Image Bearers: Pro-life or Whole Life?

/ Commentary

By Nathan Apodaca

Over the past several years a growing number of books, articles, podcasts, and organizations have been created by pro-life advocates, asserting the messaging of the pro-life movement needs to be expanded to include other issues of concern in addition to the preborn. While bearing names such as “Whole Life,” “Consistent Life,” or “Pro-Abundant-Life,” the growing movement within the pro-life movement has raised significant concerns and serious debate among pro-lifers.

A number of books have been published on the issue, arguing that pro-lifers must embrace the “whole life” or “consistent life” perspective, including Charles Camosy’s Resisting Throwaway Culture, and a short booklet titled Why We Must Be Pro-Abundant-Life by Ronald C. Warren, the CEO of CareNet.

The most recent of these works is a 2020 book by Herbie Newell, Image Bearers: Shifting from Pro-Birth to Pro-Life. Published by Lifeline Children’s Services, the book has received enthusiastic endorsements from many within the “whole life” camp.

In the book, Newell asserts it is time the pro-life movement stops focusing on merely being “pro-birth” and become truly “pro-life.” According to Newell, it is the job of Christians to focus on a variety of issues aside from abortion in order to be more robustly “pro-life” and not merely pro-birth.

Now, as a disclaimer, the book makes a number of excellent points, but on issues entirely unrelated to abortion, which means if you are looking for a book which highlights the various social justice concerns the modern Christian church is presented with, this book is a great place to start. However, if you are looking for a resource to help you engage on the issue of abortion and become a better advocate on behalf of the preborn, the book is a colossal waste of time and money. Better books on the issue are available.

In fact, reading through the book, one is left with the impression that Newell has barely researched the issue of abortion at all. He does not quote a single pro-life leader or mention any pro-life arguments whatsoever. No pro-life apologist makes an appearance in the book. If you are planning to write a book aimed at criticizing pro-lifers for their exclusive focus on the preborn and getting pro-lifers to broaden their focus to issues unrelated to abortion, this is not a good place to start.

In the first two chapters, Newell lays out the doctrine of the Imago Dei, the image of God, then goes on to talk about how abortion is an affront to not only fellow human beings but to God Himself. In chapter two, Newell takes the reader through a tour of the recent efforts by pro-abortion lawmakers to further enshrine abortion into state law, and the sickening celebrations in places like New York City, where in 2019 the World Trade Center was lit up pink to celebrate the passage of a law protecting late term abortions. Newell spends multiple pages providing details on the abortion mindset our culture has adopted.

After lamenting all these developments (as we all should do), we get this passage on page 33:

“Every life is a masterpiece, and as believers, we are losing the abortion battle because our battlefield has become limited to the courtroom and the halls of government instead of extending to the hearts and souls of men. Our messaging is stale and lacking passion for the Creator. We have made women in crisis the villains instead of seeing them as the mission field. Our rhetoric marks pro-choice advocates as evil, instead of dropping to our knees in prayer for their souls, hearts, and minds to be turned to our great God.”

Nowhere in the book does Newell provide examples of this failed rhetoric. Provided, some pro-lifers have been jerks towards people in need. That is not, however, a failure inherent in our position. It is simply what happens when our moral outrage over abortion becomes disconnected from other virtues such as wisdom, temperance, humility, and compassion. This is a failure which can occur in any justice-oriented movement, not just the pro-life cause.

Furthermore, over the past two decades pro-life apologetics organizations and activism groups have not only been teaching, but training students, teachers, ministry leaders, and activists how to effectively engage the issue of abortion in a multitude of arenas. Pro-life messaging is not stale; pro-life apologists are very effective at tweaking and reworking arguments to make them accessible to a broader audience. Organizations such as the Life Training Institute, Created Equal, Justice For All, Equal Rights Institute, Merely Human Ministries, and others have all done great work in teaching how to be an effective advocate on behalf of the preborn. The messaging and arguments of the pro-life movement are only stale and ineffective if one fails to take the time to actually learn and apply what others are teaching.

Newell does provide the reader with a somewhat practical application. He points out there is a great need for committed Christian pro-life advocates in law, politics, and education.

The problem is that a great part of society, including a good part of the Church, has still failed to see the humanity of the preborn and just what odds the preborn are facing. The Supreme Court of the United States has already stripped the preborn of any real sort of protection in law through their Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions (something Newell acknowledges). Additionally, an entire American political party, most of Hollywood, academia, and sadly, even roughly half of mainstream American churches are supportive of the right to elective abortion. There is still a great need for education about the humanity of the preborn, and the inhumanity of abortion.

However, instead of showing the reader how to be more proactive on behalf of the preborn, Newell takes us down a different path. In order to be more “pro-life,” we must spend more of our time addressing other “outside the womb” issues. In chapter three, we get an overview of what this “truly pro-life” ethic means:

“I ask people all the time, what will our talking points be if, by God’s grace, abortion is made illegal? What action will we take? The answer to these questions identifies if we are really pro-life or if we are just pro-birth...You see, being pro-life is not just about eliminating abortion. Being pro-life means putting our families into action to live out our passion for guarding the Imago Dei.”

We do not actually get an argument for why this must be the case. Even Newell acknowledges that “pro-life” was the term adopted by defenders of preborn children early on in the so-called “abortion wars”; however, he wants to expand it to include other issues that have absolutely nothing to do with the preborn. We get no actual argument as to why “pro-life” must encompass every other moral issue of concern for Christians; instead, we largely get storytelling.

This reflects a trend which is fairly commonplace within the “whole life” movement: a failure to grasp what the pro-life position on abortion actually is. The pro-life position is simple: It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Abortion does that. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Now, what is it about that essential pro-life argument which entails I must focus on all social justice issues in society today, as Newell asserts? While it should be mentioned that pro-lifers are not wrong to focus on other “outside the womb” issues (and many do), why are we obligated to spread our focus fighting other issues.

Anti-abortion activists who focus on quality of life issues outside the womb do so in conjunction with their views on abortion; they are in no way essential to being pro-life.

Keep in mind, the number of abortions daily in America is roughly between two and three thousand. Preborn children are poisoned, dismembered, and decapitated by the thousands on a weekly basis. Yearly, nearly sixty million preborn children are killed through abortion worldwide. And self-declared pro-life advocates like Herbie Newell want us to spend less time focusing on this evil, and more time addressing others? Given recent setbacks at both the legislative and the judicial levels of the US government, including the recent Supreme Court decision striking down a Louisiana abortion law meant to protect mothers from unsafe abortions, it should be obvious compared to all other issues Newell mentions, the greatest threat to fellow human beings our country is found in the American abortion industry. As one author put it, with abortion we are not seeing systemic discrimination, but systemic annihilation. Pro-lifers focus the greatest effort on behalf of the preborn because the preborn are the most at-risk group in America today.

While other issues bring their own moral significance into play, by simple numbers alone abortion poses the single greatest attack on the Imago Dei. In turn, this means abortion requires the greatest amount of effort, energy, and resources to defeat it.

Perhaps a historical analogy can clarify the problem here. When the United States entered World War II, there was a debate within the American High Command about which combat theater should receive the majority of American support: The Pacific and East Asia, or Europe? The decision made by Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower to focus on Europe was for a simple reason: Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy posed the greatest threat not only to the Allies, but to the world at large. Because they posed the greatest threat to world stability and peace, the European theater received the majority of manpower, materials, and efforts compared to the Pacific theater. Dubbed the “Germany First” policy, this framework defined Allied military operations for the duration of the war. The Pacific theater issue was not ignored, and several major victories were achieved in the Pacific during this time; the emphasis on actions in European and North African theaters of operation was not due to any sort of apathy about the situation in the Pacific.

Rather, the reason was that a wise leader will see where the greatest threat to his position is coming from and will take steps to mitigate or defeat that threat. This is true of any sort of engagement: in war, politics, sports, and especially in the fight against abortion. By the numbers alone, it is clear abortion poses the greatest possible threat to fellow human beings — human beings who are incapable of speaking up for themselves or fighting back. Add in the societal barriers to the preborn ever being protected in our laws, and Newell’s comments about expanding the “pro-life” cause to other issues seem rather foolish.

Ironically, it should also be noted that this call to broaden one’s focus to other issues is rarely, if ever, applied with equal intensity to groups engaged in advocacy on other issues. Are Whole Life advocates also going to groups which are exclusively focused on the care of the homeless, the elderly, and the marginalized, and telling them unless they also spend time addressing abortion, then they are not really “pro-life”? Would it make sense to go to an organization fighting child hunger, or veteran suicide, and tell them they need to expand their focus to healthcare, education, and even abortion? The answer is no, which raises a fundamental question: Do Whole Life advocates actually believe the preborn are human beings just like the born?  If the preborn are members of the human family, then isn’t defending them from abortion enough to warrant the title “pro-life,” regardless of time spent addressing other issues?

Furthermore, the definition of “pro-life” Newell and other “whole life” advocates use also leads to absurd conclusions.

Let us suppose two candidates for political office are running for election this fall. One candidate is running on a “pro-life” platform, encompassing all of the issues Newell lists in his book as worthy of the title “pro-life”: He’s for racial justice. He supports strengthening families. He supports broader protections for the elderly, and stricter laws against pornography and sex trafficking, and cutting red tape from the adoption process. However, he is a firm supporter of abortion. In fact, he promises that he will use his political platform to work to eradicate any legal restrictions against even late term abortions. He even has voted against, and promises to veto bills aimed at protecting children born alive after botched abortions. Let us suppose that 9 out of 10 of his policy platforms are “pro-life,” but he is also a staunch pro-abortion advocate.

Now, let us suppose his opponent is the complete opposite. She is also concerned about poverty, fatherlessness, and racial justice, but she focuses the greater amount of her policy proposals on efforts to end abortion; she promises to use her platform to work endlessly to bring an end to legal abortion, including the appointment of anti-abortion judges, and will sign any proposed bills that prohibit abortions in her jurisdiction.

Now, who should a truly pro-life person give their support to? According to the “whole life” or “pro-life” position proposed by Herbie Newell and others, you have a moral obligation to vote for and support the pro-abortion yet “pro-life” on other issues politician, even though he will expand the number of abortions taking place.

This raises significant questions about the wisdom of expanding the operational objectives of the pro-life movement beyond simply stopping the killing of the preborn. How does focusing on other unrelated issues with equal or greater intensity stop the killing of the preborn? By and large, it doesn’t. So why should advocates on behalf of the preborn spend their time, energy, and resources on these other issues in order to be granted the title “pro-life”?

While the pro-life issue is undoubtedly part of broader social justice concerns, not all social justice concerns are by definition “pro-life.” Some social justice issues do not even touch life or death at all, which means that there is no good basis to call these issues “pro-life.” Why should anyone accept the presumption that all social justice issues are morally equivalent to the abortion issue? Equivalency between multiple issues needs to be argued for, and not merely assumed to be the case.

Lastly, it is simply false that pro-life Christians are placing too much emphasis on abortion to the exclusion of all other issues, or that abortion is all the Church spends its time on. Pew Research Center published a study on this very question in 2019. The results were nothing short of depressing.

According to the study, out of Church sermons posted online, only 4% of the sermons even made reference to abortion. The study provides no data on actual teaching on the morality of abortion from the pulpit, but the prospects of such teaching being commonplace are even slimmer.

Worse still, the Church appears to be divided almost equally over the issue itself. In 2017 the Pew Research Center also published data on where members of each religious group stands on the issue of abortion. The results were also far from comforting. For most mainline Protestant, and even Catholic churches, roughly half of each denomination in question supported legal abortion. Clearly, it is not the case that church leaders are focusing on abortion to the exclusion of all other social justice topics. Many simply are not even bothering to try to cover abortion at all. The ones that do try largely go for the bare minimum, paying lip service to the preborn with no action required by the born. Generally speaking, teachings on the humanity of the preborn and the inhumanity of abortion from the Church pulpit are dead upon arrival.

Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that many pro-lifers have simply not fully thought through  what we are required to do if the preborn are members of the human family, just like the rest of us. It is easy to depersonalize the preborn, and make the question of their humanity and what we owe them the focus of theoretical exercises, instead of seeing them as victims of a systemic injustice. After all, they are smaller than us, they cannot think or behave the same way we can (because they are less developed,) they are in an environment where we cannot see them easily or play with them like we can born children, and they are more dependent upon their mothers for their basic needs.

The problem is that none of these characteristics ultimately makes a difference in the long run. The humanity of the preborn, and the inhumanity of abortion, will become much more clear to us when we realize that we ourselves, and the people we love the most, were also preborn human beings at one point in their lives. Which means, consequently, we owe them the same protections that were given to us.

Law is a reflection of what society values, and what society is willing to protect. Telling those who are brokenhearted over the mass killing of the preborn that they must spend extra time on other unrelated issues (issues that often carry a minuscule death toll compared to abortion) in order to warrant being called “pro-life” amounts to a cruel form of moral bullying. After all, many are brokenhearted over the issue for a variety of reasons: Some mourn siblings lost to abortion. Some are survivors of botched abortions. Some regret their own abortions so deeply they want to spend their lives trying to spare other men and women similar pain and regret. And some are simply outraged that a society which calls itself “socially just” would allow for the smallest and weakest members of the human family to be taken advantage of while residing within their mother’s care and protection. Telling these people their brokenheartedness over the issue, and singular focus because of it, is immoral or apathetic is the height of prideful cruelty.

Whole life advocates are largely well-meaning, but the wisdom of the view they are embracing needs to be called into serious question by pro-life advocates.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.

Image Bearers: Pro-life or Whole Life?
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