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From the January/February, 2004 issue of Touchstone


Choice Words by Francis J. Beckwith + Terry Schlossberg + David Mills + Frederica Mathewes-Green

Choice Words

A Critique of the New Pro-Life Rhetoric

by Francis J. Beckwith

A few years ago, I spoke on the topic, “Can the law be neutral on moral issues?” at a retreat for the trustees of a small liberal arts college in southern California. During the question time, one gentleman, an investment banker and attorney from New York City, said, “I agree with much of what you say, but I think that on one issue, abortion, the law can remain neutral. You see, the current law, affirmed in Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, does not take a position on abortion. For the law does not require women to have an abortion, and it does not forbid them from having an abortion. The law is neutral. The law is pro-choice.”

I suggested that the best way to understand my viewpoint would be for me to ask him questions in much the same way Socrates questioned those with whom he dialogued. He thought the proposal intriguing and agreed to participate. Although the following is not verbatim, I believe it accurately conveys the dialogue. I began by asking him why he thought some people in our society oppose abortion.

“Because they believe that fetuses are human beings or human persons,” he replied.

“So you don’t think they’re right?”


“Then, what are fetuses?”

“They are potential persons or partial persons. They are not full human beings. So I think killing them is wrong, but it’s not like killing a full-fledged person. And that’s why I think the government should stay out of the issue.”

“But if fetuses were fully human, as pro-lifers assert, you would agree with them that virtually all abortions ought to be forbidden.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“So, your position is not really neutral, is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“You believe that if fetuses were fully human, most abortions ought to be forbidden.”

“That’s correct.”

“So, by allowing abortions, the government is taking a non-neutral position. It is saying that fetuses are not fully human persons, because, if they were, abortion would be unjustified homicide. Is this correct?”

“Yes. I now see your point. Pro-lifers believe that fetuses are fully human persons, whereas those who permit abortion by implication do not. So, being pro-choice is not really neutral.”

“That’s right. The pro-choice perspective takes a position on who and what is a member of the human community, and concludes that fetuses are not included.”

A Preference

What my discussion with this gentleman revealed is something that seems true of a large segment of the public: They do not see abortion as a serious moral wrong. For them, it is what we might call a “mere moral wrong.” Certainly, polls have consistently shown that a vast majority of people see abortion to be wrong, and they often describe it that way, using words like “tragic,” “a difficult dilemma,” “something I would never do,” and “a horrible choice.”

As David Reardon has pointed out, “nearly 80 percent of the public will now admit that abortion involves the destruction of a human life, even though many in this group still believe abortion should be legal. In fact, studies show that at least 70 percent of aborting women believe what they are doing is morally wrong or at least deviant behavior.”1

Nevertheless, both in practice and in their public discourse, many treat abortion as a question of personal preference, something they do not do for behaviors they consider serious moral wrongs, such as spousal abuse, child molesting, torture, and slavery. A recent study found that over two-thirds of those surveyed “say that, regardless of their own feelings on the subject, the highly personal decision to obtain an abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor. Even more striking, while 57 percent of respondents say they consider abortion to be murder, more than half of that group agree that a woman should have the right to choose an abortion.”2

Imagine the public’s reaction to a politician who said “I am personally opposed to owning a slave and torturing my spouse, but it would be wrong for me to try to force my personal beliefs on someone who felt it consistent with his deeply held beliefs to engage in such behaviors.” He would be considered a moral monster. Yet such language is perfectly acceptable when discussing abortion: “I am personally opposed to abortion, but it would be wrong for me to try to force my personal beliefs on someone who felt it consistent with her deeply held beliefs to have an abortion.” Indeed, this is the position one is expected to take in public discourse.

Even though the vast majority of Americans see abortion to be morally wrong and believe that it is the taking of a human life, many in that majority do not consider it a serious moral wrong (i.e., unjustified homicide). Until the American populace judges abortion to be a serious moral wrong rather than a mere moral wrong, their opinion on the legal status of abortion will not likely shift in a pro-life direction.

Two Strategies

The traditional rhetorical strategy of the pro-life movement has nevertheless been to insist that abortion is a serious moral wrong. Since its genesis in the mid-1960s, the movement against “abortion rights” has made its case in the public square and in the courts by emphasizing the humanity of the fetus. Its leaders, both popular and academic, have maintained that if the fetus is a member of the human community, then he has all the same rights as all other members of the human community and is owed the same moral obligations.

In order to establish that the unborn child is indeed a member of the human community, pro-lifers have made a case for his humanity, arguing that the insights of science, combined with philosophical reflection, lead inexorably to the conclusion that the fetus is a human person. They then argue that our laws ought to reflect that conclusion by protecting the fetus from unjust harm, which would include the prohibition of all or almost all abortions.

In the last ten years, however, some pro-life leaders have disputed this strategy.3 They maintain that since the vast majority of the American populace accept the humanity of the fetus and the immorality of abortion—whether they describe themselves as pro-life, pro-choice, or somewhere in between—the pro-life movement must change its rhetorical strategy. Instead of merely calling for society to fulfill its moral obligation to protect unborn persons, it should stress the alleged harm abortion does to women and offer to meet the material and spiritual needs of the pregnant woman who sees abortion as an evil, though necessary, alternative.

This shift, it is argued, will result not only in making abortion rare, but also in making American culture more pro-life, without directly addressing the question of whether abortion is a serious moral wrong. David Reardon has argued that the pro-life movement must “always—always—place our arguments for the unborn in the middle of a pro-woman sandwich. Our compassion for women must be voiced first and last in all our arguments, and in a manner which shows that our concern for women is a primary and integral part of our opposition to abortion.”4

I will argue that this new rhetorical strategy, or NRS, is flawed in at least three ways: (1) its supporters over-confidently interpret the public’s “moral” condemnation of abortion as consistent with objective morality and a pro-life view of the fetus; (2) it rests on a questionable interpretation of social science data; and (3) it may nurture and sustain the moral presuppositions that allow for abortion.

None of my comments should be interpreted as a discouragement or criticism of the works of mercy performed by those intending to ease the burden of women with unplanned pregnancies. These works should be commended and encouraged. My concern in this essay is with the idea that such works replace, rather than merely supplement, moral argument.

Limited Condemnation

First, let us look at the NRS’s interpretation of the public’s “moral” condemnation of abortion. Frederica Mathewes-Green, a proponent of NRS, has argued:

Pro-lifers will not be able to break through this deadlock by stressing the humanity of the unborn. . . . [T]hat is a question nobody is asking. But there is a question they are asking. It is, “How could we live without it?” The problem is not moral but practical: in this wrecked, off-center world, where women are expected simultaneously to be sexually available and to maintain careers, unplanned pregnancies seem both inevitable and catastrophic.5

But if she is correct about people’s view of the fetus, then far from demonstrating her point, she has shown us that those who support abortion rights and yet concede the full humanity of the fetus and the moral wrongness of abortion are either sociopaths (i.e., they willingly and without conscience permit and sometimes engage in what they know to be a serious moral wrong), are morally untutored (i.e., the pro-life movement has not carefully explained the logic of conceding the full humanity of the fetus), or do not really appreciate the logical problem of asserting that one has a moral right (i.e., abortion is morally permissible) to do a moral wrong (i.e., abortion is morally impermissible).

But this is as far away from a practical problem as one could imagine. A practical problem is something like: “How can we make ends meet on only one paycheck?” A practical problem is not: “If only society’s expectations were changed, I would not have to kill my unborn offspring.” This is a deeply moral problem, and the way people answer it reveals something about their character.

A study commissioned by the Caring Foundation, a pro-life group that produces television spots that try to address the concerns of pregnant women, “suggests that women do not see any ‘good’ resulting from unplanned pregnancy. Instead they must weigh what they perceive as three ‘evils,’ namely, motherhood, adoption, and abortion,” wrote NRS defender Paul Swope.6 Relying on that study, he argued that:

When a woman faces an unplanned pregnancy, her main question is not “Is this a baby?”—with the assumed consequence that if she knows it to be so she will choose life. Women know, though often at the subconscious level, that the fetus is human, and that it will be killed by abortion. But that is the price a woman in that situation is willing to pay in her desperate struggle for what she believes to be her very survival. Emphasis on babies, whether dismembered fetuses or happy newborns, will tend to deepen the woman’s sense of denial, isolation, and despair, the very emotions that will lead her to choose abortion.

Her central, perhaps subconscious, question is rather, “How can I preserve my own life?” The pro-life movement must address her side of the equation, and do so in a compassionate manner that affirms her own inner convictions. Without stigmatizing or condemning, pro-lifers must help a woman to reevaluate what she perceives as the three “evils” before her.7

But consider this: All that Swope says about women considering abortion can also be said of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who, in an attempt to please a boyfriend who did not want children, plunged her car into a lake with her two young boys buckled inside. Perhaps she is now reflecting in prison: “That is the price in that situation I was willing to pay in my desperate struggle for what I believed to be my very survival.”

If one were to apply Swope’s analysis to infanticide, one would have to conclude that if there were less condemning and stigmatizing of parents who kill their infants, there would be fewer Susan Smiths. However, if Swope is mistaken about what women contemplating abortion think of the moral status of their fetuses, then there is no analogy. But Swope’s inference is hastily drawn, for he does not entertain the possibility that the reason these women choose to kill only their fetuses and not their already born children suggests that he and Mathewes-Green are mistaken about “the question nobody is asking.”

After all, if the pregnant woman thought of herself as a mother while contemplating pregnancy termination, rather than seeing motherhood as she sees adoption or abortion (which Swope himself admits is the case), as a state of affairs that may or may not occur in the future, perhaps abortions would be as rare as Susan Smith-type occurrences. But they are not. Thus, it seems reasonable to infer that NRS supporters are mistaken. That is to say, pregnant women seeking abortions generally do not see their fetuses on the same moral plane as they see either themselves or their already born children.

Questionable Interpretations

The second flaw in the NRS is its questionable interpretation of the data from the social sciences. One can question whether the research done by NRS proponents is good social science, and whether the inferences they draw from these data are warranted.

In her Real Choices Project, Mathewes-Green set out to discover the practical reasons women had abortions. Using these findings, she believes, pro-lifers can then try to meet the needs of women in crisis pregnancies so that the number of abortions can be reduced. The project collected its data from post-abortion listening groups, as well as a survey distributed to 1,860 pro-life pregnancy centers. Pro-choice groups were invited but declined to participate. Only 10 percent of the surveys were completed and returned.8

It is doubtful whether such a study will result in accurate information about most women who have abortions, for two reasons. First, the surveys were distributed to pro-life pregnancy centers, institutions whose clients may not be representative of all women who receive abortions. Second, the women who attended the listening groups were likely more hurt and more highly motivated to share their experiences than those women who had abortions but chose not to attend such groups because they may not have suffered as significantly (or at all) in comparison to the participants.

Swope inferred from the Caring Foundation study that “the pro-life movement’s own self-chosen slogans and educational presentations have tended to exacerbate the problem, as they focus almost exclusively on the unborn child, not the mother. This tends to build resentment, not sympathy, particularly among women of child-bearing age.”9 He appealed to both the data that resulted from this study as well as one of the study’s objectives. Of the latter, he wrote:

One objective of the research was to answer a question that has baffled pro-life activists for some time. How can women, and the public in general, be comfortable with being against abortion personally but in favor of keeping it legal? Because pro-lifers find it morally obvious that one cannot simultaneously hold that “abortion is killing” and “abortion should be legal,” they have tended to assume that people need only be shown more clearly that the fetus is a baby. They assume that if the humanity of the unborn is understood, the consequent moral imperative, “killing a baby is wrong,” will naturally follow, and women will choose life for their unborn children. This orientation has framed much of the argument by pro-lifers for over two decades, with frustratingly little impact.10

Two problems with this objective come to mind. First, the pro-life argument is not that abortion is wrong because it kills a baby, but rather, that abortion is morally wrong because it kills a human person who is not yet a baby—a label we ordinarily assign to newborns, not preborns—but still a fully human person. The term baby is like the terms adolescent and adult. It merely labels a particular stage in human development. If Swope is right about the pro-life argument, the argument itself, ironically, may be the reason it has apparently not worked: Since it is obvious to most people that a fetus is not a baby, a woman seeking an abortion can, thanks to this argument, have the abortion without believing she is killing a bona fide member of the human community.

She likely knows that abortion is killing something, but if she accepts the confused premise of this argument, she knows what is being killed is not yet a baby, because she knows on independent grounds that a fetus is not a baby (just as she knows an infant is not an adult). For the term baby is typically associated with a postnatal human being who is named, cuddled, brought home, and sometimes christened, none of which is experienced by the typical fetus. Thus, in most people’s way of looking at things, a fetus is not a baby.

Pro-Life Impact

Second, it is unclear how Swope knows that the traditional pro-life argument has had little impact. It may be that because of the cultural, legal, and moral conditions in which the pro-life movement has had to work, it has done remarkably well, and its impact has been extraordinary. Perhaps the presence and activism of the pro-life movement has kept certain segments of the public (e.g., Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics) largely pro-life, and for that reason, the movement has a fighting chance to change the minds of people over the next forty to fifty years. Swope does not have counterfactual knowledge of how the world would have been if the pro-life movement had not emphasized fetal humanity from its genesis. Swope cannot, therefore, possibly know what he claims he knows.

Swope cites data that apparently show a shift in abortion attitudes in specific geographical locations throughout the United States after the Caring Foundation’s television ads were broadcast. (These television ads attempted to address the “three evils” cited by Swope by trying to persuade viewers that not having an abortion is in the pregnant woman’s self-interest.) Although an analysis of the accuracy of the data is important, I want to focus on his claim that he can infer from the data that the population surveyed is becoming more pro-life.

Swope speaks throughout his essay about those interviewed as having a “pro-life sentiment,” holding a “pro-life position,” and moving in a “pro-life direction.” Yet, he never defines precisely what these phrases mean and how one could know that someone’s beliefs are consistent with them. Suppose someone provided the following answers to a Caring Foundation pollster inquiring about that person’s moral and legal view of abortion:

1. Abortion is immoral.
2. Abortion should be illegal.
3. The fetus is as much a human person as an ordinary adult or infant.
4. The fetus is human.
5. Abortion is generally not good for women.

One interpretation of these answers is that they express a “pro-life sentiment.” Yet they are all consistent with some version of a non-pro-life viewpoint. As evidence of this, consider the following, in which each of the above statements is coupled with a non-pro-life sentiment (in italics) consistent with the apparent pro-life statement with which it is paired:

1. Abortion is immoral, but it ought to remain legal.
2. Abortion should be illegal, but not because the fetus is a human person, but because it will likely be psychologically harmful to the woman.
3. The fetus is as much a human person as an ordinary adult or infant, but that is my personal religious belief, and it would be wrong for me to force that belief on others.
4. The fetus is human, but not fully human like an ordinary adult or child who has a right to life. Thus, abortion ought to remain legal.
5. Abortion is generally not good for women, but not because the fetus is a full human person, but because the abortion disrupts something that is natural and good for the expectant mother. Even so, abortion should remain legal.

Thus, what Swope interprets as a “pro-life sentiment” may not be pro-life at all, for those giving the answers may be judging abortion as bad or wrong under the assumption that moral judgments are merely personal, relative, and subjective. For example, a traditional moralist (who could as easily be a supporter of abortion rights as an opponent of them) assumes that when a person says, “X is morally wrong,” he means that “X ought not be done by anyone, including myself.” Yet for the relativist, “X is wrong” may mean “X does not please me” or “X is not something I would do” or “I would prefer that others not do X, but who am I to judge?”

In sum, it is nearly impossible for one to interpret a person’s answers as consistent with a “pro-life sentiment” unless one knows the person’s background beliefs (e.g., is she a moral relativist?), worldview commitments (e.g., does she believe that all human beings are persons, or that some have more personhood than others?), and/or level of ethical sophistication (i.e., does she really know what it means to say something is morally wrong? That is, does she understand the logic of morals and apply it consistently?).

Three General Problems

Further, there are three general problems with the defense of NRS. First, perhaps that approach seems to bring out apparent pro-life sentiments in the populations Swope studies because the pro-life movement’s historical emphasis on fetal humanity has made its message much easier to receive. Thus, the impact of the Caring Foundation’s ads may be largely due to a culture’s having heard in other venues what he thinks has had virtually no impact.

Second, even if the NRS’s approach reduces the number of abortions, it does not follow that the culture is becoming more accepting of the pro-life perspective. Although an appeal to self-interest may persuade some women not to have abortions, the choice not to abort for this reason is not the same as a moral conversion and intellectual assent to the pro-life perspective. If a nineteenth-century American slave-owner chose to free his kidnapped Africans because he was persuaded to believe that it was not in his self-interest to continue owning them, such an act, though good insofar as sparing the slaves a tremendous indignity, would not be equivalent to his being converted to the belief that no person by nature is property and thus ought not to be owned by another.

It would be, in other words, wrong to conclude on the basis of the slave-owner’s act of liberation that he had become a converted abolitionist. The case is the same with a woman who decides that having an abortion is not in her best interest. Since the pro-life position is based on the belief that fetuses are full members of the human community and ought not to be killed by anyone without justification, being persuaded not to have an abortion is not the same as moral conversion and intellectual assent to the pro-life perspective.

Third, Swope and other supporters of NRS admit that women who have abortions often rationalize what they are doing. Given that, how can they trust these women to give an adequate self-assessment of their own reasons for having an abortion, when these proponents of NRS admit that these reasons are the result of the rationalized deliberations of self-interested moral agents?

It seems, then, that the findings of social science, without the resources of moral philosophy, are not an adequate ground on which to base the pro-life cause. At the end of the day, it is probably the case that the proponents of NRS are mistaken about the public’s opinion of the fetus. It is likely that many people think like the man with whom I dialogued: They believe the fetus is human, but not fully human; they see abortion as a moral wrong, but not as a serious moral wrong.

Ironically, the data cited by Swope, Reardon, and Mathewes-Green seem to indicate this as well: A majority of Americans believe that abortion is killing as well as morally wrong, yet they believe it should be legal. But this does not tell us whether Americans believe abortion is a serious moral wrong. After all, many people may think that killing and eating one’s pet kitten is morally wrong, but do not believe it should be illegal.

The Third Flaw

This brings us to the third flaw of the NRS: that it may nurture moral presuppositions that allow for abortions. Its emphasis on appealing to the pregnant woman’s self-interest to persuade her not to have an abortion may result in nurturing and sustaining a philosophical mindset that is consistent with abortion’s moral permissibility, even if abortion may actually become rarer in practice. According to Swope:

Using language and imagery that will attract rather than alienate, the pro-life movement must show that abortion is actually not in a woman’s own self-interest, and that the choice of life offers hope and a positive expanded sense of self.11

There are clearly some cases where abortion may be in the pregnant woman’s self-interest. Given his emphasis on self-interest, Swope has no principled argument against that sort of abortion. Nurturing an apparently unprincipled self-interested populace does not seem consistent with what pro-life activists would conceive as a pro-life culture, even if it resulted in fewer abortions.

After all, Swope and his allies admit that what is doing much of the moral work in the minds of women contemplating abortion is self-interest. In other words, even if NRS results in reducing the number of abortions, it may have the unfortunate consequence of sustaining and perhaps increasing the number of people who think that unless their needs are pacified, they are perfectly justified in performing homicide on other members of the human community.

Given that admission, it is not clear why they see that as a character trait to massage rather than as an impulse that needs to be disciplined by the exercise of moral judgment. Since the pro-life position affirms that one ought not to have an abortion in virtually every circumstance even if you judge it to be in your self-interest, it seems counter-intuitive for the defenders of NRS to want to provide a cultural environment hospitable to the moral primacy of self-interest.

Two Things to Accomplish

If I am right about the new rhetorical strategy, the pro-life movement must accomplish two things to change the culture in its direction. First, it must persuade its fellow citizens that fetuses are full members of the human community. Second, it must show that if fetuses are human persons, one cannot be pro-choice on abortion, just as one cannot be pro-choice on slavery and at the same time maintain that slaves are human persons. In other words, the pro-life movement must convince the vast majority of the public that abortion is a serious moral wrong and not a mere moral wrong.

There are a number of possible reasons why, during the past thirty years, the pro-life case has not been disseminated as widely and deeply as the pro-life movement hoped. Let me offer three.

First, the pro-choice side has controlled the language of the debate. This is not surprising since the label “pro-choice” resonates with an American public that puts a premium on personal liberty, religious freedom, and the right to privacy.

Second, because the pro-choice way of looking at things has controlled how the abortion debate is conducted, many people are shamed into thinking that if they call for the criminalization of abortion, they are “forcing their morality on others,” as well as violating other people’s personal liberty, religious freedom, and right to privacy—even though, as we have seen, for the state to permit abortion is to institutionalize in our laws a particular and partisan view of human personhood. In other words, all citizens, regardless of where they stand on fetal personhood, must honor that perspective by restraining themselves from interfering with other citizens who choose to exercise their legal right to terminate the lives of the fetuses that occupy their wombs.

And third, some citizens, like the man with whom I dialogued, believe abortion is a moral wrong but not a serious moral wrong. Many of them also mistakenly believe that the government currently takes a neutral position on abortion.

NRS supporters seem to be saying that the only way to persuade the general public that abortion is a serious moral wrong is for the pro-life movement to show that many women suffer—psychologically, physically, or both—as the result of choosing abortion, and that pro-lifers deeply care about these women. Such a strategy may very well result in fewer abortions, but it is not clear that it will result in the cultural change of mind, the intellectual assent and moral conversion, that pro-lifers desire, or in the cultural change of mind needed if the laws on abortion are ever to be changed.

After all, from a strictly moral point of view, abortion is not a serious moral wrong just because the woman suffers and/or because it is not in her self-interest to have an abortion. For many abortions do not result in gratuitous suffering or harm to the women who have them, and no pro-lifer would want to say that those abortions are morally benign. In addition, doing good may require that one suffer more than if one did either evil or no good at all.

That is, suffering may or may not accompany the committing of a serious moral wrong, and sometimes suffering accompanies that which is morally obligatory or permissible or has no moral aspect whatsoever. It seems, therefore, that the proponents of NRS confuse “feeling good” with “being good.”    

For the scholarly version of this essay, with more extensive notes, see


1. David C. Reardon, Making Abortion Rare: A Healing Strategy for a Divided Nation (Acorn Books, 1996) p. ix. He seems to have taken these figures from two polls, reported on page 188 of his book: (1) a 1990 Gallup Poll that found that “77% of the public believe abortion is the taking of a human life, with 49% equating it with murder. Only 16% claim to believe that abortion is only a ‘surgical procedure for removing human tissue.’ Even one-third of those who describe themselves as strongly pro-choice concede that abortion is the taking a human life.” (2) A 1989 Los Angeles Times poll “that found that 65% of those who favor legalized abortion and 74% of those who have had an abortion, believe abortion is morally wrong.”

2. Alissa J. Rubin, “Americans Narrowing Support for Abortion,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2000.

3. For example, see Paul Swope, “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate,” First Things 82 (April 1998); Frederica Mathewes-Green, Real Choices: Offering Practical, Life-Affirming Alternatives to Abortion (Multnomah, 1994); and Reardon’s Making Abortion Rare.

4. Reardon, op cit., p. 26.

5. Real Choices, p. 32.

6. “Abortion,” p. 32.

7. Ibid., p. 33.

8. Real Choices, pp. 11–26.

9. “Abortion,” p. 33.

10. Ibid., pp. 31–32.

11. Ibid., p. 35.


A Serious Moral Issue

A Response to Francis J. Beckwith

by Terry Schlossberg

Even on a practical level, it is odd to see the emergence of such a narrowly focused strategy in the last ten years, at a time when the issues of moral decisions about human life are expanding so rapidly. We are no longer facing a situation limited to women making decisions about the future of their children. We are now debating cloning and use of embryos for research. Those are human lives that cannot be touched by the new rhetorical strategy. Neither is NRS a strategy for intervening in decisions about ending the lives of the infirm and elderly. It would seem to require different sets of incentives for each manifestation of the problem. In practical terms alone, NRS is impractical.

More important, NRS sounds like the utopian solution proposed by some of the most forceful adherents of abortion rights. Back in the 1980s, the mainline Presbyterian Church, of which I am a member, called for dialogues on abortion. I spoke in a number of those dialogues around the country. An argument I heard repeatedly was that abortion is a necessary evil in a fallen world. The speaker typically would say that she looks to the day when we will have so successfully addressed the situations that make abortion a necessary choice that women no longer choose it. Until then, she would say, we are sadly thankful for the option.

Of course, the implication is that any time the situation is not adequately altered, abortion resumes its status as a better choice. I suspect this is what Professor Beckwith means when he wonders if NRS simply reinforces the moral presuppositions that allow for abortion.

A Tempting Strategy

The NRS offer of nonjudgmental help is a tempting strategy in an age characterized by tolerance. But it leaves the conscience unattended. The law written on our hearts as well as in the Book has already made a judgment against killing the innocent. Unless we address the morality of the matter, we conspire with the culture to deaden the conscience that God gave women as a help against sinning. Author J. Budziszewski quotes a woman who said something like, “If abortion is such a good thing, why do I feel so bad?” Even in a culture that has tried to transform evil into good, conscience may rise up and surprise women. Our task surely must include efforts to enliven the conscience that so much of our society’s message seeks to repress.

The ministry to women ought to be gentle and loving, but because it deals with moral decisions, it cannot be nonjudgmental. Our strategy ought to be to offer them tangible and practical help, but it ought also to address the rightness and wrongness of the choices available—to present the morality that challenges the assumption that the options open to them are all equally bad. We need to protect mothers from taking the lives of their own children. And the mothers who have sinned need our care to lead them gently to repentance and restoration.

Professor Beckwith suggests that we have not yet fully met the challenge before us of persuading the vast majority in our society that abortion is a “serious moral wrong.” He argues that this is because we do not give an unborn child the status of a born baby. Bioethicist Nigel Cameron—recognizing the broader challenges that extend from society’s regard for embryos to its regard for the elderly and infirm—says that the most critical challenge for the pro-life movement in our time is to convey the meaning and worth of the human being. This is ground we have yet to cover in moving from “mere” to “serious” moral wrong.

While the public debate goes on, there may be some simple, homely steps we can take to alter perceptions so that they better reflect the reality of the worth of the unborn human being.

I have a pastor friend who notes that the Church tends to reinforce birth as the demarcation for meaningful human life. For example, babies who die in utero usually are treated very differently from babies who die after birth. My pastor friend has begun working with a nearby hospital to provide a memorial service for families who grieve the loss of their babies who die before birth. A local funeral home is providing tiny caskets and burial plots free of charge. It’s a small but significant step in recognizing the value of those little human beings and that they are members of a family.

It’s not just in death that we need to acknowledge the value of a human life. We have a tradition in our society of giving showers for women and couples during pregnancy. Perhaps we need to transform these showers into celebrations of the gift that the new human being is to the whole community. Some couples are starting their baby books during pregnancy with the new high-tech ultrasound pictures. That may help them and their communities to see that they are mother and father already.

Professor Beckwith notes that what may have the appearance of failure in our strategy might only be evidence that we are pulling a heavy moral load uphill against the opposition of the most powerful institutions of our society. How many times have the representatives of those institutions told us that the abortion issue has finally been settled? But this has been an unsettled issue since 1973, and there is evidence that the institutional position is losing ground. Only recently even so prominent a figure as former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton openly bemoaned the support for the pro-life position expressed in responses to her own survey. Ultimately settling this question lies in recognizing every human being as neighbor, and that is a moral settlement.

A Crucial Insight

A Response to Francis J. Beckwith

by David Mills

In “Choice Words,” Dr. Beckwith rightly treats the matter of pro-life strategy as a rhetorical question. Many people dismiss rhetoric as “just rhetoric,” which means either words piled up for no reason or words used to deceive. The world is filled with flowery writers and dishonest writers, but the discipline, properly understood, is the attempt to figure out how best to speak the truth and how to make sure other people hear it.

Some naturally emphasize one problem, some the other, and the choice can divide people who agree on the truth they’re trying to articulate. The difference is not a difference between the principled and the compromising (as one side sometimes claims) or between the purist and the practical (as the other side sometimes claims). The two disagree on how to make principle practical without its ceasing to be principle.

Take Dr. Beckwith and our contributing editor Frederica Mathewes-Green, for example. (I am writing this before reading her or Mrs. Schlossberg’s response, by the way.) I feel the pull of Mrs. Mathewes-Green’s argument, especially when listening to people who assert their principles as if the words by themselves would change hearts and minds. There is something to the pro-choicers’ stereotypes, though hearing abortion profiteers say that others “don’t care about women” is a bit stomach-turning. (The profiteers include not only those who make money from doing abortions, but also those who win votes and those who advance their ideology from supporting it.)

As she has noted in many of her writings, we are speaking to people whose minds have been so shaped by a sexualized culture that the worst they can think of abortion is that it is a “tragic necessity,” and many cannot see even that. They cannot see that the unborn child is a human being like themselves. They have fixed in their minds an idea of the individual and her rights that prevents them from seeing abortion as a moral matter. And they have provided for themselves a satisfying mythology of “back-room abortions” and pregnant rape victims that makes their position emotionally and politically satisfying.

How do we reach such people? How do we convince one of them who finds herself pregnant, or finds his wife or girlfriend pregnant, not to solve the problem by eliminating the child? And how do we get a hearing for the pro-life position in a pro-choice culture? This is the problem, the very real problem, the new rhetorical strategy tries to solve, and it seems to have done so with some real success.

As I say, I feel the pull of Mrs. Mathewes-Green’s arguments, but at the end of the day I agree with Beckwith. It is a matter of our ultimate goal or end. Saving the lives of unborn children is a great thing, and getting pro-choice media to let pro-life voices be heard is a very good thing, but our ultimate end is changing—converting—the hearts and minds of the people I’ve just described, and I think Beckwith is right that the NRS tends to confirm them in the pro-choice mind. This I thought his crucial insight, and one he might have emphasized.

Pragmatist Argument

In appealing to women’s practical needs, and arguing not that abortion is wrong but that it is bad for you, the NRS makes the matter a pragmatic one. Abortion is not a matter of truth and falsehood, of the end of man, of heaven and hell and the individual’s final destination, but a matter of what works for you here and now. And this way of looking at it comes from the pro-life people themselves, which will make those who notice such things more secure in their pragmatism.

In other words, when the NRS works to save a baby, it still leaves the mother where she was, intellectually and morally. If it helps keep people talking about ways to limit the number of abortions, it helps establish the power of the pragmatic mind more deeply. It encourages everyone in thinking that this is the way the world is.

I think this too high a cost to pay. I know this sounds callous to say, when the choice of the traditional moral assertion may not keep from the abortuary a mother who would have kept her baby had she heard the NRS message instead. But I think in the long run only the conversion of hearts and minds will save unborn lives, and that to encourage the pragmatic mind will cost more lives.

Perhaps the difference between the advocates of the NRS and people like Dr. Beckwith and me is that they want to change minds and I (and I assume Dr. Beckwith) do not think that enough. I used the word conversion because the abortionist’s mind does not need changing but that wrenching, world-shifting reversal of vision and change of heart we call conversion, which itself requires repentance.

I may well be unfair to the advocates of the NRS, but it seems to me that they think the pragmatist has only to change his mind about abortion, as he might change his mind about a car or a congressman. I think he has to change his view of the cosmos and his own place in it. He has to shift paradigms, worldviews, imaginations, and take up one that at first glance gives fewer pleasures and adds greater burdens. His heart must change.

And hearts only change when faced with first principles, principles that by definition force the heart to choose, not with appeals to self-interest. Because the sloganeers are right, in a way. As J. Budziszewski has written in his book What We Can’t Not Know, there are truths we cannot help knowing, though we can force ourselves to forget them. (His essay in the September 2003 Touchstone showed what happens to us when we forget them, and it is not a pretty picture.)

One of these is that abortion is murder. We want a culture in which unborn children survive to birth, but we need one in which they survive not because people think abortion is painful, but because they know it is wrong.

Doing Everything We Can

A Response to Francis J. Beckwith

by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The “new rhetorical strategy” that Francis Beckwith critiques is getting up in years. My first book, Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion, was written in 1993. The Caring Foundation’s first ads appeared in the mid-nineties, as did Paul Swopes’s essay in First Things describing the results of their research. David Reardon’s book Aborted Women: Silent No More appeared in 1987.

Beckwith might have mentioned as well Dr. Jack Willke’s early-nineties project to develop a concise response to the other side’s “Who decides?” rhetoric (you may have seen “Love them both” placards) and the trend of pregnancy care centers to shift focus, changing from storefronts that discourage abortion to full-fledged medical clinics or professional counseling centers. The so-called “new” rhetorical strategies (for there are more than one) have been around for over a decade. No one yet, to my knowledge, has evaluated their success, though that would be a useful service; we’re still in the middle of this fight.

How it happened was this: Pro-life leaders noticed that the primary message of the previous couple of decades, our insistence on the unborn child’s full humanity and right to life, was no longer gaining ground. We had honed this message and it was ubiquitous and consistent, and we personally found it unassailable. Yet we were increasingly encountering people capable of dismissing it. Perhaps all the people susceptible to it had already been reached and converted. For the remainder, whom we termed “the mushy middle,” it was falling on deaf ears. We didn’t know why.

This was a chilling realization. As Beckwith notes, there is a clarion logic to the simple statements that the unborn is fully human and that the law should protect its life. Yet we kept encountering people who were capable of dismissing that logic, no matter how simply or forcefully it was presented. (In a conversation with an old college friend I concluded some pro-life sentiments with “After all, it’s simple logic.” She responded sadly, “I never thought you, of all people, would resort to logic.”)

This disregard for logic meant, disturbingly, that some people—perhaps a lot of people—had lost the capacity for moral reasoning. They could agree that the unborn is a living human baby, and yet shrug off the conclusion that it should not be killed. That they were not troubled by this inconsistency troubled us a great deal.

Direct-to-Client Approaches

One option might have been to back off from pressing the pro-life cause and undertake a broader national effort in remedial moral education. But most of us decided instead to attempt to get around this surprising roadblock by other means. We diversified, each person and group trying out strategies as they occurred to them. Some, of course, would continue to present the “It’s a baby and it deserves protection” message. This is the backbone of the pro-life movement and our final motivation, and we aren’t about to abandon it.

But others looked at subsets of the pro-choice population and began crafting ways to reach them. We didn’t all set out in the same direction. The pro-life movement is diverse, and it’s a good thing, because our target audiences are too.

An urgent category to be reached, of course, was women who were inclined to choose abortion. Pregnancy care services expanded dramatically during this decade in an attempt to reach the “abortion-vulnerable” woman in creative new ways.

Others looked at statistics indicating that nearly half of all women seeking abortion had had a previous abortion. They went to work devising post-abortion grief programs, so that the cycle would not have to be repeated.

Yet others agreed with pro-choicers that prevention is better than cure. While our opponents sought to prevent pregnancy with contraception, pro-lifers developed abstinence education and support programs. These three direct-to-client approaches—pregnancy care, post-abortion counseling, and abstinence education—are no doubt the most effective things pro-lifers have done to prevent abortion in the last decade, though they don’t represent a rhetorical message.

Others, myself included, began trying to identify the mysterious mental roadblocks that were preventing hearers from receiving our simple logic. I came to see that the average “muddled” person, the person on the receiving end of rhetoric from both sides, thought of this as a fight between the mother and the child. He pictured it as a seesaw in which the mother wins to the extent the child loses, and vice versa.

It’s not surprising that he should think this; it’s the way both sides had been presenting the issue for decades. It was one of the rare things pro-choice and pro-life agreed on. Baby’s rights! Women’s rights! Round one, and come out swinging!

The Pro-Choice Problem

Now, coincidentally, our pro-choice friends were facing a similar problem. Their original message had been “Abortion liberates women”—abortion makes her autonomous and strong. This assertion didn’t stand up to reality, as women came out of abortion clinics grieving, and went in coerced. (Two women in Real Choices told me of lying on the clinic table praying that the baby’s father would burst in the door saying, “Stop, I changed my mind.”)

It’s rare now to hear a pro-choicer speak of abortion as liberating. Instead, in a brilliant stroke, they hung a lantern on their biggest problem—that abortion was a painful rather than exhilarating experience—and urged America to “Let the woman decide.” The poor dear is suffering enough, can’t you just leave her alone?

This is exactly what Mr. Muddle was longing for. He pictured the futility of getting involved in that complicated situation; if it was agonizing for the woman to decide, how could he possibly know what was the right thing to do? It was great if she wanted to make this big sacrifice for her child, but it wasn’t his place to tell her she had to. The best he could do was close the door quietly and let her figure it out for herself. Of course, pro-choice rhetoric was ranting that he had no right to an opinion anyway. “Just walk away” was a very appealing invitation, conforming exactly to his inclinations.

I came to the conclusion that we had to find a way to call him back to thinking about the situation again, though it was very much not his desire to do so. I suspected that there were three points of vulnerability. First, he had the illusion that abortion was somehow a humane procedure, like putting a dog to sleep, an illusion that sweet photos of unborn babies did nothing to dispel.

So I emphasized the violence of abortion. No one wants to think of himself as promoting violence. Everyone wants to think of himself as supporting wise, compassionate solutions to social problems, even if they are difficult and costly. So I described the grisly procedures (always in sorrow, not anger, to draw listeners in), and left them to face themselves in the mirror.

Now, Mr. Muddle at this point might be thinking, “Aw, too bad for the little tyke, but it must be what his desperate mommy needs to do.” So then I had to demolish the assumption that abortion means babies lose while women win. I demonstrated that abortion hurts women in numerous ways, both physical and emotional. Abortion helps nobody; it wounds women and children alike. With this second step I took away the comforting illusion that abortion has an up side.

At this point Mr. Muddle is trying to picture, with some anxiety, what would happen if we didn’t have abortion readily available anymore. Truth is, he thinks it might be useful one day for himself or for a friend or relative. Abortion has become a firmly fixed part of the cultural machine. It keeps women sexually available and on the job, without the complications and expense of children. How could we get along without it?

If he wanted to stop thinking about abortion before, he really wants to stop now. The idea of dismantling the abortion component of our society looks utterly overwhelming. That is when I introduce the third point, that it is possible to live without it, and show how this can be done and is already being done. In my experience, this practical, rather than moral, objection to the pro-life position is the hardest to overcome. The most common statement I’d hear after a speech was, “I’m pro-choice, but I agree with everything you said. Still, we can’t live without it.”

Rhetoric for Crisis

That’s my “new rhetorical strategy,” and it was based on my own attempts to analyze the present problem and figure a way around it. Others devised parallel approaches, and addressed different segments of society. (I was mostly speaking on college campuses and in secular media, which is why I never brought in God-talk; for these audiences, it was immediate grounds for mental dismissal.)

I am pleased with the results I saw, but have no resentment toward others who used different techniques and saw success in their arenas. In a time of crisis, everyone should do everything he can, and by trial and error we will discover what works.

The thing I can’t figure out about Beckwith’s essay is what he is proposing to do. He writes: “First, it must persuade its fellow citizens that fetuses are full members of the human community. Second, it must show that if fetuses are human persons, one cannot be pro-choice on abortion and at the same time maintain that fetuses are fully human, just as one cannot be pro-choice on slavery and at the same time maintain that slaves are human persons. In other words, the pro-life movement must convince the vast majority of the public that abortion is a serious moral wrong and not a mere moral wrong.”

To which one can respond only, “Hey, knock yourself out.” Beckwith uses the pronoun “it” here, by which he apparently means the pro-life movement in entirety. He seems to be saying that every pro-lifer must unite behind this program, which is a stretch because we’re a bumptiously varied bunch and have rarely united on anything else. But what the passage means at a minimum is “I” must do this—that Francis Beckwith personally “must” find a way to achieve these three goals in the public square.

So, what’s his plan? It’s unfair to leave us in the dark. The rest of us have been meeting regularly over many years, airing out our ideas, networking, arguing, and praying for each other. We have inspired and challenged each other; we have angered and frustrated each other; we have worked and struggled side-by-side in the kind of ever-shifting environment that only foxhole buddies know.

If somebody has a new idea, he’s welcome to present it to the community and take his lumps, or his roses. It’s unfair of Beckwith to tease us by pointing out the direction he intends to go, without telling us how he plans to get there. Some of us might want to join him.

What to Do?

I am reminded of the passage in The Good Earth in which a white missionary gives to the peasant farmer Wang Lung a religious tract. It shows a crucified man, but Wang Lung is unable to read, so he doesn’t know what it means.

The old rhetorical strategy, I imagine, would be to keep shaking the tract in Wang Lung’s face until he gives up and admits he really can read after all. Alternatively, it could mean that we admit the possibility that he really can’t read (“they do not really appreciate the logical problem”) and establish a new goal: teaching literacy (moral reasoning). At the end of his school years Wang Lung would once again be handed the brochure.

But someone else might say, “Literacy is good, but evangelism is what we came for. You can try to adapt the person to the brochures, but I’m going to adapt my strategy to the person. I’m going to try to figure out another way to reach him.”

It would be bitter for a person who values reading to come to this decision. It is bitter—more, it is alarming—to realize that our fellow citizens and neighbors have fallen so far from the clarity that moral reasoning requires. It is a worthy goal to teach them once again to attend to logic, and this seems to be what Beckwith intends to do. I have no idea how he plans to do this; I try to imagine a billboard campaign or college campus teach-ins, and it sounds like a steep uphill struggle.

But the pro-life movement embraces people who have dreamed up all sorts of things, and I’m sure he’ll be welcomed to the fight. He will be disappointed, however, if he expects everyone else to stop what they’re doing and join him. We have a multitude of callings and a multitude of gifts, but we will certainly wish him well, and rejoice in his success.

In the novel, Wang Lung is confused and frightened by the picture. He discusses it with his sons and father. They think that perhaps the crucified man is a relative of the scary-looking foreigner handing out tracts, and that he is trying to get people to join him in getting vengeance. After awhile, they lose interest in the tract. No one else presents the gospel to them in any other way that they could, perhaps, understand. Wang Lung’s wife folds up the tract and uses it to mend the sole of a shoe.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. His most recent book is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010). His writing can be found at

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a columnist for and a contributor to the Christian Millennial History Project multi-volume series. Her books include At the Corner of East and Now (Putnam), The Illumined Heart (Paraclete Press), and The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paraclete Press). She lives in Linthicum, Maryland, with her husband Fr. Gregory, pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Church. They have three children and three grandchildren.

David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.

Terry Schlossberg is executive director of Presbyterians Pro-Life (, one of the sixteen unofficial renewal groups in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“Choice Words” first appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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