Ray Comfort’s Anti-Abortion Video “180”

Was Jesus the son of God?“A shocking, award-winning documentary!”  “Changing the heart of a nation.”  “33 minutes that will rock your world.”  Ray Comfort lavishes his work with superlatives, but does it hold up?

I watched 180 so that you won’t have to.  Spoiler alert: didn’t rock my world.

Motives are immediately suspect when the video opens with Hitler and Nazi rallies.  Right out of the gate, Godwin’s Law is in force, and Comfort makes clear that you’re either on his side or giving Hitler back rubs.

With that dichotomy clear, Comfort interviews people hanging out on a sunny day at some Los Angeles beach.  He begins by asking, “Who was Hitler?”  The snippets introducing us to the (typically) 20-somethings who we’ll see throughout the video all show them clueless in response.  If it was unclear before, it’s now obvious that he cherry picked only those interviews that gave him what he wanted.  This is a poor foundation on which to show us a half-dozen people at the end who are convinced by his message.  (Okay, Ray, but out of how many?)

We connect the present with Hitler through a long interview with a young American neo-Nazi with a tall blue Mohawk and a dashed “Cut here” tattoo across his throat.  And then, videos of concentration camp aftermath.

Comfort primes his interviewees with moral puzzles such as “Would you shoot Hitler if you could go back in time and do so?” or “Would you kill Jews if told that, if you didn’t, you would be killed and someone else would do the job?”

About a third of the way in, the conversation finally turns to abortion.  The use of Hitler and the Holocaust is justified when Comfort declares abortion to be the American holocaust, with killing fetuses equivalent to killing Jews.  His arguments are nothing new to many of us, but they were to this crowd:

  • Finish this sentence: “It’s okay to kill a baby in the womb when …”
  • What if a construction worker was about to blow up a building but wasn’t sure if there was a person in there or not.  If we’re not sure, we should always err on the side of life, right?
  • What if someone had aborted you?

I’ve already discussed these and other arguments.

Next, he brings up the sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”  In the first place, he’s done nothing to show that there is a god behind these commandments and that it has any more supernatural warrant than “Use the Force, Luke!”  Additionally, the commandment is usually translated as “thou shalt not murder.”  If the correct word is “kill,” I need to see Comfort walking the walk by campaigning against capital punishment and war.  And if it’s an undefined “murder,” what is murder?  The commandment becomes a tautology: Thou shalt not do what is forbidden.

Granted, but how is this helpful?

Our interviewees seem a little off balance with a camera in their faces and are apparently not that sharp to begin with given their widespread ignorance of Hitler.  Ray picks snippets that give him what he wants to hear, that killing fetuses is equivalent to killing Jews.

The lesson is that you can make an effective emotional pro-life argument to people who haven’t thought much about the issue.  But people who change their minds so easily (Comfort brags about how quickly they changed) aren’t well established in their new position.  How many of these, after thinking about these ideas at leisure and discussing it with friends, are still in Comfort’s camp today?

There’s a fundamental confusion in his interviewees, and Comfort is not motivated to correct it.  There’s a big difference between “Abortion is wrong for me” and “Abortion is wrong for everyone, and we must impose that on society.”  People give him the former, but he hopes we’ll take away the latter.

We’re two thirds through the video now and are just hoping to get out with our sanity intact, but Comfort has saved the best for last.  The anti-abortion argument is dropped, and he falls back to his old favorite, the Ten Commandments challenge.  (One reviewer suggested that Comfort’s compulsive use of this argument is his personal form of Tourette’s.)  This is where Comfort ticks off the commandments: Have you ever lied?  Stolen?  Looked on someone with lust?

He concludes: “By your own admission, you’re a lying, thieving, blaspheming fornicator and must face God on Judgment Day™.  How do you think God should judge you?”  Again, of course, he ignores that we haven’t established the existence of God or the afterlife.

I did applaud one aspect of the movie, the text at the end that read, “We strongly condemn the use of any violence in connection with protesting abortion.”  At least, I applauded this until I realized that this was probably a legal demand since Comfort had pushed his interviewees to consider shooting Hitler early in the documentary.

Given Ray Comfort’s easy success with emotional appeals, what if someone did a rebuttal video?  It could open with stories of illegal and dangerous back-alley abortion clinics.  Then talk about Americans rejecting oppressive government—“the land of the free,” “no taxation without representation,” and all that.  Paint a picture of medieval Europe with the heavy hand of the church on every aspect of life for the poor peasant.  Overlay some stirring patriotic music on waving flags and eagles.

The interviews would focus on intuitive arguments like those I’ve discussed in Five Emotional Pro-Choice Arguments.  Here are several brief examples.

  • Suppose a building were on fire, and you could save either a five-year-old child or ten frozen embryos.  Which would you pick?  If you picked the child, what does that say about the argument that equates embryos with babies?
  • If you’ve seen anti-abortion videos or posters, you may have seen the bloody results of late-term abortions.  Why do you suppose they showed you that rather than a woman swallowing an emergency contraceptive (“morning after”) pill?  Do you suppose they really think that it’s a “baby” all the way back to that single cell?
  • Given that half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, do you suppose that God has much of a concern about abortion?
  • A week-old human blastocyst has fewer cells than the brain of a fly.  Does it make sense to equate that with a one trillion-cell newborn?  The newborn has eyes, ears, legs, arms, a brain and a nervous system, a heart and a circulatory system—in fact, all the components of the human body that you do—while the blastocyst has just 100 undifferentiated cells.  Does it make sense to equate them?
  • Who better to weigh the impact of a child than the mother herself?

Do you think we’d get similar results with this video?

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16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals (Part 2)

Atheism and Christianity discussionHere are the remaining arguments against abortion, with rebuttals. See part 1 here.

10. Why is murder wrong? Because it takes away a future like mine. If we found intelligent humanoids like us on another planet, killing them for sport would be wrong for this reason. And this is why abortion is wrong—it takes away a future like mine. This is Glenn Peoples’ Argument from the Future (podcast episode #29, 8/3/09).

Why focus on the future? Assuming these humanoids are largely unchanging month to month, like people, killing them for sport takes away a present like mine. I assume that Peoples focuses on the future only because he has no argument otherwise.

But let’s take the path that Peoples points us to. Killing a fetus would deprive it of a future like mine, but so would killing a single skin cell, once they are clonable into humans. Would it then a crime to scratch your skin? Or, let’s take it further back. Suppose I have two kids. Was it criminal to not have three? Or four? Or fifteen? I’ve deprived those people-to-be of life.

Extrapolating back to the twinkle in my eye, saying that we have a person deserving of life at every step is ridiculous. But the facts fit neatly and logically into the spectrum argument.

11. But a fetus has a soul! Does it? If the zygote has a soul and then it splits into twins, does each twin have half a soul or do they get another one as needed or did they get two to begin with? What about conjoined twins? Do they share a single soul like a shared body part? What about babies with terrible birth defects that leave them with very little brain function? What about a person cloned from a cell—would they have a soul? And if the story for the soul has a happy ending for the 50% of pregnancies that end in spontaneous (natural) abortion, why not for an artificial abortion?

This mess vanishes if we don’t insist on a soul. As Daniel Dennett said, “What isn’t there doesn’t have to be explained.”

12. “Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent.” These are the words of an archbishop from Brazil. He was outraged at the abortion done on a nine-year-old girl, raped and impregnated by her stepfather. In response to the abortion, the church excommunicated the family of the girl and the doctors who performed the abortion.

Wow. Let’s leave this example of how religion makes you do crazy things and focus on the claim. First, a fetus is not a child. Second, the spectrum argument defeats this claim.

Variations on this argument are popular, and they all have pretty much the same response. Here are a few.

12a. Abortion kills a human life (at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy) to help with another human’s self-actualization (higher on the hierarchy). That’s the opposite of the way it’s supposed to work. The two “human lives” are not comparable. This ignores the spectrum of development from single cell to trillion-cell newborn.

Killing a blastocyst with fewer cells than the brain of the fly troubles me less than killing a civilian in another country due to war or killing a criminal on death row.

12b. Don’t we normally go out of our way to defend the defenseless? Again, this ignores the spectrum. Defenseless people are more important than defenseless cells.

12c. Haven’t we been through this with racial minorities? Declaring that single cells aren’t human is like declaring that African-Americans aren’t human. Nice try. Spectrum argument.

12d. In response to your abortion clinic example: you argue that, if given a choice between saving a child and ten frozen embryos, you’d save the child. Okay, and if given the choice between your wife and a stranger, you’d save your wife, but that doesn’t mean that you can kill strangers. Spectrum argument.

13. Haven’t you heard of adoption? That’s the answer to an unplanned pregnancy. No, it’s clearly not the answer. Two percent of all births to unmarried women in the U.S. are placed for adoption. “Just have the baby and release it for adoption” is a pat on the head. It might make you feel good, but it doesn’t work.

14. You say that a trillion cells is definitely a person. Okay, how about a trillion minus one—is that a person? And if so, how about a trillion minus two? And so on. This same game could be played with the blue/green spectrum. If this color is “green,” what about just a touch more blue—isn’t that green as well? The point remains that the two ends of the spectrum are very different—green is not blue! Similarly, a single cell is not a newborn with arms, legs, kidneys, brain, and so on.

15. The woman who got pregnant knew what she was doing. Let’s encourage people to take responsibility for their actions. She didn’t necessarily know what she was doing—sex education is so poor that many teens become sexually mature without understanding what causes what.

But let’s assume that the woman knew what she was doing and was careless or stupid. What do we do with this? When someone shoots himself accidentally, that was stupid, but we all pay for the medical and insurance system that puts them back together. Let’s educate people, demand responsibility, and have a harm-reduction approach where we find the best resolution of problem. For a woman whose life would be overturned with a pregnancy, that resolution might be abortion.

16. If you’re so smart, where do you draw the line? I don’t. I find that pro-life advocates quickly turn the conversation to the definition of the OK/not-OK line for abortion, hoping to find something to criticize. I avoid this, both because it diverts attention from the spectrum argument—the main point I want to make—and because I have no opinion about the line and am happy to leave it up to the experts.

Barack Obama answered that question, “That’s above my pay grade,” which satisfies me, since he was running for Commander-in-chief, not Obstetrician-in-chief.

Next time: 5 Recommendations to the Pro-Life Movement

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What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? Not Much.

Novel about Christianity and atheism (and Christian apologetis)The Old Testament patriarchs would scratch their heads at the problem conservative Christians have invented and seized upon.  “That’s not what ‘Thou shalt not murder’ means!” they’d say.  “It means that you shouldn’t take a stick and beat someone over the head until he’s dead!  We kill people around here at the drop of a hat—both our own people when they transgress the Law and people of other tribes when we get into border squabbles.  And God has no hesitation in killing people.  To simply make someone not pregnant is vastly different.  People try lots of folk remedies to bring about that very thing, and our only complaint is that they’re not effective.”

All this hand-wringing about the safety of a single cell, less than one trillionth the size of an infant, would baffle them.  God is happy to slaughter (or order slaughtered) lots ’n lots of humans—men, women, and children.

If the Big Man doesn’t care, why should we?  That’s a rhetorical question—of course we should care.  It’s just that we shouldn’t imagine an argument against abortion based on what the Bible says.

About Babylon, it says, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9).  And: “Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished” (Is. 13:15–16).  Whether God uses genocide against the other guys, poisonous snakes against his own people, or an old-fashioned global flood against everyone, God has a broad palette of options when it comes to death, and he makes no special provision for children, infants, or fetuses.

The Bible even describes a potion to deliberately induce a miscarriage, used by the priest when a woman is suspected of adultery.

God himself has a hand in abortions.  Roughly half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, a far greater rate than that of clinical abortions.  If God exists, he’s the biggest abortionist of all.

Why imagine that the Bible is against abortion?  Maybe it’s that whole “thou shalt not murder” thing.

But you do know that “thou shalt not murder” isn’t in the Ten Commandments, right?  Let’s review the story.  Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and then smashes them when he sees the golden calf.  He goes back up for another set (Ex. 34), but God must’ve been stoned when he dictated them the second time because it’s quite a different set of rules.  But these rules aren’t just an addendum of some sort; these are the replacement Ten Commandments.  Exodus 34:28 makes this clear: “[Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”  In other words, if you’d been able to peek inside the Ark of the Covenant to see this Ten Commandments 2.0, nowhere would it have said, “Thou shalt not murder.”

But let’s ignore that and assume that the scripture say not to murder.  What is “murder”?  Is capital punishment murder?  It’s illegal in Europe, and many people think it’s murder in the U.S., and yet it’s legal in 34 U.S. states.  What about killing in wartime?  Or killing in self-defense?  Or killing accidentally?  Or killing animals?  Or euthanasia?  Murder is undefined, so “Thou shalt not murder” is meaningless.

You’d think that this vaguely supported legal opinion that God is against abortion would give Christians pause, but I guess the hearts of pro-life Christian soldiers are resolute.  They’re quick to argue that God’s actions are beyond our understanding when it suits them—when confronted with the Problem of Evil or the justice of hell, for example—but at other times they acknowledge no vagueness and know for certain what God wants.  In particular, they know that God is against abortion!

Why is abortion that big a deal from the Christian standpoint when abortions send souls to heaven without the risk of doing the wrong thing in adulthood?  That murdered babies go straight to heaven was one way William Lane Craig tried to wriggle out of the moral consequences of God ordering the Canaanite genocide (“Christianity Can Rot Your Brain”).

Using Craig’s logic, abortion clinics may save more souls than churches!

Next time: 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals.

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What’s Wrong with the Pro-Life Position?

Atheism and ChristianityOne commenter to this blog made the excellent point that the label “pro-life” for the anti-abortion movement is a bit odd.  In this contentious debate, I wanted to label those in each group as they prefer, but who’s not pro-life?

In the Christian view, life on earth is “the cramped and narrow foyer leading to the great hall of God’s eternity” (William Lane Craig).  What a dismal view of life—something simply to be endured as we wait for the real Life to begin.  By contrast, the atheist, certain of only the one life we all know exists, is the one who lives life to the fullest.  It can be argued that the atheist is the one who’s truly pro-life.

But let’s leave the conventional labels alone and consider the pro-life position.  If there were no downsides of carrying a fetus to term, if carrying the fetus to term were nothing more than a minor inconvenience for the mother, the abortion question wouldn’t be an interesting issue.  But of course there are downsides—big ones.  To bring a child into the world, poorly cared for in the womb, unwanted and unloved by its mother, abandoned by its father, neglected or abused, or growing up in squalor or in an abysmal home—for me, that potential harm eclipses the harm of denying a cell the chance to grow into a person.  Demanding that the state step in and declare that it knows the consequences better than the mother seems an odd position to take for typically conservative Christians.

The pro-life advocate has a quick answer: carry the child to term and give it up for adoption.  But this does nothing to address the problem of the woman unable to or uninterested in caring for herself and the baby properly during the pregnancy.  Or of the baby with identified birth defects.  Unhealthy babies are far more likely to live out their childhood in foster care.

“Just put it up for adoption” is hopeless naïve when only two percent of all births to unmarried women ended in an adoption.  For teen mothers, the rate is even less.  Let’s not pretend that if the mother’s life and home situation aren’t conducive to raising a baby until adulthood that she’ll always put the baby up for adoption.

Even if a teen mother chose to have her baby adopted, the consequences of the pregnancy are dramatic.  She’ll miss school, she’ll be ostracized, and she’ll go through an emotional meat grinder when it comes time to give up her baby.  And since the statistics say she won’t, that she will almost surely keep the baby, she’ll have no chance to get back on track for the life she had planned.

I have a mental image of an anti-abortion activist looking with satisfaction on the girl he just talked out of having an abortion, with no understanding of the shackles he may have placed on her life or the hellish environment to which he has may have consigned that child-to-be.  Infuriating.

The alternative to abortion rights is compulsory pregnancy.  My claims are simple: that (1) some lives are truly abysmal and (2) creating such a life (for the mother or the child) is a bad thing.  I doubt that my argument has convinced any pro-lifers to budge in their position, but I do demand that they acknowledge the terrible burden that making abortion illegal would place on a million women each year.

Next time: What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? Not Much.

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