The Wrong Strategy

The Arizona-related brouhaha largely overshadowed an interesting incident unfolding in Oklahoma.  It’s a bit of pro-life legislation that passed the state legislature, was vetoed, was passed by overriding the veto, and has now been suspended by a state judge.

Before I continue, please take a moment to review my disclaimer.

Back?  Okay.  Now, the law requires any woman who wants an abortion to first have an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the baby and its beating heart.  Another law that also overturned a veto prevents women from suing doctors for not reporting birth defects.

I was immediately reminded of the stories that the pro-choice blogosphere have been circulating about crisis pregnancy centers.  One woman says that she visited a crisis pregnancy center but ended up having an abortion anyway.  The center subsequently sent her birthday cards for her baby splattered with red ink.  She and others report centers violating confidentiality by calling parents, friends, and roommates–or even the police.  Many report being told that they would go to Hell for killing their baby and similar threats.  Many others received misinformation about their pregnancies, pregnancy tests, and abortion procedures, apparently with the goal of confusing and delaying them until it was too late for an abortion.

Maybe those stories are true and maybe they aren’t.  Trying to get an accurate perception from the combined views of these people and these people is a futile enterprise.  However, CPCs have been convicted of false advertising for claiming to be clinics when they’re often staffed by volunteers with no medical training who administer off-the-shelf pregnancy tests, and for claiming to provide “options” when, in fact, they are only going to tell women one thing.  It’s also well-documented that they administer off-the-shelf pregnancy tests, which only take 3-5 minutes to yield a result, but make the woman wait for as much as half an hour while watching graphic abortion videos.  As for the more drastic accounts, it seems most likely that they’re true but uncommon; an unbiased study on the subject is desperately needed.

Regardless of the actual state of crisis pregnancy centers, the laws are certainly true.  Florida is trying to pass a similar law.  Oklahoma also passed a law in the fall, now suspended, requiring physicians to list specific demographic details such as age, race, and marital status for every woman who had an abortion–on a publicly accessible website.

The laws and the strategies employed by crisis pregnancy centers demonstrate a troubling willingness to decrease abortions through coercion, deception, and harassment.  They are acting as though the end justifies the means.

Well, does it?  I invite any pro-choicers reading to take a breath and assume the pro-life view for a minute, if they are capable of doing so.  Assuming that fetuses are human beings, we’re talking over a million deaths per year in the US–about half the total death rate of born human beings.  Surely if there were that many murders (or executions, or war casualties, or what have you) every year, we would do whatever we could to stop it.

Well, maybe.  We don’t seem to do much about the 100,000-odd deaths by accidents, mostly traffic accidents, although those are largely preventable and could be decreased countless ways.  This is because we culturally don’t care about actual safety, but rather perceived safety, hence our hysterical fear of the infinitesimally small chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, but I digress.  The pertinent question isn’t whether we would do whatever was possible, but whether we should, and specifically whether we should use coercive tactics.

I was stymied by this hypothetical.  There is simply no comparable situation I can think of where, on either a large or small scale, where lies and harassment (of the potential killer) would be the best way of preventing deaths.  Concealment of information can be a legitimate strategy and that often requires outright deception, as in the standard lying-to-the-Nazis dilemma, but lying to an enfranchised dictatorship with a murderous agenda hardly seems comparable to lying to a confused victim.  So let’s move away from analogies and address the question directly.

If the end justifies the means, then Scott Roeder was right.

There are far more abortions than abortion doctors in America.  Undoubtedly, if we killed all abortion doctors, there would be a net positive, even accounting for women who died of pregnancy complications, babies who were abandoned, and women and babies who died through botched abortion attempts.  We could go ahead and throw in vocal proponents of abortion and still come out ahead.  But we shouldn’t, because that’s a terrible, terrible strategy.

I’ve never been a very dedicated ethicist; one’s beliefs about what is so strongly influence what ought to be that I think it’s more profitable to try to hash out presuppositions.  Nevertheless, from a Christian perspective, which I think most people would lay somewhere between Kantian and utilitarian ethics but closer to the Kantian end, it seems that the end occasionally justifies the means, but doesn’t usually.  There are exceptions to our moral rules under extraordinary circumstances (or, to quote Barbossa, “The rules are more like guidelines anyway”), but the majority of the time, the rules should be adhered to–even when they appear to yield a bad result.  Most of the time, the rules will probably yield a better result than the combination of one’s personal moral compass and ability to predict results.  Only when the results of standard moral behavior are obviously very bad, and the alternative clearly far better, should the rules be intentionally transgressed.

In case I’m getting obtuse, the moral behavior in question is that we shouldn’t harass or deceive people, and the context in which the rule is being questioned is when the harass-ee is a pregnant woman who wants to get an abortion.  Assuming the abortion-is-murder premise, as we’ve been doing, this looks like a case where the consequences are clearly bad.  However, I don’t think it’s a case where rulebreaking is justified.  It fails in the second condition: the alternative is not clearly better.

The alternative would clearly be better if all women who underwent this coercion ended up not having abortions and would have otherwise, and if these ends could not have been achieved through non-coercive means, like Biblical counseling and providing free prenatal care.  That’s a lot of variables.  With crisis pregnancy centers, comparing the actual outcome to the averted outcome is futile, but the results of the Oklahoma law are clear enough, and I doubt we’ll see a sudden cessation of abortions.  If the woman has an abortion anyway, then the result will merely be that the woman is more miserable than she would otherwise be–a worse outcome*.  As the issues become more and more complex, it’s sensible to return to the default standards of behavior: honesty, kindness, and good faith.

The use of ugly, graphic videos of abortions is particularly irritating to me because it’s a fallacious emotional appeal.  You could show disgusting images of open-heart surgery or animals being slaughtered, but it has no bearing on whether those acts are wrong or not.  Similarly, to a lesser degree, pictures and videos showing how human fetuses are.  Plenty of things look human but aren’t, and animals sometimes act uncannily human but aren’t.  One could just as well make the argument that CG characters have rights because they seem so human.  Of course there are real arguments for considering fetuses to be human, but that’s precisely why the pointless non-arguments should stop.

This leads me to the final consequence at play: cultural perceptions.  Any good pro-lifer knows that, while brute-force solutions like laws may be necessary steps, the real battle is changing cultural perceptions.  Build a culture where no one considers abortion an option and the problem is solved.  Whatever else the new Oklahoma laws do, they won’t open a floodgate of sympathy for the pro-life cause.  Pro-lifers will likely find it a Pyrrhic victory: winning the battle is making them lose the war**.

Of course I am not telling pro-lifers to lay down their arms.  By no means!  There is much to be done.  Counsel some teenagers, bring meals to a single mother, and if you’re really serious about your pro-life beliefs, foster or adopt (if you’re really, really serious, adopt instead of having your own children).  These acts advance your goals and are morally laudable in and of themselves.  It is precisely because there is so much good to be done that harassing and deceiving women who are considering abortion is the wrong strategy.


*Pro-choice feminists will claim that this is the primary and intended outcome: that the goal of saving babies is only a cover for the real, albeit perhaps subliminal, goal of making women feel guilty about their sexuality.  This is a violation of AGI and a strawman with respect to strong pro-lifers I’ve known personally.  Still, there’s a spark of truth to it as regards the side-taking nature of the abortion issue: “I didn’t stop her, but at least I made her feel really, really bad.”  More on this when I’ve recovered from my weariness with the whole debate.

**Yes, I’m channeling Reinhold Niebuhr here, but I haven’t read enough of his work to justly invoke him.

Crisis pregnancy centers always make me think of that scene from Jesus Camp.


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