1978 to 1981.) A more direct test comes from my survey in June 1980 of almost 900 members of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).

First of all, in their attitudes toward legalized abortion, beliefs about abortion, and policy preferences pertaining to abortion, the members of those two groups, not surprisingly, are almost as different as they possibly could be.

Second, the controversy over abortion has become in part a struggle over how abortion will be defined in the connotative sense; that is, how the contending forces would label the participants on both sides of the controversy (see Table 1).

Table 1.  Precentage of NRLC and LARAL members accepting and rejecting life- and choice- related labels in the abortion controversy.



Probably or
Definitely False

Don't know

Probably or Definitely True

Pro-life is an appropriate label for people who oppose abortion.









Anti-life is an appropriate label for people who approve of legalized abortion.









Pro-choice is an appropriate label for people who approve of legalized abortion.









Anti-choice is an appropriate label for people who oppose legalized abortion.











The data indicate that NRLC members strongly accept the self-designation of “pro-life” and tend also to accept the label of “anti-life” for their opponents, rejecting the “pro-choice” definition of the situation which is preferred by NARAL members.

Aside from the obvious questions on abortion, I was curious about whether members of these two organizations would differ substantially on other matters related to life and death. In other words, is active opposition to legalized abortion associated in a distinctive way with other life-related matters? Accordingly, I included in the survey several possible or potential “pro-life” indicators, as delineated above. Table 2 (located at end of article) presents the percentage of NRLC and NARAL members surveyed who took the “prolife” position on ten items.

Items A and B in Table 2 deal with euthanasia and suicide. The euthanasia item describes a situation in which the object of the “mercy” and the family request the act of killing. The suicide item deals with whether one has the right to kill oneself when suffering from an incurable disease. The two groups were highly polarized on these two issues, differing almost as much as they did on the abortion items, with the NRLC being much more likely than the NARAL to take the “pro-life” position.

Items C, D and E deal with matters related to highway safety and associated life-saving policies. The two groups did not differ significantly on whether motorcyclists should be required to wear helmets, with about two-thirds in each group supporting such a requirement. NARAL members were slightly but significantly more likely to favor required seat belts and retaining the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit. Thus, on these two items NRLC members were slightly less likely than NARAL members to take the “pro-life” position (at least as I have defined it).

Item F in Table 2 deals in a general way with governmental efforts to relieve poverty and help fulfill the basic needs of citizens. Here, NARAL members were significantly more likely -- in fact, nearly twice as likely -- to take the “pro-life” position. Items G and R pertain to militarism and imperialism. On the former, NARAL members were much more likely to take the “pro-life” position than members of the NRLC. On the latter, the difference was in the same direction and statistically significant, though not so dramatic. The results for item I suggest that NARAL members were significantly more likely to favor gun control laws than NRLC members.

For item J, the results indicate that NARAL. members were slightly, but not significantly, more likely to oppose capital punishment than NRLC members. It might also be noted that both groups were more opposed to capital punishment than a representative sample of U.S. adults in 1980 (28 per cent opposed).

Finally, an additional possible “pro-life” indicator was extracted from the way a speaker at the annual antiabortion “March for Life” rally in Washington, D.C., was introduced: “Susan is one of ten children. Boy, that’s “pro-life.” I do not rule out the possibility that this may have been a joke, but could it mean that being “pro-life” leads to having or encouraging parents to have large families? In the survey, we asked people what they regarded as the ideal number of children for a family. NRLC’s average was 3.7, compared to 2.0 for NARAL. Further, NRLC members tended to come from larger families, and also to have more children themselves, than did NARAL members. The latter difference holds up when one controls for age and marital status; within each age group, married NRLC members have significantly more children than married NARAL members.

Within the NRLC there are differences as to whether the group ought to stick with just the abortion issue, on which its members have a relatively high degree of unity, or whether it ought to branch out and deal with such other issues as the ERA, nuclear disarmament, capital punishment and social justice. At a recent convention there was loud applause when one participant shouted, “Abortion is the only issue.” My point is that if abortion is the only issue, then the intellectually honest thing would be to acknowledge this conviction and regroup as NOLAC, the “National Opposition to Legalized Abortion Committee.” An alternative would be to acknowledge the desirability of dealing with other matters, but only after the abortion controversy has reached a satisfactory solution. A “prolife” person could reason that the right to life of the most innocent and defenseless must be assured first before other efforts can be launched.

To wear or claim the mantle of “pro-life” is a heavy responsibility. My reading of the evidence is that NRLC members appear to be relatively “prolife” in their opposition to euthanasia and suicide and in their high fertility behavior and preferences. On the other hand, NARAL members were somewhat more likely to take the “pro-life” position on the matters of highway safety, antimilitarism, anti-imperialism, gun control and social egalitarianism.

My hope is that this article may provoke some thought and discussion on what a general “pro-life” philosophy could or should cover. If it is to be meaningful or convincing, however, it must include something besides opposition to abortion.

TABLE 2.  Percentage of NRLC and NARAL members taking the "pro-life" position on ten life-and -death items not dealing directly with abortion.

                                                                                                            % Taking "Pro-life" Position




A.  When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and family request it?  (% saying NO)



B.   Do you think a person has the right to end his or her life if this person has an incurable disease?   (% saying NO)



C.  Do you think that people on motorcycles should be legally required to wear helmets?  (% saying YES)



D.  Do you think that people in cars and trucks should be legally required to wear seat belts?  (% saying YES)



E.  Do you favor retaining the current 55 miles per hour speed limit or would you prefer that it be raised?  (% saying Keep at 55)



  F.  The government should do something to reduce income differences between rich and poor?  (% strongly Agree or Agree)



G.  Do you think the current level of military spending by the U.S. should be increased or decreased?  (% Slightly or Substantially Decreased)



H.  The U.S. should be ready and willing to use military force if necessary to assure our continued access to important resources, such as oil, which are essential for our way of life.  (% Disagree)



I.  Would you favor or oppose a law which would require a person to obtain a police permit before he or she could buy a gun?  (% Favor)



J.  Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?  (% Oppose)




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