U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently made national news when she argued that the government should shut down women’s health organizations she labeled “deceptive.” “We need to shut them down here in Massachusetts and we need to shut them down all around the country,” Warren told reporters. “You should not be able to torture a pregnant person like that.” However, she was not referring to abortion clinics that exploit vulnerable women and take the lives of preborn children. Rather, the senator was speaking out against pro-life pregnancy resource centers.
The Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation Act
In June following the landmark Dobbs decision, congressional Democrats introduced the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation Act. This bill would empower the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on crisis pregnancy centers for advancing purportedly false claims about abortion. If passed, these pro-life centers could be fined $100,000 or 50% of their revenue for violating the “prohibition on [abortion] disinformation.”
The text of the bill fails to define what exactly qualifies as “abortion disinformation,” but statements by the legislation’s sponsors illuminated their intentions. “It’s more important than ever to crack down on so-called ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ that mislead women about reproductive health care,” Warren said, claiming that pro-life pregnancy centers “lie” to mothers by encouraging them to choose life and should therefore face punishment.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney told reporters, “It is truly disgusting that reproductive rights are being threatened and attacked by crisis pregnancy centers whose guiding principle is to mislead, misinform, and outright lie to pregnant people in order to dissuade them from having an abortion. It is long past time that we prohibit these predatory tactics to undermine reproductive rights.”
Sadly, this legislative attack on pregnancy resource centers is not an isolated incident. Rather, it consistently tracks with the ethos of postmodern secularism—an unmooring from absolute truth that is reshaping the very moral frameworks that undergird our individual actions, cultural discernment, and political engagement. To discover what drives such legislative efforts, we should take a look under the hood of the religion of secularism.
Epistemology in a secular age
What is true? What is false? And who decides what is true? These epistemological questions frame our postmodern age and haunt Christians and secularists alike.
The prevailing doctrine of expressive individualism offers one possible take on the question of truth by advancing a system of truth claims that have influenced our modern moral order. We live in the “age of authenticity,” an era that the philosopher Charles Taylor characterizes as a “social imaginary of expressive individualism.” In our postmodern culture, authenticity is the prize, and self-actualization is the good life. By acting on the fundamental freedom to express oneself, the individual discovers his true purpose and place in the world.
In an age of expressive individualism, the pursuit of truth is no longer a quest for universal standards. Rather, culture has cast aside the universal value of human life to make way for a postmodern revelation: the individual is king. This secular revival rejects traditional institutional structures and communal senses of truth, instead heralding individual feelings and self-expression as sources of personal truth. The only prevailing truth is that each individual may choose for himself what is right, and the highest virtue is tolerance—celebrating each person’s “truth” while disdaining any truth claims that reach beyond the boundaries of the isolated, buffered self.
To a culture that sacralizes tolerance and venerates individual choice as an inviolable good, anyone who believes in the inherent value of all human life, including the preborn, presents a threat to the core values of the modern moral order. The pro-life ethic is rooted in human dignity and the image of God, which are fixed realities and transcendent truths that run counter to the secular norms of moral autonomy and individual choice. To the postmodern secularist, then, pro-life advocates appear to intrude on the individual’s autonomy by intentionally spreading false information about the nature of reality.
Technology experts label this “manipulation and distribution of facts” as disinformation. Disinformation, in contrast to misinformation, is false information intentionally meant to distract or dissuade the intended audience. Warren isn’t politely disagreeing with the pro-life movement; instead, she is actively assigning foul motives to pro-life pregnancy centers. But secularists aren’t the only ones tempted to label others as their “enemies.” Many of us struggle to navigate this world of disinformation, and labeling opposing opinions as “fake news” often serves as an easy escape from the difficult task of engaging faithfully in personal relationships and the public square.
While Warren’s recent actions are disappointing, it’s not surprising that she leveled charges of disinformation against pregnancy resource centers. The senator is acting in step with her secular ethic, advancing personal choice and autonomy at the steep cost of devaluing preborn lives. To the postmodern secularist, pro-life counseling provided by pregnancy resource centers can only be a restrictive, intolerant lie masquerading as healthcare that denies women the right to express themselves through abortion. And since these pregnancy centers bar women from exercising allegedly fundamental rights, then the government must be right to intervene, label heterodoxy as disinformation, and enforce a (twisted) interpretation of the common good.
But over and over, the postmodern ethic of expressive individualism is tested and found wanting. By rejecting God’s creation order and design for humanity, secularists are left directionless and hopeless, lost in the wilderness with no map. Their ethic proclaims freedom and autonomy for the individual but enslaves the soul either to the ruthless, all-consuming desire for more, or to the hopeless, empty feeling that there is nothing more. The heralded eschaton of self-actualization seems to always be a false peak, a disappointing mountaintop experience that always leaves the ambitious climber with nothing but unfulfilled longings and hollow regrets. Countless regretful mothers who now mourn their abortions agree: the view from the top isn’t nearly as pleasant as it looked in the travel brochure.
Truth under God
But there is another way. Jason Thacker writes that this fruitless pursuit of expressive individualism “is fundamentally at odds with a Christian understanding of truth and ultimate reality.” Scripture counters the rise of postmodern secularism by offering a radically different take on reality: truth is not decided by the individual but rather is founded in the nature and commands of almighty God (John 14:6). The psalmists sing that the Lord delights in truth, so our every endeavor ought to align with his heart for wisdom (Psalm 51:6). God created man not to live free of all constraints but rather to submit to his lordship and perfect design for our lives; therefore, we align with truth by reflecting God’s character and living by his Word (Psalm 119:160, John 17:17).
A Christian approach to disinformation, then, should consider the biblical principles of God’s created order, Christ’s lordship, and our responsibility to faithfully order our lives in light of both. Because the King of the universe has revealed universal standards of truth, disinformation is not just in the eye of the beholder. We can discern truth revealed in Scripture, and God also endowed men with a sense of reason to understand the created order and apply lessons revealed by common grace.
We can boldly speak the truth that life is worthy of protection and celebration, for each person is lovingly created in the very image of God. Pro-life pregnancy resource centers are not disseminating disinformation; they are working out their convictions in the public square in order to serve and love their neighbors. Senator Warren ignores that these centers serve women everyday by providing clothing, diapers, baby formula, and counseling. Pregnancy resource centers are an invaluable asset to their communities, and condemning them as disingenuous agents of disinformation does nothing but harm the very women that these politicians claim to serve.
Sen. Warren’s sweeping proposal aims its sights at legitimate pro-life speech, and it also opens the doors for the government to selectively weaponize speech codes to quash any other speech that the ruling party may find disagreeable. While it is good to combat legitimate disinformation and curtail its dangerous ramifications, we must also vigorously protect the right to free expression for all people, especially those with whom we disagree. An unhealthy public square forcefully cancels disagreeable speech and silences minority voices, but a healthy, flourishing public square encourages all to speak from their convictions and persuade without fear of government coercion.