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.