Article ID: JAF2009PLPCMA | By: Michael W. Austin


This article is Michael W. Austin’s part of  The Meaning of the Term Pro-Life. A Point/Counterpoint Conversation. To see Seth Gruber’s part entitled, The Meaning of the Term Pro-Life. A Point/Counterpoint Conversation: You’re Not Really Pro-Life Unless…You Oppose Abortion. That’s It! , please click here.


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Pro-life activist and author Scott Klusendorf defends the singular focus of the pro-life movement:

Abortion-choice advocates may insist that if pro-life advocates were truly “pro-life,” they’d be “whole-life” and take on other “life” issues like poverty, immigration reform, support for refugees, foster care advocacy, better wages for the poor, gun control, and the list goes on and on. However, most pro-lifers (so the argument goes) don’t really care about these other issues. Thus, they are not “pro-life,” only “pro-birth” or “anti-abortion.” This, too, is unfair. Why should anyone believe that because you oppose the intentional killing of an innocent human being, you must therefore take responsibility for all societal ills? Pro-life advocates, as individuals, will care about many issues, not just a few. However, it does not follow that the operational objectives of the pro-life movement must be broad and inclusive as well.1

Many within the pro-life movement affirm Klusendorf’s view. To a degree, so do I. His reply is generally correct. The last sentence, however, is not. The pro-life movement must apply its beliefs to more than just abortion, and should welcome a broader application of the term “pro-life.” The reasons for this are (i) our theology of human persons should shape our understanding of what it means to be pro-life; (ii) moral integrity and intellectual consistency require it; and (iii) embracing a whole of life pro-life ethic reflects devotion to the kingdom of God rather than mere partisan politics.

The Imago Dei

The morally mixed history of the pro-life movement, which includes racism, is one reason for focusing more on theology and less on history as we consider the aims and scope of the movement today.2 A complete and consistent pro-life ethic will recognize the intrinsic value of human life across all of life, from the womb to the tomb, from conception to resurrection.

The primary reason for adopting a whole life ethic is the Christian view that all human beings, every single one of us, are made in and bear the image of God. This grounds human dignity. Our value is not found in what we can do, our economic, physical, intellectual, or even spiritual potential. Rather, it is grounded in what we are, image bearers of God. This is an inalienable aspect of our being, even the most morally depraved among us retains a basic dignity.3 And of course none of the following undermines that dignity: being unborn, immigration status, wealth, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or any other classification that humans use to justify maltreatment.

Consider the following facts about abortion in the United States: in 2017 there were 862,000 abortions performed, 24 percent of women who have abortions are mothers, and 59 percent of women in the U.S. will have an abortion by the time they are 45.4 For those who are pro-life, these numbers are alarming. But remember that every single human being is made in God’s image, and that there are many other life issues in the U.S. 

Nearly 40,000 human beings die annually due to gun violence5 Set aside whether or not the death penalty is in principle consistent with a Christian ethic. In practice, it isn’t. Since 1973, 170 death row inmates have been exonerated, while others have had their capital offenses cleared. Still more have been posthumously exonerated. We don’t know how many of the 1522 people that have been executed since 1976 were innocent, but many likely were.6 In addition, there is a clear racial bias against defendants of color, and in favor of white victims.7 Police are more aggressive in encounters with black Americans, which can lead to all sorts of trauma, injury, and death.8 Finally, consider the horrific things being done to human beings at our southern border. Some children die after being denied entry into the country9. Others have died in custody.10 And the fate of so many more is unknown. Our government is using COVID-19 as an excuse to send thousands of migrant children back to their countries of origin11. But it’s worse than that. We screen them, they test negative for the virus, and we then send them back under the pretext that they have the virus, rather than following immigration law and placing them into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services to find sponsors for them until a hearing. Other atrocities at the border detention facilities and present in our immigration processes have been widely reported.12 This leads us to the central reason for an expansive pro-life movement: the need to display moral integrity and intellectual consistency.

Moral Integrity and Intellectual Consistency

I understand the passion of abortion opponents, and the conviction that abortion is the moral issue of our time. I share the view that unborn humans have full moral status and possess the right to life. But the movement, as I once heard Princeton University professor Robert P. George say when he visited my campus, must have integrity. It must be trustworthy. George was explaining why he was against the actions of some in the pro-life movement who recorded videos of Planned Parenthood employees under false pretenses13. I’m not offering an evaluation of those tactics, but I wholeheartedly agree with George that the pro-life movement must be above reproach. It must demonstrate both a high level of moral integrity and intellectual consistency. People must be able to rely on the data, evidence, and arguments that we give them. And they must believe that those in the movement are trustworthy people, with sound moral character and rigorous intellectual consistency.

While the movement cannot control when others slander or misrepresent it, it certainly can control its own actions. This includes properly applying the moral facts that tell us abortion is usually wrong to the rest of life. The unborn are not the only ones among us who are vulnerable to harm and killing. Unfortunately, some who are pro-life about abortion fail to consistently apply their beliefs to other life issues. Some exemplify a callousness toward the well-being of immigrants, the continued suffering of racial and ethnic minorities in America, the avoidable deaths of innocent civilians due to American military actions, and the morally unjust application of capital punishment in the United States. This leads to criticisms of the movement that have merit, because when we advocate for the rights of the unborn, but seem calloused, apathetic, or even opposed to the rights of other human beings made in God’s image, we are guilty of hypocrisy. We must remember that “the pro-life position…is an inclusive view. It says no human being — regardless of size, skin color, level of development, race, gender, or place of residence — should be excluded from the community of human persons.”14

In a recent online panel sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, “Racism is a Life Issue,” several Black pro-life leaders argued that the pro-life movement must show more consistency related to the problem of racism15.  They argued that expanding Medicaid, for example, would be one way to provide support for women who are considering whether or not to carry their child to term. All of the panelists agreed that a consistent pro-life ethic must be applied to all life issues, including poverty and race. One concern was the way in which some pro-lifers respond to claims of racism by saying that “the real racism is abortion,” which shows a disregard for all of the other forms racism takes and the serious harm that it does. As one panelist stated, the pro-life movement should be able to discuss both racism and abortion without marginalizing either of these issues.

We can apply the S.L.E.D. test — a test that undermines arguments for abortion grounded in differences between the born and unborn — to other life issues, in order to see the relevance of the pro-life view for them16:

  • Size: The unborn are smaller than other humans, but nothing follows from this about how they ought to be treated. The size of a being does not entail anything about what rights it has. And when smallness is also a vulnerability, extra protections seem to be warranted.
  • Level of Development: The levels of development between a six-year-old and her 18-year-old sister are different, but that does not mean the younger sister deserves less protection than her older sibling. If the level of development does not matter in this case, why should it matter in the case of the unborn?
  • Environment: The environment in which the unborn person resides does not mean it forfeits the right to life. A being’s environment does not determine what protections that being deserves.
  • Degree of Dependency: The unborn are dependent upon their mothers. But subsequent to birth, infants, newborns, toddlers, and many other humans are also dependent on other people. Nothing about the right to life or protection from harm follows from the mere fact of dependence.

While there are some issues that this test skims over, and even avoids, it is useful for guiding a conversation and raising several key issues in the abortion debate.

Let’s apply the S.L.E.D. test to another life issue. Immigrants come in all sizes, from the unborn, to newborns, children, adults, and the elderly. If vulnerability is an issue, then many immigrants pass this part of the test. They are vulnerable to political oppression, violence, natural disasters, poverty, and serious illnesses. Many come to the United States to escape one or more of these dangers. Level of development is also relevant to immigration. Some favor merit-based immigration policies, in which those who have better linguistic abilities, education, or job skills gain an advantage17. But if aborting fetuses because they are less developed is wrong, then it also seems wrong to discriminate against immigrants who are not as “developed” as other immigrants. The environment aspect of the test is relevant, insofar as the mere fact that a person was born in a different country, or currently resides in a different country, or lives in a tent on the U.S.–Mexico border, or is housed in an overcrowded and inhumane immigrant detention facility, does not mean they have less of a right to protection from harm. Finally, immigrants also exhibit dependence upon the nation where they are seeking to live. Imagine that you, your spouse, and your two young children cross the border in search of safety and security. You are immediately dependent upon the people of that nation to provide you with food, shelter, and other basic care. This dependence in no way means you are less human, less of a bearer of the image of God, nor does it justify disregarding your needs.

Not everyone who has pro-life convictions must be involved in all of these causes, or at least involved in all of them to the same degree. This is part of what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. We all have different callings and roles to play. Some focus on abortion, others on immigration, racism, or something else. My own focus is on reducing gun violence. But we must not ignore or downplay the fact that the same theological and moral truths that undergird the pro-life abortion position also apply to other life issues. Moreover, advocating for the pro-life cause in abortion while minimizing or opposing its implications for racial justice, immigration, gun violence, and so forth. is both an intellectual and moral failure. We must affirm the truth that all human beings are made in God’s image, and then let that truth guide us in our words and deeds.

A Non-Partisan Pro-Life Ethic

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not only to love our neighbors — difficult enough — but also our enemies. James 1:27 says “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” I am concerned that the church is not being discipled by Christ and His word, but by our favorite news media outlet, pundit, or social media silo. If all of our political convictions line up with one of America’s major political parties, something is wrong. No mere human institution can get everything right. The church should not align with a political party, and the allegiance of Christians to Christ and His kingdom means that we will find ourselves at odds with all political parties, at some point. Or at least it should.

The perception, which is in some cases well-founded, is that Christians who are pro-life about abortion and whose views line up with the more conservative wing of the Republican party on gun violence, immigration, poverty, health care, racial justice, militarism, the death penalty, and other life issues have a perspective determined by partisanship, rather than Christian discipleship. Those who are pro-life about abortion would do well to consider what is driving their views on these other issues, taking us back to our need for moral integrity and intellectual consistency.

I will close with a question, one that is crucial not only for the effectiveness, but more importantly the faithfulness of the pro-life movement: If we want to cultivate a culture that values all human life, why would we not want to expand the pro-life vision?

Michael W. Austin (www.michaelwaustin.com) is a professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, senior fellow at The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, and a national advocate for gun violence prevention. He has published 12 books, including his latest, God and Guns in America (Eerdmans, 2020). 

​Notes: 

  1. Scott Klusendorf, “The Case for Life,” https://prolifetraining.com/resources/the-case-for-life/.
  2. Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politco Magazine, May 27, 2014, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.
  3. Gustav Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1884), 145–46.
  4. Abortion: United States,” Guttmacher Institute, https://www.guttmacher.org/united-states/abortion#.
  5. Kenneth D. Kochanek et al., “Deaths: Final Data for 2017,” National Vital Statistics Reports 68, No. 9, June 24, 2019, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr68/nvsr68_09-508.pdf.
  6. “Policy Issues: Innocence,” Death Penalty Information Center, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/innocence.
  7. “Policy Issues: Race,” Death Penalty Information Center, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/race.
  8. Brenton Mock, “Police Are More Aggressive Overall in Encounters With African Americans,” Bloomberg City Lab, November 17, 2015, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-11-17/african-americans-are-subjected-to-non-fatal-use-of-police-force-than-whites.
  9. Adolfo Flores, “More Immigrant Children Are Dying at The Border as the Trump Administration Sends People Back to Mexico,” Buzzfeed News, September 19, 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/adolfoflores/immigrant-children-dying-united-states-mexico-trump.
  10. Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Six Migrant Children Have Died in U.S. Custody. Here’s What We Know About Them,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-migrant-child-border-deaths-20190524-story.html.
  11. Dara Lind and Lomi Kriel, “ICE Is Making Sure Migrant Kids Don’t Have COVID-19 — Then Expelling Them to ‘Prevent the Spread’ of COVID-19,” ProPiblica, August 10, 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/ice-is-making-sure-migrant-kids-dont-have-covid-19-then-expelling-them-to-prevent-the-spread-of-covid-19.
  12. See Dara Lind, “The Horrifying Conditions Facing Kids in Border Detention, Explained,” Vox, June 25, 2019 https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/6/25/18715725/children-border-detention-kids-cages-immigration; Lindon Haviland, “Nielsen Resignation Doesn’t Change Fact Child Sexual Abuse at Border Is Real Emergency,” USA Today, April 9, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/04/09/immigrant-children-sexual-abuse-detention-centers-real-emergency-trump-column/3399019002/; Jim Sergent et al., “Chilling First-hand Reports of Migrant Detention Centers Highlight Smell of ‘Urine, Feces,’ Overcrowded Conditions,” USA Today, July 17, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/politics/elections/2019/07/16/migrant-detention-centers-described-2019-us-government-accounts/1694638001/.
  13. Jennifer Ludden, “Undercover Video Targets Planned Parenthood,” NPR, July 15, 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/the two way/2015/07/15/423212004/undercover-video-targets-planned-parenthood.
  14. Alan Shlemon, “The S.L.E.D. Test,” Stand to Reason, March 13, 2014, https://www.str.org/w/the-sled-test.
  15. Matt Hadro, “The Pro-Life Movement Needs ‘Humility’ and ‘Consistency’ on Racism,” Catholic News Agency, July 29, 2020, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pro-life-movement-needs-humility-and-consistency-on-racism-66567. The panel included Lousiana State Senator Katrina Jackson, former NFL player and current pro-life advocate Benamin Watson, Dean of the Notre Dame Law School G. Marcus Cole, radio host Gloria Purvis, and Professor Jacqueline Rivers of Harvard.
  16. Nathan Apodaca, “Tomi Lahren Begs the Question on Abortion,” Life Training Institute, July 13, 2018, https://prolifetraining.com/toddler-tactics-how-to-simplify-the-abortion-debate-6/.
  17. See Stuart Anderson, “H-1B Visas and Trump’s Next ‘Merit-Based’ Immigration Plan,” Forbes, August 6, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2020/08/06/h-1b-visas-and-trumps-next-merit-based-immigration-plan/#2596100f79bd.