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Two Minnesota Films on Abortion

Monday, 1 February 2010 - 12:00am

We have just passed January 22, the date Americans remember as the outbreak of hostilities in the longest-running battle of their culture wars. It was on this day that the Roe v Wade decision legalized abortion. Having taught medical ethics at both Oxford and Notre Dame, I no longer expect to hear arguments on abortion that surprise me. But occasionally I do and my immediate response is always to ask myself what my students would say. Would my students be persuaded or would they shoot it down without even breaking a mental sweat?

This was my reaction to the 2007 film, Juno, and it was my reaction to a three-minute video posted on the Internet by John Piper entitled “No, Mr President.” I was struck by each for quite different reasons, but especially by what my students would make of them. I was also struck by the coincidence—which I think may not really be a coincidence—that both films are from Minneapolis. Juno was written by Diablo Cody while she lived there and it is set in the city’s suburbs; John Piper pastors a church in downtown Minneapolis. The state of Minnesota is a wonderfully inexplicable blend of traditional conservatism, with its strong pro-life lobby, and progressive politics (exhibit A: Senator Al Franken). Cody and Piper embody these paradoxes.


The former is an ex-stripper, and now Oscar-winning screenwriter of a film that powerfully portrays alternatives to abortion. The latter is a well-educated, well-read, conservative pastor, and the high-priest of American pop Calvinism. He is a man of conviction who will not hide his opinions, even when you can sense he’s embarrassed to offer them. (He said during the last election that the main reason not to vote for Sarah Palin was that she belongs at home with her kids.) But Piper crosses all the usual ideological lines: he lives in the inner city, amongst the city’s worst off and many of his congregation have reversed their white flight, moving back into the neighbourhoods abandoned by their gentrifying parents a generation ago. He has defended President Obama against his shrillest critics, yet denounces Obama’s stance on abortion with the passion of an Old Testament prophet. But even there, his ‘conservative’ argument is actually progressive, for it is based in part on the racial injustice underlying American abortion statistics: the disproportionate placement of abortion clinics in areas dominated by racial minorities, the vast inequalities between abortion rates for differing races and economic classes. For all these reasons, Cody’s Juno and Piper’s “No, Mr President” make for a worthy comparison.


Piper’s Internet video clip is actually a short segment of a sermon he gave following last year’s anniversary of Roe v Wade. As a piece of oratory, it would greatly impress my Notre Dame students. In the months leading up to Obama’s 2009 Commencement Speech, they became intimately familiarly with the worst-imaginable critiques of abortion. I received numerous emails from moderately pro-life students who—after seeing the likes of Randall Terry or Alan Keyes push blood-soaked baby strollers across campus—became moderately pro-choice. The protestors were persuasive all right: in exactly the opposite way they intended. Statically-speaking, the current pro-life lobby is one of the pro-choice movement’s strongest weapons. So what my students would appreciate about Piper’s video is that it manages to forceful without committing rhetorical suicide. [


The early church fathers could appreciate this, for many of them were students of classical rhetoric. Indeed, the greatest of the church fathers, Augustine, was a professor of rhetoric before he was a bishop. Nowadays, the word rhetoric conveys manipulative speech, but this is an abuse of the term. Properly understood, rhetoric is the art of conveying truth by persuasion. Central to it is what men like Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine called literary decorum or literary propriety. By this they meant that a work of oration must suit style, speaker, and occasion. To be an effective speaker, you must be capable of ‘being at home’ in the culture you address. We all know indecorous speech when we hear it, for we have all suffered through instances. Augustine’s example is of a priest making a crude joke at a funeral, but wheeling blood-soaked baby strollers around a college campus would have been an equally good example. (So, I think, would physically blocking access to Planned Parenthood; something, incidentally, for which Piper has been arrested. The problem isn’t being arrested; it’s doing so in a way that is rhetorically counter-productive. Sit-ins worked well for civil rights in the 1960s and worked badly for abortion in the 1980s. It requires that imprecise skill of literary propriety to know which to do when.) When you know enough to avoid such indecorum, and you’re a good enough speaker to put what you know into practice, then you are what Augustine called eloquent. We do not often think of eloquence as a category applying to theological, philosophical, or political arguments, but we should. Much of rhetorical training is tedious technicalities: when to speak loudly or softly, when to laugh or cry, when to pause, and when to wake a sleeping audience by saying something surprising. These are all on display in “No, Mr President” but I want to focus instead on what I see as its strongest and weakest points. Piper’s best move is to show that his critique of Obama’s abortion policy is grounded in appropriate respect for Obama as his president, not in tension with it. Much of the right’s criticism of Obama displays a rhetorical tone deafness that should shame any Christians who find themselves persuaded by it: the racial overtones, the charges of Nazi Socialism, and so on. But Piper is not rhetorically tone deaf. Only because he says, quite sincerely, “Some of us wept at your inauguration” does he have the moral credibility to say, “Our new President, over whom we have rejoiced, does not share this reverence for the beginning of human life. He is trapped and blinded by a culture of deceit.” Notice: our president, over whom we have rejoiced.

But eloquence is not merely a matter of style; it is a matter of persuasive, reasoned arguments. Here is the rhetorical center of Piper’s presentation:

No, Mr. President, you are not protecting women’s health; you are authorizing the destruction of half a million tiny women every year. No, Mr. President, you are not protecting reproductive freedom; you are authorizing the destruction of freedom for a million helpless people every year. No, Mr. President, killing our children does not cease to be killing our children no matter how many times you call it a private family matter. Call it what you will, they are dead, and we have killed them. And you, Mr. President, would keep the killing legal.

What will my students say? First, they will affirm Piper’s rejection of the privacy-based argument for abortion that Obama derives from Roe v Wade. The mere appeal to privacy and autonomy no more secures a right to abortion than it would secure for Michael Vick a right to torture dogs. The privacy argument hinges on the attendant arguments concerning the moral status of the fetus (or, in Vick’s case, dogs).

But I know all too well what my students will say next: “No Mr. Piper. You don’t really believe that. You don’t really believe that all early embryos have the same status as a one-year old baby. What you think that they are potential babies. Potential babies have great moral worth, but you don’t really believe they are the same as actual babies.” Many of the students are aspiring physicians and research scientists and so when they say this, their arguments rests on the underlying biology, specifically the fact that somewhere between 45% and 75% of all pregnancies are spontaneously aborted within six weeks, usually so early that the women is unaware. Thus, for every two live births, perhaps three embryos are lost in this way. Live births are the exception, not the norm. We do not understand why this happens in every case, but most appear to be due to a chromosomal abnormality. Given the planet’s current birth rate, this means that approximately 200 million spontaneous abortions occur annually within the first six weeks of pregnancy. What my students have in mind, therefore, is that if Piper really believed all fetuses were full humans, the proof would be in the pudding. If 200 million people died every year from, say famine or pandemic, no doubt Piper would rally his parishioners to the cause. Given the death toll, whatever it takes to reduce early spontaneous abortion, the cost cannot be too high. It is worse than any war, any disease, any disaster.

Like most of my undergraduates’ arguments, this one is in need of greater nuance, which I will not attempt to provide here. At a minimum, they should concede that not all of the spontaneously aborted embryos are genetically complete human beings (though whether the toll is 200 million or half that does not matter much). They should also clarify that they are not speaking of deaths after the six week mark—miscarriages or stillbirths—on which Piper’s position is wholly consistent (mourning the victims of stillbirth, for example). Their point concerns only the earliest weeks, which is when almost all abortion, spontaneous and surgical, occurs.

It would not do for Piper to say that these fetuses were deformed and going to die anyway, for he would not say, regarding victims of a pandemic, “They were deformed and bound to die.” And while genocide is worse than famine, the students will not let Piper off the hook here, either. If I oppose genocide of one million here in England, but ignore a pandemic of 200 million in Africa, you will quite reasonably doubt that I take seriously the moral worth of the 200 million Africans. Thus my students will say to Piper (as they say in class every term), “You may that say a fetus has the same worth as all other humans, but I don’t believe you. And the proof is in the pudding.” The pro-life students will say this just as emphatically as the pro-choice students. They have the intellectual integrity to follow the argument where it leads, even when they don’t like it.

Even if the wider political community cannot find common ground on abortion, I always take heart from the ground shared by my various students: pro-life and pro-choice, American and British, religious and secular. They typically agree that abortion is a morally weighty, indeed grave, matter. They agree that something is horrendously wrong with any nation that sees one million abortions per year, especially when those abortions are skewed so dramatically along racial and socio-economic lines. They agree that many instances of abortion are morally wrong, such as if they are procured for insufficiently weighty reasons. They disagree only over whether there are any cases where abortion is permitted and, if there are, how the law should accommodate such cases.

They would also affirm the message that lies behind Piper’s sermon: the church, but American society more generally, has shown a grave lack of hospitality in its attitude toward new life. We ought to welcome new life, sometimes even in inconvenient circumstances and at unplanned times. That choice is best-depicted not in Piper’s “No, Mr President,” but in Diablo Cody’s film, Juno.


It was from my students that I heard of Juno, though we should first note that it is not a film about abortion. As a rhetorical act, however, the film constitutes an argument against abortion. This should not surprise us; all the best art speaks beyond the artist’s voice. First, Juno chooses not to have an abortion specifically because of the intervention of a women’s clinic protestor. Note that this protestor is successful perhaps because she is personally known to Juno. Second, the basis of Juno’s change of mind is the physical similarity of the fetus to adults (they both have fingernails). Third, she chooses adoption, but the experience is not sugar-coated: we see her emotional loss at leaving her newborn, and we see that the baby’s adoptive home has its own challenges.


This film could very likely persuade women to make Juno’s choice. What it won’t do is generate a concrete legal solution to the abortion debate. It shows the beauty and complexity of adoption. But it also shows that adoption requires a loving and supportive network of friends, family, and even finances; many women with unplanned pregnancies do not have this. (There are agencies to help, but that is different than having your mom and best friend at your side for the ultrasound.)

As a student of rhetoric, Augustine knew that the most eloquent oratory is often the subtlest. It was the gospels’ subtly and simplicity, he said, that make them more powerful than the grand style of a Greek epic. So it is fitting that Cody’s most eloquent message is so subtle that you might not notice it. I certainly would not have if my students had not pointed it out. They saw Juno as a film, not about abortion or even adoption, but about taking responsibility for sexual choices.

In the medical ethics literature that we read in class—written by my students’ parents’ generation—the central debates are about patient autonomy. By this, the literature usually means a free, unconstrained choice. But that doesn’t resonate with my students because they know that choices aren’t like that. Choices are constrained: by our duties to our friends and others, by loyalty to our parents, by our communities, and by the circumstances we find ourselves in. The word autonomy originally meant living according to one’s own law: that’s Juno. When she learns she is pregnant, her immediate response is to take action: she accepts the consequences for the choices she made. When her best friend offers to call the abortion clinic, Juno replies, “I’ll call them myself.” As she invites more and more people into her responsible action—first her best friend, then the baby’s father, finally her parents—her choices become more coherent. Her actions come to display who she really is. For my students, Juno embodies real responsibility and real choice: that’s true autonomy.

John Piper’s sermon might serve as a model for pro-life activists who want to make their case forcefully but without the rhetorical suicide we saw at Notre Dame last spring. Piper might object that Juno doesn’t offer a concrete legal solution to abortion, but then neither does he. What Piper says, my students find worthy of respect and attention—yet ultimately unpersuasive. But they can see themselves in Juno.

–John Perry