Which Lives Matter? Pro-Life Politics during a Pandemic

Human life in the global coronavirus pandemic is under duress. At the time of our writing, COVID-19 has taken over two hundred thousand lives in the United States and significantly altered everyday life. Medical professionals, grocery clerks, postal workers, and other vital laborers risk their lives each day to help our communities. Public schools are conducting broad experiments in digital learning (or putting teachers, students, and staff at risk) while parents plan and fret. Bodies of peaceful protestors in the streets for Black lives are vulnerable to tear gas, police batons, armed vigilantes, and a virus that is disproportionately harming Black and Brown communities. Political leaders tell us everything is at risk and needs protecting: jobs, religious freedom, the planet, democracy, the soul of America.

As anthropologists who study reproductive politics and white conservative Christians, a group for whom discourses of protecting and saving life carry deep power, we are interested in what pro-life has come to mean in the middle of this pandemic. In the weeks leading up to one of our country’s most consequential general elections—including the prospect of unseating the “most pro-life president the US has ever had”—we reflect on this question from our respective homes in the Midwest and the South where COVID rates are surging. We live in places represented by elected officials who are hostile to reproductive rights and reproductive justice, and are based at universities where leadership believe it is their “duty” to restore in-person learning this fall. Pro-life politics call us to reckon with the racial violence intrinsic to their rhetoric of saving and protection that are proving lethal for many Americans during this pandemic.

As responses to the pandemic began unfolding in the United States, antiabortion politicians quickly seized opportunities to advance their decades-long agenda of undermining abortion rights, creating the greatest hardship for the poor and people of color (Cohen & Joffe 2020). Pro-life governors in twelve states took swift executive order action to halt abortion services by defining the time-sensitive procedure as “elective” and “non-essential.” They justified these actions by claiming they protected the vulnerable. According to the Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi, a state with one abortion clinic and several barriers to access, “We’ll take whatever action we need to protect not only the lives of unborn children, but also the lives of anyone who may contract this particular virus.” In the first pandemic stimulus bill, which claimed to “deliver on the Trump Administration’s commitment to protecting the American people from the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19,” antiabortion lawmakers ensured that providers like Planned Parenthood would be disqualified from emergency funding while so-called crisis pregnancy centers and large corporations would receive millions in federal support. In a midnight meeting on the last day of their legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers passed one of the most restrictive antiabortion bills on record hoping to “protect more babies and more life.” When signing the bill into law, Governor Bill Lee declared, “It’s our responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in our community,” calling Tennessee one of the most “pro-life” states as it also remained without a state-wide mask mandate.

As the pandemic began, antiabortion politicians appeared steadfastly committed to their rhetorical goal of “protecting life” in all forms. Yet, as America’s COVID-19 death toll rose and unemployment escalated, pro-life politicians actively rejected public health measures in place to protect their constituents from harm. In March, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a prominent antiabortion “champion” of “measures to support and protect every life in Texas,” told Fox News reporter Tucker Carlson that senior citizens should “take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country…. I’m not living in fear of COVID-19. What I’m living in fear of is what’s happening to this country.” A month later, when Texas began reopening plans, Patrick doubled down on protecting business interests over people’s lives. “There are more important things than living,” he said, “and that’s saving this country for my children and grandchildren, saving this country for all of us… We’ve got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running.” Antiabortion Indiana Congressman Trey Hollingsworth told a local radio station in April that lawmakers should end stay-at-home orders and reopen businesses, schools, and churches: “In the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.” Emboldened by protectionist rhetoric and goaded by antagonistic tweets from the President to “liberate” states in lockdown, protesters flouting stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines staged demonstrations around the country. They carried signs that read “Sacrifice the Weak,” “Unemployment Kills,” and “#SaveCapitalism – Open Our Businesses.”[1] Their message is clear: some lives should be sacrificed to save America’s economy and so-called way of life.

Pro-lifers are making aligned claims—all lives are valuable, except for some. The contradiction of these positions is neither new nor surprising. Legal scholars David S. Cohen and Mary Ziegler explain that the Republican Party and antiabortion movement forged an alliance decades ago based on an exceptionally narrow definition of pro-life that only signifies abortion. This means that pandemic-era politicians claiming to value all (especially fetal) life while advancing policies deeply hazardous to many other people’s lives highlights an ongoing tension within the Religious Right alliance. Debates arise about whether the GOP—known for its opposition to gun control, health care expansion, and police reform; and support for capital punishment, military funding, and immigration deterrence—is the “party of life” after all. Analyses that examine frictions within conservative politics are important lines of inquiry as Democratic strategists contemplate how to motivate conservative voters in the upcoming elections.

However, in addition to friction, we see coherence across conservative politics that are animated by saving discourses voiced by pro-life politicians who foreground protection and its necessary companion, justifiable violence (Cromer, Hardin, Nyssa 2020). We join feminist social scientists in recognizing reproduction as foundational to and constitutive of wide-ranging political issues (Ginsburg & Rapp 1995; Briggs 2019). In the wake of the last presidential election, feminist anthropologists Faye Ginsburg and Sarah Franklin (2019) argued convincingly that a “familiar grammar,” rooted in American legacies of white settler Christian nationalism (Perry & Whitehead 2020), links reproduction, race, gender, religion, sexuality, guns, and nation “into an established syntax of national belonging under threat.” Building on their argument, we suggest that conservative politicians use pro-life saving rhetoric broadly to define certain lives as vulnerable and deserving of protection from others, who are simultaneously deemed threatening and ‘justifiably’ expendable. When mobilized, familiar pro-life grammars encourage the simultaneous protection and destruction of life.

Pro-life rhetoric common in conservative politics is old and far-reaching. Discourses of pro-life protectionism within militant antiabortion extremism have inspired violence in the past. Randall Terry, the Protestant founder of the extremist group Operation Rescue (now Operation Save America), epitomizes how antiabortion politics, and related pro-life rhetoric, collude with violence. Terry encouraged activists to protect the unborn through violent means, such as bombing abortion clinics and assassinating providers, glorifying killing as a way to rescue white Christian America (Ginsburg 1989; Mason 2002).

Antiabortion extremist plots to “save America” mobilize legacies of white supremacy, promoting another genealogical thread of deadly pro-life rhetoric. Without naming it as such, psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl traces pro-life grammars in his book Dying of Whiteness (2019), in which he shows how Trumpism—specifically anti-government, pro-gun, and white supremacist views—makes Americans physically sick. He talked to numerous white, working-class Trump supporters willing to sacrifice their own health in order to protect their place in the perceived racial order—a deadly stance, though coherent within pro-life logics. One Tennessean with advanced liver failure supported his state’s repeated rejection of Obama-era health care reforms, saying, “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it… I would rather die… No way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens” (Metzl 2019, 2). This story is a profound example of the racialized violence born by pro-life rhetoric, even unto its ardent supporters. Saving discourses common to white supremacy also animate white American anxieties about waning political power and perceptions of vigilante violence as patriotic. In anticipation of white American’s impending minority status in US demographics, over forty percent of Republican respondents in a recent national poll expressed agreement with the statement: “A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands” (Bartels 2020). Pro-life rhetoric, evident within politics from health care reform to racist vigilantism, has far-reaching and lethal effects.

Deadly discourses for saving life are rampant during these “pandamning” times in American politics. Justifiable violence was on recently display in a widely circulated poll indicating that 57% of Republicans regard the loss of 176,000 American lives to COVID-19, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, as “acceptable.” Viewers of the 2020 Republican National Convention heard pro-life protectionism from Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron when he denounced Black Lives Matter protests as an “all-out attack on Western civilization.” Similarly, Vice President Mike Pence dismissed antiracist uprisings with the protectionist assertion, “We will have law and order on the streets of America.” The President egregiously endorsed pro-life violence when defending white vigilante, Kyle Rittenhouse, who is accused of murdering two protesters of racist police violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, systemic indifference to the suffering of imprisoned adults during the pandemic, including the forced sterilizations of detained migrant women, reveals their expendability within pro-life logics. Sacrificing some lives to protect a white Christian American way of life is not a contradiction but a code of practice through which familiar pro-life grammars run wide and deep.

Contemplating the dual actions of saving raises unnerving questions about what will be reproduced and revolutionized in the wake of the pandemic, upcoming elections, and ongoing shifts in racial demographics. Struggles over the future of abortion rights and the broader vision of reproductive justice are actively underway. The recent Supreme Court ruling on abortion in the June Medical decision, described by advocates as an ominous warning about the court’s readiness to undermine abortion rights, and death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes even more important which president will get to decide her replacement on the country’s highest court.

Yet as discussed here, pro-life saving rhetoric implicates more than abortion by finding expression across American politics, including public health measures, structural white supremacy, immigration, gun control, police reform, and beyond. We have suggested that mobilizing pro-life rhetoric to defend fetuses obscures and conspires with racist state violence, just as it allows white Christians to protect their own power without appearing to do so (Cromer 2019; Bjork-James 2020). By tracing some of its permutations, we invite readers to join us in reckoning with the violence intrinsic to saving discourses, which require the selective protection and valuation of some but not all (Cromer, Hardin, Nyssa 2020). Taking seriously the threats posed by pro-life rhetoric, may we find alternative ways to both celebrate all forms of precious and precarious life, and grieve its loss together.

Sophie Bjork-James is an assistant professor of the practice in the anthropology department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the co-editor of Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism (2020) and the author of The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family (2021).

Risa Cromer is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her research examines how religion, race, and law animate reproductive medicine, technologies, and politics in the United States. Her current book project, Ex Utero: Frozen Embryo Politics in the United States, investigates the afterlives of human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.

Works Cited

Bartels, L. M. (2020) Ethnic antagonism erodes Republicans’ commitment to democracy. PNAS, https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/08/26/2007747117.

Bjork-James, S. (2020) White sexual politics: the patriarchal family in white nationalism and the religious right. Transforming Anthropology, 28(1): 58-73, https://doi.org/10.1111/traa.12167

Briggs, L. (2019) How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohen, D. and C. Joffe (2020) Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cromer, R. (2019) Racial politics of frozen embryo personhood in the US antiabortion movement. Transforming Anthropology, 27(1): 22–36. https://doi.org/10.1111/traa.12145

Cromer, R., J. Hardin, and Z. Nyssa (2020) Reckoning with Saving. Journal for the Anthropology of North America, 23(1): 67-69. https://doi.org/10.1002/nad.12126.

Franklin, S. and Ginsburg, F. (2019) Reproductive politics in the age of Trump and Brexit. Cultural Anthropology, 34(1): 3-9. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca34.1.02

Ginsburg, Faye D. (1989) Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community, Updated Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ginsburg, F. D., and R, Rapp. (1995) Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mason, C. (2002) Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Metzl, J. (2019) Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland. New York: Basic Books. 

Whitehead L., and S. L. Perry (2020) Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.


[1] For an excellent analysis from medical anthropologists on the racial and reproductive politics operating in an anti-mask protester’s “My Body, My Choice” sign, see Warin and Valdez’s recent essay: https://thesiseleven.com/2020/07/14/mywhitebodymychoice/