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.

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Posted by Derek Rishmawy

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.

14 Comments

  1. Derek, I agree with you that as a matter of logic, the Barnhart quotation can be dismissed as ad hominem and what aboutism. That said, it makes the important point that society is increasingly ignoring Christian pronouncements on morality (sexual and otherwise) because the church has simply lost its moral authority. It’s as if a former lawyer, disbarred for stealing from his clients, wrote a treatise on legal ethics. Even if every word he wrote were true, it would still be greeted with hoots, jeers, and “look who’s talking”. No one would pay any attention.

    After the sexual abuse scandals that seem to have left no part of the church unsullied, after the church’s foray into partisan politics and its embrace of Donald Trump, after its bid for raw political power, and yes, after its incredible hypocrisy on moral issues great and small, no one is listening any more. As with Samson following his haircut, you know now that the Lord has departed from you.

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    1. I’d agree. Most people see “Christians” as a socio-political interest group that, like any other such group, exists to promote the social and political self-interest of its members.

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    2. I’d also note that the consistent political incompetence of evangelicals doesn’t help either. Compare, for example, the competent way in which Ron DeSantis has handled the handled the post-Dobbs legal situation to the abysmal incompetence that’s surrounded Ken Paxton’s handling of the situation.

      Consider too Paxton’s announcement this week of a push by Texas evangelicals to enact a law criminalizing consensual gay sex. This is an example of why it’s impossible to take evangelical seriously. Instead of promoting fact-based policies to tackle inflation, high gas prices, and a plummeting stock market, evangelicals would have us focus instead on empowering local police forces to harass gays for engaging in sexual intimacy within the private of their homes.

      It’s hard to take evangelicals seriously as a moral authority when the movement is so prone to demagoguery, irrational hysteria (usually over gays), and general administrative incompetence. Catholicism probably had a shot at one point. But the sex-abuse scandals and ensuing cover-up have made the Catholic Church a byword among most Americans. And mainline Protestantism is largely irrelevant.

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    3. This is likely a dead thread. But this week’s electoral result in Kansas suggests a bigger problem for evangelicals: An overwhelming majority of the general public is skeptical of laws that would render abortion generally unavailable. This issue has come in in statewide referenda in deeply red states on multiple occasions. In each case, voters rejected highly restrictive abortion regimes.

      Even so, many Republican-controlled state legislatures are pushing through highly restrictive anti-abortion measures that are opposed by an overwhelming majority of citizens in their states. Why is this? It’s because these legislators face bullying from evangelicals if they don’t pass such laws. This is bound to cause blowback. When an interest group uses threats and bullying to get its way over and against the will of the citizenry, that interest group is likely to be viewed negatively by others.

      The Roe regime was widely unpopular. But no more than about 25% of people nationwide favor highly restrictive approaches, namely approaches that would make abortion unavailable any earlier than the 14th week of gestation.

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  2. know “not” that the Lord has departed from you.

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  3. I don’t think that the Barnhart quote is trivial at all. For it points to the hypocrisy of many “pro-life” advocates who, in reality, are merely anti-abortion advocates. If anything, the focus on the unborn by many anti-abortion advocates trivializes the risks and sacrifices that pregnant women face both in giving birth and in caring for children afterwards.

    If there is a parable in the Bible that best describes the 2 sides in this nation’s abortion debate, it is the parable of the 2 men praying. Both sides. prefer to canonize their own positions and fellow believers while condemning their counterparts. And in so doing, many from both sides act as the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying.

    In reality, we don’t have a pro-life side vs a pro-choice side. That is because both sides are inconsistently pro-life. Within the two inconsistent pro-life groups stands an antiabortion group and the pro-choice group. The former group is more pro-life when considering the lives of the unborn while the latter group is more pro-life when considering the lives of those who are born. And neither of those groups are monoliths. There is variation in both groups. But both sides begin to act like pharisees when they take pride and engage in self-congratulations.

    Therefore, the more we judge our counterparts in the abortion debate, the more condemn ourselves for those groups of people whose lives we consider to be expendable. For just as those who condone abortion are in denial of the full humanity of the unborn, those who condemn abortion are often in denial of the full humanity of those who are born who need help such as adequate social safety nets or those who live in nations that they consider worthy of American military wrath or those who are or will be threatened by pollution and the effects of climate change.

    And so if we really want to persuade our counterparts to agree with us more, acting like the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying becomes disingenuous. That is what the meme points out in many of us who oppose the legalization of elective abortion.

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  4. I’d start by noting that the opening sentence mischaracterizes the legal regime under Roe/Casey. Under the prior regime, states were free to impose restrictions on access to abortion after viability, which occurs at around 24 weeks. So, it is flatly untrue that Roe/Casey guaranteed access to abortion on demand through 9 months of pregnancy. Moreover, the Roe/Casey regime permitted states to enact a number of procedural hurdles to obtaining an abortion, even in the first 24 weeks. Thus, at most, the Roe/Casey regime required that states make abortion reasonably available (although not necessarily on demand) through 24 weeks of gestation.

    As for Dobbs, it’s important to bear in mind that the law in question set the limit at 15 weeks instead of 24 weeks. In abandoning the Roe/Casey framework, the Court merely stated that (a) there is nothing in the Constitution mandating that the line be drawn at 24 weeks, and (b) the law in question reflected a rational balancing of the issues at stake. Dobbs does not necessarily authorize total bans on abortion, as the Court could find that such restrictions fail to reflect a rational balance of the issues at stake. The concurrences of Roberts and Kavanaugh suggest that they’d be skeptical of a highly restrictive regime, such as a ban at 6 weeks.

    As for the topic of this piece, I’d suggest that there’s ample hypocrisy on both sides of this issue. I’m a creature of the right, so I’ve generally found myself among people who morally oppose abortion. By my observation, most people who claim the pro-life moniker for themselves haven’t given much thought to what they actually believe. Saying that you’re pro-life is, in most cases, a kind of virtue-signaling to indicate that you’re a loyal member of the tribe. And, because you’re defending the rights of a party who asks nothing from you, there is no material cost to you.

    The same kind of virtue-signaling occurs on the left concerning saying that you’re “pro-choice.” Most such people have no well-formed views on abortion. They just say that they’re pro-choice because that’s the rhetorical requirement for membership in the cognitive elite. In fact, polling suggests that a many people on the right and left hold to similar views on abortion, namely, making it available only through the first 15 weeks or so. But, if you move in conservative circles, you’ll identify as pro-life (because it’s more restrictive than Roe), and, if you love in liberal circles, you’ll identify as pro-choice (because you’re affording people a few weeks to make a meaningful choice). As things begin to move forward, I suspect that we’ll find that there’s a lot more agreement on abortion than the rhetorical pro-life/pro-choice divide would suggest.

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  5. […] The Triviality of Pro-Choice Memes […]

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  6. […] The Triviality of Pro-Choice Memes – Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture — Read on mereorthodoxy.com/pro-choice-memes/ […]

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  7. You believe the meme can be characterized by its, “moral smarm, vacuity, and disingenuousness.” Really? Are you speaking about the author of the meme?

    You also tell us “the quote is actually wrong.” How? It may leave out context, it may not be very generous, you may not agree with some of the points, but how it is “wrong?”

    “But even if that were the intent, there are several problems with it.”

    That does appear to be the intent. So, you seem to agree, in general, with that intent. Great, why not stop there? The “problems” you pose don’t really address the intent and purpose of the meme.

    “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.”

    Then speak to the pro-choice argument. It’s not the meme author’s fault how their meme is used. And one can speak to the pro-choice argument without bringing in a meme that they are in basic agreement with as to intent. And so what if it is against the pro-lifer? That is the very intent (criticizing a certain type of pro-lifer) you mention you could be sympathetic with.

    “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.”

    As already noted, the meme isn’t speaking to that question. Again, in the most generous and sympathetic reading of the meme, the writer (you seem to agree) makes some accurate points. In my experience as a life-long evangelical, spending time with pro-life people, his criticism rings true to me.

    In my opinion, the defensiveness, the tone, the barely veiled ad-hominem, and annoyance evident in your response to this meme is probably a fairly good indicator it has done its job as far as, as you put it, to, “prick…the conscience.”

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    1. There’s reliable polling data that evangelicals (the most pro life religious segment) are much, much more likely to adopt and foster than the general population.

      “But they can do more!” Sure, but that doesn’t justify heaping scorn on them and singling them out as hypocrites (hypocrisy is a universal problem for anyone except those who espouse no ideals).

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  8. Excellent thoughts. Appreciate the thoughtfulness.

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  9. The type of argument used in this article is known as a “straw man”, where the author sets up a weak representation of their opponents position, knocks it down, and declares victory. It is not helpful when discussing a difficult subject upon which the Bible is silent.

    I’m disappointed with simplistic comments like the author’s about “A precious child who immediately upon conception is a unique biological human”. Let’s follow this logical thread for a bit and find where it leads:

    What do you mean by “conception”? Do you mean when the sperm enters the ovum in the fallopian tube or after it implants in the uterus? This is very important since it will determine whether contraceptives such as the IUD and pill are allowed.

    Between 1/3 and 1/2 of all fertilizations end in a miscarriage (aka spontaneous abortion). Approximately 20% of clinical pregnancies (i.e., those that have had a positive pregnancy test) end in miscarriage.

    Numerous risk factors lead to increased rates of miscarriage, such as being overweight, use of drugs and alcohol, malnourishment, and many others.

    Does the author believe all miscarriages should be investigated as potential negligent homicide?

    Should in vitro fertilization (IFV) be outlawed because it creates embryos that are never implanted?

    Does a woman lose all autonomy once she carries a fertilize ovum? Does she simply become a life support system for a uterus and vagina?

    How should ectopic pregnancies be handled? What about a fetus so badly deformed they cannot survive after birth? Do you prefer a slow death after birth over an abortion?

    Are you ok with forcing a 10 year old rape victim to take her 6 week + 3 day “precious child” to term?

    Do the child support responsibilities of the father begin at conception? Is the father responsible for ensuring the mother has access to pre-natal health care? How do you intend to enforce this?

    Ok, I’ll stop now. My point is that the abortion debate is difficult and complex. Those who advocate for extremely restrictive abortion legislation (e.g., “personhood” laws), as this author appears to, need to spend a lot of time ensuring their legislation is actually “pro-life”, and not simply a “pro-birth” attempt to insert the church and state into a woman’s reproductive decisions.

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  10. Derek, great article. Thanks for the thoughtfulness that’s necessary for today and moving forward. And thanks for linking my article, too, friend!

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