The Dangers of Puritanism in the Pro-Life Movement

Although I am strongly pro-life, I don’t follow the movement closely, so I’ve been puzzled by a barrage of emails, Tweets and Facebook posts that I’ve been paying semi-attention to over the past week about an internal furor over HR 1797: The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. According to the executive summary of the bill:

H.R. 1797 generally prohibits the abortion of unborn children at twenty weeks after fertilization or later, the stage during which a substantial body of medical evidence indicates that they are capable of feeling pain.  The bill provides exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape, or from incest against a minor, as long as such incidents are reported to the appropriate law enforcement or government agency prior to the abortion.  H.R. 1797 also provides an exception when the life of the mother is in danger.  The termination of a pregnancy under the exceptions generally must be done in manner that provides the best opportunity for the unborn child’s survival.

A person who performs or attempts to perform an abortion prohibited under H.R. 1797 will be fined, imprisoned for less than five years, or both.  However, H.R. 1797 prohibits the prosecution of a woman who receives an abortion in violation of the bill.

2013-06-20 Dan Becker
Note to Dan Becker: Ostracizing 80% of the pro-life community probably won’t help anyone’s definition of the pro-life movement.

This seems like a no-brainer pro-life position to me, so I couldn’t tell what all the fuss was about from inside the pro-life movement. Today, however, noted pro-life activist Rebecca Kiessling linked to an open letter by Dan Becker to the pro-life community. I read it, and discovered that the anger comes from a perceived schism within the pro-life movement. According to Dan Becker, the question is whether the pro-life movement is “the bearer of truth concerning the image of God in man or… panderers to political pragmatism?” Given my support of Secular Pro-Life, you can probably imagine that Becker and I do not see eye-to-eye.

The proximate cause of the outrage is two fold. First, the GOP took the bill out of the hands of “pro-life hero” Rep. Trent Franks and gave it to more moderate members to sponsor. Second, they added an exception for rape and incest. In other words: they gave the bill a moderate make-over, and Becker, Kiessling (who was conceived in rape), and others can’t abide it.

What frustrates me is not so much the no-exceptions stance of some in the pro-life movement as much as it is the scorched-earth tactics that go along with it. For example (quoting Becker again):

It has been openly stated within the movement that we need to distance ourselves from the “rape/incest” debate by giving up the argument. This is a total abdication of duty and a grave moral failure that will incur God’s judgment.

The first sentence is a little strong, but it represents a genuine belief on the part of some within the pro-life community, and I sympathize with their sense that they alone will speak for the innocent and voiceless. But the second one? We’re going to start calling down God’s judgment on fellow pro-lifers? I believe that lacks discretion, to put it mildly. Of course, according to Becker, if you allow a rape and incest exception you aren’t really pro-life at all.

So here’s my take: we live in a country where there are nearly 1,000,000 abortions every year and the vast majority (90%+) are for purely elective reasons. Obviously, the greater problem is not abortion after rape, it’s abortion after consensual sex. Not only is this where the greatest loss of life occurs, but it is also where there is greatest moral clarity. Polls show that the pro-life movement has made slow but steady gains in recent decades and has finally reached a point where there are more pro-life people than pro-choice people in this country. Although the numbers swing back and forth from month-to-month, as of May 2013 (according to Gallup) it was pro-choice 45% to pro-life 48%, and pro-life has hit 50% or greater twice since 2009 while pro-choice hasn’t at all since 2008. However, only about 10% of Americans support bans on abortion that do not have exceptions for rape and incest. If you do the math, Becker is claiming that about 80% of the pro-life movement isn’t actually pro-life.

(Frustrating tangent: the perception lags the reality. Most people believe that the country is still predominantly pro-choice even though it isn’t. That’s why Democrats keep talking about pro-life legislation as part of a “war on women”, despite the fact that women are as evenly divided on abortion as the rest of the country. Once perception catches up to reality, that will cease to be a useful rhetorical weapon.)

So: would you rather work with 50% of Americans and have a real shot at reducing 90% of abortions? Or would you rather condemn them to the judgment God and work with the 10% who are truly pro-life and have no real shot at doing anything except further entrench our current laws? To me it looks like a choice between rolling up your sleeves and getting to work on something meaningful or standing on the sidelines and patting yourself on the back for keeping your shoes clean. I’ll go farther and say that as a general rule putting rigid ideology ahead of practical improvement means that you’re a fraud. It reminds me of the lyrics from Thursday’s “Where the Circle Ends”

And so often we don’t struggle to improve conditions
We struggle for the right to say “We improved conditions”

2013-06-20 Rebecca Kiessling
Although I disagree with her stance, I have enormous respect for Rebecca Kiessling’s work. I’m probably not OK in her book, but she’s OK in mine.

This Pharisaical / puritanical obsession is nothing but a form of prideful self-absorption. Call it “holier-than-thou syndrome”, and it’s an infection within the pro-life community. I won’t go so far as to say that they are going to earn the judgment of a wrathful God, but I think a refusal to accommodate ourselves to the reality of the constraints within which we operate as activists (Christian or otherwise) is not a reflection of higher moral standards, but of arrogant refusal to humble ourselves by accepting the limitations of this flawed and broken world and doing our best to make realeffective change within it.

Look, I don’t want to be an anti-puritan puritan. I’m happy to have Becker and Kiessling and others in the movement. Although I do believe that their particular myopia is deeply flawed, who among us doesn’t have flaws? We’re all sinners so that’s a non-issue. I have no desire to shut them up, shout them down, or excommunicate them from the pro-life movement. But I do think that other voices need to moderate their sometimes-shrill cries, and that’s what I’m doing here.

20 thoughts on “The Dangers of Puritanism in the Pro-Life Movement”

  1. I don’t know what you mean about “calling down” the judgment of God. Becker says that our actions will “incur” it. Which basically means that if we do not outlaw abortion in this country regardless of the means of conception, then God will destroy our nation.

    Obviously this isn’t my thinking, but some might draw the parallel to baal worship in Jerusalem. Even when there was only a tiny minority of people who refused to worship the baals, Elijah did not compromise and agree to worship the baals 2% of the time. He remained faithful and refused to give the baals any grown. And it was true of Elijah to say that if Israel did not turn from 100% of its baal worship then it would incur the judgement of God.

    Of course, assumed in that comparison is that exceptions in the case of rape for abortion restrictions are a concession to the “culture of death”.

    Again, I’m with you. If I can eliminate 100% or 98% of baal worship, I’ll go with 100%, but if it’s 98% or 0%, I’ll go with 98%. Just wanted to point out what the phraseology being used means, and why someone might use it, and also why some would refuse compromise at the cost of letting more babies get killed.

  2. Nathaniel, you can have practical higher ground in your position, but I’m not so sure, really, on moral ground. I believe that those who view life as sacred, believe in God, and believe that God tells us life is sacred are loathe to compromise that position simply to avoid displeasing God, even if it’s impractical or unpopular. It’s a difficult choice: stand up for *all* the unborn, or be practical and let some of them go so more can live. Classic moral/ethical dilemma.

  3. Reece-

    I understand the distinction between “calling down” and “incurring”, but in this case I didn’t really think it mattered. Still don’t.


    It’s a difficult choice: stand up for *all* the unborn, or be practical and let some of them go so more can live. Classic moral/ethical dilemma.

    I’ve got to be honest: I don’t see the dilemma. Including the rape provision will mean the bill is passed quickly and has a better chance of being enforced. It in no way prevents us from revisiting the issue later. Excluding it means that support for the bill will drop by about 80% and so means we’ll probably accomplish nothing. Do something now (and maybe more later), or do nothing now. Where’s the conundrum?

    I also think pro-lifers need to realize there is more to the abortion debate then legal statutes. Changing laws is necessary, of course, but it won’t accomplish all we need. Child abuse is illegal, but it is also still a problem. We need to focus on changing hearts and minds.

    One of the biggest impediments to this is the scope of the problem. Trying to convince someone that 1,000,000 innocent children are killed every year just causes their circuits to break. Reducing the scope of the problem (e.g. by eliminating elective abortions) will go a long way towards helping people be more receptive to the pro-life message because they won’t have to get over such a huge emotional and moral shock to the system.

    This is why baby steps aren’t just a compromise, but actually the best way forward.

  4. “This Pharisaical / puritanical obsession…” Huh? The writer is ignorant. Those schools of thought are at OPPOSITE ends of the theological spectrum. ALL abortions are murder and should be treated as such. No true pro-lifer should EVER vote for any legislation that implicitly OKs the murder of some unborn babies by leaving them out of the legislation.

    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Active Facebook Wall

  5. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village. — Like 9:52-56


    Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” — Like 13:1-5

    Calling down vs. telling people they will incur the divine judgment of God

  6. Reece-

    Again, I understand the distinction. And I don’t think it’s really significant in this case because I believe that (in this case) “telling people they will incure the divine judgment of God” is really just shorthand for “claiming God is on my side” which is also the gist of “calling down God’s wrath”.

    Actually calling nations to repentance is serious business, but there was no such call to repentance in this guys post. It was all just “I’m right, and look: God says so.” Sort of like when people quote scientific authority in an argument not because they are relying on the specific content of whomever they are quoting, but just because adding a couple of PhD references gives your rant more heft.

    Anyway, you can provide more examples if you’d like, but I already get it.

  7. John-

    ALL abortions are murder and should be treated as such. No true pro-lifer should EVER vote for any legislation that implicitly OKs the murder of some unborn babies by leaving them out of the legislation.

    Yeah… we’re not going to see eye-to-eye on this one, but I appreciate you providing a real-life example of exactly what I’m criticizing.

    Also, the phrase “no true pro-lifer” is just too good to ignore: No True Scotsman.

  8. So which of the abortions are not murder, Nathaniel. Tell us…. And anyone who thinks it is OK to murder SOME unborn babies is not truly pro-life. You are a moral idiot.

    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Active Facebook Wall

  9. *shrug* Maybe it’s the same thing. I personally believe that God is going to judge this nation to destruction if we do not see a mass repentance for our attitudes of sex, money, and in particular unborn human life. Maybe I was just overly rankled because of that.

  10. >>“This Pharisaical / puritanical obsession…” Huh? The writer is ignorant. Those schools of thought are at OPPOSITE ends of the theological spectrum.<<

    A Puritan believes in doctrinal and liturgical conformity to the Scriptures in the worship of God, free from compromise.

    A Pharisee believes in doctrinal and liturgical conformity to the Hebrew Scriptures in the worship of God, free from compromise.

    That conformity leads the two to very extremely opposite conclusions, to be sure. But while you'll say that no true pro-lifer should ever vote for any legislation that implicitly OKs the murder of some unborn babies — even if that legislation is meant to save 98% of the rest of unborn babies –, the Pharisee would say that no true Messiah would ever pick even a single grain of wheat on the Sabbath, even if his disciples were hungry.

  11. Thanks for summarizing the connection so clearly and concisely, Reece. I see it didn’t go very far with John, but it was a valiant effort (better than I’d been able to mount myself).

  12. To be a false analogy, a thing must first be an analogy.

    Dude, why are you even here? Don’t you have a website for which to be editor, and an active facebook wall, and an AOL email address to check? Or you could get someone with technical know-how to program a bot to just post


    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Active Facebook Wall

    after everything everyone says. It’d leave you free to do other, more meaningful activities.

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