Last week, a Texas grand jury indicted activists David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt last week for allegedly using fake IDs and attempting to buy fetal tissue. Both of the Center for Medical Progress, the pair concealed their identities while attempting to frame/highlight the willingness of Planned Parenthood employees to sell fetal tissue, capturing their conversations on a series of videos first released last summer. Christianity Today reached out to Daniel K. Williams, a historian of the pro-life movement, and Focus on the Family president Jim Daly to provide their perspective on the ethics of the pairs’ actions."
Before Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement vehemently denounced the idea that the end justifies the means. Abortion legalization advocates argued from a utilitarian perspective, maintaining that societal well-being, women’s health, and population pressures could be improved through the legalization of at least some abortions. Pro-lifers argued that no cause could justify the destruction of innocent unborn human life.
It’s therefore ironic that a number of pro-life activists during the past few decades have unwittingly adopted a utilitarian ethic that their movement’s founders opposed. When pro-lifers break the law or engage in unethical behavior on the assumption that such actions will save unborn lives, they indicate that they believe that certain ethical principles can be circumvented in order to accomplish a greater good. But this is the same framework the movement’s utilitarian-minded opponents used to call for the liberalization of abortion laws, arguing that the loosening of abortion restrictions would save women’s lives and reduce poverty.
Pro-life activists first began to argue in favor of strategic lawbreaking to save unborn lives in the late 1970s, when a number of young volunteers who were influenced by the civil rights and antiwar movements began engaging in civil disobedience by blocking abortion clinics and inviting arrest. Some of the older pro-life activists who had joined the cause in the late 1960s and early 1970s opposed this new strategy. In the 1980s, National Right to Life Committee president Jack Willke denounced the nonviolent sit-ins as misguided.
Willke was even more dismayed by the firebombings and other violent attacks against abortion clinic property that became more frequent in the 1980s. When a few antiabortion activists took this violent strategy to the extreme and killed abortion doctors and other clinic personnel in the 1990s, most pro-lifers were appalled. The Army of God, a small antiabortion organization that endorsed violence against abortion doctors, appealed to the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler, and argued that limited violence against murderers (that is, abortion doctors) was justified to prevent the killing of the unborn. But most pro-lifers believed that in this case, the end did not justify the means; being pro-life meant opposing violence consistently, not supporting one form of violence in order to stop another.
But if most pro-lifers have taken a consistently non-utilitarian stance toward the use of violence in order to save the unborn, they have been much more divided on the question of whether lying and other nonviolent illicit actions are ever justified in order to save unborn lives. Some pro-life natural law theorists who consistently oppose utilitarian arguments have taken an unequivocal stance against all lying, including the use of falsehoods to save the unborn.
Christopher Tollefsen, a philosophy professor who believes human life begins at conception, argued in his recent book Lying and Christian Ethics that lying is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified, even when it is used to save human lives. But a number of pro-life activists have engaged in duplicity in order to discredit their opponents. The tactic of lying to gain access to an abortion clinic has been used for years in the movement.
I have written all of the above comments as a historian—that is, as a detached observer of the movement who is trying to fairly represent all points of view. But speaking as a Christian who opposes abortion and who is trying to follow the ethics of Jesus, I can say that I don’t think that the use of lying reflects the principles of faith and honesty that Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t think that the Center for Medical Progress treated Planned Parenthood executives with the kindness required by Jesus when he told us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do good to those who hate us.
Of course, Christians have spent many years debating the question of whether lying is ever licit, but I side with Tollefsen on this question; I believe that Christians are always to speak the truth in imitation of God, who cannot lie. Christians who have acted unethically in the belief that such actions were required to accomplish a greater good have too often found, to their sorrow, that the unethical actions that they took not only failed to accomplish their objective, but also brought shame on the cause for which they were fighting. I think that this may turn out to be the case for the activists from the Center for Medical Progress.
Daniel K. Williams is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.