Does the Pro-Life Movement Need More Accountability?

This week, two of the individuals responsible for making and releasing a series of undercover, covertly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood employees were indicted on criminal charges.

To make the videos, the activists posed as individuals interested in purchasing fetal body parts which would be used in medical research. They secretly recorded the conversations with hidden cameras. Released by a group called “The Center for Medical Progress,” the videos were so explosive that they led to a Congressional hearing, in which Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards faced major questions raised in the secretly recorded conversations.

The videos depict conversations with Planned Parenthood officials discussing the practice of receiving money from medical companies in exchange for body parts disregarded after abortions are performed at their facilities. Several of the clips are extremely graphic.

Now, however, two of the individuals who made the videos are facing criminal charges, including tampering with government records and one related to soliciting the illegal sale of human organs. The grand jury decision comes as somewhat of a surprise, because the original investigation was to look into whether or not the abortion provider violated the law. Adding to the controversy surrounding the case, are reports that a Planned Parenthood board member is a prosecutor in Harris County, Texas, where the indictment took place.

Though some pro-life activists praised these efforts to expose a practice that critics of Planned Parenthood—and abortion in general—find immoral, the investigation itself raised many questions about the ethics of the so-called “sting.” It’s an operation that may turn out to now be illegal. And while the ethics of the videos might be debated by supporters of the group, what’s undisputed is that they intentionally misrepresented their identities, lied to the doctors and Planned Parenthood employees in the videos and recorded conversations without their permission.

For pro-life Christians—who believe in the sanctity and dignity of human life at all stages of development—can we support tactics that potentially undermine our other convictions and beliefs? This is a conversation we must have.

Moral Authority?

For many people who identify as pro-life, the position comes down to a moral imperative. Sure, there may be those who oppose abortion on a primarily scientific or pragmatic basis—but with the overwhelming majority of evangelicals saying that they oppose most abortion, it ultimately becomes an issue of what we see as right and wrong.

That’s why examining some of the controversial tactics used by some in the pro-life movement is critical. If our arguments against abortion are moral ones—and they are—than how should we think about possibly immoral actions among fellow pro-lifers?

The issue has even cropped up in the presidential race, after GOP hopeful Carly Fiorina angered the parents of several preschoolers after she had them sit beside her as she delivered a speech at a pro-life event. The children, in turns out, were on an unrelated field trip to a local botanical garden and were ushered next to Fiorinia without their parents’ permission.

Even in Christian circles, the tactics used recently by some in the pro-life movement have been controversial.

At the Urbana missions conference last month, there was a dust up between the pro-life group Students for Life and organizers of the Christian conference.

Urbana, which is a missions conference organized by the evangelical organization Intervarsity, denied Students for Life’s application to be an exhibitor at the conference. At first glance, this looks like a clear case of Christians distancing themselves from the pro-life movement—and even attempting to silence a pro-life group.

In an opt-ed for The Christian Post, Students for Life of America president Kristan Hawkins writes a scathing recap of the controversy:

What happens when young, Christian students aren’t supported in their pro-life views from other Christian organizations, ones that supposedly follow Christ-like teachings of love and compassion and the calling to protect those who cannot speak for themselves? Then we have a problem … … Students for Life and Rock for Life were denied the chance to exhibit at the conference because, according to an email from the Exhibits Manager, “… Students for Life does not align with Urbana’s exhibitor criteria. One of our key criteria for exhibitors is to have advancing God’s global mission as the vision and purpose of their organization.” So helping young women to choose life doesn’t align with God’s global mission

Hawkins then criticized the Black Lives Matter movement (one of Urbana’s speaker spoke arguing that the church should embrace the cause), and left readers with this conclusion:

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[Urbana] didn’t let the nation’s largest youth pro-life organization exhibit to 16,000 students this week because they decided that advancing the pro-life message and trying to change the culture to make abortion unthinkable isn’t something our Lord and Creator would like.

The only problem is, Hawkins wasn’t telling the whole story. In response, Urbana leaders said that they didn’t deny the group an exhibitor spot because they are pro-life, but because Students for Life isn’t or doesn’t claim to a be, a religious organization. They literally have no Christian ministry affiliation, which is a requirement Urbana enforces for all exhibitors. It’s a missions conference.

SFL later said that though many of its staff members were Christians, “We are not affiliated with any particular religion nor are we a religious organization.”

In an email posted by The Gospel Coalition, InterVarsity VP Greg Jao explained,

Any suggestion that Students for Life was not accepted as an exhibiting agency because of their pro-life goals is incorrect. If a pro-life organization met our exhibitor criteria, we would be happy to talk to them about being an Urbana exhibitor … Students for Life was aware of [the requirements] when they applied and acknowledged their non-religious status in their application. We also explained that exhibiting agencies must demonstrate that they advance the Gospel in word and deed. While Students for Life advances Gospel values in their admirable pro-life work, their strategy prevents them from making evangelism an explicit core commitment.

The irony is that Intervarsity is pro-life. Following the event, they released a statement saying “InterVarsity believes all lives are sacred—born and unborn.”

Maybe there was a genuine miscommunication regarding why SFL couldn’t be an exhibitor. But the posture of essentially attacking a ministry over what seemed to be an issue of policy—not ideology—is concerning. Pro-life groups like Students for Life may be involved in work that pro-life advocates see as important and effective, but by perpetuating a controversy—if that was their intention—they risk isolating the very people who are fighting for the same cause.

In a 24/7 news cycle that is fueled by controversies, outrage, sensationalism and rhetoric, it’s easy to view these sorts of tactics as effective tools in advancing our cause. And, in a movement as large and nuanced as the pro-life movement, its inevitable that there will be some who say and do things other seemingly-like minded allies don’t agree with. But if the methods themselves violate the moral stand and integrity we are trying to uphold, than it may be time to reexamine them—and hold others accountable.

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