Newsletter #60: The Pro-Life Movement's Moral Doublespeak
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A pro-life group called Live Action published a video in December that was catnip to Christian white knights everywhere. Called “Abortion Rights Are Pro-Choice Men’s Rights,” it is a montage of male actors talking about how they “deserve to be free from any responsibility for some girl I get pregnant” and similar thoughts.
Twitter blew up with conservative men sharing and endorsing this video. Even Steve King, the former US Representative from Iowa so right wing his own party disavowed him, approved, saying “This is powerful.”
What this video highlights is the pro-life movement’s moral doublespeak.
They say abortion is murder. Some of them say anti-abortion advocacy trumps any other political consideration, and because of this issue alone every Christian must vote Republican. I see people claim it’s actually a sin to vote Democrat just because of abortion.
Yet, they won’t actually say that women who abort their babies bear any moral responsibility for it. Abortion may be a sin, but for a wide swath of pro-life conservatives, women who abort their babies aren’t sinners. In fact, the real sinner responsible for the abortion is probably the man who got them pregnant.
Pregnant Women as the Victims of Abortion
In March 2016, Chris Matthews asked then candidate Donald Trump whether women should be punished for having an abortion.
Chris Matthews: I’ve never understood the pro-life position. Because I understand the principle, human life. But what crime is it?
Donald Trump: Well, it’s human life.
Matthews: Should the woman be punished for having an abortion? This is not something you can dodge. If you say abortion is a crime or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under the law. Should abortion be punished?
Trump: People in certain parts of the Republican Party and conservative Republicans will say, “Yes, there should be.”
Matthews: How about you?
Matthews: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no?
Trump: The answer is there has to be some form of punishment.
Matthews: For the woman?
Trump: Yeah, there has to be some form.
The reaction from the pro-life movement was fast and furious.
The March for Life issued a press release titled, “No Pro-Life American Advocates Punishment for Abortion.” President Jeanne Mancini said:
Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby. Women who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision. No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about.
Note that by saying “no pro-life American,” she is in effect disavowing Donald Trump as a member of the pro-life movement.
The National Right to Life took this even further in their press release, saying “Unborn children and their mothers are victims in an abortion.”
This language is key to understanding the pro-life movement’s moral vision. Note that the National Right to Life doesn’t just say that women shouldn’t be punished because that would be counter-productive to the cause of banning abortion, or because it wouldn’t be prudent as a legal matter to do so. Rather, women who have abortion are “victims.”
By describing women who abort their babies as victims, the National Right to Life is in effect saying that women who abort their babies are not even sinning. It’s not just that they shouldn’t be punished legally; they bear no moral blame for what they’ve done.
As with Steve King above, this attitude filters down to even some of the most conservative figures in the pro-life world. The popular conservative Catholic millennial blogger Matt Walsh, who describes himself (probably tongue-in-cheek, but still) as a “theocratic fascist” in his Twitter bio and is now with the Daily Wire, tweeted, “If I could I'd throw the doctors and Planned Parenthood officials in jail on capital murder charges, but not the women. They are victims too.”
Surprisingly, the ultra-conservative Doug Wilson also argues that almost all women who abort their babies are victims. He wrote:
And the view about the mothers, taken as a class, is that they have been fraudulently manipulated into a form of negligent manslaughter. That kind of problem is best answered with information — ultrasounds and more. This is why pro-lifers for decades have offered support, information, care, and medical services to mothers. The laws have been aimed at doctors who were after the blood money. And in the main, this has been a very effective and reasonable distinction.
Now of course you will have some cases where the mothers know just as much as the abortionists do. Say that an abortionist gets pregnant herself, and then procures a late term abortion. It would make no sense to maintain that she was not guilty of anything because “motherhood.” But that kind of rare case is not what the political battle is over.
This isn’t totally clear, but what Wilson seems to be suggesting is that so long as there is any information asymmetry between the doctor and the woman, then the woman is a victim (i.e., “fraudulently manipulated”) and thus is excused from both legal and moral blame.
In a follow-up post he seems to give a more expansive answer as to moral blame, writing, “Many women know that they are doing something unnatural and wrong, and they are responsible for what they do know. Moreover, there is the additional culpability that comes from not really wanting to know more in order to preserve some degree of deniability.” However, this was in the context of arguing that women couldn’t be punished for abortion for at least 1,000 years, and probably not even then.
Again, what’s notable is not just that these high-profile pro-life organizations and people think women shouldn’t be punished for procuring an abortion, but their extreme reticence to assign even partial moral blame to them.
“Women Who Have Experienced an Abortion”
This victimology rhetoric seems to have continued evolving since then. A friend of mine was at a big conservative Christian donor conference recently and told me a prominent speaker there used the phrase, “women who have experienced an abortion.”
I googled this and it appears to be in use in academic literature, but has also been picked up by the pro-life movement, especially crisis pregnancy centers.
This extreme passive voice expression goes beyond saying that women who abort their babies are victims who don’t deserve moral blame; it treats abortion as something that just happens to a woman.
I’m pretty sure none of these people would describe men who abuse their wives as “men who have experienced wife beating.”
And as the video I led off with shows, beyond the abortion doctor (generally assumed to be male in the pro-life world), blaming the father of the child for the abortion is also extremely popular.
Christian Cognitive Dissonance
It would be tempting to claim that this treating of the mother as a victim of abortion means that the pro-life movement doesn’t really believe abortion is murder. But I don’t think that’s right. I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of these people are true believers in the anti-abortion cause.
Rather, this appears to be a result of their attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is, “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.” Cognitive dissonance thus results from holding two incompatible or conflicting ideas in our head at the same time.
In this case, the beliefs in conflict are that abortion is murder and that women are naturally good. Way back in newsletter #3 I cited research from British academic Callum Brown on that latter point. He surveyed the 19th century evangelical literature in Britain and found:
After 1800, the religiosity of women was paramount to the evangelical scheme for moral revolution. They were regarded as having special qualities which placed them at the fulcrum of family sanctity.
Though the female evangelical narrative structure might vary in these ways, there were uniform characteristics. First, women’s conversions were usually taken for granted; the issue was their ability to choose a godly husband or reform an ungodly one. Second, women’s spiritual destiny was virtually never portrayed as a battle with temptation or real sin; fallen women did not appear as central characters, and none of the usual temptations like drink or gambling ever seemed to be an issue with them.
In evangelical stories about piety, women appeared throughout as good but not always converted; men, by contrast, almost always appeared as in a perilous sinful state until near the end. Men were the problem, given manifold temptations: drink (nearly always), gambling (increasingly after 1890), and ‘rough’ in overall cultural terms. They lived dissipated lives which caused suffering and ruination to mothers, wives, and children. Nowhere did evangelical literature have such a powerful influence in the public domain, including in ‘secular’ fiction, as in its demonization of men.
A large proportion of evangelical stories of men centered on the destruction of families by male evils.
In the evangelical and temperance movements, women were both the moral guardians and the moral victims of fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons.
In other words, since the era of industrialization, Anglo-American Christian culture (and secular culture) has tended to see women has naturally virtuous and men as the primary sources of evil in society.
The way this manifests itself in modern conservative evangelical culture is that women are almost never held responsible for anything. Instead, women are repositioned as victims, or men are used as a scapegoat for women’s sins in addition to their own.
We just reviewed this in the case of abortion, but it’s pervasive. Matt Schmucker, writing in a book called Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor, said:
We do not want a brother standing at the altar on his wedding day looking at his beautiful bride only to imagine behind her the boys and men who took advantage of her and robbed her of the trust and confidence that she now needs for her husband. We do not want a sister standing at the altar on her wedding day looking at her handsome groom only to imagine behind him a string of relationships with girls and women he failed to honor, and knowing that images in his head from pornography use and past flings may stick with him for a long time.
Note that he blames men both for their own sins, and for the acts committed by women. He said men “took advantage of” and “robbed” them. In other words, they are victims not sinners themselves. (I could have cited several other people to make this same point).
I also previously reviewed in newsletter #33 how John Piper resolves his cognitive dissonance over women in military combat roles by putting 100% of the blame on “cowardly men” who don’t want to fight. He wrote:
If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea… What cowardly men do we thank for this collapse of chivalry? Browne suggests, “There are a lot of military people who think women in combat is a horrible idea, but it’s career suicide to say it.” In other words, let the women die.
They also tend to blame men for everything that goes wrong in the marriage or home. As Justin Buzzard put it in his book Date Your Wife:
Your wife isn’t the problem. You’re the problem. I’m the problem. Men are the problem. If you want to change a marriage, change the man. If you want to change your marriage, you must first see that you are the main problem in your marriage…You are what is wrong with you marriage. It’s your fault. This is the second most important truth to learn from this book: it’s your fault. You are the husband. You are the man. And God has given man the ability to be the best thing or the worst thing that ever happened to a marriage.
This even goes all the way to money problems or troubled children. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was quoted in the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (the ur-textbook of complementarianism) as saying:
A Christian man is obligated to lead his family to the best of his ability…If his family has purchased too many items on credit, then the financial crunch is ultimately his fault. If the family never reads the Bible or seldom goes to church on Sunday, God holds the man to blame. If the children are disrespectful and disobedient, the primary responsibility lies with the father.
It’s a great irony that conservative Christians are so heavily attacked today for their supposed patriarchal attitudes or toxic masculinity when they are the biggest group of white knights for women that I’ve ever come across.
Another irony is that these are many of the same people who loudly complain about “critical race theory,” yet they adopt the exact same oppressor-oppressed type system when talking about gender.
This approach to resolving cognitive dissonance is a kind of moral doublespeak, and it pervades not just the pro-life movement, but the conservative Christian world in America in general.
I’d like to claim this as some great insight, but in fact sociologist James Davison Hunter pointed it out way back in 1987 in his book Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. He wrote:
An unusual kind of doublespeak is taking place. On the one hand, the man is encouraged to assert a forceful leadership in all matters pertaining to the organization and development of the family. This would include matters of spiritual maturation, child discipline, family responsibilities, and the myriad decisions any family has to make. He is to command respect and ultimately the willful submission of his wife and children. He is, after all, ultimately responsible for keeping his household in order. On the other hand, he is encouraged to cultivate the emotional development of his children and open and expressive emotional bonds of intimacy with both his children and his wife… In this sense, his authority becomes purely theoretical and abstract. Paternal authority is no authority at all.…The emphasis on the requirement of the husband to love his wife…is so prominent that the relationship remains hierarchical in principle only.
Many American evangelicals love Hunter, but they’ve memory holed his books from the 1980s, which contain many profoundly challenging observations like these.
Hunter says this specifically in reference to one strand of evangelical teaching on marriage and the home, but the same principle is extended throughout evangelical thinking on gender. It’s a similar situation with abortion: abortion is murder and the worst social evil imaginable, while at the same time the women are victims in aborting their babies, quite possibly of the man who got them pregnant.
American Christians Are Detached from Reality
These views, as with other American conservative Christian views on gender, are completely detached from reality.
Are some women pressured into having abortions by their boyfriends, family, or doctor, and thus those people deserve a share of the responsibility in those cases? Undoubtedly. And yes, some men do beat their wives, abandon their wives, shirk their responsibilities in marriage, or engage in a life of sexual promiscuity. They should be justly condemned and held responsible for their sins.
But the modern Christian church has put forth a fake reality in which women are almost always the victim except in rare, extreme cases. They seem incapable of admitting that women who abort their babies know what they are doing. They can’t bring themselves to even acknowledge that women initiate about 70% of all divorces. When pastors write entire books about marriage and never once mention the basic and well known fact that women file for the vast majority of divorces – and that’s every Christian marriage book I’ve ever read – they aren’t serious people. They justify and excuse almost any female behavior, and even twist reality to somehow blame men for it.
Developments in today’s culture are making this Baby Boomer style white knight positioning harder to hold by the day. For example, there’s the whole “Shout your abortion!” movement, endorsed by no less than Oprah Winfrey in her magazine.
Or as I previous discussed in my podcast, women, who previously felt the need to provide some justification for dumping their husbands, now openly say that they are doing it for selfish reasons.
Read about how superstar singer Adele talks about blowing up her marriage (and her child’s life). As she directly puts it, “I just felt like I wanted to explain to him, through this record, when he’s in his twenties or thirties, who I am and why I voluntarily chose to dismantle his entire life in the pursuit of my own happiness.” Or real Lara Bazelon’s New York Times op-ed on how divorce can be “a radical act of self-love” for women. Or a writer from this month in the Times who says simply, “I spent most of my 20s and 30s single, only to marry and then come to the conclusion that my marriage should end.” She then goes on to critique the “cultural myths” of society of divorce and singleness being bad things.
Or read Honor Jones’ recent Atlantic article on how she demolished her life by divorcing her husband.
I didn’t have a secret life. But I had a secret dream life—which might have been worse. I loved my husband; it’s not that I didn’t. But I felt that he was standing between me and the world, between me and myself. Everything I experienced—relationships, reality, my understanding of my own identity and desires—were filtered through him before I could access them. The worst part was that it wasn’t remotely his fault; this is probably exactly what I asked him to do when we were 21 and first in love, even if I never said it out loud. To shelter me from the elements; to be caring and broad-shouldered. But now it was like I was always on my tiptoes, trying to see around him. I couldn’t see, but I could imagine. I started imagining other lives. Other homes.
I kept wondering if I’d feel regret, or remorse. It is hard to admit this—it makes me cold, as cold a woman as my ex-husband sometimes suspects I am—but I didn’t. I felt raw, and I liked it. There was nothing between me and the world.
Jones had three young children, by the way.
As I pointed out in my October podcast, there’s a propaganda element to these. When you see elite cultural outlets start promoting a particular line, there’s usually a reason. In this case they are sending a message. They are telling women that it’s no longer necessary to give a justification for decisions like dumping your husband. Selfishness is now sufficient justification in itself.
As always, the church is way behind the times. It continues clinging to the old script while society has moved on, and as the reality we can see for ourselves everyday makes it harder and harder to sustain.
One reason the church in America is in such a state of decline is that it’s built on foundations of falsehood. A lot of the stuff they say just isn’t true, just isn’t a fair or accurate presentation of reality.
I admire some of the people I’ve criticized in this post, but on the matter of gender (and probably many other things) they are way out to sea. Nothing illustrates this better than their doublespeak on abortion.
If you are a man, you should exercise extreme caution before believing, internalizing, and acting on what they tell you because they are steering you wrong in important ways.
My admonition is to take care to avoid flipping the script and starting to blame women for all the world’s problems the way the manosphere does. Women are also being poorly served by the current state of affairs, as I pointed out in newsletter #52. They’ve got some legitimate complaints too.
Men should instead discern and align themselves with the truth, even if that means enduring the bitter taste of recognizing that they’ve been living their lives in accordance with lies. Repent of your own legitimate sins. Take the log out of your own eye. And yes, hold other people, including women, accountable for what they do inasmuch as it affects you (while remembering to forgive).
As for Christian leaders in America, they need to take a hard look at themselves and what they’ve been teaching, and bring it into alignment with truth, however painful that might be. The era of moral doublespeak needs to come to an end.
In the meantime, going back to the video at the beginning of the newsletter, if you are a man who gets a woman pregnant and wants to do the right thing and be a dad to the baby, but she chooses abortion anyway even though you beg her not to, there’s a good chance these pro-life people will still blame you for the abortion.
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The couple is the final stage of the great social debacle. It’s the oasis in the middle of the human desert. Under the auspices of “intimacy,” we come to it looking for everything that has so obviously deserted contemporary social relations: warmth, simplicity, truth, a life without theater or spectator. But once the romantic enchantment has passed, “intimacy” strips itself bare: it is itself a social invention, it speaks the language of glamour magazines and psychology; like everything else, it is bolstered with strategies to the point of nausea. There is no more truth here than elsewhere; here too lies and the laws of estrangement dominate. And when, by good fortune, one discovers this truth, it demands a sharing that belies the very form of the couple. What allows beings to love each other is also what makes them lovable, and ruins the utopia of autism-for-two.
- The Invisible Committee, “The Coming Insurrection”
Echoes of your ideas in First Things:
You provoked a response from National Review that ceded a lot of your points. Good work.