Truth, Deception, and Abortion

There seems to be a disturbing tendency towards misinformation in the pro-life movement. At best, this might be the result of inadequate education about the relevant facts: facts about fertility, conception, contraception, pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, their effects on women, and the effects of law and regulation on abortion practice. At worst, it looks like a systematic willingness to engage in deception, as Libby Anne recounts in her story
How I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement that made the rounds in the blogosphere a couple months ago:

I began to feel that the pro-life movement had no qualms with twisting the scientific evidence if need be, which was confusing because there didn’t seem to be a motive for insisting on the belief that the pill causes abortions if scientific evidence indicated the contrary. I also found that the pro-life movement is not afraid of twisting the evidence when it comes to things like the supposed harmful side effects of abortion, such as depression and breast cancer. Cooking up “scientific facts” in an effort to scare women out of having abortions rather than working to encourage birth control use in an effort to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies seemed extremely backwards, and I became increasingly troubled by the way the pro-life movement treated science and their constant willingness to play fast and lose with the facts.

Libby Anne came from the evangelical wing of the pro-life movement, but I have seen similar misinformation propagated by the Roman Catholic wing thereof, in the form of little factoids printed in a church bulletin that I knew to be scientifically incorrect, as well as some of the material associated with the Fortnight of Freedom campaign.

Willingness to engage in deception seems also to be present in the efforts by the Roman Catholic archdiocesan efforts to fight against a Maryland law that would require certain crisis pregnancy centers to post signs in their waiting rooms clearly stating that the centers do not employ licensed medical personnel. I’m hard pressed to think of any reason to resist such signage other than a desire to take advantage of any possible confusion on the part of women who might not understand the difference between a crisis pregnancy center and a medical center. Otherwise, you’d think there would be big banners proclaiming “No Abortions Here!” and “Having a crisis pregnancy and don’t want to consider abortion? We’re here for you.”

Deceptive tactics are arguably morally justified when they are intended to prevent a moral wrong. The example given in my Moral Theology 101 class was as follows:

Suppose my teenage daughter is upstairs in her room one evening when the doorbell wrings. Answering it, I find that it is her ex-boyfriend, who is drunk, furious, and carrying a gun. He demands “Let me in, I want to have a little conversation with your daughter.”

I tell him, “She’s not here,” and shut the door in his face. I am morally justified in doing so because, as he is clearly intending to do her harm, he is not entitled to the truth.

It could be argued that women seeking abortions are clearly intending to do harm to their unborn children, and are therefore not entitled to the truth.

Aside from the question of whether and when a zygote/embryo/fetus becomes an unborn child, invoking this argument also treats all pregnant women considering abortion as morally equivalent to an angry person carrying a gun intending to shoot someone. But it’s worse than that, really, because the deception doesn’t concern the whereabouts of a particular individual or anything else that is specific to the particular woman considering abortion. In this case, the deception applies to the general body of information about fertility, conception, contraception, pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, and its effects on women’s health. Deliberately propagating misinformation about these topics for this reason would be equivalent to deliberately propagating misinformation about the details and dangers of explosives because would-be terrorists aren’t entitled to the truth. Not only is this unjust towards those who are not would-be terrorists and are entitled to the truth, it is also highly detrimental to the common good in a democracy, which relies on the ability of the citizens, their representatives, and their judicial system to make informed decisions. (Though I’ll admit that there are probably more pregnant women considering abortion per capita than there are would-be terrorists, which might arguably be considered a mitigating factor.)

On the whole, I’m inclined to believe that the misinformation propagated by the Catholic pro-life movement is primarily the result of inadequate education and/or sloppy simplification with regard to the relevant facts, aggravated by a variety of systemic factors. But the Catholic church teaches that God is Truth, and its moral theology is based not only on the special revelation of scripture but also on natural law, which appeals to the general revelation made known through creation; and if the Magisterium wants its teachings on faith and morals to be respected and accepted, then playing fast and loose with matters of scientific fact is not the way to go about it.

Part of the problem is that we lack an adequate theological anthropology of pregnancy. The view that a pregnant woman is a human being who temporarily contains another human being inside her uterus is oversimplistic and inadequate, as indicated by, for example, a recent study suggesting that embryonic DNA crosses the placental barrier.

An adequate theological anthropology of pregnancy must give a comprehensive theological account of the experience of pregnancy, both the scientific facts and the lived experience thereof. It must, first of all, engage with pregnancy in all its physical complexity, including fertilization, the large proportion of fertilizations that don’t result in viable pregnancies, the phenomena of twinning and chimeras, embryonic development, the active contribution of the woman’s body to the development of the fetus, the importance of epigenetic effects, and the physiological state of the pregnant woman and the child she carries as, in some ways, a single organism.

Secondly, it must center the experience of women with pregnancy, in all its forms: wanted and unwanted, planned and unplanned, resulting from rape or consensual intercourse, inside and outside marriage, with and without (various forms of) contraception use and fertility treatments; for women in all states of health and physical risk factors; resulting in live birth (vaginal or caesarean, at term or premature), still birth, miscarriage, medical abortion, surgical abortion, or self-induced abortion; and the aftereffects on the woman of all those options, including whether a resulting live-born child was raised by the mother or given up for adoption.

Obviously, this requires gathering a large amount of scientific and sociological data before one can even begin theological reflection, which is why I was so pleased to find out about the Turnaway Study, a longitudinal study that examines the aftereffects of either receiving, or being denied, an abortion to terminate a pregnancy (H/T Φωσφόρος).

The major aim of the Turnaway Study is to describe the mental health, physical health, and socioeconomic outcomes of receiving an abortion compared to carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. . . . Much of the existing work compares women who obtain abortions with those who continue their pregnancies to term by choice. Such a comparison is inherently biased and paints a distorted picture of life following an elective abortion or pregnancy continuation.

Its results will provide an important contribution to the necessary prerequisites for theological reflection. It will also be an important test, not only of the claims that abortion has negative aftereffects on women, but also of the pro-life movement’s reception of its results.

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7 Responses to Truth, Deception, and Abortion

  1. Chris says:

    To be clear – are you arguing for access to abortion? Or just truth in the discussion?

    Concernring truth – I notice you don’t mention (in a theological blog) whether the fetus in discussion, in your opinion, is a life?

    • I am arguing for truth in the discussion of abortion and all related matters; and also arguing that the truth of these matters is not simple, and requires complex nuanced discussion.

      The form of your second question, for example, is too simple to adequately address the matters at hand. Its two key terms (“a fetus” and “a life”) embrace various shades of meaning which need to be addressed explicitly (and fully informed by the relevant biological facts) in order to get at the truth. This is what I meant by “engaging with pregnancy in all its physical complexity,” above. Framing the discussion in such overly simplistic terms is one of the troubling characteristics of the discourse of the pro-life movement (and, to be fair, of some streams of the pro-choice movement) which tends to obscure, rather than clarify, the truth being pursued.

  2. A brave and well-reasoned post. I look forward to reading more.

  3. Good stuff.

    I, too, am becoming disillusioned with the pro-life movement. An over-simplistic understanding of pregnancy is dehumanizing to women, and doesn’t really help stop abortion.

    That said, though, the belief that the Pill causes abortion is a sincere one, whether or not it’s accurate.

    I was raised in a stream of the pro-life movement which is actually very pro-birth-control, but I became concerned about the Pill when I read the package insert.

    It’s quite possible that my concerns are misguided–I hold them rather loosely, and indeed, you make some quite compelling arguments. But they’re definitely held in good faith, and not the result of any brainwashing.

    • An over-simplistic understanding of pregnancy is dehumanizing to women

      – yes! Thanks for articulating that aspect of it.

      I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone who expresses a concern that the Pill causes abortion is either deceptive or brainwashed. I think this point is especially prone to the failure mode in which people holding different opinions are basing those opinions on different sets of studies, aggravated by different interpretive biases (which perhaps might lead movement leadership to fail due diligence in ascertaining the facts). It’s interesting that your concern was prompted by reading the package insert, which is a genre that is shaped primarily to prevent litigation and is therefore a lot less scientifically useful than it could otherwise be.

      How one thinks about whether the Pill causes abortions is also going to be strongly influenced by one’s understanding of how fertilization occurs. If one thinks that the ovum is entirely passive, then the cartoon-picture is ovum plus sperm inevitably equals fertilization. Thus, if the Pill has a mode in which it does not prevent ovulation, but nevertheless prevents pregnancy, then it “must” be doing so by preventing implantation of the fertilized egg…. until one realizes that the ovum has to undergo certain changes in order to become fertilizable, and if those changes are prevented, then that’s a means by which fertilization can be prevented even if ovulation is not.

      (I’m still really annoyed that I didn’t learn that my simple cartoon-picture of fertilization was wrong until I talked with a friend who was undergoing fertility treatments about what was involved and how they worked. That’s way too random a means of education!)

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