Keith Burns: What would a truly ‘pro-life’ Utah look like?

If life were the concern, we’d wear masks, get vaccinated and care more about the homeless.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather for a rally in defense of abortion rights after at the Capitol, Friday, June 24, 2022. The Supreme Court Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, rescinding the federal right to abortion.

With the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, a 50-year decision that made legal abortion the law of the land, the controversy over abortion rights has occupied the minds of people all over the country. The starkly different reactions to this decision are emblematic of the deeply polarized and contentious political climate in which we currently find ourselves.

Certainly, debates over the legality of abortion will continue to be a vital issue for U.S. politics, as it should, considering the far-reaching effects abortion legislation has had on the millions of people able to have children. Not delving into that specific debate, I will instead more closely examine the phrase “pro-life,” a soundbite that became incorporated into the religiously driven anti-abortion movements of the early 70s, and discuss the ways in which Utah has failed to live by the virtues tied to such a slogan.

One area in which Utahns have collectively failed to demonstrate a concern for life has been their COVID-19 response. The percentage of those fully vaccinated has remained in the mid-60s for many months. While this percentage is better than 25 other states (thanks to Salt Lake County), it still reflects a reckless negligence and blatant rejection of an instrument that has the potential to save thousands of lives.

Similarly, many Utahns have refused to wear masks, especially during peak transmission periods. Latter-day Saints, who make up nearly two-thirds of the Utah population, have been especially resistant to wearing masks and getting vaccinated, even after insistent and explicit urgings from their top leaders.

It is particularly unsettling that some of the loudest opponents of masks and vaccines tout the importance of personal freedom and bodily autonomy, yet denounce these same principles when expressed by those who support abortion. Certainly, a great number of the nearly 5,000 COVID deaths in Utah could have been avoided had more people worn masks, been vaccinated and placed the sanctity of life over political dogma, personal ego and misinformation campaigns.

Discourse about poverty and homelessness would also be quite different if a concern for life was at the center. While numerous humanitarian organizations deserve credit for their valiant efforts to alleviate homelessness, much of the rhetoric in Utah continues to uphold the idea that poverty is a behavioral deficiency that can be cured with a proper work ethic and a better attitude.

Embedded in this worldview is the self-congratulatory affirmation that one’s wealth has been “hard-earned,” an idea that ignores systemic factors that drive wealth inequality and privilege disparities. It is especially ironic that such capitalistic views have prevailed in a state that was once filled with communitarian settlements devoted to equality. A truly pro-life Utah would be in favor of policies that redistribute wealth more rigorously and foster more compassionate social programs for those experiencing poverty and homelessness.

Utah’s lack of child care accessibility also reflects a departure from pro-life standards. Political leadership has for decades failed to implement policies that would provide more affordable child care, especially for low-income families.

At a House Workforce Services Committee meeting in 2019, state Rep. Suzanne Harrison of Draper pointed out that Utah is last in the nation in terms of access to child care and related benefits like paid time off and onsite child care. It is puzzling that a political view which decries the immorality of abortion is not concerned with making sure that parents have adequate access to quality, affordable child care. Thus, are the majority of pro-lifers truly pro-life, or are they simply pro-birth?

There are other areas in which supposedly pro-life politics neglect the suffering of marginalized groups, including alarmingly high LGBTQ+ suicide rates and various forms of racial discrimination which still permeate the state.

This glaring inconsistency reveals that abortion opponents who bolster their views with “pro-life” declarations are often not fighting for the sanctity of life, and instead asserting a specific politico-theological view about bearing children. The shallow and one-dimensional nature of this slogan should invite us to reflect on the political and religious dogmas that so often dominate our ideology, and challenge us to think more critically and compassionately about harmful points of view we so often take for granted.

Keith Burns

Keith Burns, Provo, is a recent Sarah Lawrence College graduate who specialized in Mormonism and sexuality. He will begin a master’s in social work at Lehman College in the fall of 2022.