Scott Klusendorf: How pro-lifers can persuasively spread our message, and win the war on abortion
Scott Klusendorf founded the Life Training Institute in order to create a ministry that could train pro-lifers to effectively get our message across, with the goal of saving lives. I spoke to Scott to find out why he founded the Life Training Institute, how pro-lifers can strengthen our message, and what we should do moving forward.
Cassy Fiano: Tell me about yourself.
Scott Klusendorf: I’m the president of Life Training Institute, and I’ve been a pro-life apologist full-time for 21 years. My purpose in life is to equip pro-lifers to make a case for life in the public square.
Have you always been pro-life?
I always was pro-life philosophically, meaning that there was never a time when I believed that abortion was permissible. However, there was a period in my life where, though I had pro-life sentiments, I didn’t act like I believed that abortion was wrong. And it wasn’t until November of 1990, when I attended a pro-life lecture by a guy named Greg Cunningham, that I was awakened to the severity of the problem in front of us.
It was interesting, because at the time, I was an associate pastor at a church in Los Angeles, and I went to a gathering for pastors that was supposed to be on the topic of abortion. When I showed up, rather than there being a hundred of us there, as I anticipated, there were four other pastors. So the attendance was incredibly sparse. But thankfully, Greg Cunningham gave a persuasive defense of the pro-life view.
And then he showed images of abortion. I had never seen those. And I sat there and looked at those images and thought, My goodness. How can I sit here and not be involved? To make a long story short, six months later, I resigned my position as an associate pastor with the blessing of my church, to work full-time trying to equip pro-lifers to make a case for life. And I’ve been at it ever since.
Can you tell me about the Life Training Institute?
Life Training Institute exists to help pro-lifers – specifically Catholics and Protestants, although we’ll work with anybody – to make a case for life in the public square. We focus on going into Catholic and Protestant high schools and doing assemblies, classes, and presentations that communicate the moral logic of the pro-life view. We teach these students to argue persuasively for the pro-life view using science and philosophy. Why? Because when they graduate and get out in the real world, it’s not going to work to simply say, “the Bible says abortion’s wrong, and so does the church, so there.” Moreover, if we are not reaching Christian students with pro-life content they can use with unchurched critics, then those students are going to do one of two things. They’re either going to jettison their pro-life views when they head off to the university, or they’re not going to be effective pro-lifers because they won’t be confident in what they believe. So we try to equip people with the tools that are needed to make that case persuasively, so they can do it with confidence.
What made you decide to start this organization?
Prior to my time with Life Training Institute, I worked with two other organizations: The Center for Bioethical Reform and Stand to Reason. Both of those groups are doing great work, and both of those groups helped shape me into the pro-life apologist I’ve become. But what I noticed, around the year 2002-2003, was that there wasn’t a pro-life organization out there dedicated exclusively to teaching pro-life apologetics to lay people. On one hand, we had the smart pro-life philosophers – the Frank Beckwiths, the Robert Georges, the Patrick Lees, the JP Morelands – who are doing exceptional work, battling for our ideas at the highest philosophical levels. The problem is, lay people aren’t reading those guys. And what I viewed my role as being, was creating an organization that would function almost as a translator, where we would take these great ideas that were being developed by good thinkers on our side of the issue, and make them understandable to lay people.
I also noticed that there wasn’t a pro-life group, that I saw, that was systematically trying to go into schools and teach a defense for the pro-life position. We had pro-life groups going in to teach abstinence, but we didn’t have pro-life groups going into pro-life, Catholic or Protestant schools, to exclusively teach a defense for the pro-life view. In fact, it appeared to me that many people did not even want to talk about abortion anymore. They were fine talking about abstinence, they were fine talking about crisis pregnancy centers and the work they do with women, but to specifically talk about abortion and making a case for the pro-life view…that wasn’t even on their radar. So I said, we needed to create an organization that would be dedicated exclusively to that.
Many pro-choicers like to claim that the scientific evidence is on their side to support abortion. However, your website says that scientific evidence shows that life begins at conception. Can you discuss that?
Well, I have found very few pro-abortion advocates in formal debate settings that I’ve been involved in that will deny the scientific facts. It’s really hard to do. After all, every embryology textbook out there says that each of us began as a single-celled zygote. That is beyond medical dispute. What they generally try to do is argue that each and every human being does not have an equal right to life, that only some have it by virtue of some accidental property like self-awareness, which may come and go in our lifetime.
Those few that do try to argue that the science is on their side typically say one of two things. First, they’ll say, how can you say that that is a distinct living whole human being when twinning can occur? After all, that single-celled zygote can grow, and around up to the 14-to-21-day period, that zygote can split into two entities. So how can we claim that you’ve got a living member of the human family from the very beginning? Well, that argument simply doesn’t work. How does it follow that because an entity may split, it wasn’t a full living human being prior to this split? As Patrick Lee points out, if you cut a flatworm in half, what do you end up with? Two flatworms. Does it follow there was no flatworm prior to the split? So the fact that the entity may split does not mean it wasn’t a member of the whole human family prior to the split.
The other thing they will say is, these early embryos are really not at all different from sperm and egg; they are part of a human being, but they’re not distinct, living, whole human beings. We don’t think, for example, that sperm and egg are a tragedy when they’re lost; why should we think embryos are? This clearly confuses parts and wholes. Sperm and egg are merely parts of a larger human being; in this case, the man and the woman. The early embryo is not part of another human being, but is itself a distinct human, living organism. If you were to imagine what I’m doing right now, you would see that I’m picking cells off the back of my hand. I just sent a couple of hundred of those puppies hurtling to their death on the patio in front of me. But you don’t think for a moment that I just committed mass homicide, and there’s a reason. You know that these cells are merely part of a larger human being, me, and that they are not distinct, whole human beings the way you were when you were an embryo and the way I was when I was an embryo. In other words, there’s a difference in kind between our bodily selves and the embryonic human beings we once were.
To go in a bit of a different direction, why do you feel that pro-lifers need training on how to best spread our message? Do you feel that the way that we are presenting our beliefs is not as effective as it could be?
Well, in some cases I think it’s not effective, absolutely. First, I think it’s wrong when we make how abortion impacts women our primary message. There is a place for that being a secondary message, but it should never be our primary message. Abortion is wrong not because it adversely affects women. It’s primarily wrong because it intentionally takes the life of a defenseless human being. We’ve got to keep our focus clear on that.
A second way people argue that is poor is that they buy the assumptions of our critics. For example, they start talking about the unborn having value because there’s a heartbeat at three weeks, brain waves at six weeks, the fetus can feel pain in the first trimester – which is highly questionable, by the way – and a bunch of other things they say to point to the development of the human being as the proof that it’s one of us. But our case does not rely on the embryo being developed. It relies on the fact that it is a member of the human species from the very beginning. We argue that abortion is wrong not because it kills a baby. We argue that it’s wrong because it kills a developing human being without justification, and it doesn’t matter whether that human being is an embryo, a fetus, a baby, a toddler, a teenager, or an adult. So I think those are some points we need to be clear on.
The other thing we need to keep in mind is that we are in a huge idea struggle right now in our culture. We are in a huge idea struggle over two key questions, and if pro-lifers are not equipped to engage on those two questions, we will lose this fight. We are losing it not because we’re not nice enough. That’s a media perception they want the public to buy, but it’s not the reason we’re in trouble.
Here are the two questions that the culture is fighting over that we have to get right: number one, the culture is fighting over the question, “Is truth true?” In other words, is moral truth real and knowable, or is it just a preference, like choosing chocolate ice cream over vanilla? Is truth true? The second question we’re arguing about is, “What makes human beings valuable?” Are we valuable because of what we are instrinsically, meaning we have a right to life simply because we’re human, or are we valuable only because of some function we can perform that we can immediately exercise, such as self-awareness or the ability to feel pain? Those two questions, of truth and human value, are driving our national debate over abortion, over embryonic stem cell research, and it’s critically important that pro-lifers know how to articulate their views on those questions.
What would you say is the biggest weakness for the pro-life side right now? What would be the number-one thing we need to change?
I think we need to seriously re-evaluate this idea that we’re winning this fight. I don’t believe we are. In some ways, we are seeing progress, but overall, I do not believe we are winning. In fact, the recent TIME magazine article that says pro-choicers have been losing ever since Roe…I’m not a bit persuaded by that. And let me give you a couple of reasons why. This nation just re-elected the most pro-abortion president in history, who once voted against saving infants who were born alive. In fact, he didn’t do it just once; he did it three times. Not only that, we lost two Senate seats specifically on the abortion issue, because our candidates had no clue how to clearly articulate their views, and as a result, they got punished at the polls. Secondly, our government is now mandating that employers cover the cost of abortion-inducing drugs, and there is no huge public outcry over it. There’s some, in pro-life circles, but nowhere near the critical mass that we need to see it challenged and tossed out. So while we see these opinion polls that claim that pro-lifers are winning people over, in the only opinion poll that matters, a national election, we lost big-time. And not only that, but our candidate ran from the ideological issues. Our opponents spoke out and made no apologies for their positions. Barack Obama made it abundantly clear what he stood for, and the public bought it. So I say, how can anyone come to the conclusion that we are winning this fight overall?
Now, here’s where there is some good news. I want to make something clear: just because I think we’re not winning at the moment doesn’t mean I think we’re never going to win, nor do I think that that’s an excuse for quitting. Surrender is not an option. Here’s where we’re doing well. Number one: we’re seeing a student pro-life movement step forward. We’re seeing groups like Students for Life of America, Stand to Reason, and Ratio Christi that are saying we want to get pro-life presentations on campus, we want to see pro-lifers make a difference there, and pro-life students now have a place to go. Ten years ago, they didn’t. So that’s a very encouraging sign. Number two: Planned Parenthood has been undermined to some degree, thanks to the work of Live Action, Lila Rose, and others. We see Planned Parenthood now having to fight a public relations battle that they weren’t having to fight ten years ago. That is very good news. Third, I see a resurgence in Christian worldview training, where high school and college students who are Christian want to be equipped to defend their views in the public square, so when they get to college they won’t get run over by secular philosophers and professors. I think that’s a good sign. I also think it’s a good sign that pregnancy centers are in a position where they outnumber abortion clinics. They still struggle to reach abortion-minded clients, but they’re at least in a position to make a difference, and they give our movement credibility. So I’m not despairing, but I don’t want to be overly optimistic and make the claim that we’re winning.
What can we do to start winning this war on abortion, then?
Number one: pro-life groups – all of them – not just a few of us, but all of us – have to systematically train people to make a simple case for the pro-life view. We don’t have to go around saying, “Go get a PhD!,” but every pro-life advocate has got to know how to defend his beliefs in two minutes or less. First, he needs to be able to argue the science, that the science of embryology establishes from the earliest stages of development that each of us is a whole, living human being. We had yet to mature, but what we were was not in question. Philosophically, we need to argue that there’s no relevant difference between the embryos we once were and the adults we are today that would justify killing us at an earlier stage. Differences in size, level of development, and environment, meaning where we’re located and degree of dependency, are not good reasons for saying you could be killed then, but not now. In fact, I’ve even got an article on our website called “How to Defend Your Pro-Life Views in Five Minutes or Less.” The truth is, you can do it in two minutes or less if you have to. We’ve got to make sure that Catholic and Protestant lay people understand that argument, can articulate it to friends, and that has to be done.
Second thing we’ve got to do: we have got to get more people working full-time to save unborn humans. Greg Cunningham has a great quote. He says, “There are more people working full-time to kill babies than there are working full-time to save them, and that’s because killing babies is very profitable, while saving them is very costly, so costly that large numbers of people who say they are pro-life are not lifting a finger to stop the killing, and those that do lift a finger do just enough to salve the conscience, but not enough to stop the killing.” I think that quote nails it. And so our organization, beginning this summer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, will begin offering at our Friends for Life camp a support-raising seminar to go along with the apologetics training that we already offer there, that will enable recent college grads and soon-to-be college grads to learn how to raise their own financial support, so they can work full-time on the pro-life issue. The problem is, as you know, there’s no pro-life group out there that has any money to hire any new staff! We’re all flat broke. But what if we could get new employees who raised their own financial support, so that they could work for us without bankrupting our organizations? That’s the kind of model that groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, the Navigators, Mission Aviation Fellowship, etc. have used for years to get full-time people into the field, making a difference. Why can’t we do the same?
Planned Parenthood recently did a poll and claimed that Americans have started to shy away from the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and are reluctant to label themselves as either. And so Planned Parenthood is now abandoning the term “pro-choice.” Should pro-lifers change how we label ourselves?
This may sound odd, but I really don’t think labeling is that big a deal one way or the other. I think what matters is the argument we present – that ultimately, that’s what’s going to carry the day. Our opponents can call us anything they want. I’m quite content to stick with the term “pro-life.” I don’t see anything wrong with it. That’s what we are. We believe that it is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. Pro-life describes accurately what our position is, so I don’t see any need to change that. I don’t get that upset, though, when someone calls me anti-abortion. I am anti-abortion. I am against the intentional killing of an innocent human being. I do think we may need to, in a culture that is dominated by the tyranny of clichés, explain what our position is. And however we may choose to label ourselves, it will not relieve us of our responsibility to make cogent arguments.
Now for a more personal type of question: many pro-choicers claim that men should not have a voice on abortion. As a pro-life man, what would your response to that be?
Well, my first response is that arguments don’t have gender; people do. If we’re going to say that only women can speak on abortion, then we have to reverse Roe v. Wade, because it was decided by nine men. Furthermore, we’d have to take all the male attorneys working for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU and toss them out of their jobs, because after all, only women have a right to speak on abortion. This is a crazy argument. It’s what is known as an ad hominem argument. You attack the person rather than the argument he’s making. Pro-life women use the same arguments as pro-life men to defend the unborn. You have to argue on the merits of your case, not attack someone because you don’t like his gender. Imagine if I said to a woman sportscaster, “You have no right to broadcast a football game, because you don’t know what it’s like to be kicked in the groin.” Someone would say, that’s a terribly sexist remark, and I agree! Why would it be any different, then, when it comes to an issue like abortion? My arguments are either true or false, valid or invalid. They don’t change because of my gender.
This year is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. What should pro-lifers do on the anniversary?
On a personal level, they should dedicate themselves to some serious study to master the pro-life view. They should pick up books like The Case for Life, Peter Kreeft’s book The Unaborted Socrates. There’s just two books that will get them started. I would recommend a third as well, and that would be Greg Koukl’s and Frank Beckwith’s book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, because at the bottom of all these abortion choice arguments is a worldview known as relativism, which says that right and wrong are up to personal preference. And we need to know how to combat that.
Second thing I think pro-lifers need to do: they need to participate in the big events. There’s nothing wrong with marches and rallies. I am not against those things. I am against them only if that’s all we’re doing. If we go to the March for Life in Washington, and then go home and don’t apply ourselves to make a persuasive case for our view with friends and co-workers and fellow students, we’ve dropped the ball. So let us go to the big rallies and marches – those will strengthen us and let us know that we don’t fight alone. But let’s also study to be equipped.
The third thing we’ve got to do is stay engaged politically. Just because our ideas are not popular right now does not mean they’re wrong, nor does it mean we should surrender the political field. We’ve got to stay engaged, and we’ve got to continue to promote the good, and oppose the evil, insofar as possible given the current political realities.
To learn more about the Life Training Institute, visit their website.