While I accept that abortion is morally tolerable and should be legal, I also accept that there are competing moral views. I also accept that both proponents and opponents of abortion have the moral right to argue for their views and so influence the behavior of others. As such, I have no moral objection against the idea of a pregnancy crisis center that provides women and girls with accurate information, true information about alternatives to abortion and assistance to women who elect to not have an abortion. Unfortunately, pregnancy crisis centers seem to engage in willful deceit.
As noted in my previous essay on this subject, John Oliver did a show on the deceptive practices of these centers. While Oliver is a comedian, his claims are backed up with evidence: these centers often trick women. One common technique is masquerading as an abortion clinic or health care provider by locating close to such places and using similar names. Such places also tend to use the trapping of professional medicine (forms, scrubs, etc.) to create the illusion they are a clinic or provider despite not being licensed to provide medical care. Another tactic is to make untrue claims about abortion, such as the claim that abortion increases their risk of cancer and infertility.
Oddly enough, such centers are usually legally allowed to give ultrasounds which is concerning, but more worrisome is the fact that they routinely mislead women about the results. This is not just a matter of concern for pro-choice people, pro-life people should also be worried about these misleading results in cases in which the woman plans to have the baby. Weirdly enough, while funding for women’s health is on the decrease, 34 states provide public money to these centers. This should be of concern to people who favor small government and also those who oppose public money being used explicitly to back ideological causes. After all, one of the arguments advanced against public funding of Planned Parenthood is that public money might be used for something some people find morally or religiously unacceptable. The same logic should certainly apply to these centers.
On the face of it, deceit seems morally wrong. As such, the centers that engage in these practices would be engaged in immoral behavior. This is especially ironic given that these centers tend to be affiliated with religious organizations and the bible is rather clear about the ethics of lying. While this seems to be an easy moral argument, there are also some counters to consider.
The first is the factual battle: it could be argued that the claims about deceit are themselves deceits—that the centers are operating honestly and openly, telling women the truth and making it clear that they are not licensed and exist to persuade people to not have abortions. The easy counter is that this is not the case. It is, of course, important not to confuse these deceitful centers with people who are open and honest about what they are trying to do—I am not claiming that all or even most anti-abortion people engage in these deceits.
The second is the moral battle—it can be argued that such deceit is justified on moral grounds; the end justifies the means. The obvious moral theory to use here is utilitarianism: the action that creates the most good and the least harm is the right action. In the case of the centers, they could accept that deceit is generally not a good thing, but that the harm of deceiving the women and girls is exceeded by the good of misleading them so that they do not have an abortion. To use an obvious analogy, lying to a murder to keep them from murdering would be morally right on utilitarian grounds.
Even if one accepts the utilitarian approach, there is still the question of whether the centers are doing their moral calculation right: is the good they claim to do outweighing the harms to the women and girls they deceive? Obviously, pro-choice people would disagree. There is also my usual line: why lie if the truth will suffice? In the case at hand, if abortion is truly as evil as the center folk believe, then telling women the truth should suffice. If they must lie to people, then one would suspect that they must not trust in their own reasons and arguments. They could, of course, reply by doubling down on the utilitarian approach and contend that people are not swayed by good reasons nor are they drawn to the right thing without being guided by deceits.
Accepting utilitarianism does, however, create its own problem: if the ends justify the means in terms of deceiving to prevent abortion, then the same principle also applies to abortion. As such, abortion would be subject to the same utilitarian calculation and could very well turn out to be acceptable. In any case, its wrongness would be conditional.
The centers could reply that they are not utilitarians; they just hold that the end justifies the means when it comes to lying about abortion, but that abortion is inherently worse than lying and it is acceptable to do lesser evils to prevent greater evils. This would be a consistent position but is still morally problematic since there are non-evil ways to reduce the numbers of abortions, such as providing cheap and effective birth control, funding quality sex-education, improving support services for women and girls who have babies, and so on. After all, it is hard to justify doing evil to stop evil when there are viable non-evil alternatives. If someone gladly embraces deceit to advance their cause when morally better alternatives exist, one must question their ethics.
I think it would have been illuminating to get the viewpoint of someone whose life was saved by a Pregnancy Crisis Center.
A very professional and entertaining segment, as always.
I’m not going to be able to research this in sufficient detail to make an informed judgement. An hour or two of reading does throw up some context, though.
The most notable irony in talking about a case that accuses people of presenting incomplete information is that the show never mentions the current Supreme Court case NIFLA vs. Becerra http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/national-institute-family-life-advocates-v-becerra/ The oral argument for this was held a few weeks ago, and I believe it must have been the impetus for this segment. It was almost the first thing I found when looking for some information on the subject. The timing, the prominence, and the similarity of thesis makes it impossible that a professional team of researchers could have missed it. And yet, John Oliver did not mention it. Why? Because California has crafted a law tailored – the word used in arguments was “gerrymandered” – to force CPCs to provide referrals to abortion clinics, and the Supremes don’t sound at all impressed, and not just on a right-left split. This law is going to lose, and it’s going to lose big. However, if John Oliver and others like him can raise enough grassroots support for the general idea, other, similar laws may spring up in other States, with the advantage of knowing how exactly they have to contort the law further to survive judicial scrutiny. This segment is priming the audience to be outraged when they hear the decision without understanding the case.
I believe that this is the motivation of the segment. I don’t mind an advocate presenting his case one-sidedly, but I sniff a bit at hidden agendas.
The next thing I find is that the entire population of pregnancy centre related information appears to be split right down the middle, polarised between abortion and non-abortion facilities. I know it can’t be like this in the US, but I lack the time to dig long enough to find a more complete picture.
So to the content of the segment itself. It makes essentially three claims: 1. That CPCs pass themselves off as facilities that will help with abortions, if that’s what the client decides, and 2. that CPCs provide false information, as well as true information, that influences clients against abortions, and that 3. states are funding them.
We now come to a true bifurcation. People who believe that abortion is murder will see the abortion industry in the US as competitive with Nazi Germany in its kill count of innocents. Not up to the standards of Stalin or Mao, but Hitler is a reachable target. For people with such beliefs, any deception is as justified as telling Nazi squads that no, they don’t have any Jews hiding in their attic. For them, the whole discussion is moot.
People who see abortion as unfortunate, but the lesser of two evils in some cases, may be concerned about deception, so it is from that point of view that we should consider the charges.
The first general problem with Oliver’s thesis is that nearly all these CPCs are independent organisations. There is as little reason to assume that they are all doing the same things as there is to assume that all plumbers or laywers do the same things. Some lawyers are shady. Some plumbers overcharge. Finding a sample of bad behaviour does not mean that all lawyers and plumbers misbehave. (Cue lawyer jokes.) To be fair, it would be a high bar to demand that he produce quantitative data, but the lack of it, combined with justified suspicions of cherry-picking prompted by hiding the agenda, weakens his case a lot.
The next thing I found was that the entire pregnancy service industry has a lot in common with a high-pressure sales environment. For example, I find statements that Planned Parenthood directors are given abortion quotas to maintain revenue, together with suggestions that offering contraception that may result in failure is a way to help achieve those quotas. That’s pretty horrifying, and I hope it’s not true. But true or not, it’s clear that the abortion industry and the CPCs are in a form of sales competition for these clients. This is the context in which we should judge these behaviours. I never ascribe any weight to charges of “whataboutism”, but this is a situation in which it is completely inappropriate to bring that up – a competitive sales situation in which each side needs to do ahetever is necessary to counter the other.
So, considering the claims, I believe
1. that at least some CPCs do pass themselves off as offering all options when they don’t. I also see that at least some abortion businesses pass themselves off as offering pre-natal services when they don’t. Each side is engaging in deceptive marketing, that may or may not not amount to direct lying, in response to the other side’s marketing.
2. that at least some CPCs do provide false information to their clients. Quoting statistical studies with weak power is bad everywhere, not just in CPCs, but misinformation about the duration of pregancy is unforgiveable, except to those whyo see abortion as murder.
3. that some states do fund some CPCs, but at a tiny fraction of the half-billion a year that the federal government funds Planned Parenthood.
The lesson I take away from this is that the arms race that has developed between the abortion industry and the CPCs is a very destructive force, and as a matter of public policy the focus should be on limiting that rather than striking out against one side. I would start by attaching some conditions to that massive cash-gift to Planned Parenthood to slow and perhaps reverse the arms race.
I also came across this rebuttal video. Not as professionally researched, polished or professional as the TV production, but it makes some cogent counterpoints:
Phil Tanny says
I think many anti-abortion activists are being skillfully manipulated by organizations like the Catholic Church. As example, in politics it’s common to use a wedge issue to fire up one’s base and get them to the polls. I think that’s much of what is happening here. The Church creates a simplistic story line of good and evil, giving their members the appealing hero role, a very effective appeal to ego. The Church is firing up it’s base, keeping them engaged, and the donations rolling in.
What the Church never gets around to mentioning is that outlawing abortion won’t end abortion, it will just re-locate it. You know, the rich and middle class will hop a discount flight to Canada, and the poor will return to the back alley. So all the melodrama is actually much ado about almost nothing.
I don’t mean that everyone who is against abortion is a dupe. I’m referring here to the extremists who engage in the kind of exaggerated activities referenced above. In these cases, organizations like the Church have successfully sucked them deep in to the self flattering fantasy hero role.
Michael LaBossiere says
Samantha Bee does a breakdown of how abortion was manufactured as a political issue: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/samantha-bee-gop-abortion-issue_us_5743f676e4b00e09e89fe561
As always, one would want to keep in mind that Bee is biased left and that the facts claimed in the piece should be verified using neutral sources.
Phil Tanny says
Ha, colorful piece, thanks for the link.
I think abortion is a legitimate concern. My complaint is with the lack of logic involved in the obsession with making it illegal, given that this will not accomplish that much.
A rational alternative would be for the Church and other advocates to stop yelling polarizing slogans at the clinics from the outside, and instead go inside the clinic as a partner, and offer to raise any babies the parents don’t want. That would make a difference.
But that would only save babies, and not perform the function of firing up the base, so never mind.
Michael LaBossiere says
It is an excellent idea to have a counselling option at the clinics, if the woman wishes to speak to them. Women should get an honest discussion of all their options.