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In 1990, Gregg Cunningham thought the anti-choice movement was losing the battle for reproductive rights. In response, he formed the Center for Bioethical Reform, then spent years brainstorming how he could reinvent the movement. His answer: secularize it. This allowed anti-choice messaging to dodge past religious disagreement over abortion (Christian denominations are evenly divided over support for abortion) by pretending to be above it all, and get into places a religious approach was barred from entering.

… this is very carefully targeted. When we do this on a university campus there is actually an enormous amount of preparation, and we do a great deal of follow-up. We start pro-life organizations on the campus where none had existed previously, we greatly strengthen currently existing pro-life groups by increasing the size of their membership, by donating to them all kinds of educational resources they can use, we help recruit students to volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy centers. We do a myriad of things of that sort. The same is true of churches. […]

The Genocide Awareness Project is one of a myriad of projects which we are doing, but they are all aimed at the same thing: how can we engage a reluctant culture and educate it over its own objections? It all starts with a willingness to take the heat. We lack moral authority if we are not willing to take the heat.

It signaled that lies and half-truths were perfectly acceptable, since Cunningham’s organization was secular in name only.

We are a secular organization, we’re not a Christian organization, but we are an organization comprised of Christians, and the thing that motivates us personally is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While Cunningham is an extremist, his ideas have been very influential. The moderates in the anti-choice movement have since noted the failure of religious arguments, and have embraced trojan secularism. Emphasis mine:

the strenuous efforts of abolitionists have yielded very little in terms of measurable progress in reducing abortion, so it’s time to try a more fruitful strategy.

I have my own beliefs about the sanctity and rights of an unborn baby, but I don’t think we’ll change many minds by arguing about that. The proliferation of 3D ultrasound machines, new research about fetal awareness and pain, and the increasing viability of extremely premature babies will continue to make an impression on some people, but for those who are heavily invested in the moral neutrality of abortion on demand, and who see the concession of any status to the fetus as in direct conflict with the rights of the mother, this won’t make a lot of difference.

We need more discussion, then, of abortion as a women’s issue. Abortion damages women. It does them physical and psychological harm, which is multiplied by the fact that very few women seeking abortions give their informed consent (meaning consent even after being advised of the risks.) Those of us who take such things seriously tend to agree that it does them spiritual harm. More broadly, a culture in which abortion is seen as essentially harmless wreaks profound changes to our collective understanding of motherhood, sexuality, the obligations of mothers and fathers to each other and their children, and adulthood.

It’s been embraced so much by extremists and moderates alike, Kelly Gordon found that only 1.9% of anti-choice messages contained a religious element.[1]

The latest variation of this that I’ve heard of this comes from Crisis Pregnancy Centres. Cunningham called them “Ministries,” which is more accurate than I realized.

In a conference room at the Embassy Suites in Charleston, South Carolina, Laurie Steinfeld stood behind a podium speaking to an audience of about 50 people. Steinfeld is a counselor at a pregnancy center in Mission Hills, California, and she was leading a session at the annual Heartbeat International conference, a gathering of roughly 1,000 crisis pregnancy center staff and anti-abortion leaders from across the country. Her talk focused on how to help women seeking abortions understand Jesus’s plan for them and their babies, and she described how her center’s signage attracts women.

“Right across the street from us is Planned Parenthood,” she said. “We’re across the street and it [their sign] says ‘Pregnancy Counseling Center,’ but these girls aren’t — they just look and see ‘Pregnancy’ and think, Oh, that’s it! So some of them coming in thinking they’re going to their abortion appointments.” […]

In her workshop, “How to Reach and Inspire the Heart of a Client,” Steinfeld told her audience about her mission to convert clients: “If you hear nothing today, I want you to hear this one thing,” she said. “We might be the very first face of Christ that these girls ever see.”

When someone’s salvation is on the line, anything is justified. Exploiting the desperation of someone in order to bring them into a relationship with Christ is completely justified, so long as you don’t use the word “exploit.”

Multiple women told me it was their job to protect women from abortion as “an adult tells a child not to touch a hot stove.” Another oft-repeated catchphrase was, “Save the mother, save the baby,” shorthand for many pregnancy center workers’ belief that the most effective way to prevent abortion is to convert women. In keeping with Evangelicalism’s central tenets, many pregnancy center staff believe that those living “without Christ”— including Christians having premarital sex — must accept Christ to be born again, redeem their sins, and escape spiritual pain. Carrying a pregnancy to term “redeems” a “broken” woman, multiple staff people told me.

And here again, we find they deliberately avoid the “G” or “J” words until they’ve sealed a connection.

The website for Heartbeat International’s call center, Option Line, offers to connect women with a pregnancy center that “provides many services for free.” It encourages women who are curious about emergency contraception to call its hotline to speak to a representative about “information on all your options.” On the Option Line website, there is no mention of Christ, no religious imagery, no talk of being saved. But visit the website of Heartbeat itself and you’ll find very different language. “Heartbeat International does promote God’s Plan for our sexuality: marriage between one man and one woman, sexual intimacy, children, unconditional/unselfish love, and relationship with God must go together,” it says. […]

In her session, “Do I Really Need Two Sites?” Chenoweth explained that, yes, in fact, pregnancy centers do. She recommended that centers operate one that describes an anti-abortion mission to secure donors and another that lists medical information to attract women seeking contraception, counseling, or abortion. […]

Johnson … emphasized that waiting rooms should feel like “professional environments” instead of “grandma’s house,” and discouraged crucifixes, fake flowers, and mauve paint before showing slides of Planned Parenthood waiting rooms and encouraging staff to make their centers look just as “beautiful and up-to-date,” especially if they have a “medical model,” meaning they offer sonograms and other medical services. Johnson also said pregnancy center staff should mirror Planned Parenthood’s language.

Lies are an integral part of the anti-choice movement. Lies about what abortion does to you, and lies about what they stand for and believe in. Anyone hoping to promote secularism and humanist values should be wary of religion in secular clothing.

 

[1] Gordon, Kelly. “‘Think About the Women!’: The New Anti-Abortion Discourse in English Canada,” 2011. pg. 42.

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