Monday, November 28, 2011

Is abstinence-only killing the pro-life message? [Scott]

When my daughter Emily was in 2nd grade, I spoke to her class about pro-life. Emily attends our local public elementary school and her teacher thought the students would benefit hearing from a real life author. How could I resist?

As mentioned in a previous blogpost, I began by holding up a parchment copy of “The Declaration of Independence” (which the class had been studying) and read the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men.”

I then asked, “What makes us equal? It can't be our body size, because some are larger than others. It can’t be how smart we are, because some have good report cards while others have bad ones. It can't be our bellybuttons because some point out rather than in. So what makes us equal?”

From all over the room, tiny voices shot back “We’re all human!” Exactly. The only thing we all share equally is our humaness.

I then held up my book The Case for Life. The cover shows a picture of two tiny feet in-utero. “What’s this?” Without a moment’s delay, kids all over that room shouted, “a baby in the mommy’s tummy.”

“Right.” And what kind of baby is this?” Again, there was no delay. “It’s a human baby.”

“Right again. But how is this human in the picture different than us?”

Hands shot up everywhere. “It’s smaller.” “It looks different than mommy.” “It can’t talk yet.” “You can’t see his eyes yet.” “He doesn’t go to school yet.”

“True. Do you think that those differences mean the baby in the picture is less human than any of us?”

A resounding chorus of voices shot back, “No!”

Notice the kids didn’t need a doctorate degree to grasp the obvious truth about our common human nature. I made a case for human equality (and thus, a case for the pro-life view) without mentioning the word abortion. More importantly, they understood perfectly what I was driving at.

But they won't for long.

By the time these same kids graduate high school, many will have talked themselves out of the obvious truths they once espoused as second graders. As Frank Beckwith and Greg Koukl point out, religion and morality will be mere preferences, like choosing your favorite flavor of ice cream. Intrinsic human value will be subject to a technological ethic that says that if we can do it, we should do it—meaning, for example, that human embryos are fair game if killing them helps us cure disease. The very definition of humanness will be up for grabs.

Sad, but many of my wide-eyed second graders will morph into full-blown moral relativists and religious pluralists! They’ll accept truth in the hard sciences, but not in religion and ethics.

Just like their secular friends, church school kids absorb relativism. True, they’re not absorbing it in the classroom (hopefully), but they are absorbing it from the surrounding culture. If you doubt this, try going into a large Catholic or Protestant high school and writing the following two statements on the board:

1. “Jesus is the only way to salvation and all other world religions are false.”
2. “Elective abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being and laws permitting it are scandalous.”

Think the kids will agree? My own experience says you will immediately take heat from a sizable minority even in those schools! “You’re intolerant to judge person’s sincerely held beliefs. So you’re saying Gandhi is in Hell?” “Who’s to say what’s best for a woman facing a crisis pregnancy. Shouldn’t we trust her reasons?” “Why are you an absolutist on human life when there could be serious consequences for a woman who’s forced to have a child?”

As for the rest who don’t publicly espouse relativism, they generally fall into one of four categories on the specific topic of abortion: 1) Those who agree with the relativists, but are quiet about it, 2) those who aren’t relativists, but support abortion because they fear bad things will happen if it’s outlawed, 3) those who agree with me, but have no idea how to refute the relativists, and 4) those who agree with me and persuasively answer the relativists. Only number four can help the pro-life cause, and number four is usually a very small group!

A short time later, these same students land at college where the assault on religion and morality goes nuclear. Are the pro-life kids in group #3 and group #4 ready for that?

So, when pro-life guest speakers visit the classroom in Catholic and Protestant high schools, what’s their primary answer to this worldview crisis?

Abstinence talks.

Admittedly, I've not conducted an empirical study to prove this and I could be mistaken, but my own experience as a pro-life speaker suggests that in many towns across America, abstinence is the only pro-life message given to students. Each year, I speak at dozens of pregnancy center banquets and most centers can’t wait to tell donors about the work they are doing in schools. When I privately ask what, exactly, they are doing in the classroom, the answer is usually some variation on the abstinence theme. That is, they are telling students why waiting for sex until marriage is a good idea. Almost never are they systematically reaching students with persuasive pro-life content on abortion.

I don’t think pro-lifers grasp the enormity of the challenge facing us. Many of these kids have fractured worldviews where right and wrong are mere preferences and human life is a mere commodity. Against that backdrop, our primary response in schools is to slip in a little behavior modification? “Hey kids, keep your pants zipped or you’ll get an STD!” Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight!

Catholic and Protestant students need pro-life talks aimed squarely at the reasons our culture supports abortion in the first place. If pro-life advocates don’t deliver those talks, who will?

I'm not saying abstinence talks aren't important. But it's hugely problematic if that's our primary message to students who will soon be dropped into a university environment where they are out-gunned and in way over their heads, where pro-life views will be under constant attack.

Again, my own experience may be mistaken, so feel free to comment away. But I fear that I'm right. With that in mind, I've begun work on a new book aimed at equipping pregnancy center staff and right-to-life affiliates to deliver persuasive pro-life talks in Catholic and Protestant high schools. Publication date is sometime before summer.

This 39 minute talk explains the problems pro-life students face in more detail.


  1. Abstinence can only work if you believe and understand the true meaning of love. Love is something that everyone wants. Perhaps this is what is lacking in our culture.

  2. I think you are confusing moral permissiveness with moral relativism which can be quite dangerous when choosing a route by which to address either.

    Secular "values" are looked upon as objective rather than relative by their holders and consequently pushing the case for "absolute" values is a needless endeavor. We, as pro-lifers, need to stand on modern science and basic human rights when we make our case for the right to life and people will come to see our message as truth as opposed to their previously held beliefs.

    The pro-life message in and of itself is not about abstinence or Christianity and I think the former needs to be abandoned or severely curtailed when talking about pro-life issues. If a pro-life speaker cannot lay the foundation for why the "right" to fornicate is not an objective value and why chastity is than simply talking about how important it is to wait for x,y and z reasons is pointless. We have to lay a foundation for why abstinence is virtuous if we are even going to address it but that can can overshadow anything we've said about actual pro-life issues. This is why we need to leave the abstinence message for other individuals to promulgate not as a collective pro-life cause.

  3. I am looking forward to this book. I find so many parents feel like their kids are 'covered', if they receive sex ed info that is abstinence based. The reality is, that kids in both protestant and catholic faiths will continue to face unplanned pregnancy. My belief is that if they are convinced of the unborns humanity prior to facing an unplanned pregnancy, then they will be less likely to turn to abortion as the answer to their crisis. Thanks LTI, I appreciate all of your information for us working in the Prolife field.

  4. Eric, When kids tell you there are no moral rules and it's up to us to make our own, that's not moral permissiveness. That's relativism.

  5. I think that abstinence is important and should be taught to children. However, it has little if nothing to do with the pro-life movement.

    Unfortunately, I think that some young Christian girls have heard so much about abstinence that if and when they do face unplanned pregnancy, they are more likely to consider abortion. Having heard all about abstinence and little to nothing about abortion, they figure it would be better to have an abortion than to admit to their parents that they had pre-marital sex.

    Based on my experience, I think this disaster happens more often than we would think. It's important that we teach that although we do not condone pre-marital sex, if the act is done and pregnancy results, it is a greater evil to take the child's life in order to cover up your mistake.

  6. I attended a Catholic junior high / high school for 6 years, and had about 150 kids in my class. Junior year, discovered I was among about 15 people who didn't drink and have sex. Interestingly, I had never heard of 1 unplanned pregnancy the entire 6 years I was there. I suspect the abortion rate is high. Guttmacher agrees with me.

  7. Scott:
    I think both messages are of equal value. Mark and I were asked to address a large goup of Discipleship-Now youth a few years back. He did a biblically based pesentation on guarding your heart and abstinence, then we did a related skit pretending to be honeymooners who had already been having sex with others and how that interferes with marriage know the one where the chairs get farther and farther apart...then using my own story and some of your techniques, I presented the pro-life message. We did everything in less than an hour and several kids went to the alter and got right about thier relationships with Christ and each was awesome!Blessings, Lori

  8. This article sorta hit home with me. In addition to my pro-life apologetic speaking and activism, I also try to get my feet on the ground by volunteering video services and counseling at my local crisis pregnancy centers. They contacted me about 6 months ago to ask if I would a speaker in public middle and high schools about abstinence through their SWAT program (Speaking Words of Absolute Truth). I was a little skeptical at first, but it turns out the presentation material I'm supposed to work with is pretty solid. I can avoid using the term "abstinence" and its a very objective and factual presentation, and I can branch off that to make it very personal and down-to-earth. I think the presentation is of great value, but I'm not allowed to talk about abortion or pro-life unless a student raises his hand and specifically asks about it. It's a little disheartening, but I simply can't go beyond what I'm allowed to do. I guess that is all to say that I agree with what you are saying, and I look forward to trying to get your upcoming book into the hands of some of the crisis pregnancy centers that I work with.


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