Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Stayin Alive: Pro-Life Advocacy in the Obama Era. An Interview with Scott Klusendorf

I asked Scott Klusendorf, President of Life Training Institute, to give his thoughts on how pro-life advocates should respond to yesterday’s election. Scott’s forthcoming book, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage Culture, will be published by Crossway in March 2009.

JT: Just how bad was this election for pro-lifers? Give us the big picture.

SK: There’s no doubt we’ve experienced a crushing defeat in the current political cycle. The executive and legislative branches of the federal government are now firmly in the hands of those deeply committed to the proposition that an entire class of human beings can be set aside to be killed simply because they are in the way of something we want. In the weeks ahead, even before the inaugural events get underway, we can expect abortion-choicers, along with their allies in the media, to declare the abortion debate over--at least politically.

They have reason to gloat. President-elect Obama, with eager support from a Democrat Congress, can easily deliver on his promises to sign the federal Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), provide federal funding for destructive embryo research (including cloning), stack the federal courts with activist judges, and craft a national health care plan that includes abortion coverage. This is all very bad.

But surrender is not an option. We have work to do.

JT: You’ve said before that FOCA could strangle pro-life efforts for decades to come. Why is it dangerous?

SK: Indeed, there’s no mistaking that FOCA is the most dangerous piece of pro-abortion legislation to date. Obama has said this would be his first objective. In its current form, FOCA creates a federally guaranteed right to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy that goes way beyond Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. Should the federal courts ever reverse or otherwise gut Roe and Doe, FOCA would enshrine abortion rights into law at the legislative level. Parental consent, informed consent, restrictions on tax-funded abortions, and physician conscience laws would be swept away, along with federal and state bans on partial-birth abortion.

JT: Do you think Obama can successfully sell FOCA to the American public?

SK: Yes. He will justify it by telling the nation that abortion is a tragic choice, but laws regulating abortion don’t work. What’s needed are social programs aimed at reducing the underlying causes that lead women to abort in the first place.

The moral logic in play here is baffling. First, if abortion does not unjustly kill an innocent human being, why is Obama worried about reducing it? But if it does unjustly kill a human being, isn’t that good reason to legislate against it? Second, laws which allow—indeed, promote—the killing of unborn human beings are unjust even if no one has abortions. Imagine a candidate who said he was personally opposed to spousal abuse while he had a 100% voting record in favor of men having a right to beat their wives. Suppose he told the public the underlying cause of spousal abuse is psychological, so instead of making it illegal for husbands to beat their wives, the solution is to provide federally funded counseling for men. It’s no stretch to say the voting public would see right through his smokescreen, even if he favored social programs to treat the underlying causes that allegedly contribute to abuse. After all, there are underlying causes for rape, murder, theft, and so on, but that in no way makes it misguided to have laws banning such actions. Moreover, Obama is just plain wrong to say that abortion control laws don’t work. Sure they do. Michael New points out that between 1992 and 2000, many states that passed modest abortion-control legislation saw their abortion rates drop by 21 percent or greater. Meanwhile, Tom McCulsky writes that states with FOCA-style laws saw their abortion rates go up while the national average went down. Nevertheless, Obama is poised to sweep all these pro-life gains away with the stroke of a pen, and the public will buy his explanation.

By the way, Obama won’t be the only one telling pro-lifers to surrender politically. Voices within Christendom will assert that evangelicals have spent too much time on politics, with little to show for it. What’s really needed, so the claim will go, is more time preaching the gospel. Well, I’m all for preaching the gospel, but why should anyone suppose that political efforts aimed at protecting human life detract from the biblical command to go make disciples? Why can’t pro-life Christians do both? Simply put, the answer to a lack of evangelical fervor for the gospel is not to withdraw our political advocacy for the weak and vulnerable; it’s to encourage Christians to do a better job presenting the gospel. We don’t have to stop advocating protections for the innocent to do that. At the same time, it’s unfair to say that because we have not achieved everything we set out to politically accomplish in the last 28 years, we have wasted our time on political distractions. Wilberforce and Lincoln suffered crushing political setbacks before their respective nations finally did away with slavery, yet no one suggests they wasted time that should have been devoted to preaching or evangelizing. Truth is, pro-lifers are simply outnumbered and underpowered. But this in no way justifies political silence in the face of evil, the likes of which we are about to witness at a whole new level. As for the claim evangelicals spend too much time on politics, I say prove it. I think Joe Carter is right:
Contrary to what many secularists claim--and many Christians believe--we evangelicals are not all that politically involved. Sure, like most Americans we talk a lot about politics, especially in an election season. But the claim that we are involved in actual political activities--lobbying, organizing, campaigning, etc.--would be difficult to support with actual evidence.
In short, the true solution to our current political defeat is to equip more pro-lifers to engage the culture, not shrink back in defeat. Quitting now is simply not an option.

JT: Given our political options will be limited in the immediate years ahead, what should Christian leaders do right now to advance the pro-life cause?

SK: Rather than giving up, we should commit ourselves to four vitally important tasks.

1. Christian leaders should purposefully preach and teach a biblical view of human value, and do it often. A few years ago, journalist Michael Kinsley wrote a piece rich in sermon material. Defending destructive research on human embryos, Kinsley wrote that “human life” is a label we confer rather than a biological fact. Embryos, because they lack an immediately exercisable capacity for self-awareness (including thoughts and feelings), need not apply. If your “faith” tells you embryos are human beings, fine. But reason can’t.

Of course, Kinsley’s view results in savage inequality. If “human life” is a label we confer, the majority subjectively defines who’s in and out. And, if humans have value only because of their immediate ability to feel or think, those humans with more thoughts and more feelings have a greater right to life than those with less.

In sharp contrast to Kinsley, the biblical worldview explains human dignity and equality: All humans have value because they bear God’s image (Genesis 1:26, 9:6, James 3:9.) At the same time, the science of embryology establishes that “human life” is not a “label we confer,” but a biological reality we discover. From fertilization forward, the unborn are unquestionably human. Hence, biblical commands against the unjust taking of human life (Exodus 23:7, Proverbs 6:16-19) apply to the unborn as they do other human beings. Like everyone else, they have the image of their creator.

As I’ve said before, pastors should make an additional point from the pulpit. The stem cell debate is not a clash between “faith” on one hand and “science/reason” on the other. It's a clash of metaphysical worldviews: Christian versus secular. Christian bioethics is not opposed to scientific progress provided that progress is tied to moral truths. Chief among those truths is that humans have value (and hence, rights) in virtue of the kind of thing they are, not some function they perform. They may differ in their respective degrees of development, talents, and accomplishments, but they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that bears the image of their creator. Conversely, secular bioethics asserts that humans have value (and hence, rights) not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, but only because of some acquired property like self-awareness or sentience. Because embryos and fetuses cannot immediately exercise these properties, they have no right to life. Both views—Christian and secular—are asking the exact same question: What makes humans valuable in the first place?

Kinsley's secular bioethics grounded in materialism stumbles in telling us why anything has a value and a right to life. If his faith takes him there, fine. But reason can’t.

2. Christian leaders must not only preach about human value; they must equip their people to engage the culture. Theology gives church members a biblical foundation for their pro-life beliefs. Apologetics gives them the tools to take those biblically informed beliefs into the marketplace of ideas.

A basic pro-life case is not hard to teach.

Pro-life advocates contend that elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being. This simplifies the abortion controversy by focusing public attention on just one question: Is the unborn a member of the human family? If so, killing him or her to benefit others is a serious moral wrong. It treats the distinct human being, with his or her own inherent moral worth, as nothing more than a disposable instrument. Conversely, if the unborn are not human, elective abortion requires no further justification.

Pro-life advocates defend their case using science and philosophy. Scientifically, they argue that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. True, they have yet to grow and mature, but they are whole human beings nonetheless. Leading embryology textbooks affirm this. For example, Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud write:
A zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm . . . unites with a female gamete or oocyte . . . to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.
Philosophically, there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today. As Stephen Schwarz points out using the acronym SLED, differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant in the way that abortion advocates need them to be:

Size: Yes, embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, but why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more human than small ones? Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean they deserve more rights. Size doesn’t equal value.

Level of development: True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than you and me. But again, why is this relevant? Four-year-old girls are less developed than fourteen-year-old ones. Should older children have more rights than their younger siblings? Some people say that self-awareness makes one human. But if that is true, newborns do not qualify as valuable human beings. Remember: Six-week old infants lack the immediate capacity for performing human mental functions, as do the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, and those with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Environment: Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Does your value change when you cross the street or roll over in bed? If not, how can a journey of eight inches down the birth canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn from non-human to human? If the unborn are not already human, merely changing their location can’t make them valuable.

Degree of Dependency: If viability makes us valuable human beings, then all those who depend on insulin or kidney medication are not valuable and we may kill them. Conjoined twins who share blood type and bodily systems also have no right to life.

In short, pro-life advocates contend that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature.

Every student in the church youth group and at our local Christians schools should know how to make that basic scientific and philosophic case. Sadly, we’re no where close to making that reality. I speak in Protestant and Catholic high schools all over the United States. Over and over again, students tell me they’ve never heard a pro-life talk like mine. At each place, I speak students see pictures depicting abortion and hear a compelling case for the pro-life view. Gatekeepers such as teachers and administrators worry the kids can’t handle abortion-related content, but the gatekeepers are wrong. I’m often told by students, “Gee, I finally know how to defend what I believe. Thank you!”

3. Pro-life Christians must hold their churches and parachurch organizations to account. I rarely--very rarely, in fact--say critical things about the church. My preference is to equip Christian leaders rather than criticize them. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that if you talk to any pro-life group reaching out to students, you'll soon learn it's now axiomatic that with rare exception, campus fellowship groups want nothing to do with the pro-life movement. Generally speaking, they are too afraid they might turn people off if they get involved saving innocent human lives.

Well, leading up to my recent debate with Nadine Strossen (President of the ACLU) at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the response of Christians to the abortion controversy did in fact turn-off at least one non-Christian, but not for reasons campus fellowship groups might expect. One of the students responsible for organizing the debate expressed her dismay that Campus Crusade would not attend the event or get behind promoting it with its members.

She asked me directly why I thought that was so. She thought for sure the Christians would show up, and she was puzzled that they didn't. Their refusal to get involved turned her off.

I didn't know what to tell her. Perhaps CC had good reasons for not attending and I hold out hope it did, though it's hard for me to imagine what those reasons might be.

As Joe Carter has suggested, one reason for the church's non-involvement is that evangelical leaders by and large aren't all that troubled by abortion. It's simply not a priority for them. It never has been. That won’t change, unless pro-life lay persons turn up the heat on Christian leaders.

Sadly, these same leaders have it all wrong. My own experience suggests that far from turning people off, a persuasive pro-life case, graciously communicated, suggests to non-believers that maybe, just maybe, the Christian worldview has something relevant to say to the key issues of our day. But when we fail to even put in an appearance at key debates, the message to non-Christians is that we simply don't care about the big stuff. And then we bemoan the fact that few people take us seriously.

Wasn't it Woody Allen who once said that "eighty percent of success is just showing up"?

4. Pro-life Christians must recruit more full-time apologists. Gregg Cunningham of the Center for Bioethical Reform once said:
There are more people working full-time to kill babies than there are working full-time to save them. That’s because killing babies is very profitable while saving them is very costly. So costly, that large numbers of Americans who say they oppose abortion are not lifting a finger to stop it. And those that do lift a finger to stop it do just enough to salve the conscience but not enough to stop the killing.
That’s a stunning indictment of our movement, and it’s easy to think, “That’s not me.” But like it or not, I can’t dispute Gregg’s point: We simply don’t have enough full-time pro-life workers, and unless we get serious about finding them our movement will remain a part-time volunteer movement incapable of taking on the heavily funded professionals from Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Democratic Party, and other groups who are paid handsomely to defend killing human embryos and fetuses. Churches have no problem recruiting missionaries for overseas adventures and that’s a good thing. Why not also recruit young people from our churches to study law and seek political office while others are encouraged to seek careers in pro-life apologetics. (Biola University and Trinity International University provide graduate level training in Christian apologetics and bioethics.)

Anyone who thinks we’ll never find qualified young people is mistaken. Ten years ago, an energetic Canadian college student approached me at the end of a pro-life training symposium I led in Toronto. “When I grow up, I want your job. I want to be your clone.” I was glad for her enthusiasm but had no idea just how serious she was. When she returned to the University of British Columbia (UBC), this eighteen-year-old freshman helped reorganize the campus pro-life group and in November of 1999, she and other pro-life students set up a display at UBC depicting the truth about abortion. These young pro-lifers were hardly extremists, and nothing they did was illegal. They were sensitive to set up warning signs about the graphic abortion photos on the main walkways. They offered a toll-free telephone number to students facing a crisis pregnancy. They never shouted at anyone. They patiently stood by the signs and gave solid answers to tough pro-abortion questions. In short, they were gracious witnesses against the evil of abortion. Nonetheless, their on-campus display was viciously attacked and torn down by three pro-abortion students (so much for pro-choice “tolerance”). The entire attack was caught on video. Shockingly, the Crown refused to bring criminal charges against the attackers, one of which was a Student Council Representative. Undaunted, the pro-life students led by Stephanie Gray—the student I met in Toronto—sued for damages. They also raised money to replace the destroyed signs. (The signs are large and expensive.) A short time later, the display went back up. As a result of their careful planning and courteous demeanor, large numbers of students witnessed the display and the event grabbed headlines in several Canadian publications. Upon Graduation, Stephanie launched (along with Jo Jo Ruba) The Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform and has since spoken at many post-secondary institutions such as the University of Toronto, York University, the University of Calgary, Johns Hopkins University, and George Washington University. Stephanie has debated leading abortion-choice advocates such as Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, and Dr. Jan Narveson, Philosophy professor and recipient of the Order of Canada. Oh, and did I mention she raised all her own funding to do it?

That’s exactly what we need: courageous pro-life students with tough minds and tender hearts who are groomed to be leaders.

And we must equip them to engage no matter who is in the White House.