Has Trump De-Legitimized the Pro-Life Movement?

My answer in First Things: No.

Excerpt:

Warnings about the optics of Trump as a leader of religious conservatives aren’t totally misguided. Trump’s pro-life politics almost certainly arise from convention and convenience, rather than conviction. His rhetoric is incompatible with a holistically Christian worldview, and there may be some political blowback to the pro-life agenda in the midterms and 2020 elections. But the notion that the pro-life movement can be identified with Trump or the Republican Party is specious. It bespeaks a political and moral math that seems to apply to abortion and nothing else. That some think one politician can singlehandedly delegitimize the pro-life cause is evidence of Screwtape’s success in fogging up the abortion debate with propaganda.

Read the whole thing here.

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There Is No Christian Argument Against Overturning Roe v Wade

The reversal of Roe is not less of a mandate for Christians merely because of Donald Trump

The news that Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy will retire next month has immediately conjured up images of a pro-life judge’s taking his place and becoming the crucial fifth piece to strike down Roe v. Wade, the Court’s 1973 affirmation of a universal right to abortion. For pro-life activists and observers, this is a historic opportunity to challenge the bloodiest injustice in America for the past 50 years. While overturning Roe would not itself criminalize abortion, it would blow away the barrier against state-based laws and almost certainly result in at least 20 states outlawing abortion in most circumstances. All it takes is five justices to intervene on behalf of the lives of millions of unborn Americans. It is very close.

It is close because Donald Trump won an astonishing election the same year that Justice Antonin Scalia astonishingly died, denying the Democratic Party an opportunity to solidify Roe via President Hillary Clinton. It is close because then-candidate Trump said onstage during a presidential debate that he would seek to overturn Roe if given the opportunity to appoint justices. It is because of the relationship between the judiciary and the executive, a relationship crafted by the men on our dollars and coins, that this opportunity has come. And it is also because of Donald Trump.

This is a hard saying. Who can bear it?

In our current age, we are given to making value judgments by association. Because Donald Trump is a man of vice whose administration has pursued some cruel policies (and whose rhetoric tends to exult in such cruelty), some evangelicals will struggle with feeling joy at this vacant Court seat. “I’m personally pro-life,” they might say, “but I just don’t trust Trump, and I don’t like it that people who voted for him seem happy about this.” Thus, they might try to reason themselves into the belief that Roe ought not be overturned, that a pro-life justice ought not be appointed, all because Donald Trump ought not be president and evangelicals ought not be feeling victorious right now.

The frustration is understandable, but the logic is not. Evangelicals don’t have to set aside their convictions about race, immigrants, women, or the Religious Right in order to perceive a moral mandate when it comes to abortion. There is no Christian case against overturning Roe. None.

Once upon what seems now like a lifetime ago, pro-life evangelicals were united in horror and imprecatory prayer at the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood released by the Center for Medical Progress. Those videos have been legally prosecuted and forgotten, but they have not been unmade. There are many of us who vividly remember where we were when we watched a physician “harvest” the tiny anatomy of an aborted boy (yes, “it’s a boy”), or when we listened to Planned Parenthood reps talk about the money and humor in the trafficking of babies. While these videos were being released, there was no question amongst most evangelicals whether abortion was a cause worth engaging at the highest possible level. There was no Donald Trump and no morally compromised Religious Right to complicate things.

Three years later, the producers of those videos are fighting litigation, and many of us who watched and cried and prayed are fighting ourselves. The illusion of virtue in our tribe was dismantled by 2016, by #MeToo, by the children of refugees in prison-like holding cells. It has been terrible. But evangelicals cannot allow the hypocrisy of their elders to blind them to the innocence of their infants. It is not remotely unreasonable or incoherent to stand as far away as possible from the rot of God and country Republicanism while charging alongside it against Roe v. Wade. In fact, it is the only option we have.

In a now-deleted tweet, a prominent progressive evangelical writer said though she was “convictionally pro-life” (those slippery adverbs!), she could not support the overturning of Roe v Wade due to all the “effects” it would have. After deleting the tweet, she said that Twitter was obviously not the right place to talk about abortion. Nothing more than a 2 minute perusal of her Twitter account reveals dozens of impassioned threads about everything from gun control to immigration to policing. This sort of double dealing has become rampant among younger, socially conscious evangelicals in the aftermath of Trump’s election. While abortion is a “complex conversation” that requires nuance instead of activism, the issues that the Republican Party morally fails on are apparently no-brainers.

I don’t think this attitude necessarily comes from apathy about unborn babies or rank partisanship. I think it mostly comes from fear—fear of becoming the wrong kind of person in the wrong kind of tribe. Again, the fear is understandable, but the rationalization seen above is not. To act as if morally upright Christians cannot support President Trump’s appointment of a justice who would tip the scales against Roe is to prioritize political consistency and tribal identity over human life itself. It is the literal opposite of a Christ-honoring public theology.

Martin Luther King famously said that laws could not make white people love black people, but they could keep white people from lynching black people. In other words, a law that doesn’t address the deepest problems but still preserves life is a worthy law. Evangelicals who say that overturning Roe would not destroy back alley abortions need to ponder the truth in King’s statement. The possibility that a law will be broken and that people will suffer is not an argument against a moral law. It’s an argument against us sinful people.  The overturning of Roe would allow states to codify the sanctity of unborn life, and laws do teach. We may not be able to change hearts, but we can shape them as they grow…but only if they’re allowed to beat.

Roe v. Wade is a legal catastrophe. It is Constitutional soothsaying. It’s a decision based on discredited scientific claims and cartoon philosophy. Worst of all, it has been the death sentence of over 60 million Americans. Worrying about whether its reversal will register as a win for a president who is unworthy of it is not a competing interest to its destruction. This should not, must not, and cannot be a “white Republican Christian” issue. It’s everyone’s issue. There is no Christian case for keeping Roe. None.

Ruth Marcus and the Logic of Abortion

Arguing for Down Syndrome elective abortion is not about libertarian freedom. It’s about reshaping society.

In her March 9 op-ed on aborting unborn infants with Down Syndrome, Ruth Marcus writes that her argument is against government coercion. On the contrary, her argument is actually for it. To argue that people that should have the right to decide whether or not to kill a baby based on its mental health is, ultimately, to argue that they should be compelled to do so. I’m sure Marcus would resist this characterization, but she would do so on illogical and incoherent grounds.

Marcus’s case for allowing elective abortion for Down Syndrome babies appears libertarian at first. She writes:

I respect — I admire — families that knowingly welcome a baby with Down syndrome into their lives. Certainly, to be a parent is to take the risks that accompany parenting; you love your child for who she is, not what you want her to be.

But accepting that essential truth is different from compelling a woman to give birth to a child whose intellectual capacity will be impaired, whose life choices will be limited, whose health may be compromised.

In other words, what Marcus opposes are not the families who choose to let their Down Syndrome diagnosed children live, but the proposed laws that would restrict families to that option alone. This is a standard defense of abortion choice from a classically liberal perspective. Likewise, Marcus’s comments about the “intellectual capacity” and “life choices” of Down Syndrome children follow a common pro-choice logic. If you know (according to this view) the unborn baby will have a difficult life, abortion is a reasonable measure to prevent a child from suffering. Not one shred of this argument is unique to Marcus. It is a textbook presentation of the Planned Parenthood worldview.

What makes Marcus’s argument galling to many readers is her naked devaluation of children with Down Syndrome. Yes, this is morally offensive, but it’s also extraordinarily clarifying. Marcus’s argument against these laws entails an explicit argument against Down Syndrome itself. In her final paragraph, Marcus appears to concede that her position on Down Syndrome elective abortion may be a slippery slope:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion. Nearsightedness? Being short? There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate. But in the end, the Constitution mandates — and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores — that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Elective abortion for children who are short or nearsighted would indeed be “creepy,” she writes (note the unwillingness to use a moral adjective). But elective abortion for Down Syndrome babies is not creepy. Why not? Because shortness or nearsightedness is not as bad as Down Syndrome. The case for elective abortion of Down infants is, as Marcus has already shared, that their lives are difficult and their minds impaired. That’s not the case with babies who need glasses or can’t reach very high. They may be inconvenienced in some ways, but the family who receives a diagnosis of Down Syndrome is facing life with a child who will suffer, and whose needs may impose great burdens on their family and society.

This is not an argument about choice. It’s an argument about certain kinds of children. And it’s an argument that spews forth not from moral relativism or libertarian absolutism, but from a deep seated conviction that the death of the wrong kinds of children can improve our economics and culture.

Margaret Sanger’s abortion worldview was not about maximal liberality, but about shaping the demographics of society so as to eliminate people that hinder it. Likewise, contemporary activists such as Katha Politt are admirably shedding the euphemistic pretenses of “safe, legal, and rare” to boldly proclaim that abortion is not a regrettable, sad thing, but a positive social good. The pro-choice movement has achieved legal victories through appeals to privacy and self-rule, but its DNA is far more complex than that. Ruth Marcus’s piece leaves unsaid what is nevertheless an undeniable implication of her argument: The world would be better off without children with Down Syndrome. Fleeting hat tips to the freedom of families to decide otherwise fail to disguise this.

The question that ought to be put to Marcus is not, “How can you say these awful things,” but, “Accepting that your logic is true, why should the government allow babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome to be born?” If she replies that it is wrong for politicans to make this decision, the follow up question should be why it was right for politicians decide in 1973 that some unborn weren’t human, but it’s not right for politicians now to declare that some are? Why is her private moral math about why she would abort a child with Down Syndrome good enough to be protected by law, but the moral math of millions of other families who receive and love and care for their children not good enough for that?

“Can” has a weird way of becoming “ought.” It is impossible to defend elective abortion of Down Syndrome infants the way Marcus does without ceding the notion that parents have a moral responsibility not to let themselves or these babies suffer through existence. The legacy of abortion choice is a legacy not of endless libertarian freedom, but of a vision for a better world through death.

Defining Pro-Life Down

I have only a brief thought on Matt Loftus’s recent essay (and follow-up blog post) on whether we should use the term “pro-life” to refer to issues other than the traditional referents.

It seems to me that you can’t make the term “pro-life” do more by making it mean less. I think that’s what Matt is getting at in his essay. Much like the word “gospel,” there’s a tendency amongst some in my tribe to want to heighten the moral urgency of certain things by using words that signal importance but not meaning. For example, you don’t have to go far before finding someone who will refer to, say, expositional preaching or love of the city as a “gospel issue.” In this phraseology, the word “gospel” doesn’t actually mean anything other than “This is really important.” The gospel is not about expositional preaching and it’s not about our love for the city. Perhaps paradoxically, everyone in the conversation where such language is used already knows this. They understand what’s being said and don’t stumble over it—simply because they already get that the point is not to say something about the gospel, but about their own sense of urgency toward an issue.

But in the meantime, something unfortunate is happening to the word “gospel.” It has started doing more but meaning less. After a few rounds, it becomes impossible to know what someone means by “gospel issue” at all, but it becomes very easy to know that you ought to care about…well, whatever’s being talked about.

I think the same philological corrosion happens when the word “pro-life” is used too much. And let me add one final point to Matt’s excellent thoughts.

The idea that we ought to talk about immigration, welfare, zoning, and other issues the same way we talk about abortion is deeply deceiving. It is an implicit concession to that odious pro-choice caricature that says that pro-lifers care about babies until they’re born. The problem with this mantra isn’t that it’s rude, it’s that it’s dishonest. And it’s dishonest all the way down. Pro-lifers are pro-life because they think unborn infants have inherent value that cannot be subjugated de facto to the will of another person. The question of whether an unborn infant is such a being is totally and completely independent of how pro-lifers think about other issues. One can be anti-abortion and the most feckless NRA advocate on the planet, and any thoughtlessness about guns does not in any way inform whether that person is authentically pro-life. Why not? Because pro-life is a response to abortion, not the other way around. Pro-life does not exist because people who are apathetic about Sandy Hook need a political pet issue. Pro-life exists because Planned Parenthood says dilation and curettage should exist. You cannot separate the word “pro-life” from the gore of the forceps.

It’s absolutely true that what we believe about human rights and digntiy should inform our entire politic. But to call issues like single-payer healthcare a pro-life matter is a most brazen kind of revisionism. While such an instinct might be well-motivated, it ultimately ends in euphemisms like “safe, legal, and rare.” You might have a good argument for single-payer, but I can promise you I have a much better argument against partial birth abortion. Those two concepts are not cousins, and to say otherwise can only strengthen the former by helping people to take their minds off the latter.

No thanks.

Should We Blame the Pro-Life Movement?

There is a strain of thinking among some evangelicals that I cannot get my head around. Here it is: The Republican Party’s collapse of virtue and embrace of sub-moral strongmen can be attributed, at least in part, to the well-intentioned but naive single-mindedness of the pro-life movement.

James K.A. Smith’s brief Tweet thread seems to repeat this point, albeit with some slippery and vague language. His complaint is seems to be that pro-lifers who wish they had a friend in the Democratic party are refusing to let go of their mistaken assumptions about the proper relationship of pro-life advocacy to a holistic political engagement. Smith declines to articulate precisely what they should do instead, which makes his analysis difficult to parse. But it’s an idea that has been repeated with more clarity enough times to make me confident of where the argument is going.

Of course, the main problem here is that the absence of concrete correctives means how one interprets this messaging largely depends on your preexisting beliefs. If you think abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, Smith’s tweet-storm should make a lot of sense to you. On the other hand, if you think abortion should be illegal in just about every circumstance, then the suggestion that you “untether” yourself from what the GOP “taught” you about abortion is less clear.

What does “untethering” oneself from the pro-life pedagogy of the Republican party look like for a person who genuinely believes that aborted unborn bodies are human persons? What is the proper response for a person who wants to be a responsible agent of human flourishing in all areas of life, yet watches doctors legally skim through hands, feet, eyes, and brain matter with the indifference of a junkyard dealer?

Put it another way. Why, in this way of thinking, is the burden of proof on the person protesting the legal dismemberment of human beings, instead of the people not protesting it? Why is it up to the pro-life advocate to be less single-minded about one issue, instead of it being up to our political parties and their leaders to not exploit their bases through ideology?

It’s extraordinary to me that in the situation Dr. Smith imagines of a pro-life voter being drawn to the Democratic Party, it’s the pro-life voter’s fault for not embracing a more pragmatic strategy for public policy. The Democratic Party’s ruthless campaign to exile anything that resembles pro-life sentiment from their ranks is not even worth mentioning apparently. For some unthinkable reason, the dysfunction and polarization of American politics becomes attributable not to politicians who cling on to pseudoscience and judicial fiat to enforce a violent ideology, but to those poor souls who actually think this issue might be the most important, the most pressing one of the times.

It’s possible that what Smith and others are saying is that we oughtn’t be ham fisted, single-issue voters. If that’s the case, then the proper way to make this argument would be to appeal to pro-lifers that the best means to end abortion is to embrace a wider political strategy, one that can build coalitions and pass laws and galvanize communities toward pro-life law without using it as a wedge issue. That’s a fair take, and voters who would identify as single-issue voters when it comes to who they won’t vote for would do well to ask themselves whether their practice of political engagement is one that is likely to build pro-life alliances, or likely to reinforce existing polarizations. Let’s have that conversation!

The problem is, sadly, that this is not actually what Smith says. What he actually says is that pro-life voters must recalibrate their entire philosophy of civic engagement when it comes to abortion.

Pro-life voters, Smith says, are “demanding purity” and “naively” neglecting “political reality.” In a final parenthetical, Smith even suggests that abortion should not be considered an especially egregious injustice, and that it might fit suitably alongside “lots of injustices” from which our two-party system has thus far not offered an escape.

There’s no way for me to read this line of thinking without believing that it ends in “safe, legal, and rare.” Whether “single-issue voters” are being taken advantage of by a corrosive Republican party is a much different question than whether pro-life voters are simply wrong to make this issue a test of political acceptability. It’s not clear to me at all that there would even be a viable pro-life witness in American public life if it weren’t for the willingness of some brave advocates, politicians, and citizens to insist that as for them and their house, they will protect unborn bodies. Should the shooting of unarmed black men be sorted neatly alongside “lots of injustices” that we must live with, or is there something to be said for insisting that civic servants acknowledge the inherent value of human life and demonstrate their willingness and competency to defend it in those situations?

These kinds of analogies are helpful not because abortion and racial justice are identical issues, but because they force us to acknowledge our tendency to relegate abortion to the “culture war” and then demonstrate how far above we are such skirmishes. The fundamental problem of abortion law is always, “Is this a human person?” No pragmatism, no “shaping of our political imagination” that does not explicitly give this question somewhere to land, can be remotely considered pro-life.

Planned Parenthood’s human factories are not going to close themselves when people finally start realizing that tax policy matters to poor people, too. The Democratic Party is not going to acknowledge the humanness of the fetus until it is politically forced to, and that political force is going to come, first and foremost, from voters—voters who are willing to be scorned, but not willing to be fooled.

(photo credit)

Tim Kaine Stumbles Over the Stumbling Block

Senator and Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine believes that both conservative and liberal Christians should be able to find common ground on healthcare. In an op-ed for Christianity Today, Senator Kaine writes that Christ’s commands to care for the “least of these” should galvanize Bible-believers on both sides of the political aisle to find compassionate solutions to the healthcare crisis. “Our disagreements do not lie in whether to care for them, but how,” the senator writes. “Following the failure of the most recent attempt to repeal the ACA, our focus should turn toward how we can develop simple solutions that improve care for all people.” His piece is short on practical policy suggestions but long on references to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, particular the apostle’s reminder that Christians are each indispensable parts of the same body. Senator Kaine concludes: “If we unite ourselves in the same purpose of taking care of our brothers and sisters, we can do what is right and rejoice together in our success.”

What stands out about Senator Kaine’s piece is not what’s there, but rather what’s missing. It is astonishing that a Christian politician could write a full opinion piece on caring for the least of these in the pages of an evangelical publication, without mentioning abortion once. In fairness, the senator may have strategic purpose for such an omission. Last year Mr. Kaine explicitly laid aside his Roman Catholic views on abortion in order to be a faithful running mate for Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket. He even did an awkward about-face on the Hyde Amendment, supporting it before he (like the Democratic Party) vowed to remove it. Given all that, perhaps we ought not be too shocked that Mr. Kaine doesn’t feel it important to talk about what most religious people in the country believe is the single most pressing “healthcare” issue of our time.

The problem is that the senator’s editorial embodies the logical errors and moral hollowness that many progressive Christians display when it comes to politics. On issues like universal healthcare and immigration, young, left-of-center evangelicals especially often invoke Scripture and Christian theology in expressing support for progressive policies. For these Christians, Mr. Kaine’s piece is the reddest of meat, a quasi-homily on political theology that draws strict, straight lines from the teachings of Jesus to a pet issue. Just like the senator’s editorial, many of these progressive Christians likewise fall silent or become fidgety when we ask “What would Jesus do” of abortion. Apparently, the theonomistic laws given to Israel about the stranger and sojourner have crystal clear political application in the United States, but the sixth commandment and the psalmist’s rejoicing in the personhood of the unborn body are hopelessly murky and complex.

There’s also more than a little bit of willful blindness here about healthcare law and abortion politics. Though Kaine’s editorial urges bipartisan cooperation on healthcare, the overwhelming majority of policymakers and commentators on the Left believe that government funding of Planned Parenthood and soft (or no) restrictions on abortion access are non-negotiable elements of good healthcare law. What does “bipartisan cooperation” look like between those who believe that unborn children are human persons made in the image of God, and those who believe they are nonentities and biological property? Some evangelicals have suggested that cooperation between pro-choice and pro-life camps focus on reducing the number of abortions, rather than outlawing them. But this suggestion avoids the ethical heart of the matter. If abortion is immoral because it is the killing of a human person, then we ought to use the power, and the teaching function of the law, in order to eliminate it, just as our ancestors ought to have used the power and teaching function of the law to eliminate slavery. If abortion is morally relative or, as some of its important theorists maintain, a positive moral good, then what gives us the right to believe that abortions should be reduced?

It’s understandable that some, like Tim Kaine, would want to avoid the culture war divisiveness of abortion and instead call both Republican and Democratic Christians to mutual concern for the poor and ill. On one level, such mutuality is possible, and some conservatives have been making eloquent, and theologically informed, cases for questioning the GOP’s dogmatism on issues like healthcare, family leave policy, and more. But no amount of earnestness or good faith can change the fact that abortion is a major stumbling block in the national conversation about healthcare. To argue that we embrace abortion choice may be morally repugnant, but it is at least an honest response. Pretending as if the stumbling block doesn’t exist is not honest, and it’s not a pathway toward partnership.

Calling Christians to care for the “least of these” entails calling them to account for millions of tiny humans who are utterly innocent, utterly defenseless, and utterly at our mercy. Behind gospel-driven compassion lies the idea that we ought to have compassion on human beings in the first place. It’s precisely that foundational moral sensibility that Planned Parenthood, and the cult of death for which it storefronts, vivisects on a daily basis.

 

image credit (licensed under CC 2.0)

Abortion Over The Atlantic

The first thing readers should know about Moira Weigel’s essay in The Atlantic is its original title. When the piece went live early Tuesday morning, that title was “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person.” But by 1PM on the east coast, the article bore a new moniker: “How the Ultrasound Became Political.” The change wasn’t particularly poetic, but it was necessary; in the hours between the piece’s birth and rechristening, numerous readers and bloggers had pointed out that crucial claims in Weigel’s piece—including the idea that a six week-old fetus did not have an actual heart—was factually incorrect. Weigel’s original title had triumphantly presumed the crumbling of fetal personhood. The new title reflects the crumbling of her logic.

Of course, there’s a spot of irony in the essay’s new name. What Weigel wants the reader to believe is that pro-lifers have manipulated an inconclusive and imprecise technology to humanize the inhuman, and thus subjected the factual and scientific to the political. But isn’t that precisely what Weigel has done?

This irony exemplifies the relationship between the progressive left and science. In many ways liberals have styled themselves the party of scientific literacy ever since the Scopes trial. Whether the cause celebre was removing creationist literature from public schools, lending platforms to overpopulation worries, or climate change, progressives have, for what feels like the last half-century, presented themselves as the political ideology that welcomes scientific consensus and expertise.

Except, that is, when it comes to abortion. Despite manifold increases in medical technology and knowledge of prenatal development, pro-choice has hardly budged an inch from the judgment of fetal impersonality rendered by Roe v Wade. In some ways, this is simply by default; mainstream abortion rights activism is overwhelmingly centered on female autonomy rather than the question of the personhood of the unborn. #MyBodyMyChoice has always been surer footing for pro-choice than arguments over when a person really becomes a person. But the pro-choice uneasiness during discussions of fetal “viability” or ultrasound technology is unmistakable, and Ms. Weigel in particular offered an illustrative example.

Why didn’t the fact checkers at The Atlantic preemptively correct Weigel’s capricious and unsound argument?  It seems unlikely that a team of researchers would simply forget to verify whether a six week old fetus has begun to develop a heart—especially if such a question lay at the center of an argument, as it did for Weigel’s piece. The specific failures of an editorial process are difficult to identify, but it’s worth noting that this too reflects a greater categorical tension—namely, between the media and abortion.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the maddening summer of 2015, when major media outlets seemed to ignore, then downplay, then rally in response to a video sting of Planned Parenthood. Abortion workers’ declaring “It’s a boy” as they sift through severed anatomy in a petri dish certainly seems to have relevance for the conversation about fetal personhood. Why didn’t major journalism institutions think so? Could it be that abortion is sacrosanct even among those in our culture who are tasked with investigating its moral implications? Recall that editors for Vox once commissioned a piece from a professor as part of a rhetorical exercise called “the repugnant conclusion.” When the professor turned in an essay arguing (purely hypothetically) against abortion, Vox killed the piece, and explained to its frustrated author that the website didn’t even want to risk the appearance of criticizing abortion rights.

The embarrassments of Vox cannot, of course, be laid at the foot of The Atlantic. But that Moira Weigel’s deeply flawed, seriously ignorant essay could navigate the editorial machine of one of the country’s most influential publications is troubling. It raises again familiar issues of how the American abortion rights lobby relies not on facts and arguments, but on slogans, propaganda, and false dilemmas.

Media criticism is often too easy for conservatives, but I cannot help but now imagine an unexpectedly pregnant couple that perhaps read Weigel’s essay and believed it—because, of course, it is important that we believe reputable reporting. Perhaps these people had never considered themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” If they came away from reading Moira Weigel at 10:30AM Tuesday morning, they came away believing that this new life inside its mother had been misrepresented to them, that it was, contrary to all their instincts and all their technology, a lifeless, purposeless mass of tissue. Imagine their driving to the abortion clinic that morning, and coming back to find out that the essay which dawned new light on them now contained an update from its editors:

This article originally stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form. We regret the error.”

God help us.

Safe, Legal, and Everywhere

Photo of the day:

Here’s what I wrote last year about the slow, underhanded, but very real disappearance of the center in the pro-choice camp.

What’s happening for the abortion lobby is that its political myths are falling apart. “Safe, legal, and rare” was a carefully crafted slogan, built to elicit both protective instincts from activists and empathy from those unsure about it all. But a fault line ran through the very heart of this kind of rhetoric: If abortion should be legal and safe, why should we want it to be rare? It sounded as if abortion were being compared to alcoholism and divorce—regrettable ailments of a society that nonetheless cannot be legislated out of it.

But this “lesser of two evils” ethic is not what the architects of legal abortion had in mind. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, certainly had more ambitious aims for her legacy when she said that her followers were “seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” More recently, abortion activists like Katha Pollitt are acknowledging this, and calling their peers to drop a hypocritical façade of regret and proclaim that abortion is a “positive social good.”

Pro-abortion or pro-choice? The answer looks progressively clearer each day.

How the Internet Rescued Planned Parenthood

Last week, NARAL, one of the country’s oldest and most vociferous champions of the abortion industry, released a YouTube sketch called “Comedians In Cars Getting Abortions.” The video isn’t funny by any stretch of imagination, pro-life or otherwise. But I doubt very much whether NARAL’s purpose in producing the sketch was even to score laughter. Rather, the whole video feels like an exercise in what C.S. Lewis called “flippancy,” the lowest species of humor wherein morals and good taste are always assumed to be their own punchline. The point is not to get people to laugh at abortion, it’s to get them to scoff at the idea that one shouldn’t laugh bout it.

Anyway. The video isn’t really worth much angst. What was far more interesting than the content of the video, however, was the timing. NARAL published the sketch on YouTube on the anniversary week of the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose on Planned Parenthood. Those series of undercover videos recorded Planned Parenthood executives discussing the methods of “harvesting” the tissue and anatomy of aborted infants, for the purpose of selling them to research labs. The videos progressively go deeper into a ghoulish world of unborn human trafficking, and at every turn, the employees and doctors running the show demonstrate a chilling apathy toward their visceral marketplace.

When the videos first started to release last year, many pro-life activists believed they would be hugely consequential for Planned Parenthood. The Center for Medical Progress framed the sting as conclusive video evidence that the abortion provider was violating multiple federal laws prohibiting the profitable business of selling human body parts. Calls for Congressional investigations began immediately. Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards initially ignored the videos but eventually apologized for the “insensitive” language recorded on camera. For several weeks, it looked like the most important player in the abortion lobby had finally seen its foot slide in due time.

But nothing happened.

Though several states did vote to cease any taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, the fallout for the country’s biggest abortion provider was miniscule. Hearings in Washington went nowhere. Cecile Richards kept her job. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called the videos “disturbing” during the first few weeks of outcry, but promptly reaffirmed her support (with PP returning the favor). National opinion on abortion law saw little or no change. One state even exonerated Planned Parenthood and indicted instead David Daleiden, the head of the Center for Medical Progress (those charges have since been thrown out).

By the end of last year, it was clear that the videos had skipped off the surface of public consciousness like a stone on a lake. There would be no reckoning, no cultural moment. Why?

The videos’ producers probably bear some responsibility. As Joe Carter has noted, the release of the videos was (seemingly) unaccompanied by any larger, coherent strategy. There seemed to have been a tactical failure to think through, “What are we asking the public to do with this information?” By the time that media outlets were begrudgingly acknowledging the sting’s existence, the space for narrative and action had been ceded already to Planned Parenthood and its legions of allies.

But the strategic failures are only part of the explanation. The CMP may not have come up with the best plan for releasing their footage, but such a misfire doesn’t take away from what the videos actually show. The pro-life community was almost immediately mobilized, and as mentioned, several state legislatures felt pressure to respond. It’s not as if the videos were (as many in Planned Parenthood’s corner have insisted) simply smokescreens. So what happened?

The truth is that the sting’s impact was limited by social media. That may seem like a self-evidently false statement, given the fact that for a long while social media seemed to be the only outlet where the videos could be seen. Sure, the number of times that the videos were streamed, counted against how many mainstream media outlets refused to acknowledge them, may seem like a victory for conservative conscience on social media. But the failure of the videos to translate into a wider sociopolitical moment is actually a commentary on the inherent limitations of social media.

Popular perception is that Facebook, Twitter, and internet commenting threads are populist locales, providing a kind of grassroots rebuttal to the “elite” culture of big media. This is only partly true, though. When Facebook employees acknowledged a few months ago that their news aggregation services were explicitly designed to exclude conservative news outlets, they were revealing how deep of a misconception the “populist” imagery of social media really is.

Before Twitter and Facebook are communities, they are inevitably corporations—corporations with leaders who have ideologies. Every single that happens on social media happens—consciously or not—in a business context. This is why social media can never be a new kind of “town hall.” A town hall binds members together by space, membership and physicality. Social media binds members together by consent to what amounts to a business contract. The business of social media is to make money off its users. This impulse affects not just what social media companies allow on their platform, but even how they present what is allowed. Thus, videos on Facebook are surrounded by “Suggested” videos that have no meaningful tie to the original content. The goal is to get clicks, because clicks are profitable. Distraction means more clicks. Focused contemplation—the kind of thinking that leads to some action—is an enemy of distraction, and thus, an enemy of profit. Therefore, the entire superstructure of social media is one that undermines the appeals to conscience that the CMP’s videos employed.

Unless you woke up each morning last summer determined to take down the abortion lobby, there’s a good chance that your outrage at Planned parenthood didn’t survive the next viral video or trending hashtag that came along. How could it, when there is just so much content to look at it, and so little time for any one thing to stick? When your feed stopped talking about the videos, did it feel wrong, or merely normal? Or did you even notice?

The fuzzy, pixelated thinking that social media foments is a good conduit for getting angry, but it’s not actually good at getting things done. This is one lesson that we should learn from an otherwise lamentable protest culture in American universities. Though social media undoubtedly has played an important role in organization, the campus protests that crippled Missouri and made a think piece out of Oberlin have been remarkably present, physical affairs, protests that are connected in meaningful ways to place and people. With Planned Parenthood, there were indeed local protests and rallies. But these gatherings were not unique to a specific cultural moment. Once the assembling was over, the internet consumed the evidence.

The pro-life movement has historically been remarkably good at mobilizing communities. In this sense, the Planned Parenthood protests were unique in their ineffectiveness. But there is a long term lesson for pro-life here. The kind of social change that will throw off one of the Sexual Revolutions’ most precious and protected dogmas will not happen amongst people who just need their “click fix.” It will happen amongst people for whom wanton destruction of unborn life matters enough to build relationships and make appearances (and not just at protest rallies). The comfort of the social media echo chamber is seductive, but benefits those who are fine with likes, comments, and retweets–just not change.

 

An Abortion Facade In Shambles

4300051986_78d3cb0140_bThis morning the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the state of Texas acted unconstitutionally when it passed restrictions on state abortion clinics, holding them to higher infrastructure and administrative standards. It’s a victory for the abortion lobby, certainly. But can it really be considered a victory for women, or health, or democracy?

No, it cannot. And that is perhaps one of the clearest realities coming into focus with the contemporary abortion movement: Increasingly, its legal and political triumphs depend on making women and families more vulnerable to exploitation and making communities more at the mercy of corporations and lobbyists. There was a time, not that long ago, that the country’s foremost abortion rights advocates preached about “safe, legal, and rare.” But for decades “safe” and “rare” have been ruthlessly assaulted, both in rhetoric and policy. The Court’s decision, mainstream media silence and equivocation about Kermit Gosnell, and the Planned Parenthood video sting have exposed an industry utterly apathetic, at best, about safety and abortion alternatives.

It turns out, as I’ve said before, that “safe, legal, and rare” was mostly a smokescreen that obscured the real moral argument that has always been at the foundation of abortion rights philosophy. “‘Safe, legal, and rare’ was a carefully crafted slogan, built to elicit both protective instincts from activists and empathy from those unsure about it all,” I wrote back in March. “But a fault line ran through the very heart of this kind of rhetoric: If abortion should be legal and safe, why should we want it to be rare?”

The logical answer is, of course, that we shouldn’t. And that is the self-awareness that many in the pro-choice movement seem to (slowly) be showing. A few hours after the Supreme Court handed down their ruling, the official Twitter account for The Daily Show–the show that made Jon Stewart famous and regrettably institutionalized the role of the comedian commentator–signaled their Sexual Revolutionary virtue loud and clear:

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In order for this to be funny, you have to first think that abortion is funny, and then, more literally, the idea of impregnating a woman merely for the purpose of later aborting. Hilarious, right? This is the kind of humor that the pro-choice camp of the 1990s would urgently disavow, on the grounds that it trivializes the moral and and emotional weight of choice. But in 2016, this joke is actually mainstream. Why? Because the abortion lobby has begun to accept its own logic. There is nothing to grieve or be silent about here. The Court merely affirmed the right of adults to get rid of tiny little Nothings that make life more difficult. Move along.

It’s easy to dismiss a tasteless Tweet. It’s not as easy to dismiss the entire legislative and moral ethos from which it springs. The pro-choice Left’s extremism has attacked every imaginable human resource for in controlling and preventing abortions, except for birth control, a substance so precious that apparently even nuns must agree. Earlier this year in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, the new Republican governor, discovered that a new Planned Parenthood clinic had been offering abortions without the required licensing. Apparently, this unlicensed operation was carried out with the approval of Bevin’s Democratic predecessor. When the clinic temporarily halted services, the abortion lobby in Kentucky and elsewhere lashed out at Bevin for endangering women. Catch that: The governor who caught the medical provider operating without a license is the one who is putting people at risk.

Pro-lifers have said for decades that the debate over abortion is not a debate about choice or liberty, but about what it means to be human person. That is the debate the pro-choice side has athletically avoided having. One of the provisions of Texas HB 2, the bill whose clinic standards were thrown out by the Court, was a comprehensive ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Interestingly, the suit brought against Texas did not challenge that provision, and most commentators think that was because the plaintiffs did not expect to win such a challenge. A 20 week ban on abortions, after all, makes compelling political sense, given what modern technology has revealed about human life at that stage.

Punting on the question of personhood and instead creating enemies for Roe v Wade to knock down has indeed been the pro-choice Left’s playbook for quite a while. But how long can it last? How long can a movement that has for so long been drenched in pretense sustain itself? How long until we get the national conversation that we need, the one about the person we see, so clearly, on the ultrasound?

If the nervous laughter of The Daily Show and Planned Parenthood is any indication, it could be coming sooner than we think.

 

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