Pro-lifers with regard to abortion are sometimes portrayed as fanatics.  They only care about one thing.  They have some kind of anti-woman, patriarchal agenda. And so on.  And, truth be told, influential members of the pro-life movement have allowed this narrative to take hold given some of their rhetoric and their political positions and alliances.

But two pieces of recent news, I think, could lead many of their opponents to understand why pro-lifers sometimes react with deep emotion, and even righteous anger, in certain situations.

The first is the stunning testimony of Planned Parenthood’s Alisa Lepolt Snow during a hearing in Florida’s state legislature on the “Infant Born Alive Bill.”  When asked what should happen to a baby who has been born alive after a botched abortion, she said that Planned Parenthood’s position is that this should be a “decision between the patient and the health care provider.”

Often the abortion debate is framed as one about how we should think the law should or should not restrict bodily autonomy.  And anyone who fairly examines both the moral and legal issues involved must come to the conclusion that this part of the debate is extremely complex. However, as the case  above makes clear, there are many situations in which the reason for the abortion is not about bodily autonomy at all.  Rather, the act is actually aimed at the death of a child, whether prenatal or neonatal.

You would think that opponents of pro-lifers, especially in light of cases like this, would at least acknowledge the complexity of the issues and be willing to engage in discussion and debate.  And, again if we’re honest, for many opponents of pro-lifers this is indeed the case.  But there is an increasingly and disturbingly frequent move being made in our public policy debates about abortion–and that is to simply lump pro-lifers in with groups who have views so horrific and beyond the pale such that a reasonable person should not engage them at all.

This kind of move is apparently what happened recently at Johns Hopkins University when their student government association denied their pro-life group official student club status.  Apparently this group was told that being pro-life  violates the University’s harassment policy and that their views are in the same category as beliefs in white supremacy.

Unlike other debates which began in the 60s and 70s, the abortion debate at least appears as polarized as ever and definitely shows no signs of going away any time soon.  However, if we are going to move beyond polarization to actual engagement of the issues, the first step must be that the players in the debate acknowledge that the issue is a complex one and that their opponents have a legitimate position that is worth engaging.  Admittedly, many pro-lifers fail at this when they use they hurl the rhetoric of “murder” and “holocaust” at their opponents, but what happened at Johns Hopkins (a place where, one might think, students would expect to be challenged by a diverse group of ideas) is evidence that there is plenty of blame to go around.