The response to environmental degradation cannot ignore the other threats to human dignity and social justice present in the world. The problems are interconnected, often sharing the same causes: radical individualism, a “throwaway culture,” under-regulated markets, and various other ideologies and forms of injustice.
Before anything else, pro-lifers should support Pope Francis’ message because environmental degradation directly threatens and ends human lives — not just in an equation predicting the worst-case scenario in a model on climate change, but today, right now. Vulnerable people around the world are dying because of our misuse of nature. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million people die prematurely from air pollution each year, as well as 150,000 people from climate change. When all the other impacts of this misuse are totaled, the human cost is staggering.
Unless we count those anti-abortion activists whose concern for life ends at birth — those who are so often entranced by a belief in the magical powers of the market — to be pro-life means to protect the lives and dignity of all human beings. Every life has value. None are disposable. Francis makes this very point in the encyclical, saying, “The inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development.”
The government has a responsibility to counter both direct and indirect threats to life, and we, as citizens, have a responsibility to press them to do so. The defense of unborn life is situated within the larger goals of ensuring the protection of human rights and establishing greater social justice. Since the poor, the sick, the weak, and the vulnerable are the most exposed to human rights violations and the denial of their basic needs, sincere pro-lifers must have a special commitment to the poor and vulnerable.
If we accept this commitment, protecting creation and defending human life become mutually reinforcing moral imperatives. Francis explains:
“Concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we really teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however annoying or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
If we care about protecting the environment because it threatens human life, it only makes sense to care about the lives threatened by abortion. The reverse is true as well. Francis reminds us, “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities — to offer just a few examples — it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself.”
Caring for the lives and dignity of some but not others not only opens up pro-choice environmentalists and anti-abortion activists who are indifferent to environmental degradation and social injustice to charges of hypocrisy. It exposes the fundamental incoherence in these worldviews.
Francis explains that if we disregard nature, the human cost will be intolerable. And if we discard human beings like objects that are no longer of use, we will inevitably adopt the same view of the natural world. What is needed is a greater sense of communion, of the interconnectedness of all things. Without this sense of universal solidarity, human cruelty will not be contained:
“When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings.”
This is part of Pope Francis’ message on “integral ecology,” in which “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
The answer to poverty and environmental degradation is not to discard more people. The goal should not be to eliminate poor children in order to maintain an unjust global economic order, but to eliminate poverty. And if we want to protect these children and everyone else, we need to support an integral and sustainable development that serves the common good.
Pope Francis is calling for us to fight for this new approach. Pro-life supporters should be on the frontlines leading the fight.