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What does it mean to be “pro-life”?

Is pro-life more than pro-birth?

Why isn’t the pro-life movement committed to the whole person?

These are common questions aimed at the pro-life movement. In fact, one of the most frequent criticisms of the pro-life movement is that those who hold such views only care about ending abortion.

In this episode of Signposts, I address these questions and offer my perspective on the pro-life movement by thinking about what it means to fight for justice and human dignity.

Listen above, and be sure to subscribe to get new episodes of Signposts as they are released.


Hello, this Russell Moore and you’re listening to Signposts: questions and conversations about faith, life, and culture. If you have listened to me for very long, you’ve probably heard me tell the story of one of my earliest memories because in some ways I think it shaped the way that I view almost everything else in my life. And it was a time when I was, I don’t know, five or six years old. I was in Sunday school. We had a guest teacher that day, and in our little Southern Baptist Sunday School class, as in almost all of them, the way that it it worked was you had a little envelope and you would put your name on it and you would mark whether you’re present, whether or not you were going to attend the worship service, whether or not you’d read your Bible daily, whether or not you shared the gospel with somebody, and your offering.

And so my parents would often give me a quarter or a nickel or something to put in the offering envelope, and I had a quarter in there. And you know, as kids of that age will do, I was sort of playing with the quarter because for whatever reason they didn’t take up the envelopes until the end of that day. And so I was playing with the quarter, and I put the quarter in my mouth. And the lady who was teaching that day was rightly upset about that. She didn’t want me to choke on the quarter. But what she did was to come up and say, “Now you don’t want to put that coin in your mouth, because you don’t know where that coin has been. And for all you know a colored man may have held that coin.”

Now, this was long past the days of Jim Crow Mississippi. This was not during the times when people would have been seeing images on their screen of people being beaten in the streets. But what was underlying that comment was a much, much larger worldview of white supremacy, and as I’ll often say when I talk about that story, I don’t know if it’s my memory playing tricks on me but it seems to me as though right after that comment, she gathered us up together to say “Let’s sing ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.'” Whether whether I’m conflating some other memories or not, we did sing that all the time, and I was starting to conclude that those two things did not go together.

You cannot be pro-missions and racially bigoted. Those two things can’t go together. You can’t be pro-missions and white supremacist. If in fact God has created a church made up of every tribe, tongue, nation, and language, then to prize my ethnicity as somehow being better than yours – much less to oppress with evil those of other ethnicities is the contradiction of the Gospel. So what many people in the civil rights movement and elsewhere were doing with churches that were trapped in that culture was to come in and say, “Wait a minute. If you believe in missions, then you have to believe in racial justice and racial reconciliation. Because the very impetus behind missions also ought to teach you about the impartiality of God and about the universal human imaging of God. If the Gospel is offered to everyone, if the church is made up of people from everywhere, then that means that you cannot be a white supremacist without exchanging the spirit for the flesh and exchanging the gospel for an anti-gospel.”

Now, the reason I bring that up is because every year we will gather a big group of evangelical Christians together, usually around the March for Life, and we talk about issues of human dignity and about the image of God. And one thing I’ve noticed happening there is that you’ll have two, for lack of a better word, tribes of evangelicals that sometimes will be there. And I’ll just for lack of a better word say pro-family people and pro-justice people, not saying the pro-life people aren’t pro-justice and the pro-justice people aren’t pro-family, but that’s sort of the emphasis that would be in those churches. And what I’ve noticed is that sometimes the pro-family people will say, “You know in my church I can talk about abortion, because people sort of politically and culturally are opposed to abortion, but I can’t talk about race without causing an uproar, or I can’t talk about sexual abuse of women without creating an uproar.”

And at the same time I’ll often have the sort of pro-justice evangelicals who will say, “You know, in my church or my setting it’s very easy for me to talk about racism and human trafficking and caring for the poor, but I can’t talk about the unborn because there will be a backlash happening for people in the congregation about the unborn.” And both of these groups people are saying “Now, we want to be consistent. We want to follow Jesus and we want to talk about dignity of human life.”

Now, this is important because there’s always a conversation going on about whether or not you ought to use the word “pro-life” only to talk about abortion. So only talk about abortion, only concentrate on that if you’re talking about the word “pro-life.” Now, there’s a sense in which the impetus behind that I get and I agree with. So for instance, there are people who will say “Well, unless you are opposed to the death penalty, then you can’t oppose abortion. You can’t be pro-life.” Now, there are good reasons, we’ve talked about them on this program before. There are good reasons why people oppose the death penalty. And I think there are there are very good arguments against capital punishment. I, at least theoretically, think the death penalty is consistent with life, because in scripture I think there’s a question of whether or not a state ever has the legitimate authority to take human life. If you believe that Romans 13 means that war can ever be justified, then you do believe in the death penalty at least in those cases. That’s what’s happening – the state is wielding the sword against evildoers.

So there’s a difference between people who would say, “We cannot take innocent human life and there cannot be vigilante justice against human life,” and people who would say “I think there’s sometimes a legitimate state authority in the taking of human life.” Okay, so in that sense people who say, “Well, until you talk about the death penalty you can’t talk about abortion.” I don’t agree with that at all.

Now, what I would say, though, if someone said to me “I’m pro-life and I’m for the death penalty. And the reason for the death penalty is because prisoners are scum. Let’s kill them.” I would say, “You’re not pro-life. If if the reason that you want to kill prisoners is because you think their lives have no meaning and you take a sense of joy – ‘Let’s fry them’ – out of killing prisoners, then that is coming from a disregard and disrespect for human life.” Now we can then argue about whether or not the death penalty is ever allowable for certain very, very constrained circumstances. But that’s not the same thing as someone saying, “Let’s vengefully lash out and take the lives of prisoners.” In that sense I agree with the people who are really reluctant to ever use pro-life anywhere else.

Also I would agree when it applies to this sort of argument that would say “Well, yes there is abortion. But until we have addressed all the full spectrum of issues then we shouldn’t really talk about abortion.” And that happens a lot. I mean, I knew a pastor one time that I knew to be pro-choice on abortion, supportive of legal abortion, who when talking about abortion in his church said, “You know, you hear a lot of conversation about abortion these days, and if we would just teach our teenagers sexual morality we wouldn’t have to worry about abortion.” And people said, “Amen.” What they didn’t know was that what he meant by that was “Just concentrate on teaching them sexual morality, then you won’t have the need for abortion but let’s keep abortion legal,” which they would have never agreed to at all.

An opposition to abortion is necessary for the pro-life movement, for the pro-life cause, as the threshold. Without opposition to abortion, there is no pro-life movement. Because what we have happening is widespread disregard and legal and cultural ways of keeping unborn children not just invisible to us but dehumanized. When they’re not persons and they’re not our neighbor, they don’t bear rights. And so to be pro-life we have to say, “Vulnerable unborn children and their moms are created in the image of God and ought to be protected and should not have their lives taken away from them.”

So when we’re talking about the issue of pro-life, we have to say “Okay, well why do we oppose abortion?” If the reason that we oppose abortion is only for political advocacy groups, then we really don’t have a pro-life movement at all. We just have a little legislative agenda that somebody has. But instead, what the pro-life movement is doing is saying, “We have a we have a political problem, meaning a governmental problem, a judicial problem that we need to address as citizens. Behind that, we also have a cultural problem where we have to ask ‘Who are these children and why is this happening? Why do we devalue people like this? Why do we have disposable people in our mindset in the contemporary era? And how do we speak to that?'” So we’re hitting both the governmental and the cultural moral fabric here at the same time.

It’s the same way my friend Mike Gerson used to put it when he was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, that “unborn children should be protected by law and welcomed in life.” Both of those two things – welcoming children and protecting them by law. So in that sense, we already are concerned with and talking about more than just abortion when we say the word pro-life. Even almost everybody who would say, “Let’s not talk about anything but abortion when we talk about pro-life,” because we are recognizing that when we’re dealing with, for instance, a physician assisted suicide and euthanasia. What are you dealing with? You’re dealing with a disregard for human life and the intrinsic worth of human life. When we’re talking about embryo research or the destruction of embryos after in vitro fertilization. It’s not a clinical abortion, but what is it? It’s the destruction of human life. And what we’re saying is that from conception to natural death, every human being bears the image of God and ought be treated as such.

So that is already present that when we when we say that we are pro-life and pro-woman, we care about the unborn child and we care about his or her mother, which all of the pro-life movement virtually would say. Not only that, but the pro-life movement actually at the grassroots level lives that out better than almost anybody that I know or any movement that I’ve ever seen. If you look around at pregnancy resource centers, for instance, around the country what you’ll find is more often than not, most of the time, these are places that are actually doing ground zero hands on ministry with the poor and the vulnerable. They’re there helping women in crisis, not simply in terms of making the decision of whether or not to abort and and seeking to persuade them not to abort, but also saying “We can help you with –  if you want to place your child for adoption, we can help you to do that. If you need childcare, we can help you with that. If you need job training, we can help you with that. If you’re afraid to go home, we can find protection and sanctuary for you. Why? Why do we do that? Because we recognize that the unborn child and his or her mother both bear the image of God.

And we also recognize that the mentality behind the abortion movement is a mentality that sees people and people’s worth in terms of power, and that wherever that mindset is present you are going to have some manifestation of an abortion culture. Jesus does this all the time when he comes in and says, “Okay, you know that you shall not commit adultery. But you can’t cordon that off and say, ‘Well, I’m going to live my life consumed with lust and covetousness, but I’m just not going to physically act on adultery.'” Jesus says “No no no.” The root of this is deeper than that. He says, “You can’t consistently say, ‘Oh well, I’m obeying the law of God and whatever I would give to my parents to support them in their old age, I’m giving to God,'” which is what he says the religious leaders are doing.

What the pro-life movement is saying is, “If you believe in human dignity, then you believe in human dignity. If every person is created in the image of God then every person is created in the image of God.” Which means that we’re constantly asking ourselves, “Who are the people that we don’t want to think about? In the same way that an abortion culture says, “Let’s just not think about unborn children. Let’s call them clinical words and try to try to find some way to erase them from our minds.” Where is that tendency showing up in us?

So we will say to some people, hey, you believe in the dignity of unborn children and rightly so. So therefore care about their moms. Welcome the pregnant teenager into your church and minister to her. You believe that the unborn child bears the image of God and rightly so, and you want to protect the life of that unborn child and rightly so. Therefore, care about people in your neighborhoods who are racially different from you, that maybe the people around you would say, “They don’t matter, don’t care about them.” You care about the dignity of human life and the value and the worth of human life, and you understand and you know that there’s more to life than the pursuit of the orgasm, as the sexual revolution would tell us, therefore care about what’s going on with a pornography industry that is destroying the lives of women and communicating a false vision of sexuality that actually contributes to the abortion mindset.

We’re constantly asking not just, “Is this particular act wrong?,” although we say that specifically, but we’re saying, “Why is that particular act wrong?” That particular act is wrong because human beings are not God and we do not have the power of life or death over other human beings. We have not been given dominion over one another. If we don’t understand that, then we’re going to follow the exact same path that lead us to the abortion movement in the first place.

There’s a reason why most evangelical Protestants were nowhere to be found at Roe vs.Wade, with some notable exceptions. And where they were was often on the other side, on the pro-abortion side of the equation. Well why? It’s because you had people who would talk about image of God, they would talk about family stability and sexual morality and all of those sorts of things but they would not, they were not equipped to see how that applies to the unborn child. They averted their eyes from that. In order for evangelicals to be ready to speak a prophetic word against Roe vs. Wade, they had to have a theology of human life and they didn’t for the most part.

So if you’re in the 19th century, and you’re speaking about human dignity, you have to talk about slavery. If you ignore it, if you’re talking about human dignity and the sanctity of human life in 1845, and you’re talking about murders in the population, and you’re talking about all sorts of suffering around the world, but you don’t talk about human slavery, then you have no moral credibility and you are missing the huge presenting issue there of an assault upon human dignity and freedom. Now, that doesn’t mean though that slavery is cordoned off all by itself as though if you just get rid of slavery then you don’t have the other things to address. No, you have to get rid of slavery. That’s key. That’s threshold. But you also have to deal with the way that that slavery mindset shows up in the oppression of people of color in all sorts of ways – toward Jim Crow, toward voting rights, toward lynchings, toward all of these these other manifestations of that kind of idolatry. That is necessary to being pro-human, pro-freedom, and pro-life. What’s at the root of this?

This is what Jesus is getting at when in Luke 10 he talks about the man who was beaten on the side of the road and how the Samaritan is the one, after the priest and the Levite have passed by, the Samaritan is the one who stops and cares for him. Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” And he asks the lawyer who’s asking him the question, “Now, which one was the one that obeyed the law of God in loving his neighbor?” And the answer was, “Well, the one that showed him mercy,” but he didn’t want to go there. He didn’t want to think about the Samaritans, because they’re the people that don’t matter in his view. And so he wanted to ask the question, “Well, who is my neighbor. I’m going to obey the command, love God and love my neighbor, but who is my neighbor?” And Jesus takes him exactly where he does not want to go. Matthew 25, the judgment scene, when Jesus is separating the sheep from the goats he does so in terms of people who are largely invisible to those who are being questioned. When Jesus says to those who are being condemned, “I was in prison, and you did not visit me. I was naked, and you did not clothe me. I was hungry, and you did not feed me,” their response is, “When did we do that? We didn’t see that at all.”

When the rich man in Jesus’s account is seen in torment, it’s because Lazarus – poor, covered in sores, licked by dogs, seen as irrelevant  and shameful, not even really a part of this story. That attitude of invisibility toward Lazarus is what actually led this man toward hell. So when we’re asking “Who is my neighbor?” The answer is those who are bearing the image of God and are vulnerable and hurting and in front of us, and often the people that we don’t want to acknowledge at all.

Now, why don’t we? Well, there are all sorts of reasons, but one of the reasons is the tendency toward a herd mentality. In John 12, John tells us about people who, hearing Jesus teach, they didn’t commit themselves to Jesus because they were afraid that they would be put out of the synagogues, that they would they would lose their place in the tribe. And the reason for that, John says, is because they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. There’s a fallen human tendency to say, “What is my herd, and what is my tribe? And so let me just adapt myself completely to that herd and to that tribe.”

And so you may have the pro-justice people who will say, “My tribe cares, rightly, about the poor, cares about racial justice, cares about sex trafficking, and cares about a global hunger, but let’s just not talk about abortion.” What? Why? Because they love the glory that comes from man. Or they love the security of being part of the group, more than the question of what it means to follow Jesus.

The same thing is true with a person who’s pro, for lack of a better word, pro-values, pro-family, who would say “I care about the unborn, I’m going to talk about the unborn, because everybody around me in my base, if you will, they agree with me about that. And so I can continue to talk about that and can be seen as having great courage or great insight, even though I’m not really teaching or leading, I’m just saying what it is they already believe and repeating back to them. But I won’t talk about the “Who is my neighbor?” question when it applies to say, race, or to say, the disabled or to say, the elderly person with Alzheimer’s who is being ignored or in some cases around the world is actually being killed.

Well, that’s not teaching one another, and that’s not actually standing up for human life. That’s just standing up for whatever the political values are of the group that you’re with at the time. And what that actually means is that what we’re saying is that your visibility to us is based upon your power. The power that comes with whether or not a majority of the people around me right now want to talk about you. That’s Planned Parenthood. That that not only isn’t an alternative to the pro-abortion mindset, that is a pro-abortion mindset. If unborn children are useful to you, so you talk about abortion, then you’re not really talking about abortion. You’re just using these unborn children. And if racial relations and racial reconciliation and racial justice is useful to you in your particular tribe, but you don’t want to talk about unborn children, then it’s not the human dignity that you care about, it’s again, the power of whether or not the tribe or the majority will confer personhood upon those they want to see as invisible. The pro-life movement has said, and rightly so, “People aren’t useful. People bear dignity and value and worth.”

And we train ourselves for whether or not we’re going to recognize that or not in a variety of ways. So actually even if we want to limit the discussion only to abortion, our children are watching us. When we say “Every human being bears the image of God. Every human being bears dignity,” our children are watching and saying “Okay, does that apply to the stripper who’s being trafficked down the street?” If she shows up in your church, do you see her? Does that apply to the guy who has AIDS and wants to hear the gospel? Does that apply to the child with cognitive disabilities who is yelling in the middle of the worship service? Or are you going to say “Those people are not useful to me, those people disrupt what it is that we want to do, therefore we’re going to ignore them and move them to the side.” If they see and learn that lesson then do not be surprised when in the fullness of time, an unborn child becomes less than useful and they fall right into the hands of the abortion clinic.

Now, does that mean that we have to share a comprehensive program on everything in order to be a pro-life movement? Of course not. Even if you narrow it to simply the question of the preborn, we don’t share a comprehensive program on everything. We have all sorts of emphases, and some people would say, “Well, let’s start with dealing with late term abortion legally and politically.” Other people would say, “Let’s start with waiting periods and education of women when it comes to abortion.” Some people would say “Anything less than starting out with an affirmation that unborn children are persons under the Constitution, anything else is not good enough.” Those sorts of debates are happening all the time, even with the all or nothing people, there’s debates over whether or not we need a constitutional amendment or whether or not the 14th Amendment already includes children as persons, and therefore we ought to simply have the government proclaim that.

All of those those conversations go on, and they also take place within the life and the ministry of the church. Being pro-life, pro-woman, pro-baby doesn’t necessarily tell you exactly what your ministry is going to look like. Some churches, God has gifted and given both the gifting and the calling to emphasize foster care. Some, international adoption. Some, pregnancy resource centers. All are a variety of different ways that God has done that. The issue is, “Do you care about the lives that bear the image of God, and are you willing to see them and to minister to them in the way that that God has called you to do?” That’s critically important because the caricature out there is, Well, pro-life people they care about, they believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth, as Barney Frank says. That’s not true. As I said before, that’s not what’s going on all over the country but it can’t be. It can’t be.

To care about human life doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily going to agree on what healthcare system model ought to look like, but it does mean that we agree that sick people matter. It doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily going to agree on what sorts of affirmative action programs we ought to have in our colleges and universities, but it has to mean that we understand and know that black lives matter, black people matter. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree on how many immigrants ought to come into the country every year, but it has to mean that the lives of immigrants and strangers and sojourners matter to God and ought to matter to us. So we can’t be the people who say these people are parasites. We have to say, “These are people created in the image of God.”

If the majority decides who a person is, then that’s called pro-abortion, regardless of whether or not you call yourself pro-life or not. So if we’re going to combat that, we can’t say “Well I’m pro-life,” or “I’m pro-justice.” We have to say “We’re pro-life, we’re pro-justice, we’re pro-family, we’re pro-vulnerable, we’re pro-Jesus.” And our question cannot be “Well, who then is my neighbor?” The pro-life movement can only go forward by saying, “The life of every person is bound up in the question of who God is, and therefore matters.”

This is Russell Moore, and you’re listening to Signposts.


Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).