Pro-lifers around the country are getting tight-lipped on abortion. Here’s why we’re shying away from speaking frankly about the moral crime of the century and how you can be equipped to engage this problem.*
The last few years have witnessed a stunning development in the pro-life movement, one worth considering, especially since this month marks 30 years since the landmark legal decision of Roe v. Wade.
The problem: More and more pro-lifers refuse to discuss abortion. A new wave of pro-life leaders insist that victory will not be gained if the debate centers principally on the morality of killing the unborn.
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. Reframing the debate will enable the movement to “regain the moral high ground in the mind of the American public.”[i] 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.”[ii]
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
It’s hard to imagine how appealing to self-interest 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” if we retreat from the moral debate? The whole point of an ethical argument is to turn people from selfish interests to what is right. 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). They handle crisis pregnancies, those that will likely end in abortion. They don’t exist for the woman, strictly speaking, but for the child whose life is in danger. Women should not have abortions precisely because abortion is a moral tragedy. If not, then why oppose it?
By contrast, this new tactic 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.”[iii]
Shifting the focus away from the unborn is morally disastrous, undermining 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, 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 relativism, reducing moral questions to matters of personal preference.
When this happens, people exchange the moral question, “What is good?” for the preference question, “What is good for me?” Instead of morality constraining our self-interest (“I want to do that, but I really shouldn’t”), our self-interest defines our morality. The tail wags the dog. This is really nothing more than thinly veiled self-interest.
There is a better way. We’ve witnessed a pro-life message centered on the morality of abortion have a potent, durable impact when properly presented. Two critical steps are required: We must restore meaning to the word “abortion,” and we must simplify the abortion debate by focusing on the only question that really matters.
Restoring Meaning: A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
The word “abortion” has lost almost all meaning to Americans, in part because we think and learn visually, by images and not arguments. Lacking an accurate visible representation of the horrors of abortion, many imagine a benign extraction of formless tissue from the mother’s uterus.
How do we restore meaning to the word “abortion” with people who think and learn visually? Abandoning our core message is not the answer, especially when so many Americans have yet to seriously consider it.
Instead, pro-lifers must visually awaken moral sensibilities. We must move the debate from the abstract question of the “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 does.
The results are powerful. 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. In his article, “Violent Certainties,” he recorded his candid impressions:
I felt a profound and unmistakable kinship with the shape implied by the foot and hand in the tray, a kinship so strong that 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.[iv]
At the same time, Klinkenborg’s ability to sympathize with the mother diminished radically:
I found it so much easier to be moved by "this," by the sight of a 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.[v]
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.[vi] 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.”[vii]
Pro-lifers showed the seven-minute video Harder Truth[viii] 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 killing 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.’“[ix]
Cynthia Gorney, author of Articles of Faith, 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.”[x]
Don’t miss this critical point: The partial-birth abortion debate injured the pro-abortion cause precisely because it did not focus on what abortion does for the mother, but rather on what abortion does to the child.
Pro-lifers had 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.”[xi]
Some are uncomfortable 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.”[xii]
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.[xiii] 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, yet your purpose is not to condemn, but rather to clarify what is actually at stake. 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.
Restoring meaning to the word “abortion,”is the first step. Here’s the second.
Simplifying the Issue: Only One Question[xiv]
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, 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 something that is alive. Whether it’s right or not to take the life of any living thing depends upon the answer to one question: What is it? The answer one gives is pivotal, the deciding element that trumps all other considerations.
Let me put the issue plainly: If the unborn is not a human being, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human being, 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, do we kill them?
Abortion advocate: Well, no, but aborting a fetus is not the same as killing another human being.
Pro-Lifer: So, once again, the real question is, “What is the unborn? Is a fetus a real human being?”
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: Agreed, the decision may be psychologically agonizing for the mother, but morally it’s not complex: It’s wrong to kill innocent human beings. Abortion kills an innocent human being. Therefore abortion is wrong.
Abortion advocate: Killing defenseless human beings is one thing; aborting a fetus is another.
Pro-Lifer: So you agree: If abortion actually killed a defenseless human being, then the issue wouldn’t be complex. 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: Many homeless are unwanted. Can we kill them?
Abortion advocate: But that’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 solve our problem. 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: Would you feel justified in “forcing your morality” on a mother who was physically abusing her two-year-old?
Abortion advocate: The two cases are not the same. You’re assuming the unborn are human, like a toddler.
Pro-Lifer: And you’re assuming they’re not. You see, this is not really about privacy, economic hardship, unwanted children, 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, the topic deftly changed 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 growing reluctance to advance moral arguments and instead focus on the self-interest of the mother is a tacit admission we either don’t have a moral case to offer or that it simply doesn’t matter because it’s irrelevant. In either instance, pro-lifers have not just abandoned the moral argument, 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.”[xv]
Focusing on the felt needs of the mother is not the answer. The mother’s life is not at risk. The baby’s is.
* This article is a collaborative effort between Gregory Koukl and Scott Klusendorf.
[i] Paul Swope, “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate,” First Things, April 1998, 31-32.
[ii] Frederica Matthews-Green, Real Choices (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1994), 32.
[iii] Frank Beckwith, “Taking Abortion Seriously,” unpublished paper, 1997.
[iv] Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Violent Certainties,” Harpers Magazine, January 1995, 46-7.
[v] Ibid., 47.
[vi] USA Today, CNN/Gallup Poll, 1997. Cited in Ruth Padawer, “Partial-Birth Battle Changing Public Views,” USA Today, 17 November 1997.
[vii] Naomi Wolf, “Pro-Choice and Pro-Life,” New York Times, 3 April 1997.
[viii] “Harder Truth” is available from Stand to Reason, 800-2-REASON or str.org.
[ix] “Trenton Is Turning from Its Longtime Support of Abortion Rights,” New York Times, 22 February 1998.
[x] “Arguing at a Fever Pitch,” Newsweek, 26 January 1998, 67.
[xi] “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.”
[xii] Naomi Wolf, “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” New Republic, 16 October 1996.
[xiii] John Davies, “Moving Pictures,” Times Education Supplement, 16 September 1994, A-24. See also Social Education, October 1995, 365-366.
[xiv] Material adapted from Gregory Koukl, Precious Human Unborn Persons (Stand to Reason, 1997).
[xv] Personal correspondence, April 1993, on file.