If you are feeling weary or dispirited about the future of the pro-life movement, you would do well to interview Terrisa Bukovinac, founder and executive director of Pro-Life San Francisco. If you didn’t have fire in your belly before the interview I guarantee that you will by the end of it. Terrisa is what many consider an ‘atypical’ pro-lifer: she’s an atheist, a member of the US Democratic Party and firmly left-liberal in outlook. Some of what Terrisa proposes is quite different from our way of approaching things. We think it’s good to have our own views challenged, and Terrisa did so in a very thought-provoking way when I spoke with her on Zoom recently. I began by asking her how she got involved in pro-life activism.
Terrisa describes her younger self as ‘basically a pro-choice youth’. She was also religious, believing in an afterlife and divine justice. A friend challenged her on the issue of abortion. ‘I always had a sensitivity to animals and he would be like, “How can you care about the dolphins if you don’t care about unborn children being killed in the womb?” and I thought […] what unborn children? It’s just a clump of cells. I had debated abortion before in high school but I’m not sure that I ever allowed myself to think about it in those terms, that it could be viewed as violence against another creature. It really caused me to kind of rethink the morality of it’.
In spite of this, Terrisa remained pro-choice. She was also still religious – a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And then she wasn’t religious, and she found that she was no longer pro-choice either. She explains: ‘it was really losing my faith […] losing that idea of a life after death and divine justice, that made me rethink the abortion issue, like what is my life, what is the meaning of my life, what gives our lives value, what is a good justification for killing someone, all these kinds of moral questions that you have when you no longer have a faith answer, when you have to figure it out. And the conclusion that I came to was that there is no real objective distinction morally between a human being and a person and that, you know, preborn human beings are in fact human beings, that’s not something that is really contestable’. But she kept her convictions to herself for ‘many years’, given the social stigma of being pro-life, ‘especially as a liberal and as an atheist’. Until she discovered the organisation Secular Pro-Life, and other non-religious pro-lifers. ‘And I thought, oh, this is a thing, this makes sense to other people, and then I was exposed at that point to way more of the arguments involved in the pro-life/pro-choice debate’. She credits her atheism with her getting involved in political activism. ‘I felt marginalised as a secular person, especially in America. There were some states then – it might be different now – where you couldn’t even hold public office as an atheist […] and that kind of discrimination really made me feel more political than I had ever felt before, like the need to give myself a voice in the political sphere and secular people in general’. Terrisa’s animal rights activism also encouraged pro-life advocacy. ‘Because of my work in the animal rights movement, because I knew that on-the-ground activism is so crucial, I thought, OK, now is the time to take what I know in the pro-life world and what I know in the animal rights community and try to merge the two and do something about it’. Pro-Life San Francisco was launched in October 2016. ‘I intended us initially to just be a small group […] but immediately it was this hot button issue, and all of a sudden Refinery29 is calling me and lots of other major media wanting the perspective of a pro-life liberal, so that’s put us all in the spotlight, and forced me to consider what it’s really going to take to address this issue, not just having a club of thinkers but a club of doers that can not just do something in my community but can set an example for the rest of the movement and for our nation’.
Ireland has several different pro-life organisations, each with its own outlook and approach. I ask Terrisa if she has any advice on how different groups can work together on the issue of abortion. She begins by commiserating with me on the 2018 referendum result (she worked for a while in Dublin with the Love Both campaign). ‘In Ireland […] the differences [between the different pro-life organisations] seemed, at least from an outsider, much more marginal’, in contrast to the US, where ‘you have separate political parties and totally separate ideologies trying to work together, and hopefully it will be like that in Ireland if it isn’t already, because that is the sign of the strength of any social justice movement’. The importance of working together is something Terrisa brings up repeatedly. ‘If we allow those differences to come between us and being able to effectively work on the goal, then that is detrimental to everyone’. She also notes that being involved in other social justice movements can help build skills which transfer to pro-life activism. The conversation briefly touches on the issue of racial justice, something which Terrisa actively supports. She says that there is pressure to cut off pro-lifers who don’t openly support racial justice, but she emphasises the importance of working together with people, even if you profoundly disagree with them on other issues. She’s blunt about this. ‘We have to be able to set aside the other issue. If we make it all-encompassing we are delaying victory in either one of those causes, so in order to work on racial justice issues I have to work with people who I think literally kill babies and in order to work on pro-life issues I have to work with people who are literally racist’. Publicly demonstrating pro-life unity is vital in Terrisa’s view. ‘Somebody has to go in and tell the narrative that even though we’re different, we’re the same. And that has to be done through social media, through letters, through showing people […] that that kind of unity is taking place’.
Irish pro-life organisations are mainly made up of people who belong to certain religious groups or who share certain religious views. I ask Terrisa how such organisations can be inclusive of non-religious pro-lifers. ‘Well they need to say it explicitly. They need to say, we are open to secular people, atheists, agnostics’ – not just the well-worn phrase, ‘people of all faiths and none’, although she thinks that’s a good starting point. ‘The Christian pro-life movement can be very, very hostile to non-traditional pro-life types’, she continues. ‘And I just want to illustrate that by saying, imagine yourself or a religious person, a religious pro-lifer, but they exist in a world where the pro-life movement is all atheist, and every time they go to an event, people are like, “Hmm, we’re hoping that you’ll leave the Church any day now and we can’t wait for you to come over to our side, we know you’ll ditch that religion eventually”, and then there’s tons of speeches that are like, waving the LGBT flag, and “Let’s everybody stand up and pledge allegiance to science and reason outside of faith”.’ She acknowledges that it is difficult for people ‘within that faith bubble’ to see it as anything other than loving and accepting, ‘but that’s not what it looks or feels like to a person who’s not religious’. She points out that most non-religious people came to be so ‘from being formerly religious, and generally through a pretty painful deconversion process’. She thinks that there is ‘a total lack of understanding there and the only way to remedy that is to bring secular people or left-leaning people or pro-LGBT people or those types of people into the movement, like to say, “Hey, I know that you might feel a little uncomfortable here but I want to make sure that you do feel comfortable here, so just tell me everything you need”.’ That, and letting the ‘atypical’ pro-lifers take leadership of the pro-life movement, because ‘magnifying their voices is what is going to diversify our movement’
It has been suggested that young adults in the US tend to be more pro-life than their parents’ generation, while also more secular and socially liberal. If this is so, how is the secular pro-life movement is interacting with this demographic change. ‘Well’, she replies, ‘we like to think in a lot of ways that Secular Pro-Life is leading the demographic change, at least on the life issue’. When she first got involved with the pro-life movement there were six million non-religious pro-lifers in the US; ‘now we’re looking at at least twelve million’. She ascribes this change to a number of things, including increased secularism, increased visibility on the part of pro-lifers, advances in ultrasound technology and an ‘increase in understanding of basic science’. The biggest problem in the US context, as Terrisa sees it, is ‘the alignment of the abortion industry with liberal, progressive values. And what we see is that the abortion industry – NARAL, Planned Parenthood – their advertising and their promotion almost completely revolves around other left-leaning issues that we know young people care deeply about, that the Republicans […] are just not able to address in any meaningful way’. However, polling indicates that late-term abortion is a significant concern for many millennials. ‘The point is, we have to give them a voice here. There’s almost no real outlet for that position if we’re not building a movement and we’re not showing people like me, like Herb [Geraghty], and projecting that through social media and […] doing whatever we can to get that message out there, then people like us will continue voting Left and just allowing this abortion extremism to not just happen in the US but then to emanate across the world, because when it happens here it happens everywhere’.
To be continued.