February 17, 2011

Lying for Life?

By Andrew Haines *

The last few weeks have been triumphant ones for pro-lifers. To kick it all off, congressional Republicans have been forging ahead on measures to reduce, if not eliminate, federal tax breaks for women’s clinics that provide abortions. In addition, they’ve trained their gaze on last year’s healthcare overhaul bill in an effort to make purchasing abortion-friendly insurance with government funds nearly impossible. The protection of conscience rights for pro-life doctors and hospitals is also on the House agenda.

Add to all of this Live Action’s torrent of controversial, videotaped pro-life “stings” on Planned Parenthood and you’ve got one exceptional momentum boost in favor of a group that – let’s face it – tends to take a shellacking even by normal media standards.

Yep, it feels pretty good to be a pro-lifer nowadays. But resting on our laurels isn’t what got us here.

Of course, that brings up a good question: what exactly did get us here?

Last week at Public Discourse, Dr. Christopher Tollefsen – a Catholic ethicist and philosopher – raised a question that some of us have been dealing with for a while now. And it’s a little frightening: namely, what are the principles and values that are indispensible to the pro-life cause? And, just as importantly, has all of this recent “progress” been helpful or hurtful?

In his article, Tollefsen focuses on the two things that endow the pro-life movement with inestimable value: truth and love. “Truth,” he says, “because the pro-life movement is founded on a set of scientific facts about unborn human beings.” And love because it is “founded on an ethical claim: that all human beings are deserving of the same fundamental form of respect.”

From this, the opposite becomes clear. What needs be the case, we see, is that a pro-choice mentality is “premised on a lie and – despite the unquestioned good intentions of its members and supporters – is opposed to love.” Thus, if we as pro-lifers are entitled to keep our heads high, it’s for no other reason than that we’re fighting the good fight, and fighting it in the service of truth and charity.

On these grounds, Tollefsen takes aim at the strategies employed by Live Action in the name of life. Although he admits that the organization has done a “great service of shining light on the sources of Planned Parenthood’s funding,” he quickly notes that “the way in which Live Action has made its mark is itself extremely troubling.” At bottom, he says, “it is predicated on a form of falsity, which is exercised in an unloving way.”

He even goes so far as to say that Live Action “represent[s] a real and dangerous corruption of the pro-life movement.”

No doubt, these are strong words. And many of us – myself included – are probably more than a little stirred by them. In short, they incite feelings of detraction, sedition, and betrayal. How could such a benefit to unborn human life be so poorly grounded? After all, as one high-profile friend of mine said about the topic, “you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

So how do we square saving life with lying to do so? This is one of the age-old questions of moral philosophy – and it’s caricatured mostly in a Nazis-at-the-door sort of way: “If Nazis came to your door and asked, ‘Are there any Jews here,’ and there were, could you say ‘No’?” Great minds have wrestled with this question for centuries. Both Augustine and Aquinas weighed in on the matter – both coming down (in some way) on the side of even the most ‘pious’ lies being sinful.

But something about Live Action’s efforts just feels so right.

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Tollefsen, the reality is that we’ve come to a crux in the history of what it means to be pro-life. We, as a movement, have started to slip off the gloves and put some nasty weight behind our punches. And the crowd – our fellow Americans, and even the world – is becoming transfixed. More importantly, though, there’s real progress at stake.

One thing Tollefsen got absolutely right: in the heat of the spotlight – now – we have to become reflective, and weigh the impact of our decisions. Are we fighting the good fight, in truth and charity; or are we letting the consequences of our endeavors obscure the means we use to get there? Is wanting to protect innocent children a good enough reason to blur the lines between truth and falsity?

Is lying for life permissible? Unfortunately, you’re not going to find a popular consensus – or even a magisterial teaching – on this one. It’s a tricky business. But nonetheless we’re called to engage in it, and to reason through it ourselves. In fact, nothing less than the future of unborn human life depends on it.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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