There is more than meets the eye in Planned Parenthood's release of their card "Choice on Earth" this Christmas season. True, the card is offensive to Christians, but Planned Parenthood and Christians have been trading barbs for years. Nothing new here.
What is different about Planned Parenthood's most recent salvo is the implicit acknowledgement of an argument that pro-lifers have been making all along: the moral tradition forbids abortion. It reveals that Planned Parenthood is losing faith in the persuasive power of its own arguments.
Religiously minded pro-lifers (Christian and Jew alike) make up most of the pro-life movement. Over the last twenty-five years they have developed a comprehensive moral apologetic that increasingly persuades the undecided middle that unrestricted abortion is a morally unsustainable position.
In the early years of the abortion debate, pro-choicers dealt with any moral objections by marginalizing those who made them. Marginalizing was a political calculation that dismissed the objection as a "Catholic issue," rather than the human rights issue that the Catholic Church--correctly and to its credit--claimed that it was.
The strategy worked until the Evangelicals got on board, largely through the efforts of the late author and lecturer Francis Schaeffer who taught that abortion was not the morally neutral act that many of them first presumed it was. Influential Jews who grasped that abortion was the doorway to a greater dehumanization of life followed them.
Marginalizing works when abortion is defined solely in political terms. However, as the pro-life movement grew and the moral critique got stronger, perceptions slowly shifted in ways that pro-choicers find increasingly difficult to combat. Political categories started to blur. Today about the only relevant political category left is liberal vs. conservative which is too broad to marginalize effectively.
We saw the same dynamic in the Civil Rights movement. When white Americans perceived that how black Americans were treated spoke to how all people should be treated, they saw that they too had a stake in the question. Civil Rights was foremost a movement of moral awakening. The abortion conflict is the same thing.
The event that brought moral clarity to the Civil Rights conflict was the assault on the Birmingham marchers with police dogs and fire hoses. It shifted opinion to the side of the civil rights activists. There was no way this kind of treatment could be justified and all clear thinking Americans knew it.
Pro-choice leaders face a similar problem. Partial birth abortion is fast becoming the moral clarifier in the abortion conflict. It's a cruel and barbaric procedure that has no moral justification whatsoever and all clear thinking Americans know it.
The unqualified support of partial birth abortion reveals zealotry on the pro-choice side that is increasingly difficult to hide. Pro-lifers certainly have their share of zealots, but zealotry has never become a dogma of the movement. When an abortion provider gets shot for example (a morally indefensible crime), the pro-life movement roundly denounces the perpetrator. But when a healthy child is pulled almost completely out of the womb and its skull pierced and brains sucked out, no pro-choicer dares whisper an objection.
Planned Parenthood is trapped. To admit any ambivalence about partial birth abortion implies that moral distinctions apply. Moral distinctions invoke a moral tradition. This cedes the ground to pro-lifers and requires an engagement with the moral arguments that the pro-life side has already developed.
The only remaining option is to confront the opposition with the same marginalizing tactic that was used in the past. But who should be marginalized? Since the opposition comes from all religious quarters, the only recourse is to marginalize the moral tradition that they share in common. That's why the card comes out during Christmas. That's also why the card changes one of the keys phrases of the narrative from "peace on earth" to "choice on earth."
A person does not have to be Christian to object to this tactic. Christians are picked because their numbers make them an easy target. If Planned Parenthood set their sight on Jews, it could just as easily assert that, say, the Exodus narrative was about "choice" because the mother of Moses chose to save her son on the banks of the Nile rather than drown him. Christian or Jew, it's the same moral tradition that Planned Parenthood seeks to deny.
Overall the strategy is not working. Pro-choicers lost 18 of 19 key abortion races in the last election. More Americans are moving to the pro-life side. Planned Parenthood can't even find a euphemism to hide the barbaric nature of partial birth abortions.
"Choice on Earth" should be recognized for what it is: a desperate gambit employed to hide intellectual and moral bankruptcy. Pro-lifers should take confidence that their message is getting through.
Copyright © 2002 Johannes L. Jacobse. Rev. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.