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