The banality of abortion

January 6, 2016

In the Spring of 1961, Hannah Arendt sat in a courtroom in Jerusalem observing the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann was a notorious war criminal, an S.S. officer responsible for coordinating the transportation of millions of souls to death camps across Europe. Israeli Intelligence agents tracked him to Argentina, kidnapped him and flew him to Israel for a trial.

Arendt, a German-Jewish philosopher who had fled the Third Reich, was one of the world’s foremost thinkers on the politics of the 20th century. Her first book, a massive tome on The Origins of Totalitarianism, described its mechanisms — terror, fear, propaganda — and its origins — nationalism and imperialism. She saw it as the embodiment of what Immanuel Kant called “radical evil.” But sitting in that courtroom, she felt something in the foundations of her thought crumble. Eichmann wasn’t a vicious monster, eager to shed blood and lick it off his hands. He was a bureaucrat. A paper-pusher. Not Dracula, but Mr. Magoo.

This shocked Arendt, and sent her in search of language that could adequately describe the phenomenon. She landed on the phrase “the banality of evil,” which doesn’t dismiss the depths of evil itself as banal, but — far more terrifying — exposes the possibility that social and political realities can make the stomach-churning horrors of Nazi death camps a mere function of the state. They can happen without passion, without malice, with indifference. Not only that, as Eichmann himself testified, these social and political conditions can make someone believe that the horrors they commit are for the greater good.

While comparisons to Nazism are often overblown, I couldn’t help but hear the phrase “the banality of evil” as I watched each video exposing the trade of aborted children’s body parts by Planned Parenthood. A woman sips wine and munches on a salad while describing “less crunchy” techniques for extracting a baby from a womb. Another haggles over the prices of children’s organs and jokes that she wants a Lamborghini. Another shouts, “It’s a boy,” and proceeds to tear it limb from limb. Another recounts a woman who thought it was cool that she can stop and start a baby’s heart before cutting through his face to extract his brain.

These would be unspeakable horrors in any other context, but somehow, in our world today, these are acceptable. As Arendt described it in The Life of the Mind, “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence." In other words, by manipulating language, we can insulate ourselves from reality.

This happens all the time in politics and war. In Soviet Russia, dissidents weren’t “executed.” They simply became “non-persons.” In modern war, we don’t talk about the “death of innocents.” We talk about “collateral damage.” Young black men are “thugs.” People seeking refuge from despotic governments are “illegals,” and their children are “anchor babies.” Such insulating language makes it easy to talk about mass deportation — ignoring the conditions those souls would be subjected to once they returned — or as one presidential candidate suggested, bombing the caves along the border that immigrants use for shelter.

Likewise, in the practice of abortion, we don’t talk about “dead babies,” we talk about “aborted fetuses” and the “products of conception.” We don’t talk about “organ harvesting,” but “tissue donation.” We don’t talk about “heads,” but “calvarium.”

For Eichmann, the death camps were not about mass murder, but about “manufacturing corpses.” The “Final Solution” was couched in thick layers of jargon, masking its sinister purposes in the dull language of bureaucracy. This kept the stark, murderous reality at a safe cognitive distance, enabling (as Arendt described it) a “remoteness from reality” and “thoughtlessness.”

Arendt’s account of the trial was titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. After its publication, some misinterpreted Arendt, believing that her assessment of Eichmann as a banal and bumbling bureaucrat was too dismissive of the horrors of his crimes. But that misunderstands Arendt’s point. She means to take nothing away from the horrors of what Eichmann had done. Rather she means to root it not in the persona of a cartoon villain — a move that makes Eichmann something other than ordinary and human — but in the actions of an unimpressive man who chose not to judge, not to think about what he was doing. He wrapped himself in the comforting insulation of official language, in following orders, in a sense of inevitable progress and “history,” and went about his business of coordinating the schedule of dozens of trains as they crisscrossed Europe, carting men, women and children to their deaths.

Later, Arendt wrote of Eichmann, “I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer — at least the very effective one now on trial — was quite ordinary, commonplace and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions or of specific evil motives, and the only notable characteristic one could detect in his past behaviour as well as in his behaviour during the trial and throughout the pre-trial police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.’

We make a mistake if we see the monstrosity of the videos and label the doctors themselves (or their supporters) as monstrous. Instead, we need to see their first crime — the root of all the others — is a bland acceptance of the dehumanizing stock phrases and clichés of the pro-choice movement. Deborah Nucatola and her Planned Parenthood colleagues are not stupid. Nor are they cartoon villains — as villainous as those videos might make them seem. Rather, they have imbibed the language of the pro-choice movement, the disenchanted language that looks at bodies and refuses to assign them any meaning beyond being “products of conception.”

Again, don’t mistake me. These language games are nothing less than an attempt to be like God, to make meaning with our words other than the meaning assigned at Creation when God said “Let us make humanity in our image.”

Accepting these language shifts doesn’t mean you’re a sociopath, but it does mean you’re thoughtless. One must refuse the plain observation that a dead human being lies before them. They must choose not to think, wrap themselves in delusional language and carry out their murderous acts.

The burden for our culture starts on this ground: Are we willing (to borrow another phrase from Arendt) to “think what we are doing?” Are we willing to cut through the cloud of jargon and re-examine something most of us have become comfortable living with? Are we willing to judge? Because maybe, if those of us who are pro-life are right, our culture has committed a colossal moral outrage, and the bloodshed needs to stop.

Mike Cosper

Mike Cosper is a writer, speaker, and podcaster. In 2016, he founded Harbor Media, a non-profit media company serving Christians in a post-Christian world. He's the host of Cultivated: A Podcast about Faith and Work, and is developing The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a podcast about faith and culture.  He's the author of Rhythms … Read More

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