It is an exciting time to be pro-life. The political situation, all the way up to the Supreme Court itself, seems ripe for us to make major strides. Religious members of the movement are embarking on our 40 Days for Life campaign, in which we pray, fast, hold vigil, and perform community outreach, all in service of saving men, women, and children from abortion. We enter this season with words ringing in our ears from Vice President Pence’s speech at the March for Life. “I’ve long believed a society can be judged by how care for our most vulnerable,” he said, echoing the humanitarian sentiments our movement has always centered on. “Life is winning again in America!”
But let us not get too sanguine. We, as pro-lifers, should not assume our mission has gotten simpler. We still live in a world beholden to the logic of abortion. If Roe V. Wade were magically reversed today, the putative right to abortion would still inform our social and moral architecture; men and women would still think of abortion as necessary and structure their lives accordingly. David Mills offered a sober assessment of how much of the abortion regime lies outside federal law. But beyond the power of the institution we oppose, there is another danger: We who defend life must not allow our commitment to the truth to be compromised.
When I speak to my pro-choice friends, I’m often able to find some common ground. They do not necessarily admit that human life has a God-given dignity, but they certainly assign it value—and even assign some value to life in the womb, though they leave this contingent on a mother’s choice. Some of my friends are sympathetic to the pro-life movement’s ideal of a world where mother and child are both offered love and support, a world less subject to the cultural and economic forces that can make motherhood unthinkable for women in unplanned pregnancies. The problem is, they don’t trust the broader pro-life movement’s motives. One friend told me he liked the picture I drew of a holistic ethic of life, but would deride it if he heard a pro-life spokesman share it.
Why are we so distrusted by those who disagree with us on this issue? And how can we earn enough trust to persuade the persuadable and find common cause where possible? One important step would be to make the pro-life movement synonymous with scrupulous, incorruptible honesty.
To be pro-life must mean being pro-truth as well. For we believe America’s current theory and practice of abortion rests on two lies: The lie that the unborn human person has no inherent dignity, and the lie that a right to killing an unborn human can be found in the Constitution’s penumbras and emanations. These two great lies gnaw at the foundations of the legal-medical-cultural edifice. But we cannot salve the wounds of truth by uttering petty lies of our own. We must treat truth, like an unborn child, as an innocent under threat. If we persist in the metaphor of “culture war” to describe the fights over abortion and related issues, then we must wage it as a just culture war, in which virtue is as indispensable as valor, and compassion for our opponents more important than rallying our allies with rhetorical overkill.
I am not talking only about avoiding flagrant fibs. Our responsibility to truth includes a responsibility to use statistics in a conscientious way, without being glib or misleading. Like any savvy debater using data, we should double-check statistics that seem too convenient for our cause, and triple-check any from a partisan source friendly to us.
Crisis pregnancy centers and pro-life women’s health care organizations do a lot of good work helping uninsured women get care. But they sometimes succumb to the temptation to overstate the statistical connection between abortion and clinical depression—rather than simply share stories of real women experiencing post-abortion grief, they exaggerate the pervasiveness of the condition beyond what mental health studies show. There are even anecdotes about centers telling women abortion is linked to breast cancer, a patently wrong claim.
For a subtler example, I observed a pro-lifer argue on social media that the example of Chile shows that, contra common pro-choice predictions, maternal mortality goes down after abortion is outlawed. Somewhat dubious, I searched for the data, which reveals the pro-lifer was right on the facts but offering an unsupported interpretation: The study showed that the maternal mortality rate declined after abortion was prohibited in 1989, but that it had already been declining for more than a decade, probably as a result of rising levels of women’s education. The slope of the decline in maternal mortality “did not appear to be altered by the change in abortion law,” according to the researchers. This is an interesting statistic to discuss, but to claim (as the pro-lifer did) the outlawing of abortion lowered maternal mortality rates is incorrect.
Good-faith but under-informed arguments are not enough. Pragmatically, we must realize that when we exaggerate or use statistics irresponsibly we give ammunition to abortion advocates. On the level of principle, we betray our commitment to undoing the great lies of abortion.
We must, of course, speak the truth about the evils of abortion. But we must do so without self-righteousness, and with compassion for how hard it is for our pro-choice friends and neighbors to change their minds about such a weighty moral question. The abortion industry works hard to gaslight the American people. For the sake of liberals who are (understandably) queasy about defending abortion on its merits, Democratic politicians like to pretend that Planned Parenthood offers mammograms (it doesn’t), that it is a common source of pre-natal care (it’s not), and that abortion represents only 3 percent of its services (the real number is unclear, but far higher—though again, it doesn’t help our cause to inflate it to 94 percent).
When called on these falsehoods, Planned Parenthood denies promulgating them. And in truth, egregious fibs like the spurious mammogram claim mostly stem from wishful thinking on the part of defenders of the abortion giant, rather than from its own publicity materials. So, rather than trying to pin the blame for every abortion lie on Planned Parenthood, we should show misguided people that Cecile Richards said under oath that no Planned Parenthood facility offers mammograms or even has a mammogram machine. Here, at least, Cecile Richards and the pro-life movement agree on a truth. Our debate can move forward once both sides recognize it as fact.
We must remember: The truth is our greatest weapon. We should never fear the truth, since our mission is to defend the voiceless and the vulnerable by unweaving the great lie that their lives are dispensable. The late Michael Novak reminded us of the power we have simply by “living the truth,” confident that in any battle of lies and truth, truth will prevail. He wrote, “We do not ‘have’ the truth, truth owns us, truth possesses us. Truth is far larger and deeper than we are. Truth leads us where it will. It is not ours for mastering.”
So it’s not quite right to say the truth is our greatest weapon. The truth is not a weapon we use. Instead, it is we who should be the weapons Truth wields—in defense of life.
Alexi Sargeant is assistant editor of First Things.