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Too clever by half

In past years I've suggested some problems with the "new" Focus on the Family.

Now they have come out with a really strange little booklet about RU486, the abortion pill. By all means, read it for yourself.

Apparently the idea is to be oh-so-clever and distribute a pamphlet that has a subliminal pro-life message and that will influence women away from RU486 by subconscious cues while appearing morally neutral and even giving tips on how to take the regimen of abortion pills safely if one so decides.

The pamphlet comes across as a medical booklet written to give information to a woman about a medication she is thinking of taking. That genre, of course, means that her well-being is expected to be the primary consideration.

It emphasizes the dangers to her of RU486, such as the danger that she has an undetected ectopic pregnancy, and complications and deaths that other women have suffered, all carefully documented from the FDA. These are placed rather noticeably toward the beginning of the pamphlet. It emphasizes not allowing oneself to be rushed into a decision, repeatedly mentions the "known risks" of RU486, and urges the woman not to use an abortion clinic that doesn't have access to a surgical facility. Since anecdotes from former abortion providers tell us that abortion clinics often do rush the woman into a decision, these admonitions may steer women away from taking RU486 at all.

The pamphlet also contains an explicit statement that the abortion pill does not save lives because "an incredibly special and completely unique person is growing inside every pregnant woman." In the same section, it uses the word "baby" for this person, says that "the abortion pill always leads to the death of a baby," and encourages the woman to look at fetal development information at the Mayo Clinic's web site.

In all of these ways the pamphlet is clearly intended to discourage chemical abortions.

But the pamphlet also tacitly treats getting an abortion as a morally acceptable option. It even contains "do" and "don't" lists based on the assumption that some women may choose to take the abortion pill, including, most disturbingly, "Do...take the misoprostol orally" and "Do...take the misoprostol only at the healthcare professional's office."

Those are particularly striking because they are explicitly telling a woman how to take a pill that causes an abortion.

The non-judgmental language of the pamphlet is also confusingly bound up with the language that discourages abortion. For example, it says,

Try to think beyond the pressures you face right now, and consider the long-term impact of your choices. Don't let anyone rush you into a medical decision before you understand the risks and consider all options.

One of your options is to take the "abortion pill" to cause what is called a medical abortion. But first, there are some things you should know.

The emphasis here is on slowing down, not being pressured, etc., and on warning the woman against possible negative effects of a medical abortion. But the assumption is still there that doing so is "one of your options," and it is left completely ambiguous as to whether this is "one of your options" in a moral sense as opposed to a purely descriptive, legal sense.

Similarly, at the end, the pamphlet says (after talking about the baby),

"Take time to consider all your options and get counseling from someone who does not have a financial or personal stake in your decision. Then choose well."

Does this or does it not mean that one might "choose well" by choosing the "option" of abortion?

Even some of the warnings, probably intended to rule out some abortion facilities in the woman's area, assume that the woman might choose a medical abortion and that she should be careful to do it safely:

"Do not go to an abortion provider who lacks immediate access to a surgical facility in case you need an emergency surgical abortion." Of course, no such "need" would arise if the abortionist were not attempting a chemical abortion in the first place.

No doubt the pro-aborts would hate the pamphlet because it's trying to discourage women from using the abortion pill regimen. But "the pro-aborts would hate this" is an incredibly low standard for the moral acceptability of what pro-lifers try to get into the hands of pregnant women.

There is something eerily postmodern about this approach to the entire issue. Right and wrong become irrelevant categories and are made to seem that way deliberately in order to give the advice an appearance of objectivity. It is, of course, rather ironic that tacit moral relativism should be taken to be a necessary condition for medical objectivity!

I think that this sort of strange corruption of rhetoric arises from a sense of helplessness to prevent abortions in our current milieu in any other way. Since we are not able to prohibit abortion outright, we think that we have to appeal to women who are thinking of abortion in a way that appears entirely non-judgmental, as this is thought to be the only way to induce them to choose life.

To be as fair as possible, I wouldn't be surprised if this pamphlet actually does induce some women not to have an RU486 abortion. It might even prevent some abortions altogether, as a woman bonds with her baby as the pregnancy continues or is reluctant to undergo the invasive procedure of a surgical abortion.

I have read of a sidewalk counselor who tells women, "This is your choice, and I wouldn't take that choice away from you, but..." and then tries to dissuade them. And it sometimes works!

But the result is not the only thing that matters. If we are pro-life, our goal should be to "take that choice away" just as we legally "take away the choice" of killing a five-year-old child. If killing five-year-olds by parental choice were legal, we shouldn't tell a stressed-out mother, "Taking little Johnny to the clinic is your choice, and I wouldn't want to take that away from you, but please let me give you some additional things to consider." Even if it worked, it would not be worth the implication that bumping off little Johnny is a morally viable alternative.

Similarly, the Focus pamphlet about the abortion pill promotes the idea (though no doubt its authors would deny this) that it is not objectively wrong to have an RU486 abortion. It just might be unwise, all things considered, or not right for you.

This sort of rhetoric desensitizes people to the moral reality of abortion. Since we cannot imagine talking in this way about killing an older child, should we be surprised when trollish pro-choicers suggest that pro-lifers "don't really believe" that abortion is the murder of a child? Of course, trolls are going to troll no matter what, but ostensibly pro-life writings like this, scrubbed of all moral terminology, and clearly implying that abortion is something that one might legitimately choose (in which case one should just be careful to do it safely), give unfortunate excuse for such scoffing.

The purist-incrementalist debate will no doubt go on in the pro-life camp until our body politic comes to an end, or the world comes to an end, or the Lord returns. It's easy to become so wearied by that never-ending debate that one decides to default to anything that might be said on what sounds like the incrementalist side: "Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good." "We have to do what we can." "This strategy is effective."

The point is not that everything that is defended using such slogans is wrong. But careful distinctions must be made. The problem lies with an uncritical acceptance of the slogans qua slogans and of actions that flow from them. We have to ask ourselves whether an action or a piece of rhetoric really does compromise our moral position on a matter of life and death.

The rhetoric in this pamphlet, in my opinion, crosses well over that line.

Comments (15)

It actually came across more as guide on how to safely use the abortion pill than as trying to get women to genuinely not consider it.

And WRT FoF, they appear to also be supporting the "Duluth Model" of domestic abuse and relationship counseling.

Between their embrace-with-plausible-deniability of abortion and full embrace of the Duluth Model, it's quite apparent that they are nearing the endgame point where they've been fully compromised by the radical left. I don't know what else they do, but those two factors completely nullify any claims to be an orthodox institution on anything regarding sex/procreation and family life.

Actually, I've made my own judgement concerning their approach to husband-wife relations, and I don't agree there. I think they sound pretty balanced, and that the quotations in question are mostly taken out of context. But I'm not really interested in debating that here.

As to the abortion pill pamphlet, I think what it comes across as is an attempted guide on "how you can be safe" _generally_, in connection with this pill, in a way that strongly hints that the abortion pill may very well not be safe, but that it's ultimately all up to you. And it's the last part of that that makes it so wrong.

I've seen enough quotes about abuse, marriage, etc. from them to believe that FoF is headed in a direction that is decisively not orthodox. Their position on unwed parenting is also problematic as it is functionally anti-adoption even if not formally so (you can't celebrate unwed parenting and be pro-adoption in a meaningful sense).

Frankly, I think it is more likely that this pamphlet was a trial run to see how far they can push a moderated position on abortion. Once you take a step back and look at the rhetoric, you see a pattern that is used to say "yes it's bad, but consider it like this." Remember that "I'm a pedophile, not a monster" article that made the rounds? Same deal. It hit the right notes: acknowledged conventional expectations in the target audience WRT the morality, but used rhetorical ploys to encourage an emotional response to the situation rather than a logical one.

When you view it like that, it becomes the perfect pamphlet to give to that otherwise good Christian girl who made a mistake and who you want to push to have an abortion. Notice that the language even steers women into a direction that makes it reasonably safe for them. In the hands of a moderate or liberal evangelical, it is the perfect pamphlet to give her and say "Jesus would understand."

I disagree. I think the pamphlet is well-intentioned but was written by people who have been infected by a postmodern approach to right and wrong and by a _version_ of incrementalism (note that I'm not condemning all incrementalism) that is entirely committed to a utilitarian ethic of "speaking their language" and "trying to reach people," whatever it takes. I think it was also written by people who have been somewhat desensitized to the wrongness of abortion, probably precisely _by_ trying so hard to reach abortion-minded women that they have cut the "judgemental" part of their mental evaluative apparatus right out of their minds.

It's sort of like deciding that it's okay to lie if you are a spy. I'm not really trying to introduce a debate about that, but I am saying that, even if it _is_ okay to lie if you're a spy, adopting that belief has a big danger of metastasizing into all sorts of other areas, so that in the end you're lying to everybody about all kinds of things. Similarly, if you think it's okay to do whatever it takes to reach people, that leads, as in this pamphlet, to appearing to endorse evil in order not to offend and hence "reach people."

Even if you are correct, it means that FoF is fundamentally compromised because it no longer has the objectivity on these matters to take a meaningful stand. In the sort of culture you describe, it would be easy for more radical elements to blend in and make arguments that progressively pull the organization leftward.

Mike, that we're all fundamentally compromised is an article of our faith. Even good organizations screw up all the time.

I think it is a counsel of despair to continuously elevate criticism to insinuations of treason and betrayal. The pamphlet deserved to be criticized, as Lydia did, but not made a symbol of all that's wrong with mainstream conservatives and their betrayal of America.

One reason to think that this particular organization has more systematic problems (particularly since turning it over to Daly) can be found in one of my earlier posts, where I pointed out that they appear to be actively and explicitly trying to change their image, include more young "voices," and shift their emphasis to social issues more palatable to the left. That change of focus (as it were) will probably have an influence on hiring decisions and on the makeup and approach of the organization, even when it comes to decisions about how to address a "culture war" issue like abortion. So in that sense, I am forced to see this as at least plausibly part of a larger pattern of organizational change.

I've had concerns about Focus on the Family ever since James Dobson was ousted, and the mystery shrouding that separation. For example, I unwittingly saw the movie The Longest Ride, not realizing there was nudity in it. So after the fact, I read the Plugged In review (an arm of FOTF), and while I don't recall the exact language in the review, the communication was that while the "shower scene" was racy, it "didn't show anything." Nothing could be further from the truth, however - plenty was shown. Focus is definitely sliding toward the liberal ledge of morality.


Not sure where you got this...

The pamphlet deserved to be criticized, as Lydia did, but not made a symbol of all that's wrong with mainstream conservatives and their betrayal of America.

I listed a number of things that Focus on the Family does which are cause for considering writing them out of "mainstream conservatism." On marriage, divorce and unwed parenting they're already about as moderate as you can get without becoming a functionally feminist organization. This, for instance, is from their "Director of Family Formation:"

If women can’t find good men to marry, they will instead compromise themselves by merely living with a make-do man or getting babies from him without marriage. Unfortunately, this describes exactly the new shape of family growth in Western nations by exploding margins… Women want to marry and have daddies for their babies. But if they can’t find good men to commit themselves to, well… Our most pressing social problem today is a man deficit.

I leave it up to you whether that is, in any way, theologically correct. If that is mainstream conservatism, well, then I say maybe mainstream conservatism deserves another 16 years of Obama.

This would suggest that Focus on the Family has been firmly captured at the highest levels by left wing entryists. There is evidence that Dobson was forced out precisely because he was too conservative for the new board that took over a few years ago. As a general rule, anyone who wants to "build bridges" with people who are enthusiastic supporters of abortion and support partial birth abortion under any circumstances, is simply not a conservative. Partial birth abortion is a practice that even the Spartans and Nazis would have probably found obscene.

I've had concerns about Focus on the Family ever since James Dobson was ousted, and the mystery shrouding that separation.

Me too, Renee. And other things they have done (as mentioned here) don't look any better. FOTF was, once upon a time, a force for the good, but they do seem to have lost their moorings in the last few years. I wouldn't give money to them now even if I were a Protestant. There are better places to invest.

It appears that something similar is happening to the CBMW. This is how the left starts the Long March. It starts with infiltration by people with "moderate views" that reject both the traditional conservatism of the organization and don't openly embrace the radicalism of the left. Then, once the conservative influence has been contained or pushed out (in Dobson's case), the stronger left-wing elements can come in or reveal themselves.

I watched the entire video. It isn't _at all_ the same kind of thing as Focus's having a pamphlet taking a morally neutral stance towards abortion. The title of the blog post in which it appears "Kissing Traditionalism Goodbye," is the most problematic thing about it. as is Mary Kassian's obsession with deploring June Cleaver, whom she mentions several times in the video. Nancy de Vos's emphasis is actually different from Kassian's, and she talks more in the video than Kassian does. De Vos specifically mentions Piper positively. I note that Piper was the one who just recently put some "feet" on complementarianism in the world outside of the church, and took some flak for it, too.

I would guess that Kassian is more of a feminist than either de Vos or Piper, though no doubt she would reject that label. She appears to me to be trying to water down complementarianism, though she still retains enough of it to be doing some good at putting the brakes on the capitulation to the gender-bending agenda. Mark Yarhouse, for example, teaching at an ostensibly "conservative" Christian college, is telling churches to call a man a woman if the man "identifies" in that way. Kassian, though (I suspect) edging towards feminism, is still affirming strongly that God made men and women different and for a reason. I think her desire to try to water down complementarianism is problematic, and I'm not running out and recommending her "women's studies" classes to anybody, but she could nonetheless be a lot worse.

Obviously, these ideological associations fall on a continuum. I have a Facebook friend who identifies as a "complementarian" but can't see that this has any implication against women's beating each other up as a spectator sport! "What? What? Why is that unfeminine?" Based on this video, I'm pretty certain Nancy de Vos, at least, and hopefully Mary Kassian, as well, would not agree with her on that. Only someone with an obsession with dissing American evangelicalism would watch that video and say that it is in any way on a par with the abortion pamphlet from Focus.

Only someone with an obsession with dissing American evangelicalism would watch that video and say that it is in any way on a par with the abortion pamphlet from Focus.

I don't see anything saying it's on par with that pamphlet. I see plenty of valid comparisons between the two as evidence of a systematic infiltration of conservative organizations for the purpose of watering down their brand. Think about this statement:

but she could nonetheless be a lot worse.

Yes, she could. This pamphlet could have been even worse as well. When you find yourself saying "well they could be a lot worse" about your erstwhile allies, and it's not you shaking your head about their extremism, you need to start watching your back.

I give it another 10 years before FoF is saying that it is simply never acceptable to call abortion murder because that might alienate some woman, somewhere from Christianity.

I have quite a few on-line friends who probably think like Mary Kassian. I don't feel I have to watch my back with them, because I have a pretty good fix on where they are standing and what I can and can't rely on them for. They are often strongly pro-life, for example, but I know I can't rely on them to defend the idea that women really are significantly different than men in society at large, though they do oppose the homosexual agenda. Once I have the coordinates in place for a particular person, I can live with it. They are relatively mild feminists. I just don't regard them as across-the-board allies on every issue. (They're usually also unsound on Muslim immigration, but that is an _extremely_ widespread confusion among conservatives.) Their version of relatively mild feminism, though something I disagree with, is not Public Enemy #1, in my view of the world.

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