The Vanishing Pro-Life Apologist

There's a growing taboo infecting crisis pregnancy centers around the country. Pro-lifers are getting tight-lipped on abortion. Here's why even CPC's are shying away from speaking frankly about the moral crime of the century.

The last few years have witnessed a stunning development in the pro-life movement. More and more crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) refuse to discuss abortion. A new wave of pro-life leaders insist that victory will not be gained in the court of public opinion if the debate centers principally on the morality of abortion.

Paul Swope calls it "a failure to communicate" when right-to-lifers focus primarily on the unborn instead of on the felt needs of women. "The pro-life movement must show that abortion is actually not in a woman's own self-interest," he says, "and that the choice of life offers hope and a positive, expanded sense of self." Reframing the debate in these terms will enable the movement to "regain the moral high ground in the mind of the American public."1

Swope's Caring Foundation has produced a series of pro-life television ads that employ this philosophy. The message is clear: Focus on the life of the mother, not the death of the child.

Pro-life feminist Frederica Matthews-Green agrees. "Pro-lifers will not be able to break through this deadlock by stressing the humanity of the unborn....That is a question nobody is asking. But there is a question they are asking. It is, 'How could we live without it?' The problem is not moral, but practical."2

Swope and Matthews-Green are not suggesting we frame the debate in terms of the felt needs of women in the narrow context of crisis counseling. It's certainly appropriate to inform a woman of the physical and psychological consequences of choosing abortion. Rather, they insist the pro-life movement in general must speak less of the unborn and more of the woman in order to break the alleged deadlock.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

While it's true that appealing to self-interest might dissuade some abortion-minded women from killing their babies, it's hard to image how this could be an effective general strategy. Here's why: It's almost always in a woman's short-term self-interest to abort. This is precisely why the pro-abortion side has been effective. A focus on felt needs favors death, not life.

How can we "regain the moral high ground in the mind of the public," to use Swope's words, if we retreat from the moral debate? The whole point of an ethical argument is to give reasons why a woman ought not pursue selfish interests. Felt needs are the problem, not the solution.

This approach completely sabotages the pro-life position. Crisis pregnancy centers do not exist to handle pregnancy. Hospitals and clinics do that. CPCs handle crisis pregnancies, those that are vulnerable to termination by abortion. In a sense, CPCs don't exist for the woman, but for the child whose life is in danger. The idea is to dissuade women from having abortions precisely because abortion is a moral tragedy. If not, then why oppose it?

What kind of morality does this tactic leave us with? Such a posture implicitly promotes the vice of selfishness instead of the virtue of sacrificial motherhood. Ideas have consequences, and this one may have, as Frank Beckwith observes, "the unfortunate consequence of increasing the number of people who think that unless their needs are pacified they are perfectly justified in performing homicide on the most vulnerable of our population."3

There's a second danger. If self-interest is the answer to prenatal inconveniences, on what grounds do we oppose self-interest as the answer to post-natal problems? The 1989 Report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights revealed that the practice of withholding food and water from babies born with developmental handicaps--many of which are correctable--has become more prevalent. The Commission revealed that 63% of pediatric surgeons think if a newborn has developmental handicaps, it is ethically justifiable to let her starve to death.4

I'm not surprised. It's in the mother's self-interest. It's easier than raising a handicapped child.

Shifting the focus away from the unborn is not only unnecessary, it's morally disastrous. What's at stake here is the legitimacy of the entire pro-life case. Our position just is a moral one, period.

Abandoning the ethical foundation for a trendier message means the pro-life movement no longer has any reason to exist. Instead, we choose relativism. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Although Swope and Matthews-Green would never deliberately espouse such a thing, the net effect of their view is to concede the politically correct philosophy that moral questions, like religious ones, are matters of private belief and personal preference.

When morality is reduced to personal tastes, people exchange the moral question, "What is good?" for the question, "What do I want?" Instead of morality constraining our self-interest ("I want to do that, but I really shouldn't"), our self-interest define our morality. The tail wags the dog. This effort at ethical decision-making is really nothing more than thinly veiled self-interest--happiness as ethics.5

There is a better way. Swope and Matthews-Green are wrong about our failure to communicate with the public at large. A pro-life message centered principally on the moral question of abortion can prevail in the court of public opinion if it's properly understood and properly articulated.

This entails three steps: 1) restoring meaning to the word abortion, 2) carefully discrediting misstatements of fact from abortion advocates, and 3) simplifying the abortion debate for the general public by focusing on the one question that really matters.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Clearly, the word "abortion" has lost almost all meaning to most Americans. Many imagine a rather benign procedure that does little more than extract a formless tissue mass from the mother's uterus. Gregg Cunningham, director of the Center for Bioethical Reform, points out, "until you level the playing field, you may as well be talking about stock options."

Our challenge is that we live in a culture that thinks and learns visually. This profoundly effects how people resolve moral issues.

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, cultural critic Neil Postman notes that with the advent of television, America shifted from a word-based culture--characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas--to an image-based one obsessed with feeling, intuition, and pictures.

If I say the name Richard Nixon, what comes to mind for many is an image of a disgraced president making the victory sign with outstretched arms in the air. We remember almost nothing of his words beyond "I am not a crook." We are transfixed by a four hour movie--even a bad one--yet it's nearly impossible to keep parishioners engaged for a 20 minute sermon.

The word "abortion" has also lost meaning under the prevailing influence of postmodern philosophy. Loosely defined, postmodernism says that the truth about reality is forever hidden from us, that there is no objective knowledge. Instead, all we can do is tell stories which, if believed, give the storyteller power over others.

For example, President Clinton defended his veto of the partial-birth abortion ban with stories, not facts. Three women told how the procedure benefited them.

Absent from the President's defense was any moral justification, nor did he offer any evidence to refute the fact that most are performed on perfectly healthy mothers carrying perfectly healthy babies. In short, he simply changed the subject: Instead of offering stories to support his case, he offered stories in place of a case.

How do we restore meaning to the word "abortion" with people who think and learn visually, who are wooed by stories and anecdotes and not by arguments? Abandoning our core message is not the answer, especially when so many Americans have yet to seriously consider it.

Instead, we must visually awaken moral sensibilities. Pro-lifers must move the debate from the abstract question of choice of the mother to the concrete issue of the death of the child by using visual aids that allow people to see what abortion is.

As part of his research for an article on abortion for Harpers Magazine, Verlyn Klinkenborg visited an abortion clinic. There he beheld the remains of a ten-week-old preborn child. He recorded his candid impressions in his article, "Violent Certainties:"

I felt a profound and unmistakable kinship with the foot and hand in the tray, a kinship so strong it was like the rolling of the sea under my feet....I was surprised by my own sadness, by the sense of loss that I felt. Strangely, I couldn't tell what I was sad for, but I suspect that I was sad for myself, pathetic as that sounds, as though I was looking at a homuncular version of myself scattered in that basin.6

At the same time, Klinkenborg's ability to sympathize with the mother diminished radically:

I found it so much easier to be moved by the sight of the disembodied hand the size of a question mark gleaming under fluorescent lights, than it was to be moved by the woman from whom it had come, who was without work, without money, without education, without birth control....In that tiny, naked hand there was the imputation of innocence.7

The national debate on partial-birth abortion is another case in point. It seriously undermined public support for legalized abortion for one reason: It was visual.

The percentage of those who thought abortion should be legal under any circumstances dropped from 33 percent to 22 percent.8 Why? Because for the first time in 25 years, the debate was about the act of abortion itself and how it affects the unborn. Pro-abortion columnist Naomi Wolf wrote, "When someone holds up a model of a six-month-old fetus and a pair of surgical scissors, we say, 'choice,' and we lose."9

Pro-lifers showed the seven-minute video Harder Truth to a legislative committee during debate on the bill. Although it contained no partial-birth footage, the pictures of babies killed through D&E and suction abortion were more than adequate to shift discussions from "choice" to the procedure itself.

In a dramatic turn of events, New Jersey legislators--including liberal Democrats--vigorously supported limits on abortion. "'Legislators and the public were revolted by the procedure,' said John Tomicki...who showed videos of the procedure in legislative committees. 'It was the first time we brought charts into the legislative chambers--the first time we showed videos. And the response was tremendous.'"10

Cynthia Gorney, author of Articles of Faith, a new book about the abortion wars, says that serious damage was done to the pro-abortion side. "With partial-birth, the right-to-life movement succeeded for the first time in forcing the country to really look at one awful abortion procedure."11

Emotion or Reason

Some discourage using graphic visual aids on grounds it substitutes emotion for reason. This objection misses the point. The question is not, "Are the pictures emotional?" They are. The real question is, "Are the pictures accurate?" We ought to avoid empty appeals to emotion, those offered in place of good reasons. If, however, pictures substantiate the reasons rather than obscure them, they serve a vital purpose. Truth is the issue.

Pro-abortion columnist Naomi Wolf observes, "The pro-choice movement often treats with contempt the pro-lifers' practice of holding up to our faces their disturbing graphics....[But] how can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy."12

Educators universally acknowledge the value of such visual tools when used properly. Movie theaters provided free screenings of Schindler's List--during school hours--to over 2,000,000 students in 40 states, in spite of its graphic content.

School officials reasoned that students could not have informed discussions of the Holocaust unless they saw it.13 Pictures of mutilated bodies stacked like cordwood communicate the horror of the death camps in a way no lecture can. Denying these tools to those who discuss the abortion holocaust is intellectually dishonest and foolish.

Regarding graphic visual aids, pro-lifers make one of two mistakes. They either spring them on audiences with no warning, or they don't use them at all. There is a third alternative--use them wisely.

When using dramatic visual aids like Harder Truth, explain to your listeners in advance that the video contains graphic pictures. Advise them to look away if they prefer not to watch. When talking to a Christian audience, mention that our Lord is eager to forgive the sin of abortion, and that our purpose is not to condemn anyone, but rather to clarify what is actually at stake.

Don't miss this critical point about: The partial-birth abortion debate injured the pro-abortion cause precisely because it focused solely on what abortion does to the unborn, not on the felt needs of the woman.

Pro-lifers had done two things right. First, they forced abortion advocates to do the one thing they don't want to do, defend killing babies. Abortion advocate Katherine Kohlbert admitted that if the debate is on what happens to the unborn, her side will "get creamed."14

Second, they marshaled documented evidence to show that their opponents were lying. A pro-life strategy that combines graphic imagery with hard-hitting facts and arguments can win in the court of public opinion. This leads to the next step.

Fact or Fiction

Pro-lifers fail to make an impact when they don't use good documentation to expose the fictions of pro-abortionists.

The goal of abortion advocates is to achieve confusion to secure the status quo, which is that any woman can kill any baby at any point in her pregnancy for any reason at all. The goal of pro-lifers must be to bring clarity to the confusion in order to change the status quo--a much harder task. Merely expressing opinions is not enough to dispel layers of misinformation.

Physically holding up documents is a powerful way to call into question an opponent's credibility. It forces the issue back to the facts and puts the burden of proof where it belongs--on the abortion advocate who is making the assertion. The very best way to discredit abortion advocates is to use articles published in their own journals to make your point.

There is nothing more convincing--and potentially embarrassing to opponents--than holding up pro-abortion sources to refute their misstatements of fact.15 William Rusher, a veteran of hundreds of debates, writes: "The demonstration that one of an adversary's factual assertions is untrue has a double impact: Not only is that particular support for his argument removed, but in a more general way the credibility of the entire remainder of his factual presentation is undermined."16

Only One Question17

Finally, pro-lifers fail to persuade when they don't clarify the only issue that matters: the status of the unborn. Instead, they get sidetracked on discussions about choice and privacy. They have debates about the risk of back-alley abortions, the hardship of teen pregnancy, the trauma of pregnancies due to rape and incest or the abuse of unwanted children.

Responding to any of these issues, however, requires an answer to a prior question about the nature of abortion itself. On this question there's an unusual silence.

The apparent "complexity" of the abortion issue can be cleared up by asking just one question. Imagine that your child walks up when your back is turned and asks, 'Daddy, can I kill this?' What is the first thing you must find out before you can answer him? You can never answer the question "Can I kill this?" unless you've answered a prior question: What is it?"

Abortion involves killing and discarding something that's alive. Whether it's right or not to take the life of any living thing depends entirely upon what it is. The answer one gives is pivotal, the deciding element that trumps all other considerations.

Let's put the issue plainly. If the unborn is not a human person, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human person, no justification for abortion is adequate.

The following dialogue illustrates this approach:

Abortion advocate: Abortion is a private choice between a woman and her doctor.

Pro-Lifer: Do we allow parents to abuse their children if done in privacy?

Abortion advocate: That's not fair. Those children are human beings.

Pro-Lifer: Then the issue isn't really privacy, is it, but rather "Is the unborn a human being?"

Abortion advocate: But many poor women cannot afford to raise another child.

Pro-Lifer: When human beings get expensive, may we kill them?

Abortion advocate: Well, no, but aborting a fetus is not the same as killing a person.

Pro-Lifer: So, once again, the real question is, "What is the unborn? Is a fetus the same as a person?"

Abortion advocate: Why do you insist on being so simplistic? This is a very complex issue involving women who must make agonizing decisions.

Pro-Lifer: The decision may be psychologically agonizing for the mother, but morally it's not complex at all. It's wrong to kill innocent human beings simply because they're in the way and can't defend themselves.

Abortion advocate: Killing defenseless human beings is one thing; aborting a fetus is another.

Pro-Lifer: So we're agreed: If abortion actually killed a defenseless human being, then the issue wouldn't be complex at all. The question is, "What is the unborn?"

Abortion advocate: Enough with your abstract philosophy. Let's talk about real life. Do you really think a woman should be forced to bring an unwanted child into the world?

Pro-Lifer: The homeless are unwanted. May we kill them?

Abortion advocate: But it's not the same.

Pro-Lifer: That's the issue, isn't it: Are they the same? If the unborn are truly human like the homeless, then we can't just kill them to get them out of the way. We're back to my first question, "What is the unborn?"

Abortion advocate: But you still shouldn't force your morality on women.

Pro-Lifer: You'd feel very comfortable "forcing your morality" on a mother who was physically abusing her two-year-old, wouldn't you?

Abortion advocate: But the two cases are not the same.

Pro-Lifer: Why not?

Abortion advocate: Because you're assuming the unborn are human, like a two-year-old.

Pro-Lifer: And you're assuming they're not. You see, this is not really about privacy, or economic hardship, or complexity, or unwantedness, or forcing morality. The real question is, "What is the unborn?" Answer that question and you've automatically answered the others.

When pro-life debate has faltered, it's because the focus has been shifted, deftly changing the topic to anything but the real issue: What is the unborn?

Establishing the humanity of the unborn is not a sufficient condition for ending the abortion debate, but it is a necessary one. It's not all we have to do, but it's something we must do. And it can be done effectively if we follow some simple guidelines.

Our reluctance to advance moral arguments is a tacit admission we either don't have a moral case to offer or that the moral case simply doesn't matter because it's not relevant. In either instance, pro-lifers have not just abandoned the high moral ground, they've abandoned the fight altogether. This we cannot do.

Gregg Cunningham sums it up: "I'm glad that there are women who can be loved into loving their babies, but I won't allow that fact to blind me to the reality that there are many other women who will kill their babies if they can't be made more horrified of abortion than they are terrified of a crisis pregnancy."18

Focusing on the felt needs of the mother is not the answer. The mother is not at risk. The baby is.


1. Paul Swope, "Abortion: A Failure to Communicate," First Things, April 1998, 31-32.?

2. Frederica Matthews-Green, Real Choices (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1994), 32.?

3. Frank Beckwith, "Taking Abortion Seriously," unpublished paper, 1997.?

4. "Medical Discrimination Against Children With Disabilities," A Report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, September 1989, 106.?

5. Adapted from Gregory Koukl and Francis Beckwith, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998).?

6. Verlyn Klinkenborg, "Violent Certainties," Harpers Magazine, January 1995, 46-7.?

7. Ibid., 47.?

8. USA Today, CNN/Gallup Poll, 1997. Cited in Ruth Padawer, "Partial-Birth Battle Changing Public Views," USA Today, 17 November 1997.?

9. Naomi Wolf, "Pro-Choice and Pro-Life," New York Times, 3 April 1997.?

10. "Trenton is Turning From Its Longtime Support of Abortion Rights," New York Times, 22 February 1998.?

11. "Arguing at a Fever Pitch," Newsweek, 26 January 1998, 67.?

12. Naomi Wolf, "Our Bodies, Our Souls," New Republic, 16 October 1996.?

13. John Davies, "Moving Pictures," Times Education Supplement, 16 September 1994, A-24. See also Social Education, October 1995, 365-366.?

14. "Abortion Rights Leader Urges End to Half Truths," American Medical News, 3 March 1998. The full quote was as follows: "I urge incredible restraint here, to focus your message and stick to it, because otherwise we'll get creamed. If the debate is whether the fetus feels pain, we lose. If the debate in the public arena is what's the effect of anesthesia, we'll lose. If the debate is whether or not women ought to be entitled to late abortion, we'll probably lose. But if the debate is on the circumstances of individual women...then I think we can win these fights."?

15. Stand to Reason provides a manual replete with such documentation. It's entitled, Making Abortion Unthinkable: The Art of Pro-life Persuasion, by Scott Klusendorf.?

16. William Rusher, How to Win Arguments More Often Than Not (Landham, MD: University Press in America, 1981), 96.?

17. Material adapted from Gregory Koukl, Precious Human Unborn Persons (Stand to Reason, 1997).?

18. Personal correspondence, April 1993, on file.?

Greg Koukl

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