Last Saturday I attended the convention of the Right to Life organization in my state. During the banquet the organization presented its annual Humanitarian of the Year award. Imagine my surprise when the recipient, a Catholic priest, stated in his acceptance speech that one of the things “we” (those who stand for life) should do in our efforts to defend life and bring about an end to abortion in the United States is cheat. He was not suggesting this as an initial approach, but he did wholeheartedly endorse the idea of cheating in order to accomplish a greater good. Manipulation, deception, trickery and the like would all be perfectly acceptable in his mind. He even went so far as to suggest that when Jesus said that believers need to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” in Matthew 10 that He was endorsing this kind of approach.
This notion struck me as wrong from the moment he uttered the words, but it was an idea that I kept mulling throughout the evening, and the level of my discomfort with the idea only continued to increase. To cheat, according to dictionary.com, means “to practice fraud or deceit; to violate rules and regulations.” As important as I believe it is to defend life, going about doing so by cheating would be all wrong. As one example of deception this priest told a story of setting up a table that said “Democrats for Life” at a Democratic convention in Colorado in the late 1970s. He said because a number of people interpreted the message to be the equivalent of “lifelong Democrat” they had lots of people wearing “Democrat for Life” buttons before someone pointed out what they actually meant. This is a humorous story, perhaps, but it is not really cheating. Rather, it is capitalizing on the ignorance of the individuals sporting the buttons. But even if this were the extent of the “cheating” that was intended, such an approach will do no long term good. Getting people who do not realize what they are doing to wear a button supporting life will not change anyone’s mind or heart or change any laws. While it might be fun, then, it is ultimately ineffective.
Still, I could not help thinking that something beyond this trickery is what the Father had in mind. Exactly what he had in mind I do not know, but I know that, whatever it is, cheating is the wrong way to try to win this fight. Furthermore, suggesting it is a step onto a very slippery, and very steep, slope. If it is okay to cheat–to deceive or manipulate or break the rules–in order to defend life, what other things is it okay to cheat to accomplish? And who decides? If cheating is okay, is outright lying? Is hostage-taking or even killing abortionists okay? I am not at all suggesting that these behaviors were what the humanitarian of the year had in mind, but the question is still valid. Once we okay or endorse one wrong behavior in pursuit of a good end, how far are we willing to go? And again, who is going to decide “that’s far enough”?
Perhaps this illustration will help. The priest I am referring to here is also, apparently, a teacher, because he made multiple references to his students and to having them enter the annual essay contest for Right to Life. Presumably, if one of his students cheated on a research paper or a test, he would not approve. In fact he would not only disapprove but, if he takes academic integrity seriously, he would mete out a rather severe consequence. But what if that student had a legitimate reason for not getting the paper done ethically and on time? Or what if giving that student a zero could result in a grade or disciplinary record that would prohibit him or her from being admitted to the college he or she had in mind? If you want to follow the “what ifs” long enough you can create a scenario in which assigning the consequences for this instance of cheating could impact the entire future of the offending student.If we could know that by letting the cheating go that student would go on to an Ivy League school, law school, a successful career in politics and ultimately be the president who accomplished the overturning of Roe v. Wade through his or her Supreme Court appointments, should we let it go? If I were a betting man, I would bet that most people would say yes, if we knew that would happen, we should let it go. Here’s the problem, though. It is not possible to know that that would happen, meaning that it is also not possible to know that it would not happen. Accordingly, we must either always penalize cheating or never penalize it. I think we can all imagine a world in which it was never penalized, and that is a place none of us want to live. Therefore, we must always penalize it, must always reinforce that it is never acceptable. And that also means, then, that we must never encourage it.
We should defend life, at all times, but never by compromising what is ethical or right to do so. When we fudge a little, turn a blind eye, or sanction something unethical in order to pursue something that is ethical we are defeating our own efforts. If it is okay to be unethical to pursue something ethical how could we possibly argue against anyone being unethical to pursue something unethical? In fact, if we start creating situations in which being unethical is acceptable, haven’t we destroyed the very idea of “ethical”?