On Thursday evening, I’m scheduled to give a speech at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. The title is “Civility Isn’t Surrender: A Defense of Decency in the Modern Age.” It’s a topic I’ve written and spoken about so frequently that some folks on the Trump right sneeringly dismiss me as “pastor” David French. I don’t think civility is always the right response to injustice (after all, Christ himself compared the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs” and cleansed the Temple with a whip made out of cords), but it should be the default human response to controversy — even when we’re engaged in the most difficult of debates.
So I thought it was interesting when a writer at The Nation directly accused me of hypocrisy, claiming that I must have forgotten my own principles when I wrote that “a proposed Virginia law that would have eased certain restrictions on later abortions promoted ‘infanticide’ and ‘barbarism.’”
He’s referring to this piece, rebutting inaccurate legal arguments about a proposed Virginia late-term-abortion bill. The bill would have made it dramatically easier to obtain an abortion after the second trimester by reducing the number of physicians required to certify the medical need for the abortion from three to one and by eliminating “any required showing of severity before the doctor and mother can determine that the birth would impair her physical or mental health.”
I called the proposed law barbaric. I said it enabled infanticide. I stand by those words, as tough as they are. I believe they’re true, and sometimes the truth is hard to hear.
One of the many reasons that politics is so contentious (in addition to garden-variety greed, ambition, and the very human will to power) is that it deals with extraordinarily weighty matters, including matters of life and death. Is a pacifist “uncivil” if he opposes war in part by pointing out how deadly and gruesome modern conflict can be? Is an advocate for intervention uncivil if he vividly describes the torture and mass death in a genocidal regime? Was an abolitionist uncivil when he described the true conditions of American slaves?
A person can and typically should tell difficult truths without being uncivil or indecent. It is one thing to contest an idea, or to share a fact, or even to offer your own description (like “barbaric”). It is another thing entirely to offer personal insults or ascribe evil motives to your opponents — especially when we (unlike Christ) can’t see into people’s hearts. Moreover, petty insults are particularly pernicious coming from Christians. We know that our virtue comes from Christ, not ourselves. We can boast only in Him and should be grateful, not proud, when we are able to perceive truth.
It is a common tactic in public discourse to try to banish ideas from debate by labeling their very utterance “uncivil.” You see this in the battle over gender identity, where it is now considered so malicious to refer to transgender people with pronouns that match their biological sex that in some jurisdictions you can even face legal sanction if you call Chelsea Manning “he.” We saw this in the battle over gay marriage, where even expressing the idea that marriage is properly defined as the union of a man and woman was seen as too outrageous to utter.
And we see this all the time in the debate over abortion, where one side’s true objection is to the humanization of the unborn child. That’s the core of the argument. If the child is rightly viewed as a distinct human being, then the implications of the act of abortion become far more grave.
The fight over abortion is a fight over this very reality — the humanity of the child. The consistent goals of the pro-life movement include educating the public about the scientific facts of fetal development (for example, from the moment of conception, the child has its own DNA; it is a distinct human being, immediately), making moral arguments about the worth of that human life, and sharing with the public the often-gruesome facts of the abortion process itself.
Nothing about this argument is easy. Everything about the argument risks triggering deep emotion. And those emotions are perhaps most raw when discussing late-term abortion, the act of killing a child who not only can survive outside the womb but also can certainly find parents willing to love and raise him or her. In this debate, a number of our fellow citizens hold deeply misguided and often wrong thoughts — including the notion that late-term abortions always arise in medical emergencies and that late-term abortions for convenience are essentially “mythical.”
I’ve been a part of the pro-life movement my entire adult life. I’ve had countless conversations with pro-choice Americans. In the vast majority of instances, I find that they reason in good faith from incorrect first premises — often without knowing facts about the baby or facts about the procedures. In fact, you see some of that ignorance on display in The Nation article critiquing me. It actually contains this rather stunning statement: “Conflating abortion with killing babies is as factually accurate as claiming that conservatives eat puppies.” The vast majority of abortions stop a beating heart. It’s not the mother’s.
In fact, when seeing the level of ignorance that so often dominates the abortion debate, I’m reminded of an extraordinary act of grace in the midst of another brutal, unjust death many years ago. In the face of torture, mockery, and murder, Christ was able to face those same killers and utter words that have echoed in history: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
If the choice is between speaking the truth and facing accusations of incivility or keeping and quiet and being applauded for your “decency,” one must always choose the truth. But choosing to speak the truth — and facing the inevitable backlash — does not relieve us from the obligation of grace. In fact, aside from a few sad exceptions, at its core the pro-life movement is characterized by grace. It is just as eager to forgive, support, and heal as it is to teach, argue, and protest.
Our pro-choice friends are wrong about abortion, with deadly consequences, but with few exceptions their errors are not malicious. They truly do not know what they do. It is not uncivil or indecent to try to correct ignorance or make philosophical and religious arguments. It’s our fundamental moral responsibility.