A- A A+

Good Christian morality is better than bad science

Matthew Beard |  11 August 2014

Eric Abetz and Mia Freedman

Even before the controversies surrounding Eric Abetz’s remarks on Channel Ten’s The Project, the World Congress of Families was under fire for its endorsement of Angela Lanfranchi’s research linking abortion to breast cancer.

Dr Lanfranchi was accused by feminist writer Van Badham of 'peddling… information out of a concern for women's health, while playing down their theological or political agenda.'

Badham’s implication was that Dr Lanfranchi and others have tried to develop medical scientific or psychological arguments against abortion. The specifics of the arguments differ, but the general point is the same. Abortion is against the best interests of women, and activists who defend it as a means of advancing the wellbeing of women are mistaken. 

Although it’s very likely that Dr Lanfranchi genuinely believes her argument to be true, it still doesn’t give voice to what anti-choice activists actually argue is wrong with abortion; namely, that the foetus is a morally precious person with infinite value and dignity. Instead of making this powerful claim, scientific proponents dilute the argument in order to make it more palatable to a potentially hostile audience. 

It’s important that we not assign motive and assume that any medical scientific argument (or, for that matter legal, practical or psychological argument) against abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, or other heated moral issue is actually subversive ideology. However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to believe that some such arguments are - from both sides of these debates. 

Subversion of this sort is problematic for anybody interested in truth and integrity in public debate. For one thing, if proponents of a particular perspective aim to support their arguments with facts rather than ideas, they are at constant risk of losing the argument if the facts change. 

Consider, for instance, the possibility that it is true that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. For those who oppose abortions, this makes a compelling case for minimising abortions, but if, say, we were able to sever the link, then the argument against abortion would disappear. I suspect, though, that many with a stake in the scientific argument would not so readily abandon their position. There is good reason for this: because arguments against abortion exist in deeper, more powerful forms, even if they are less effective at gaining popular support. 

To mask beliefs in another form (if, and when, that occurs) is to immediately concede that they are shameful, unpopular, or prima facie unacceptable. Why would I try to sneak my argument through the back door if I genuinely believed it to be true? Worse than that though, it’s dishonest. The attempt to persuade someone through incidental facts rather than by presenting the strongest possible version of the argument is deceptive and presumptive. 

The presumption is that I already possess the truth, and that the task of debate is not, in fact, to debate but to convert. Public discourse becomes an act of salvation. Why not, as Paul asks in Romans 3, simply use whatever means are necessary to persuade people of the truth? 

The answer is that the inherent contradiction in the practice of using lies, subversion or deception attacks the same truth it aims to uphold. We have public debates about morality and ethics because reaching the truth of these matters is objectively valuable. When we aim to deceive, we manipulate truth in order to suit our own ends. If we care about truth, we have a duty to present it in its best possible light.  

Christian bioethicist Nicholas Tonti-Fillipini has frequently criticised Christian arguments that are separated from Christ himself. This method, even if effective, 'sells [Christians] short and represents a failure to engage in secular discussion on equal terms and a failure to give adequate witness to the teachings of Christ.'

An old expression in the teaching of legal advocacy goes as follows: 'if you have the facts on your side, hammer the facts. If you have the law on your side, hammer the law. If you have neither the facts nor the law, hammer the table.' 

Equally, if you have morality on your side, argue morality; and if you have Christ on your side, argue Christ. The Christian faithful ought not to be afraid of an explicitly Christian, moral voice in public debate. Anything less is dishonest and – potentially – embarrassing.  

Matthew BeardMatthew Beard is a research associate at the University of Notre Dame's Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society. Twitter @matthewtbeard


Matthew Beard

Recent articles by this author


Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

I agree very much with Matthew's final paragraph. And with the general thrust of his argument. Abortion is an emotive topic. And one where there is significant disagreement, even among Christians. Non-violence should be part of Christian ethics and yet abortion clinics have been bombed by Christians. Some Christians argue for the pregnant woman to be regarded as a morally precious person, with infinite value and dignity and for her to be supported in sometimes very difficult circumstances. That means, to me, regarding her life as of equal importance to the foetus.

Pam 11 August 2014

Well said Matt you flamer

Dr Van Nostrum 12 August 2014

Not sure what the point is peddling the term "Chritian morality" is apart from scoring sort of political gain or reverting to some type of self-congratulating tribalism. Surely if an action is good and just and the loving thing to do, then it's inspired by Jesus? Isn't that the whole point of ethics? It's about going through a process, a discernment - not taking sides.

AURELIUS 13 August 2014

Well said Aurelius, caecilius est in horto sedet... my favourite quote from Latin, I find very relevant here.

Caecilius 14 August 2014

Abortion is big business! What if there is a link between abortion and breast cancer? What an injustice to women by all, including the Church, to shut down the argument and not do considerable research? Why not at least consider the Natural Law? Let's discuss it. Professor Boyages made some very considered comments on radio which weren't given much air time.

Ma Wi 17 August 2014

Similar articles

Mixed messages undermine western solidarity with Gaza

Raff Piccolo | 06 August 2014

Palestine solidarity painted faceThere are messages of support for Palestinians suffering in Gaza. But for every 'condemnation' that is directed at Israel by the President of the United States, the same speech always refers to the 'inherent right of Israel to defend itself'. However well intentioned, the sentiments are being used by Israel to justify all its actions in Gaza.

Low fat food products are a con

Mike Foale | 05 August 2014

Book cover 'The Big Fat Surprise'The medical researcher who developed the saturated fat theory was Ancel Keys, who had cherry-picked data. He achieved celebrity status in the media through aggressive promotion of his theory. Credible science journals have lately been publishing robust reports that saturated fat is not implicated in heart disease, much to the chagrin of manufacturers of low fat processed food products. 

Christians and Muslims exchange Middle East kindness

Ruby Hamad | 01 August 2014

Al Jazeera article headline 'Muslims join Christians in declaring 'I am Iraqi, I am Christian''As an Arab-Australian it's difficult to watch the events in Syria, Iraq and Gaza without a sense of guilt and shame. To outside eyes, it must appear that the Middle East is driven by hatred and bloodlust. In fact there is a long history of persecuted members of one Middle Eastern faith finding safety in the places of worship of those that are often cast as their enemies. This is the Middle East, at once unconscionably cruel and unbearably kind.

Ukraine endgame?

Tony Kevin | 31 July 2014

Conflict in UkraineThe shooting down of MH17 by insurgent anti-aircraft missiles has now been swallowed up in the wider drama of the fierce civil war raging in Ukraine's pro-Russian eastern region. On 24 July, the International Committee of the Red Cross proclaimed Ukraine to be in a state of civil war, appealing to all those involved to respect the humanitarian rules of war or face later indictment as war criminals. The burning question now is, what will Putin's Russia do?

Indonesia's new paradigm must include the past

Pat Walsh | 29 July 2014

Jokowi meets his volunteers at Proclamation Monument in JakartaThe day after the result of Indonesia's presidential election was announced, I joined crowds of excited Indonesians in central Jakarta to celebrate Jokowi's election as Indonesia's seventh president. Did you see the rainbow? asked a supporter. I hadn't, but even if the heavens had opened and soaked everybody to the skin, it would have been taken as another sign that God too had voted for Jokowi.