Groups or Their Members: Who’s to Blame?,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

Author’s Note: This is dedicated to Sue Gibbons, because she loved Tom Flynn more than anyone did (and he her), and he helped greatly with this article, as with so many other things.

Not long ago, in the context of discussing an article in The Guardian about a documentary on the exploitation of “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey) by the “Right-to-Life” movement,1 I was accused by a close family member of “condemning a whole group of people and their moral values because of the alleged reprehensible acts of a few of their members.” That raised two overlapping sets of issues for me: Are “pro-lifers” largely dishonest? And when, if ever, is it fair or wise to blame everyone in a group for the actions of some of its members?

Is blaming a whole group prejudice? Prejudging people (or generalizing too broadly) is quite common among our species. It is often destructive, and the skepticism needed to avoid it is far too rare. Such prejudging should not be trivialized, because it can certainly have horrific effects, as the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta reminded us all in 2020. But when is generalizing too broad? There are obvious cases at both ends of a spectrum. If a group calls itself “Anti-Secular Humanists” and to become a member you must sign a pledge that you think all secular humanists are despicable, then we can safely blame all members for being against us. If a group calls itself “Thoughtful Americans Studying Kansas” and members must admit only that they’re interested in Kansas, it seems unlikely that all members should be taken to task if some of them have inadequate chili recipes.

But is it reasonable to blame Muslims in general if some Islamic State Muslims push gay men off roofs to their deaths?2 Or all Christians for some Southern Christians backing slavery and white supremacy?3 Or all Church of England members because that church was paid a princely sum by taxpayers for the slaves they owned when emancipation came in the 1830s?4 (Reparations indeed!) Official Catholic doctrine holds that “Atheism must … be regarded as one of the most serious problems of our time,”5 yet most American Catholics probably consider an atheist such as me to be at worst merely annoying. Most would probably even favor that the principle of religious liberty be applied to us heathens. In all these cases, the “extreme” followers apparently found scriptural or doctrinal support for their outrages, and adherents of the respective religions opposed the policy or interpretation of those extremists—if sometimes less vigorously or publicly than others might desire. One could therefore make the case that the larger group bears some responsibility, but only with some careful, cautionary notes.

Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) on the steps of the Supreme Court, 1989. Credit:
Lorie Shaull (Wikipedia).

Did all pro-lifers knowingly pay off Norma McCorvey to get her to lie? Certainly not. Did most even know that a series of payoffs had occurred? Unlikely. Did all pro-lifers participate in or approve of the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Amherst, New York, in 1998?6 No. Must we therefore absolve the pro-life movement of these and other dishonest and malicious acts? No. We should not try the Reverend Flip Benham of Operation Rescue on a murder charge because he reportedly said, about the Slepian murder, that “the spirit of murder” goes back to the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in 1973. “We have shed the blood of the innocent in the womb, and we are now reaping it in the streets,” he said. But we can safely say that Benham and those of his ilk should bear some real blame. And it’s also reasonable to say that many, many pro-life activists—not just Benham—used McCorvey’s bought-and-paid-for lies to shore up their claims that abortions destroy not only “babies” but the lives of the women who have had—or even (as with McCorvey) have merely sought—abortions.

Are pro-lifers dishonest? I’ve been arguing with them, formally and informally, for at least thirty years, and I will not reiterate all those arguments here. Their most obvious lack of honesty lies in calling themselves “pro-life,” as if any who don’t agree with them are “anti-life”—an absurdity on its face. It is dishonest to act and write as if there exists no disagreement about when potential human beings become human beings when disagreement about just that topic is the question to be resolved. Reporting that “baby deaths” are “approaching 60 million since the Supreme Court made abortions legal in 1973,” as Cal Thomas did in 2015,7 is dishonest, however much the number may be in some sense correct. It assumes the truth of one side of the debate to the exclusion of the other without even a nod to the dispute. (Are there actual human beings who fantasize about murdering babies? Possibly, but the millions of people who support abortion rights don’t.)

Has any dishonesty occurred among pro-choice types? Yes. I’ve heard pro-choicers say—and probably have even said myself—that pro-lifers should spend more time caring about born babies instead of protesting about zygotes and fetuses. I admit that the pro-life people I happen to know personally seem every bit as concerned, if not more concerned, about fully formed babies as about potential ones. I think the pro-lifers are rare who value fetuses (“babies”) over the lives and happiness of women and girls who have been impregnated by rapists. But rare though they may be, they do exist. A famous, highly honored preacher even published a “sermon” extolling the great joy that came from his teenage daughter’s rape and pregnancy and her giving birth8—a “sermon” that I happened to have read before publication and specifically warned him against publishing. But no, not all pro-lifers approve of such opportunistic sadism. And, yes, there’s some dishonesty or least hypocrisy on our side.

Examples of the kind of specific dishonesty from pro-life groups and individuals that are especially disturbing include matters related to Planned Parenthood allegedly selling fetal tissue for research a few years back. First, in 2015, protesters claimed “Planned Parenthood is selling parts from aborted babies.”9 Then in the next year, the provocateurs who claimed to have “caught” Planned Parenthood doing this were themselves indicted for using fake California driver’s licenses to help them secretly (and misleadingly) tape the organization’s staff. As a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman said then, “We follow every law and regulation, and these anti-abortion activists broke multiple laws to try and spread lies.”10

(By the way, if you want to read an honest, clear-headed essay on why it makes sense not only to be “pro-choice” but in fact “pro-abortion,” see Valerie Tarico’s fine essay in the August/September 2016 issue of Free Inquiry.)

In the 1990s, members of the Baptist Home Mission Board asked me, through Oliver Halle (a friend and then an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation), to assist with a book they were going to publish on sermons by various preachers opposing abortion. I don’t remember why I agreed to do this, but I like to argue, and maybe I thought a debate or a pro-and-con publication might come out of it. Maybe I seriously expected to build a more reasonable and nuanced book, for everyone’s sake, or to increase respect from others for myself. Or maybe I  just wanted to satisfy my friend (like me, a pro-choice freethinker and secular humanist, then and now). In any event, I took many pages of these sermons and offered editorial suggestions and comments, scribbled in red all over them, and returned this to the Mission Board’s courteous and gracious Kristen White, who expressed gratitude and responded to my points—though not, in my opinion, very logically or thoroughly. She never followed up with me as to how any of the preachers (some of them quite famous; they certainly seemed to represent the pro-life movement well) responded to my comments or modified what they’d written or whether they had any questions for me.

My chief complaint about these preachers and their pro-life sermons was not merely that I disagreed with them or found them unpersuasive (and would have, even had I been a Christian rather than a secular humanist). It was instead that they gave no serious hint of grappling with the actual issues, the competing arguments or assumptions being made. All of them seemed to start with their preferred conclusions then restate them and preach them as if there could be no other way of looking at abortion, to engage in the most simplistic circular reasoning, and to act as if they were engaging in the debate and winning it. I wrote out a list of eleven counterarguments, marked A through K (see sidebar) to send to the Mission Board and wrote the corresponding letters in the margins of many of the sermons. None of these counterarguments was original with me (nor did I present them that way), and any of them should have been easy to find by these pro-life preachers.

The book that resulted from this was Proclaiming the Pro-Life Message: Christian Leaders Address the Abortion Issue by Larry L. Lewis with sermons from David Miller, George Sweeting, W. A. Criswell, et al. (Hannibal Books, 1997). It included a chapter on “Pro-Life Responses to Tough Questions” by White. In that chapter, she did address some  pro-abortion positions but in the main not honestly. For example, she noted that the word abortion is not in the Bible but declared that “In His omniscience, God knows when each person is created.”11 She neglected to note that an omniscient being would know what potential human being would develop from every sperm or ovum or combination thereof, so that conception is in fact merely one more point along a spectrum extending back millions of years. She felt free to assert what God wants: “Unborn babies are alive to God. God hates abortion because it kills lives He created, lives He has ordained.”12 She failed, however, to address what God wants for the billions of lives lost to masturbation or to his own actions causing miscarriages.13 And she also seemed to pretend that the important issue was whether the word abortion is in the Bible, failing to address the fact that nowhere in Scripture is abortion treated as murder. The book’s twenty-one chapters other than White’s  paid scant if any attention to the real questions in dispute in pro-life vs. pro-choice (or pro-abortion) arguments. The authors—who included Beverly LaHaye, W. A. Criswell, Charles Colson,  and D. James Kennedy—usually begged the question, decrying abortionists who “murder babies” or droning on about Bible verses that show God’s love for babies with no acknowledgement that nowhere does the Bible declare abortion to be murder. (An omniscient being would surely have anticipated how important it would be to spell it out, you’d think.) If these Christian leaders had in fact “addressed the abortion issue”—if they had explained how their views rebutted the most basic counterarguments regarding abortion or even attempted to rebut them—their book would have been much stronger.

But they did not do that, which, along with the other points I mentioned, is why I am willing to assert that the pro-life movement, quite broadly construed, is dishonest.


Ed Buckner offered the following critical comments in his review of a draft of Proclaiming the Pro-Life Message: Christian Leaders Address the Abortion Issue by Larry L. Lewis, a collection of arguments against abortion by Christian preachers.

A—If we’re not to waste any valuable human souls, any possible genetic combinations, must we not conclude that every spermatozoon and ovum should be fulfilled, made into human beings? Doesn’t the pro-life argument, taken in toto, imply that all males beyond puberty should impregnate as many females as often as possible that females should cooperate in this endeavor? Of course, even then, billions of human beings would be wasted/lost every hour of every day. Whoever creates/created humans (a god or merely nature) obviously does not expect/plan/intend for all potential humans to live. The earth’s resources would be exhausted in short order by the trillions of potential humans lost in any one day. (See also “J,” below, for a closely related point.)

B—Nature (or Nature’s God?) aborts millions of human fetuses (or are these “babies”?) every year. Calling these abortions “miscarriages,” or insisting, as one of your preachers did, that it’s God’s exclusive prerogative to do this, does not explain why it’s horrible murder when women and their doctors do it, but perfectly okay for nature/God to destroy innocent lives.

C—Why does “God” have this special concern with human life, even potential human life, but not with other life forms? All the poetic, romanticized rhetoric about the wonderfully miraculously complex organism that is a human (especially from Criswell, but also from many others) ignores the fact that chimpanzees (or rats or even fruit flies, for that matter) are also amazingly complex, adapted incredibly well to their environments, etc. Should we oppose destroying any potential or actual individuals of these species? Since plants can also be complex organisms, merely accepting vegetarianism would not solve this dilemma—starving would appear to be the only honorable course, except that would also mean destroying life. “God” has special concern for human life for the most obvious of reasons: humans, not chimpanzees or rats or fruit flies, invented Him.

D—Church leaders who repeatedly advise their flocks to lobby elected representatives and to elect candidates based on single issues, whatever the issue, risk losing their tax-exempt status, as indeed they should. Political lobbying groups and political parties are treated very differently under the law from the way churches are, and churches should stay out of politics if they want to protect this difference. No, this doesn’t mean Christians, as individuals, should stay out of politics nor that they shouldn’t vote on whatever basis they like—but when a preacher paid with the aid of tax exemptions exhorts his followers to take political action, in a building built with the aid of tax exemptions, the taxpayers then earn the right to regulate and to tax that organization.

E—The Bible, despite all the straining at gnats by all these preachers, does not even once, anywhere in the Old Testament or New, equate abortion with murder. Hundreds of things are prohibited in the Bible under penalty of death (see “G,” below) yet God left this one out as a capital crime. Why? Was God careless? Did the supposedly omniscient God somehow fail to foresee the “millions” of “murders”/abortions to be brought about under Roe v. Wade? Why, in Exodus 21:22-25, is the miscarriage caused by an attacker not treated as a murder? (It is treated as an offense, but plainly not as a murder, the penalty for which was to be stoned to death.) And how to explain Hosea 9:14, in which the prophet Hosea asks the Lord to punish the wayward people of Israel by giving their women “a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.” Why weren’t those fetuses considered innocent babies? Or the ones who perished in Hosea 13:16 when (in Samaria) “their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women shall be ripped open.” Are fetuses only innocent babies if they are in the wombs of virtuous, God-fearing women? Are we really supposed to believe that in all of Sodom and Gomorrah no fetuses (or innocent post-born babies for that matter) died in the wholesale destruction (Genesis 19:24-28)? And where in the Bible does it say that one becomes a sacred, soul-bearing human at conception? Nowhere at all. In fact, the Bible consistently associates the arrival of spirituality, of the soul, with one’s first breath (at birth), as is clear from the root word for the English “spirit” and “inspiration”—the Latin “spiritus” means simply breath. (See Genesis 2:7, Job 33:4, Ezekiel 37: 7-10, and Isaiah 42:5 for evidence of the association of soul and breath.) And, if we are to be persuaded that the New Testament revoked all these horrible, backward codes of the Old, why does the New Testament and Christ himself maintain silence on abortion?

F—All the preachers’ sermons start with an assumption that conception is the starting point for human life but ignore the fact that the most fundamental issue in the “right-to-life/right-to-choose” debates, and the crux of the sometimes violent disagreements, is the definition of when human life truly begins. (No one, or none that I know of, argues that human life is not important nor that humans do not deserve the protection of the law.) Most of these preachers, however, simply take for granted, or assume, that the correct definition of when life truly becomes human is “at conception.” Like any other definition, this is at least somewhat arbitrary. (So is “at birth,” whatever the Bible says, I’d hasten to add.) The papal version, which in effect “at the moment when human bodies produce ova and sperm, whether or not subsequently joined” is no more and no less arbitrary. My problem with some of these arbitrary “starting” points—remember I argue that any one point is necessarily arbitrary—is that they take too little account of genuine human suffering, invidious societal/governmental invasion into private matters, and vicious consequences, for individual humans and for us collectively. Neglected and abused children are not philosophical abstractions, and the suffering they endure is quite real. Why is it that most “Right to Life” advocates have chosen not to adopt all the “unadoptable” kids now in the care of welfare agencies? Or sacrificed for food for the hungry, here and elsewhere? Overpopulation is a major problem—the major problem in much of the world—and insisting on bringing children into the world to let them starve to death or be horribly neglected, abused, or misused is inconsistent with any reasonable (to me, of course) “right to life.” Nor am I willing to give the government (and/or religious groups, even if they were a majority) the right to such fundamental invasion of privacy and such elemental control over anyone’s person. (See “K,” below.) I opt instead for what I freely admit is another arbitrary “starting” point: in line with Roe v. Wade, I support prohibiting abortions after approximately the first trimester of pregnancy (gives a woman time to discover for sure what has happened to her and to maintain control, but stays far enough from full-term, fully formed babies to keep me philosophically comfortable). And I support, vigorously and fully, organizations like Planned Parenthood (actually it’s the only group I know of) which work to fully inform people of all the choices for planning, preventing, ending, or completing pregnancies. Children are of overwhelming importance—but not just before birth.

G—The Bible is full of commandments supposedly from god that preachers do not entreat us to obey, so why should we take the Bible as authoritative on this issue even if we could get a clear fix on what it says (see “E,” above)? Do preachers really want us to start putting people to death for offenses like those Larry Lewis himself mentions as biblical capital offenses in his sermon (adultery—Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:24; incest—Leviticus 20:11-14; bestiality—Exodus 22:19 and Leviticus 20:15-16; sodomy—Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; fornication—Leviticus 21:9; and witchcraft [ever hear of Salem?]—Exodus 22:18? And Lewis omitted that God prescribed death for those who cuss—Leviticus 24:23) and astonishingly, for those who dare to pick up sticks on Saturday (Numbers 15:32-36)! This is the same God we are supposed to believe holds human life sacred? (See also “H,” below.)

H—A key element of many of these sermons is that the biblical God holds human life sacred. How can these preachers reconcile that view of a gentle, caring Father with the bloodthirstiness and slaughters described in Numbers 25: 8-13 and Numbers 31; 1 Kings 8:63-64; Deuteronomy 13: 6-10; and Exodus 23: 28-30?

I—The analogy James Kennedy (and a few others) drew between abortion and civil rights of racial and other minorities is a false one. Women unable to have control over their own bodies in the most basic way would be a much better parallel to slavery than are the rights of not-yet-fully-developed unborn humans. And if analogies, perfect or otherwise, are to be our debating weapons of choice, have Kennedy explain the flaws in this one: shall a law be passed requiring able-bodied persons with two healthy kidneys to surrender one if the government determines someone else needs one to live? Where, after all, does the “right to life” of a kidney patient end? (That would never pass, I promise you, because men as well as women would lose basic rights if it did.) There are two critical flaws in Kennedy’s analogy, one in his failure to deal with the most fundamental issue involved (see “F,” above) and the other in his thinly veiled racism. Those who insist that anti-abortion activists are on the same moral ground as civil rights leaders (in Lincoln’s day or MLK’s) are racist. The implicit message is that we can no more settle the question of whether “Blacks [or handicapped folks] are fully human” than we can settle whether fetuses are fully human. By any standard one wishes to apply, Blacks and handicapped people qualify. Fetuses, especially early term ones, have the potential to be sure, but easily defensible arguments against their being full-fledged humans can be made. (See also “K,” below.)

J—Many of these sermons oppose abortion on the grounds that wonderful human beings (Beethoven or Jonas Salk or Einstein, etc.) would have been lost if their Moms had chosen abortion. Aside from the trillions of possibilities than can never be realized (see “A,” above), and the fact that Beethoven might have been denied to us if his father had gotten amorous a few minutes earlier or later, what about the future Hitlers and Ted Bundys and the future Stalins and so on that might have been eliminated by abortions? Think of the endless suffering that MAY have been eliminated by abortions—this makes every bit as much sense as imagining the endless benefits that MAY have been lost to mankind through abortions.

K—Finally, where do all these preachers think they get the right to decide for others, for Christian women as well as for us secular humanists, for their own teenage daughters (I’m convinced that you ought to cut the sermon from Ron Herrod even if from no one else, by the way—he’s a child abuser if the term has any meaning) and for everyone else’s daughter a set of questions that is so emotionally charged, so bitterly divisive, and so difficult to resolve. No one is trying to make all these preachers turn the most important, intimate functions of their bodies over to government control in the name of religion—they’d no doubt raise hell if somebody tried to.

[1] Arwa Mahdawi, “Jane Roe’s Deathbed Confession Exposes the Immorality of the Christian Right,” The Guardian, May 20, 2020.

[2] Bassem Mroue, “Islamic State Group Targets Gays with Brutal Public Killings,” Associated Press, June 13, 2016. Online at

[3] For example: Bishop Thornton Stringfellow of Virginia, The Bible Argument: Slavery in the Light of Divine Revelation, 1860; and Robert E. Lee, according to Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic, June 4, 2017.

[4] Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Boston: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin), 2006, p. 347.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Doubleday, 1994, section 2123, p. 571.

[6] Jim Yardley and David Rohde, “Abortion Doctor in Buffalo Slain,” New York Times, October 25, 1998.

[7] Cal Thomas, “California: A State of Death,” Marietta [GA] Daily Journal, October 29, 2015.

[8] Ron Herrod, “Raped and Pregnant!,” in Larry L. Lewis, ed., Proclaiming the Pro-Life Message: Christian Leaders Address the Abortion Issue, Hannibal, MO: Hannibal Books, 1997, pp. 69–75.

[9] Brittini Ray, “Hundreds Gather to Protest Planned Parenthood Facility,” Marietta [GA] Daily Journal, August 23, 2015.

[10] Paul J. Webber (Associated Press), “Anti-abortion Activists Accused of Using Fake Licenses,” Marietta [GA] Daily Journal, January 27, 2016.

[11] Kristen White, “Pro-Life Responses to Tough Questions,” in Larry L. Lewis, ed., Proclaiming the Pro-Life Message: Christian Leaders Address the Abortion Issue, Hannibal, MO: Hannibal Books, 1997, p. 173.

[12] Ibid.

[13] According to Gregory S. Paul, “two-thirds to three-quarters fail to come to term, most failing just after conception due to failure to implant.” “The Real Reason for the Anti-Abortion Movement,” Free Inquiry, June/July 2020, p. 15.

Author’s Note: This is dedicated to Sue Gibbons, because she loved Tom Flynn more than anyone did (and he her), and he helped greatly with this article, as with so many other things. Not long ago, in the context of discussing an article in The Guardian about a documentary on the exploitation of “Jane Roe” …