Last week SCOTUS handed down its decision in the Dobbs case and changed the course of American legal, moral, and, well, general history, by striking down Roe v. Wade, ending the nation-wide regime of abortion-on-demand across virtually all nine months of a pregnancy. There was much justified jubilation, as well as frustrated weeping, regret, sorrow, fear, and the full panoply of human emotion that such a movement towards costly justice could be expected to engender from advocates and foes.
And, of course, in our culture that has displaced reasoned discourse with the image, the ad, and the infographic, there were many annoying memes.
Even as a recent refugee from Twitter to Instagram (my haven for dad-posting and workout routine reels), I could not help but stumble across the infographics of friends, acquaintances, former youth group buddies very passionately signaling their opinions through pithy quotes and images. It is hard to overstate how bad the situation is, but for some reason, I kept seeing one that rose up in my mind as particularly egregious and representative in its moral smarm, vacuity, and disingenuousness, and deserving of comment and moral reflection.
“The unborn” are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn.
You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus, but actually dislike people who breathe. Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible? They all get thrown under the bus for the unborn.” –Pastor Dave Barnhart
Now, what can we say about this bit of rhetoric?
To begin, we can attempt to be sympathetic for a moment and say that perhaps, in its best possible reading, this was meant as a prick to the conscience and a goad to action for all too many Christians who pay lip service to the Pro-Life movement, but don’t actually do much to further it beyond vote and occasionally argue on Facebook. (Which, incidentally, could be said about many of the people posting the quote, but let’s pass over that). If it worked that way, so much the better.
But even if that were the intent, there are several problems with it.
First, it is currently being used as a sort of pro-choice argument that doesn’t really argue against the pro-life position, but rather the pro-lifer. It’s an unsubtle bit of ad hominem blended with a heavy handed dose of whataboutism. It claims that the pro-lifer is the sort of person who chooses easy advocacy because they don’t want to be troubled by real problems, they can’t be bothered with inconvenient victims—the kind you have to get your hands dirty to love. It’s cheap, it’s hollow and it’s undemanding, perfectly suited to such moral hypocrites.
Let’s put to the side for a few moments the fact that the quote is actually wrong. Leave aside the food kitchens, the prison ministries, the refugee resettlement ministries, the half-way homes, the foster programs, the at-risk child-care networks, the free clinics, and the number of hospitals in our nation with the word “St.” or “Presbyterian” or “Lutheran” in the name. Leave aside the thousands and tens of thousands of volunteers at crisis pregnancy centers across the nation offering counsel, support, supplies, donations, and so forth to women and children in need. Leave aside the massive social support infrastructure that would simply vanish if pro-life Christians had actually abandoned the field in every other area of social concern. Let’s leave aside all of the things that pro-life Evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians do beyond vote.
Leave aside also the facile contention that pro-life advocacy is ideologically undemanding. Ignore the silliness of the idea that advocacy for the unborn couldn’t cause folks to question the shape of a deeply sexist society that demands a sacrifice of violence and blood from our women that they might become full members of it. Or that such advocacy might lead us to question the source of the radical inequality and distribution of abortion across income brackets and racial backgrounds. Or that it might cause us to have to re-evaluate the pornification of our culture by the Horny Industrial Complex and the ceaseless worship of the great Goddess Orgasm. Or that it challenges our radically individualist notions of autonomy which break down all social bonds of family, community, and congregation which could have acted as a buffer against the desperation that may set in at the thought of having to raise a child alone.
Again, put those things over in an intellectual corner for a bit.
Let’s pretend that the meme is right: The unborn are the easiest, most convenient group of victims to advocate for—the question you have to ask yourself is…who cares?
Would any of that change the ontological fact that we’re dealing with a baby? Does the ease of advocating for the unborn somehow erase the moral and ontological reality that the fetus is a human being? A precious child who immediately upon conception is a unique biological human, with distinct DNA chain, set of chromosomes, and who will quickly thereupon develop its own heart, spinal cord, fingernails, eyes, ears, nose, toes, pain reflexes—all of the multifarious physiological markers of a being made in the image of God, bearing intrinsic value and dignity and rights that are violated every time it is scraped out of the womb? If it does not, and if the question is a matter of justice, and it happens to be convenient then why aren’t you advocating for them?
Is it that it’s too easy? Will you not get enough credit? Do you think there is some sort of competitive judgment about who advocates for the most difficult victims and you’re worried we’re all wasting our time on the ones without much moral payout? The roughly 600,000-800,000 infants a year—not really pressing or weighty enough for our time?
I’m being facetious, of course, but this shows you how squarely we are in the rhetorical landscape Rene Girard pointed out in “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.” If the valuation of the victim has reshaped social and moral status such that your relation to the victim for whom you advocate begins to be reframed into a kind of client-patron relation, whereby patrons gain status through their advocacy and support of the right clients—or, even more perversely, in the sort of situation where one gains standing as an advocate-client by standing in proper relation to the right victim-patron–then it begins to make a sick sort of sense. Voiceless victims, squirmy, little silent victims, nameless victims dismembered and discarded in trash bins in the alleyways behind the local Planned Parenthood do not have much to offer in the way of moral credit for being “difficult to advocate for.”
Bringing things back down to earth, my problem with the meme and seemingly a million others like it, once again, is that they’re quite simply bad ad hominems that fail to reckon with the basic question “is it a baby or not?” Because unless you’ve come to some philosophical or theological chain of reasoning as to why the fetus in the womb is not a bearer of the image of God and natural rights, then who cares if he or she is easy to advocate for? Wouldn’t that make it more inexcusable to fail to do so?
Let’s be clear here. The “argument” that pro-lifers are selfish, cynical, and weak does nothing to establish whether or not a baby in the womb has the right to live or not, any more than someone establishing that progressives are largely self-righteous, virtue-signaling prigs who do very little for their pet causes beyond tweeting the BLM hashtag and throwing up a black tile on Instagram would establish that we shouldn’t care about police or criminal justice reform. Pro-lifers could consistently be the most duplicitous, cowardly, disingenuous, policy -challenged people on the planet and guess what? It wouldn’t for a single moment settle the question of whether or not that life in the womb is worthy of protection.
And this is where I turn the corner to be more pointed towards, well, the sorts of people who I might be expected to sympathize with—the Millennial Evangelicals in the room who are quite anxious to not be seen as that kind of Evangelical; the kind that doesn’t get the struggle, who doesn’t recognize that a thicker economic strategy is called for, the kind who made the cynical political compromise of power over integrity, and so on and so forth. Folks, you can distinguish yourselves all you want, but at some point you have to recognize that just because your evangelical parents or Aunt and Uncle voted for Trump and are pro-life, that didn’t suddenly transform what you used to think were babies, worthy of dignity, respect, and legal protection into not babies, no longer worthy of such things or their defense.
We can concede this is not the only question involved. There are complex issues around responsibility, agency, and so forth. There definitely need to be extended conversation concerning legal provision for unique life-threatening situations that can arise in pregnancies. I’m beyond sympathetic to pro-family economic policies at the State level, heightened enforcement against and shame around deadbeat dads, and every other conceivable pro-baby, pro-mom, pro-life-beyond-mere-birth sort of thing you think the local church needs to be doing. While the church, both institutionally and organically, does so much more than this and so many other “forgive us for being only pro-birth and not pro-life” memes imply, I am happy to admit it has been too convenient for some, and more can and needs to be done.
But if you think that’s the case and you haven’t come up with a good theological or philosophical reason for rejecting the truth that it is a human child in the womb (and here are about 60 questions for Christians to ask when doing so), then the only possible response is not to walk away from pro-life advocacy, or to reject it for some higher, costlier moral calling where you comrades in arms evince the requisite moral purity and willingness to sacrifice—it’s rather to take up the cause for yourself and do it better. Let it become inconvenient for you. Put down your phone. Put down the gotcha quotes and cheap memes to show us a better way.
Derek Rishmawy is the RUF campus minister at the University of California-Irvine, and is a systematic theology PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He contributes to Christ and Pop Culture, Christianity Today, and writes at his own blog, Reformedish. He also co-hosts Mere Fidelity. You can follow him on Twitter @dzrishmawy.