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)

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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.

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.

 

Image credit

 

The Ethics of a Planned Parenthood Sting

Count me in full agreement with the editorial board at National Review, who have just written in support of Center for Medical Progress chief David Daleiden and his video expose of Planned Parenthood. Calling the Daleiden’s indictment by a Houston grand jury “dubious,” National Review’s editors contend–rightfully I believe–that this entire case reeks of gross political bias.

And while there is no investigative-reporting exception to criminal statutes (though a reporter’s purpose can be relevant in establishing whether there is the necessary criminal intent), one can’t help but notice the double standard. NBC’s David Gregory once waved an illegal high-capacity magazine at the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre during a contentious interview on Meet the Press. Gregory wasn’t prosecuted, even though District of Columbia police explicitly warned his news editor prior to the program that possessing the magazine was illegal under D.C. law; the police recommended showing a photograph instead. The prosecutor simply exercised his “prosecutorial discretion” to let Gregory off, scot-free, although Gregory had intentionally and knowingly defied the law. But there Gregory was taking on the NRA, the Left’s favorite bogeyman. Here, Daleiden had the misfortune of confronting the corporate heroes of the sexual revolution.

Supporters of Planned Parenthood have been quick to celebrate the indictment, insisting that Daleiden and the CMP’s alleged law-breaking is the real issue. As I wrote before, I don’t know what evidence was brought to the grand jury, so I cannot say with certainity or authority what verdict should have been reached. But the point is simple: It’s simply not conscionable that a whistleblowing organization that produces credible, on the record evidence (you don’t have to think its proof, but it is evidence, hence the congressional inquiries) of illegal activity and medical malpractice inside a major healthcare facility would be considered more liable to legal repercussion than the healthcare provider depicted. Yes, journalists are accountable to the law, but that is simply a smokescreen and misdirection; it is not at all rare for journalists to practice some forms of deception to gain information on a major story.

For some perspective, consider this checklist for journalists, written by Bob Steele and cited in this article from The Columbia Journalism Review. Steele asks when is it appropriate for journalists to use deception, including hidden cameras, in investigation.

  • When the information obtained is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great “system failure” at the top levels,or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.

 

When all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted.

 

When the journalists involved are willing to disclose the nature of the deception and the reason for it.

 

When the individuals involved and their news organization apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of time and funding needed to pursue the story fully.

 

When the harm prevented by the information revealed through deception outweighs any harm caused by the act of deception.

 

When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decision making process on the ethical and legal issues.

I cite Steele’s list not because I am convinced beyond all doubt that the CMP fulfilled each of these requirements, but because it is absolute fantasy to insist that the approach taken by CMP was somehow exceptional or unheard of. Both the journalism industry and the courts know from precedent how to think about a reporter who goes undercover for a major, socially relevant story. My concern here is whether, in this instance, Daleiden and the CMP are being handled like journalists in pursuit of a major human interest story, or are being presumed to be pro-life agitators without a cause.

Again, I cannot say whether CMP broke the law. I don’t know. But it should be obvious to all that this watchdog group was motivated by (what they felt at least) truth-telling, and a desire take seriously the testimony of people like Holly O’Donnell. Their methods are not above suspicion, and neither are Planned Parenthood’s. The fog of politics looms heavy over this indictment.

The Abortion Lobby Strikes Back

In what feels like a surreal turn of events, a grand jury in Houston, initially called up to investigate a Planned Parenthood chapter in light of the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose, has instead exonerated Planned Parenthood and returned felony indictments for CMP head David Daleiden and another CMP employee. Continue reading “The Abortion Lobby Strikes Back”

My Favorite Articles and Blogs From 2015

Last week I did a run down of my favorite book reads from 2015. Below is a brief list of my favorite blogs, articles, and reviews from the year. As with the book list, there is no hierarchy or ranking here.

“There Is No Pro-Life Case for Planned Parenthood,” by Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

But to concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what’s being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically – no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly “pro-life” institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we’ll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.

“The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” by Derek Rishmawy.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

“How Not to Read the Bible If You Want to Remain a Christian,” by Collin Garbarino in First Things

But Crossan’s central idea is not amusing; it’s disingenuous. He talks about finding the “heartbeat” of the Bible, but he’s interested in no such thing. Instead of honestly trying to understand how love and wrath can both find their source in a holy God, Crossan seeks to tear God in two. The violence of God must be dismissed as Crossan looks for the nonviolence of God. Crossan says that he’s looking for the diastole and the systole of the Bible’s cardiac cycle, but he isn’t. He’s actually trying to have one without the other. Any heart that only has one and not both will die. In the same way, the heavily edited Jesus of Crossan’s imagination is not the living Christ, and the faith that Crossan offers is a dead one.

“The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed between professor and undergrads. Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.

Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

“Slouching Toward Mecca,” by Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books.

Given all this, it will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumissionfor the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre—the dystopian conversion tale. Soumission is not the story some expected of a coup d’état, and no one in it expresses hatred or even contempt of Muslims. It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here—no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.

“The Serial Swatter,” by Jason Fagone in The New York Times

Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Theological Triage and the Doctrine of Creation,” by Samuel Emadi in The Gospel Coalition.

Theological triage is not a way of minimizing doctrine but of being able to say all doctrine is important, though some doctrines are more important than others. Lose the Trinity and you lose the gospel. Lose your favored millennial position and, while you may need a little reshuffling of some exegetical commitments, most of the rest of your theological system remains safely intact. To be clear, I’m not saying the earth’s age or the length of the days in Genesis 1 is unimportant or that we shouldn’t have convictions on these matters (just to prove it, I’ll tip my hand and reveal I’m a fairly committed literal six-day, young earther). I am saying we need to separate first-order issues in the doctrine of creation from second- and third-order issues, mitigating our suspicions of the other side and hopefully reminding those with teaching ministries what to prioritize about creation as we disciple others. In other words, this isn’t just about learning where we can disagree; it’s also about shoring up our defenses on the non-negotiables.

“C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent,” by Harry Lee Poe in Christianity Today.

How Lewis came to be recruited and by whom remains a secret. The records of the Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6, remain closed. Perhaps one of his former pupils at Oxford recommended him for his mission. It was an unusual mission for which few people were suited. J. R. R. Tolkien had the knowledge base for the job, even beyond that of Lewis, but Tolkien lacked other skills that Lewis possessed. Perhaps someone had heard Lewis lecture on his favorite subject in one of the two great lecture halls in the Examination Schools building of Oxford University. At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. In the 1930s, Lewis was the best show in town. Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.

The Inherent Violence of Pro-Life Rhetoric

When a gunman opened fire last week inside a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people including a police officer, the response from the political blogosphere was predictable and revealing. Dozens of pundits took the murderous rampage as an object lesson in why pro-life activism, like the kind we’ve seen over the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose of Planned Parenthood, can and does lead to violence against abortion providers and advocates.

On the other side, pro-life writers moved quickly to counter this narrative, first by casting reasonable doubt as to the real motivations (and psychological condition) of the killer, and then by pointing out the conveniently selective memories of progressives when it comes to ideologically motivated violence. All in all, both sides of the political spectrum performed effectively, making it unlikely that Americans on either side of the abortion debate would change their views because of this atrocity.

And isn’t that where most of our rhetorical face-offs on abortion tends to leave us, right back where we started in the first place? It certainly seems so. The tug-of-war between pro-choice and pro-life here was predictable in that the lines of argument for each side were obvious and obviously sufficient to confirm everyone in their preexisting views.

But I also said that this exchange was “revealing,” and here’s what I mean. By taking pro-lifers to task for using rhetoric that could incite vigilantism, the pro-choice side has unwittingly granted a crucial premise of the pro-life worldview: namely, that abortion is more than a medical procedure or a “reproductive right,” but is in fact an act of violence. Progressives are correct when they say that pro-life ideas are violent, but they are wrong when they believe that the violence starts with pro-life. Pro-life rhetoric is violent because abortion is violent.

When I say pro-life rhetoric is violent, I am NOT saying that it is violent against abortionists themselves. As Ross Douthat pointed out, the pro-life movement has grown and strengthened in the country over the last 20 years in large part because it has eschewed the kind of incident we saw last week. Pro-life activists do indeed target abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, but with political and moral reasoning, not with weapons.

But the pro-life argument is indeed a violent one, and it is violent precisely because abortion is not what its advocates say it is. The violence of pro-life is the violence of crushed skulls, suctioned brains, and carefully dissected spinal cords, not of people patronizing or running the abortion clinics but of the people for whom the clinic really exists. The violence of pro-life is the violence of looking at a mangled, bloody, and unmistakably human corpse, and hearing the words “tissue harvesting.”

The violence of abortion is, for pro-lifers, the most crucial reality in the entire post-Roe v. Wade debate. And it seems that obfuscating abortion’s violence, behind either rhetoric about reproductive freedom or by the prohibition of truth-tellers like ultrasounds and undercover cameras, has become an equally important part of the pro-choice platform. When an abortion advocate hears something like “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts,” they think of that rhetoric as violent invective against women who need medical relief and sexual equality. They don’t think, however, of a little hand, or a doctor’s declaring “It’s a boy” when staring at a mass of body in a petri dish. For pro-choicers, the alternative to Roe is mass death in the darkened back alleys of America; they don’t stop to wonder if the clinics, windows down and pictures blurred, have actually become those back alleys.

In the wake of violence against abortion providers, it is of course fair to ask whether pro-life advocacy is mature and reasoned rather than vengeful. Can pro-lifers do better? Of course; constantly assessing whether our message is grounded in claims of human dignity for all or in political frustration for our opponents is absolutely necessary if we are to articulate a pro-life worldview capable of winning people as well as elections. The pro-life movement to date has not, after all, been merely a Jonah-like moral condemnation of the culture, but a holistic movement that builds pregnancy centers and adoption agencies. That must continue. No amount of undercover videos or hashtag campaigns can replace the effect of building a tangible culture of life.

But when faced with the accusation that our rhetoric is violent, pro-life must admit  that yes, it is violent. The violence of pro-life is not the violence of shootings or bombings but the violence of reality, the violence of actually looking at abortion and seeing its eyes, hands, and feet. Because pro-life is a movement to see the truth, it is a movement to see violence. We can’t escape the violence of pro-life because we cannot escape the violence of abortion.

A Conversation With “Safe,” “Legal,” and “Rare”

The following post imagines a three-way dialogue between pro-choice talking points Safe, Legal, and Rare. 

Legal: Good evening, friends. Thanks for joining this conversation

Safe and Rare: [together] Thank you as well. Glad to be here.

Legal: I hope both of you are OK with my emceeing this thing. It’s mainly for the sake of convenience. Besides, it’s kinda logical, right? Legal is kind of what brings us together in this.

Safe: Absolutely. No worries here.

Rare: I agree it’s logical. I’m fine with it, but I do hope our conversation will be about more than keeping abortion legal.

Legal: Oh, I agree. There are multiple layers to this issue, but my point was that the bottom layer, the thing that keeps our ideas together, is legality.  If abortion is illegal there’s no point in talking about how safe or rare it is.

Safe: Hold on right there. Can you clarify what you mean by that last sentence?

Rare: Yes, I’d like to hear more too.

Legal: Well, I’m not sure how much clearer that can be. Do we really have a disagreement over the importance of legality?

Rare: I’m not disputing that keeping abortion legal is important. But I think…

Safe: [interjecting] Right, I wanted though to ask about how you worded that sentence. You said if it abortion is illegal “there’s no point” in talking about safety. To me, though, that plays into the pro-life rhetoric. Our entire point is that keeping abortion legal will keep it regulated and therefore more safe. So in a way, I’d actually say the opposite of what you said. If abortion can’t be safe, who would want to keep it legal?

Legal: Well…

Rare [interjecting] Hold on. Safe, what did you mean by that just now?

Safe: Which part?

Rare: You said if abortion isn’t safe, why wouldn’t it automatically be rare?

Safe: Yes.

Rare: That’s not the point, though. Most abortions done by licensed professionals ARE safe. Seeking to make abortions safer is important but we need to think about how to make them less of a necessity. If you focus entirely on keeping it legal or safe, you haven’t addressed the underlying issue of why abortions happen.

Legal: Rare, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I think it’s fine if abortions end up less common, but making that a point of emphasis sends the wrong message. It seems to imply that abortion is a necessary evil. That kind of rhetoric won’t keep abortion an option for women very long. If something is a necessary evil, people will start asking why it is necessary.  But that’s not our message. Abortion access is absolutely necessary and it’s a human rights issue to make sure women have that option.

Safe: [interjecting] Real quick, I just want to add that SAFE abortion access is a human right. Can’t forget that word.

Legal: Certainly. Safe abortion access is a huge issue. But I wouldn’t qualify what I said. Abortion should always be a shame-free option for every woman…

Safe: Wait one second. Why are you hesitant to qualify what you said? What’s wrong with trying to keep abortion safe?

Legal: Nothing at all. But I do think it’s possible that talking so much about how to make abortion safer or better timed or whatever can obscure our point about its role in culture. Abortion is a perfectly legitimate expression of reproductive health. You can unintentionally communicate otherwise…

Safe: How?

Legal: Well, two good exmaples are parental notification laws and ultrasound requirements. The vast majority of our advocates oppose those measures, for good reason. They place illegitimate barriers between women and reproductive health. But that’s an example how emphasizing “safety” can actually encroach on abortion rights.

Rare: I’m glad you mention those two laws. I understand your concerns about them but it seems to me that if we’re concerned with making abortion less common, those kinds of measures could help with that. There are some practical benefits, I think….

Safe: Agreed, Rare. There’s some value in making sure that people aren’t being coerced or manipulated into abortion, right Legal?

Legal: Sure, but none of that changes my point. Abortion needs to be legal because it is a moral right, not mainly because it can be administered responsibly. Even if it’s not done in a moral way, abortion is still a good thing for society.  That’s why laws that obstruct it….

Rare: Wait one moment. Isn’t Kermit Gosnell an example of what happens when you empower abortion beyond the margins of safety and public good?

Safe: Yes.

Legal: Not really. Gosnell, as monstrous as he was, was almost himself a victim. He and his patients suffered under abortion’s social stigma. Without it he probably wouldn’t have been able to do what he did even if he had wanted to.

Safe: Even if you’re right…

Rare: Well I reject that completely. Kermit Gosnell was not a victim. He’s a psychopath. And…

Safe: [interjecting] That explanation doesn’t do much for his victims, or prevent future ones.

Rare: …the reason he got away with it for so long is that we don’t have a culture that encourages alternatives to abortion. We don’t have anything that meets these young girls where they are and gives guidance…

Legal: [interjecting] Ok, now you sound like a pro-lifer.

[laughter]

Legal: Seriously, Safe, explain that to me. How do you recommend preventing those kinds of atrocities.

Safe: Whenever you find someone like Gosnell you’ve found a crack that somebody slipped through. I don’t at all challenge your premise that abortion needs to be available. But the reason for that goes beyond your explanation. Abortion needs to be legal because if it’s not then a black market filled with Gosnells will flood our communities. I trust that’s something we can all agree would be a disaster.

Rare: Yes.

Legal: I agree. But how do you avoid saying that abortion should be regulated the way pro-lifers say it should be if your main goal is to keep it “safe”? If the problem with illegalizing abortion is that people will get hurt by the abortions they get, how do you consistently oppose things like ultrasound laws?

Safe: Well…

Rare: Are we absolutely sure we’re against those laws?

Legal: I certainly hope so.

Safe: If your goal is to make something safe, then I think you should assume the safer it gets, the more people can and will utilize it. I think that gets to where, Legal, you and I agree.

Legal: OK, but can you answer my question?

Safe: Listen: Keeping abortion legal and keeping it safe don’t contradict each other. We can do both. But we actually have to try. If we can’t keep legal abortion safe, we shouldn’t have it legal either.

Rare: Agreed!

Legal: See? That’s the attitude I thought I was hearing. It’s almost an apathy towards legality. If it’s a choice between taking a step down a dangerous road and risking imperfect scenarios, we should choose the latter.

Rare: Ok, one thing about this conversation worries me. Up to this point both of you have assumed that if it were possible to make as many abortions possible as safe as possible, we should do that. I don’t feel that way.

Legal: Why?

Rare: Because we need to keep abortion rare. Women shouldn’t be forced into a corner.

Legal: Abortion isn’t a corner. It’s legitimate birth control.

Safe: Correction, it doesn’t HAVE to be a corner.

Rare: Wait a minute. So you don’t see anything tragic at all about an unplanned pregnancy? An unwanted child?

Legal: Those are tragic. Abortion is a solution to those tragedies. It’s not itself tragic.

Rare: I really don’t see how you can say that.

Legal: Well let me put it this way. How can we say with a straight face that abortion is both a tragedy and a human right? Are there tragic human rights?

Safe: There are human rights that can turn into tragedies. Freedom of the press is a human right but if done wrong it can ruin lives.

Rare: I don’t understand. I was under the impression we can be both against abortion and for its legality.

Legal: You can do that hypothetically. But when it comes writing policy, you have to prioritize legality. This is why we are for requiring companies to subsidize abortafacient contraceptives in their insurance. If companies didn’t have to do that, we would probably make aborted pregnancies less common, but we would be sending the wrong message.

Rare: But can’t we be honest about the emotional stakes involved with abortion? Shouldn’t we try to prevent the circumstance in the first place? Honestly the “wrong message” stuff sounds silly.

Legal: It sounds silly only because you are playing by pro-life’s rules. If you think abortion is mainly a sad, regrettable thing, then by all means, talk it down and legislate it until it eventually disappears. How safe do you think abortions will be after that happens?

Safe: Not safe. But that doesn’t mean we should regulate its practice.

Rare: You’re making a big logical error, Legal. You seem the think the choice is between infinity abortions and zero abortions. You still haven’t explained why this can’t be both a sad and legal thing?

Legal: Just a question, Rare. Why is abortion sad?

Safe: It’s risky and invasive for one.

Rare: And it’s the loss of something.

Legal: No, you’re wrong. It’s not the loss of anything. We can’t drive within 100 yards of personhood. The minute we do that, we might as well give up.

Safe: I agree with that.

Rare: Me too. But, women do report being affected emotionally by their abortions. It’s not like getting a wart removed.

Legal: Only because we still have a culture that shames reproductive freedom. And our rhetoric has to change that. For every 1 time we say abortion should be rare, we should be saying 5 times that its a perfectly moral option for women. Period.

Rare: I guess I don’t see it that way.

Safe: Nor I.

Legal: Listen, the options are simple: Either people can make their own choices and have control of their own bodies, or, be pro-life. It’s one or the other. That’s why I said at the beginning keeping abortion legal is the central point. And I suppose I assumed there was more agreement about that than there actually is.

Safe: It needs to be legal so it can be safe. Legal harm is still harm.

Rare: It may need to be legal so it can be safe, but it needs to be a small part of our culture.

Safe: I think the one thing we agree on is this: A woman’s body is her body. A woman’s pregnancy is her pregnancy. The question is, how do we honor this autonomy?

Rare: We make abortion rare.

Safe: We make abortion safe.

Legal: We keep abortion legal.

All: At least we agree.

Planned Parenthood and the Future

How do pro-life Christians go forward in the light of the Planned Parenthood videos?

Yesterday Planned Parenthood leadership announced that it would stop receiving “reimbursements” for the donation of fetal tissue taken from aborted babies. It was a curious declaration, one that could be summarized (as my boss Russell Moore put it) “We never did anything wrong and we’ll stop doing it now.”

The video evidence that betrayed a profitable business from the dismembered parts of children is not silent. There is more than enough reason to think that Planned Parenthood is guilty of atrocity that far outweighs anything they have passively conceded by changing their reimbursements policy.But sadly, as the often-frustrating Congressional testimony of Cecile Richards demonstrated, it seems that the nation’s largest abortion provider is for the moment insulated from any serious trouble. There are just too many political allies, too many reliable talking points, and too few in positions of meaningful leadership willing to risk political face to confront Richards and her company.

So where does that leave us? What are we to think and say and do going forward? If what we saw in those videos was indeed what I believe we saw, we cannot be satisfied. We cannot shrug and go on to the “next cause.” If the videos were a moment of reality for pro-choice Americans, they were even more so a moment of accountability for pro-life Americans. We can’t look at the abortion debate in this country the same way after #ItsABoy. Something has changed, and a moral demand is placed upon those with the truth to do something faithful with it.

The first thing we must do as pro-life Christians is repent. We must repent of ever being comfortable with abortion as a “private values” issue. Abortion is not ultimately about “values” or “legislating morality.” It’s about legislating justice and human rights. In the absence of jarring human degradation, we can forget that. We can unwittingly accept the other side’s cries of “culture war” and comfort ourselves that we are on the right side of history, no matter what’s going on in the abortion clinic downtown. No more. We have seen, and we have heard.

Secondly, we must prepare. We have no reason to think the legal battle to restore human rights to the unborn will be any easier than was the legal battle to restore rights to millions of African slaves. “Reproductive freedom” is the plantation of our time. It is a glossy, extravagant, externally beautiful facade that runs on the churned up bodies of the innocent. If attacking the materialism of the age–indeed, the materialism in many of our own hearts!–was difficult and costly back then, why should we think it would be different now?

That means that not every skirmish over unborn rights will end in victory. It also means that not every victory will be the victory we would want. Like William Wilberforce, we have to sober and resolute enough to keep shouting, keep debating, and keep fighting even in the face of overwhelming odds and mounting defeats.

Finally, we must preach the gospel. Unless we preach the full gospel of justice, atonement, and mercy, we will not capture the hearts of this country. Even if we are armed with the most compelling visual evidence, the most airtight philosophical arguments, or the most cutting edge medical technology, the human hearts we preach to will do whatever it takes to keep from coming under the condemnation of their own conscience. A pro-life message of only judgment and justice isn’t a full pro-life message. The unborn are made in the image of the same God who put the sins of the world on his only Son. The gospel is good news that the unborn, the elderly, and the disabled have inherent human dignity, and that every crime against that dignity can be absorbed by the sacrifice of the most dignified Being in the history of the cosmos.

We must hold that hope out to a world that sees the infant hand and hears the infant cry and must explain it all away or face despair. A pro-life Christianity is either a gospel Christianity or it isn’t pro-life at all.

Planned Parenthood is open today, and for that we mourn. But we cannot resign ourselves to its world. We have too great a message, and too great a hope, not to endure in this fight. Lives, and souls, depend on it.