The Dehumanizing Irony of the Digital Age

Planned Parenthood, technology, and the longing for community

Jason Thacker

In January 2019, Planned Parenthood announced the launch of a sexual health chatbot named Roo, which is designed to help answer some of the most awkward or intimate questions that teenagers may have about their body, sex, relationships, and a host of other related issues. The chatbot is built on artificial intelligence (AI) and is available 24/7. It functions like text messaging a trusted friend, but with supposed expert advice coming from a host of medical professionals and adults. The bot’s sleek design and social media-like interface learns as it goes, providing more personalized answers, and does all of this in a private, isolated environment. 

It should come as no surprise that Planned Parenthood is pioneering this type of technology as part of its arsenal of cutting edge products, all designed to provide medical care and abortions nationwide. The goal is to make this kind of information easy and accessible for teenagers in a convenient and efficient packet. While the system will normally answer whatever questions one might ask, it regularly counsels users to connect with Planned Parenthood staff or medical teams, especially when it comes to issues of abortion or pregnancy care.

Planned Parenthood bills this technology as a way to reach people where they are and explains, “Young people can ask Roo their burning questions about their health, their body, relationships, getting care at Planned Parenthood, or choose from a list of questions, to get the answers they need within seconds, day or night. The chatbot is designed for 13 to 17 year-olds, but can be used by anyone who has questions about sexual and reproductive health.”1https://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/planned-parenthood-launches-new-sexual-health-chatbot-to-meet-the-needs-of-young-people-24-7 

Questions range from how to navigate relationships to the acceptability of watching pornography for both boys and girls. Other questions concern how to know if you might be attracted to the opposite sex, what it means to be transgender, what to do if you think you may be pregnant, how to get over a crush, and even what happens during puberty. While many of the questions are understandable and common for young people, the entire system is disheartening, not just because of who is behind the technology but also because of the lack of actual community with parents, guardians, or other trusted relationships.

How technology can dehumanize us

To many, this online app may seem innocuous, but this is because technology has become part of everything we do. Our lives have been shaped by the ubiquity of technology, including how we work, learn, play, and even build relationships with those around us. Jacques Ellul, one of the most prescient figures and astute observers of the cultural and moral shifts taking place in the 20th century due to the rise of modern technology, opened his influential work, The Technological Society, by saying, “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood.”2Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 3. These words, penned in the 1950s by the late French sociologist and theologian, speak directly to the modern debates over technology and its proper role in our lives. They also speak to the complexity of these systems and how they are radically shaping our society. Today, technology is often assumed and assimilated instead of being examined or questioned regarding its nature and proper role.

One of the most profound shifts in how technology is forming us is seen in the example of Planned Parenthood’s Roo chatbot. It demonstrates that in the pursuit of the most efficient and effective means, we often think technology can solve the problems that accompany its adoption. As Candian philosopher George Grant once said, “more technology is needed to meet the emergencies which technology has produced.”3Grant, George. Technology & Justice. Toronto: Anansi, 1991, 16. One of the main problems that has arisen with technologies like social media and other forms of media entertainment is that they have impeded our ability to connect with others at deep and intimate levels.

For all of their good, these technologies tend to isolate us and are designed to constantly entertain us. They achieve this by keeping us distracted and unengaged with the things we see with each scroll. The Roo app is just one way society has tried to develop newer technology to counter problems like these. But, as a result of the technology’s function, we become unable to build deep and meaningful relationships with others. And in the case of teenagers, they may now resort to a sexual health chatbot, instead of parents or other reliable adults, in order to ask the things about which they are naturally curious.

Planned Parenthood’s goal is to help digital-age teens answer questions that may feel silly, awkward, or weird asking adults in the context of community, but it does so with a very clear agenda. While I am obviously alarmed that this is coming from the nation’s largest abortion provider, I am also concerned that this illustrates we have given over the difficult aspects of raising teenagers to technology and neglected to develop the relationships necessary to let the awkward feel normal.

God created man and woman as unique individuals who are made in his image and are meant for community with himself and one another (Gen. 1:26-28). These relationships are key aspects of what it means to be authentically human. We must wake up to how technology is subtly shaping us to think of humans as machines and isolated information-processors, rather than image-bearers of the most high God who are designed for deep, trusting, and honest community with one another. The truth about who he has made us to be doesn’t change in a digital age.

The danger of humanizing technology 

In an ironic twist, given how technology is influencing us in dehumanizing ways, we often seek to humanize our technologies, as seen with Planned Parenthood’s Roo. 

And, tragically, in a time when the baby in the womb is called a fetus or simply a clump of tissue, we name our machines and give them personalities. For example, Roo not only has a cute name but also an icon that winks at users and engages unsuspecting teenagers as if there is someone trustworthy on the other side of the chat bubble. Given the brokenness all around us today—in our families, communities, churches, and more—it is understandable and lamentable that technology is seen as a substitute for authentic community.

The leaders of Planned Parenthood grasp the times in which they live and know Roo is an effective way to reach young people. As a result, they are able to persuasively spread their message of abortion as healthcare to those most at risk for unplanned pregnacies or health-related issues. While Roo might come across as a fun and modern chatbot that feels cutting edge and relational, it essentially aids in isolating a teenager during a difficult season and purposefully feeds them information about choosing to end an unborn child’s life. 

The church’s response 

As our society continues to wade through the unintended consequences of our technological innovations, many in the church wonder if and how we should adopt technologies similar to Roo in order to counter the world’s influence. One of the ways that our churches can serve our communities better is by building relationships with those around us and seeking to develop trust that will last beyond the perceived usefulness of these types of technologies.

The church must prioritize the embodied souls that God has placed in our path over forms of technological advance, all the while advocating for God-honoring uses of technology. This does not mean that we seek to abandon all forms of technology in our communities and life, as if that would even be feasible or possible. It simply means being aware of how these technologies can dehumanize and separate us and our neighbors

God calls his church to wisdom as we engage the shifting technological culture around us. Technology is deeply embedded into every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not, and has great potential to affirm the humanity of our neighbors—even the smallest among us. We can harness the power of technology to reveal the life of a baby in the womb and stay connected with real relationships while also rejecting the constant push to humanize our technologies. 

As Christians, God calls us to love those around us as he loves us, choosing to personally step into difficult and sometimes awkward situations in order to proclaim a better way—a way that trades asking a sleek chatbot personal and intimate questions for the connectedness of trusted flesh-and-blood relationships with fellow image-bearers.

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author or editor of several books including the Essentials in Christian Ethics series, The Age of AIFollowing Jesus in a Digital Age, and The Digital Public Square. He is a graduate of The University of Tennessee and Southern Seminary, where he is currently a PhD candidate in Christian ethics and public theology.

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