Sonnenberg: White Religious Conservatives and the Utah Pro-Life Movement


By Kristiane Sonnenberg


The Utah March for Life was smaller than you’d expect. Utah has a reputation for its social conservatism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ stances on controversial topics often influence the opinions of its membership. The Church teaches that “elective abortion for personal or social convenience is contrary to the will and the commandments of God,” and so it would seem natural to expect that there would be thousands of Latter-day Saints at the March for Life. Despite the Church’s strong teachings on abortion and the Utah legislature’s continued interest in regulating abortion, the 2019 March for Life only drew a couple hundred people.

As a pro-life woman, I would love for thousands of people to attend pro-life marches. Despite that desire, I can’t help but think that the low attendance at Utah March for Life might have a positive side. The local March for Life exhibits many of the same problems that hinder the national March for Life in Washington, D.C. — the march is overwhelmingly Republican, religious and privileged.


Politically Conservative

In my experience, the Utah March for Life has a heavy conservative lean. As a pro-life Democrat (yes, we do exist), I was disconcerted to see that there was a table giving out “Republicans are Pro-Life” stickers and buttons. The Democratic Party shows little interest in including pro-life voices and an unsurprising absence of local Democratic politicians made the march Republican by default. Even as Republican politicians nominally oppose abortion, I believe that the Republican Party’s stances on torture, the death penalty and unjust war disqualify the party from practicing truly pro-life values.

The Utah march’s political leanings mirror those of the national March for Life. This year, Vice-President Mike Pence spoke in person at the national march and listed the Trump administration’s anti-abortion efforts. President Donald Trump also addressed the protesters via video and spoke about the economy and the various anti-abortion laws that he had supported since taking office. Other conservative speakers included Ben Shapiro and two Republican Congressmen.

The fact that March for Life, on both the local and national levels, has a close affiliation with the Republican Party and political conservatism is hypocritical. The pro-life movement cannot consistently claim to be pro-life when it invites Trump and Pence to speak. They may value the life of the unborn, but they are also responsible for the inhumane separation of children at the border, dangerously racist rhetoric and the criminal neglect of Puerto Ricans — all of which have directly or indirectly resulted in the loss of life. This hypocrisy is understandably unpalatable to many Americans and explains why the pro-life movement is characterized as being more pro-birth than pro-life.

The Utah March for Life had some signs that some people in the pro-life movement are trying to break away from the movement’s association with the Republican Party. The Utah Solidarity Party, a newly formed branch of the American Solidarity Party, marched with posters that read “Todos somos humanos from conception to natural death” and carried a banner advocating “defense of human life” in utero, in affliction, in prison and in motherhood. Members of the Utah Solidarity Party advocate at meetings of Pro-Life Utah, a group that asked Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, to sponsor a pro-life bill. The Party “[seeks] to bridge the bitter partisan divide with principled and respectful policies and dialog” and takes a decidedly bi-partisan stance by advocating for ideas as varied as the “sanctity of human life, the necessity of social justice, our responsibility to care for the environment, and promotion of a more peaceful world.”

If the pro-life movement is going to have any chance of being taken seriously for its moral consistency, it needs to abandon its close ties with the Republican Party on a local and national scale. The movement should instead seek to work with members of both major parties (and some third parties) in order to push legislation that will be consistently pro-life and protect people from their conception to their natural death.


Highly Religious

The pro-life movement is also justifiably characterized by its religious component, and Utah is no exception. As far as I could tell, most of the protesters at the Utah March for Life were Catholic, Evangelical or Mormon. There were many signs from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, urging women to “Love Life. Choose Life.” I also saw a few signs referencing Bible verses. Most of the speakers during the program after the March included a prayer or faith-based content and a Catholic priest closed the program with a prayer. The national March for Life is similarly religious and is well-attended by Catholic and Evangelical groups. Religious speakers included Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and Archbishop Naumann, the Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Pro-life Activities Committee.

The affiliation of religious groups with the pro-life movement is understandable — after all, many Christian traditions teach that abortion is a sin. The pro-life movement, however, shoots itself in the foot when it exclusively identifies itself as a religious coalition. Doing so presents the pro-life position as a faith-based perspective, which alienates non-religious people and members of faiths that don’t find abortion problematic. The pro-life movement’s overwhelmingly religious composition opens it up to come-backs like “keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” While witty, these retorts reinforce the idea that the opposition to abortion is a purely religious stance. If the claim that abortion is wrong is based on religious conviction alone, it will continue to lose relevancy as our society grows increasingly secular.

Groups like Secular Pro-Life and Rehumanize International challenge the narrative that only religious people are pro-life. These groups point to data that shows that 19 percent of non-religious people identify as pro-life to show that there is such a thing as a non-religious, pro-life person. They use arguments based on the science of human development to argue that life begins at conception and should, therefore, be protected. Secular pro-life groups do not base their arguments on religious texts and some break with the religious wing of the pro-life movement by advocating for increased use of birth control to prevent conception.

Unfortunately, while there are a number of secular pro-life groups on the national scale, few to none operate within Utah. In my experience, the pro-life stance in Utah is seen as an outgrowth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ religious beliefs — which makes it easy to write off as another example of the inordinate control that the church has over its members, especially within the state government. If the Utah pro-life movement wants to have a chance of convincing non-Latter-day Saints or non-religious Utahns that abortion is wrong, it must grow beyond its association with the religious majority.


Old White Guys

The public perception of the pro-life movement is that the majority of its supporters are older, white men. I have always found this portrayal to be a strawman — after all, it is easier to ignore an argument pertaining to women’s bodies when it’s made by a man. Out of all the stereotypes levied against the pro-life movement, the charge that it is mainly composed of white men strays the farthest from reality.

The Utah March for Life showed that the pro-life movement is more diverse than it is often portrayed. Many women marched with their children to advocate for an end to abortion. Four out of the five speakers at the Utah March for Life were women. Despite improved female representation, the Utah Pro-Life movement still looks very white. The pro-life movement in Utah should learn from national organizations and empower women of color to share their own perspectives on abortion. The national March for Life featured Ally Cavazos, the President of Princeton Pro-Life, Dr. Alveda King, Director of Civil Rights for the Unborn, and State Representative Katrina Jackson (D-LA). With that said, the Utah March for Life showed signs of diversity that promise some hope that the pro-life movement will grow beyond its narrow original audience of white religious conservatives.


Going Forward

Although the Utah March for Life was small and overwhelmingly conservative, religious and white, I was still heartened to see Utahns advocating for an end to abortion. Going forward, they will need to adjust their tactics to better advocate for the message. It seems like a lot of pro-life efforts in Utah are limited to volunteers running diaper drives and conservative legislators passing anti-abortion legislation. If the Utah pro-life movement actually wants to stop abortion, it needs to mimic the New Wave Feminists, who said that “we don’t work to make abortion illegal. We work to make it unthinkable and unnecessary. And we do that by getting to the root of the need for it.”

If the Utah pro-life movement wants to convince people that abortion is morally wrong, it needs to grow beyond its Republican, religious and racially homogenous base. If it wants to help end abortion in Utah, it needs to recognize that anti-abortion legislation is only one part of the picture and that improving the social and economic conditions that pressure women into abortion will, in the long-term, create a more pro-life future.

This article is part of the Poynter College Media Project. Click here for more stories and information on the topic “Are U Mormon?”

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