Against Moral Idealism in Defunding Planned Parenthood

October 8, 2015

The pro-life movement is ordered toward a single end: establishing the conditions, economic and otherwise, so that every baby conceived in America is welcomed into a loving home. Of course, such a state of affairs is too broad, too underdetermined to function meaningfully as a goal. The path between our current situation and there requires seeking changes not only in our country’s laws and governmental structures, but better economic support for single mothers, smoother adoption processes, and a host of other changes that are more cultural than political. Social change is like baking a cake, except without any directions: you need all the right ingredients, but there are no rules about how they will react when mixed together.

It is no wonder, then, that in the face of such complexity, the pro-life movement has emphasized changing laws to restrict access to abortions while simultaneously supporting and counseling single mothers and at-risk women. On the one hand, laws have a broad, general applicability; by constraining the choices of every citizen, legislation (of any kind) has a pervasive and wide social effect, even if that effect is not known immediately and may sometimes be hard to detect. On the other, supporting and counseling women who are considering abortions is the sort of concrete, specific action that is immeasurably more satisfying: one knows one has saved a life and has a story to tell.  Both forms of action are necessary; neither is sufficient.

In between these poles, however, are a host of other incremental, sometimes invisible changes on the way toward the ideal of ending abortion in America. Defunding Planned Parenthood is the change that has received the most attention outside the pro-life world of late. No pro-life organization or individual in the world believes ceasing the steady flow of tax dollars to the organization will end abortions by itself. Defunding is, instead, simply one more element among the vast social complexities that have to be addressed sooner or later. And now seems to be a promising time.

The central rhetorical challenge to defunding Planned Parenthood, however, has been the claim that disadvantaged women will suffer because of the loss of access to crucial health services, and that the variety of alternative providers simply are not large or pervasive enough in American society to make up the difference. Matthew Loftus, for instance, argued that pro-lifers should push to expand Medicaid in order to compensate for what would be lost if Planned Parenthood suffers.

The sentiment at the heart of Loftus’ essay is understandable—but it is one that less careful and more progressive proponents than Loftus have used to undermine the incrementalism that the pro-life community has largely adopted. The notion that we should only defund Planned Parenthood if and when we have sufficient alternatives in place to ensure that no one experiences a gap in services is a tempting ideal, but not one anyone should reasonably accept.

When wrongs are baked into a culture, people who otherwise have no stake in those misdeeds become entangled in them through no fault of their own, frequently by enjoying—even unwittingly—the benefits those misdeeds momentarily provide. The undoing of such wrongs inevitably causes suffering, and invariably those who are least guilty will suffer most. But the responsibility for such collateral damage falls on the original wrongdoers, not those who seek the remedy. And the likelihood of such suffering should in no way prevent us from seeking justice in the first place. If we outlawed pornography in this country, countless people would be out of work, and many of them would be women at risk of greater social harms. But there is no obligation on us as a society to allow such products to be made until everyone in the industry has another job.

The notion that there is no form of suffering our society should accept in the unwinding of gravely evil moral systems is a reverse form of moral perfectionism and idealism. There is a disparity, to be sure, in my writing this: I will not bear the defunding of Planned Parenthood the way many of my neighbors might. But there are wrongs we must end and there are sorrows and sufferings we must allow—allow but not intend, accept but not choose. No one really believes in a moral idealism that refuses to countenance any consequent harms in the pursuit of our preferred goods: but it is a convenient position for critics of the pro-life community to adopt in order to ensure that nothing ever happens. “We need to change hearts and minds, not laws” is a refrain that is often on the lips of the sort of pro-lifer who thanks God they’re not like those extreme people who hold up signs and go to rallies. But while it is true that the ideal demands such a widespread and deep renewal, pro-lifers have learned to be incrementalists well—which means changing laws and fighting political battles. The refrain that we should only defund Planned Parenthood if we ensure no one loses out is itself simply another form of this lofty moral idealism, one which Loftus’ essay comes near to even if he doesn’t embrace it outright.

The unwillingness on the part of many progressives to countenance the thought of allowing any harms to anyone, even those currently disadvantaged, is itself one of the strongest and most pervasive reasons for the perpetuation of the unjust system of abortion that has throttled our country. By enmeshing abortion within a network of distributing health care (but not as much as advertised!), Planned Parenthood advocates are able to weaponize the very victims they exploit in order to ensure they can continue to do wrongs. The idea that such an unjust system could be unwound without any suffering among its beneficiaries—those who are at the top of the system, and their “clients”—is simply fanciful. It is as probable as the proposition that slavery could have been destroyed without the suffering of both the slaveholders and those doubly unfortunate men and women who had to learn to make their own way in a strange new world.

Indeed, avoiding accepting even the possibility of our own suffering and harm is at the heart of our country’s most pressing social problems. Refusing to countenance the possibility that America could be attacked again on 9/11 helped justify a regime of torture that itself was a gross stain on the American conscience and character. Our police forces have often so heroically and willingly become vulnerable in the face of danger so that the rest of us have not. But the militarized forces that approached the people of Ferguson made it clear that they would not accept the risk of loss and show their faces, faces that are necessary for reminding the society that they are our own police officers, even if they do not look like us. There cost of maintaining the pretense of invulnerability is far higher than most people realize. The cost of being vulnerable is one most people refuse to even consider.

Which is why Loftus may be right that it should be Medicaid programs and American tax-dollars to compensate for the burden at-risk women might fall under. It has a strong rhetorical force, and it appropriately seeks to shift the cost of bringing justice toward those who are best able to bear it. The strong help the weak, after all. And critics will simply say that the willingness to accept social harms simply endorses a so-called “war on women.”

But as I said, the injustices that arise in unwinding an unjust situation are not those any pro-lifer seeks or wants. But the actual, present evils of dismembering human beings in the womb are gravely disproportionate to the possible—not even actual, but only theoretical and based on people’s best guesses and predictions—disruption of services to those women who seek them. Again, torture is the appropriate analogue: the extreme situation of a war or a possible threat to American safety under no circumstances justifies torturing human persons.

And I am skeptical about the efficacy of Loftus’ proposal: nature abhors a vacuum, but political communities might need one if they are to rediscover and rebuild the social and moral ties which those who are at risk need to reverse their fortunes. But this kind of argument, and the overoptimistic claims by pro-lifers that no women will be affected if Planned Parenthood is defunded, should not obscure the more fundamental and basic fact that in the face of such gross moral evils we should unhesitatingly accept the burdens such actions might impose, even if those who are most disadvantaged have to bear them hardest.

Justice in an imperfect world demands that someone lose out. When people benefit from unjust systems, any remedy demands some kind of compensatory loss, either from them or from someone else. The necessity of suffering for the sake of bringing the just to an imperfect world is an ineradicable feature of the moral universe, and we avoid it or downplay it at the cost of our own clarity. We may struggle to articulate any rational basis for which wrongs we will allow and which we cannot abide, but we simply cannot fall prey to the kind of moral idealism that only pursues justice under the conditions that no one suffer for it.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24