BREAKING DOWN CARL SAGAN’S LOGIC ON ABORTION Part 19 “Acquiescing in the killing of any living creature, especially one that might later become a baby, is troublesome and painful” (My 1995 correspondence with Sagan) Scott Klusendorf vs Carl Sagan

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Francis Schaeffer and Adrian Rogers

Carl Sagan pictured below:


Recently I have been revisiting my correspondence in 1995 with the famous astronomer Carl Sagan who I was introduced to when reading a book by Francis Schaeffer called HE IS THERE AND HE IS NOT SILENT written in 1968. 

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Francis Schaeffer

I was blessed with the opportunity to correspond with Dr. Sagan, and in his December 5, 1995 letter Dr. Sagan went on to tell me that he was enclosing his article “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. I am going to respond to several points made in that article. Here is a portion of Sagan’s article (here is a link to the whole article):

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Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan pictured above

 “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”

by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

For the complete text, including illustrations, introductory quote, footnotes, and commentary on the reaction to the originally published article see Billions and Billions.

The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground. You’d think the fight was over. Instead, there are mass rallies, bombings and intimidation, murders of workers at abortion clinics, arrests, intense lobbying, legislative drama, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, major political parties almost defining themselves on the issue, and clerics threatening politicians with perdition. Partisans fling accusations of hypocrisy and murder. The intent of the Constitution and the will of God are equally invoked. Doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes. The contending factions call on science to bolster their positions. Families are divided, husbands and wives agree not to discuss it, old friends are no longer speaking. Politicians check the latest polls to discover the dictates of their consciences. Amid all the shouting, it is hard for the adversaries to hear one another. Opinions are polarized. Minds are closed.


Is it wrong to abort a pregnancy? Always? Sometimes? Never? How do we decide? We wrote this article to understand better what the contending views are and to see if we ourselves could find a position that would satisfy us both. Is there no middle ground? We had to weigh the arguments of both sides for consistency and to pose test cases, some of which are purely hypothetical. If in some of these tests we seem to go too far, we ask the reader to be patient with us–we’re trying to stress the various positions to the breaking point to see their weaknesses and where they fail.

In contemplative moments, nearly everyone recognizes that the issue is not wholly one-sided. Many partisans of differing views, we find, feel some disquiet, some unease when confronting what’s behind the opposing arguments. (This is partly why such confrontations are avoided.) And the issue surely touches on deep questions: What are our responses to one another? Should we permit the state to intrude into the most intimate and personal aspects of our lives? Where are the boundaries of freedom? What does it mean to be human?

Of the many actual points of view, it is widely held–especially in the media, which rarely have the time or the inclination to make fine distinctions–that there are only two: “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” This is what the two principal warring camps like to call themselves, and that’s what we’ll call them here. In the simplest characterization, a pro-choicer would hold that the decision to abort a pregnancy is to be made only by the woman; the state has no right to interfere. And a pro-lifer would hold that, from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive; that this life imposes on us a moral obligation to preserve it; and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Both names–pro-choice and pro-life–were picked with an eye toward influencing those whose minds are not yet made up: Few people wish to be counted either as being against freedom of choice or as opposed to life. Indeed, freedom and life are two of our most cherished values, and here they seem to be in fundamental conflict.

Let’s consider these two absolutist positions in turn. A newborn baby is surely the same being it was just before birth. There ‘s good evidence that a late-term fetus responds to sound–including music, but especially its mother’s voice. It can suck its thumb or do a somersault. Occasionally, it generates adult brain-wave patterns. Some people claim to remember being born, or even the uterine environment. Perhaps there is thought in the womb. It’s hard to maintain that a transformation to full personhood happens abruptly at the moment of birth. Why, then, should it be murder to kill an infant the day after it was born but not the day before?

As a practical matter, this isn’t very important: Less than 1 percent of all tabulated abortions in the United States are listed in the last three months of pregnancy (and, on closer investigation, most such reports turn out to be due to miscarriage or miscalculation). But third-trimester abortions provide a test of the limits of the pro-choice point of view. Does a woman’s “innate right to control her own body” encompass the right to kill a near-term fetus who is, for all intents and purposes, identical to a newborn child?

We believe that many supporters of reproductive freedom are troubled at least occasionally by this question. But they are reluctant to raise it because it is the beginning of a slippery slope. If it is impermissible to abort a pregnancy in the ninth month, what about the eighth, seventh, sixth … ? Once we acknowledge that the state can interfere at any time in the pregnancy, doesn’t it follow that the state can interfere at all times?

Abortion and the slippery slope argument above

This conjures up the specter of predominantly male, predominantly affluent legislators telling poor women they must bear and raise alone children they cannot afford to bring up; forcing teenagers to bear children they are not emotionally prepared to deal with; saying to women who wish for a career that they must give up their dreams, stay home, and bring up babies; and, worst of all, condemning victims of rape and incest to carry and nurture the offspring of their assailants. Legislative prohibitions on abortion arouse the suspicion that their real intent is to control the independence and sexuality of women…

And yet, by consensus, all of us think it proper that there be prohibitions against, and penalties exacted for, murder. It would be a flimsy defense if the murderer pleads that this is just between him and his victim and none of the government’s business. If killing a fetus is truly killing a human being, is it not the duty of the state to prevent it? Indeed, one of the chief functions of government is to protect the weak from the strong.

If we do not oppose abortion at some stage of pregnancy, is there not a danger of dismissing an entire category of human beings as unworthy of our protection and respect? And isn’t that dismissal the hallmark of sexism, racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism? Shouldn’t those dedicated to fighting such injustices be scrupulously careful not to embrace another?

Adrian Rogers’ sermon on animal rights refutes Sagan here

There is no right to life in any society on Earth today, nor has there been at any former time… : We raise farm animals for slaughter; destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there; kill deer and elk for sport, leopards for the pelts, and whales for fertilizer; entrap dolphins, gasping and writhing, in great tuna nets; club seal pups to death; and render a species extinct every day. All these beasts and vegetables are as alive as we. What is (allegedly) protected is not life, but human life.

Genesis 3 defines being human

And even with that protection, casual murder is an urban commonplace, and we wage “conventional” wars with tolls so terrible that we are, most of us, afraid to consider them very deeply… That protection, that right to life, eludes the 40,000 children under five who die on our planet each day from preventable starvation, dehydration, disease, and neglect.

Those who assert a “right to life” are for (at most) not just any kind of life, but for–particularly and uniquely—human life. So they too, like pro-choicers, must decide what distinguishes a human being from other animals and when, during gestation, the uniquely human qualities–whatever they are–emerge.

The Bible talks about the differences between humans and animals

Despite many claims to the contrary, life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of our species, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Every human sperm and egg is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, alive. They are not human beings, of course. However, it could be argued that neither is a fertilized egg.

In some animals, an egg develops into a healthy adult without benefit of a sperm cell. But not, so far as we know, among humans. A sperm and an unfertilized egg jointly comprise the full genetic blueprint for a human being. Under certain circumstances, after fertilization, they can develop into a baby. But most fertilized eggs are spontaneously miscarried. Development into a baby is by no means guaranteed. Neither a sperm and egg separately, nor a fertilized egg, is more than a potential baby or a potential adult. So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg–despite the fact that it’s only potentially a baby–why isn’t it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?

Hundreds of millions of sperm cells (top speed with tails lashing: five inches per hour) are produced in an average human ejaculation. A healthy young man can produce in a week or two enough spermatozoa to double the human population of the Earth. So is masturbation mass murder? How about nocturnal emissions or just plain sex? When the unfertilized egg is expelled each month, has someone died? Should we mourn all those spontaneous miscarriages? Many lower animals can be grown in a laboratory from a single body cell. Human cells can be cloned… In light of such cloning technology, would we be committing mass murder by destroying any potentially clonable cells? By shedding a drop of blood?


All human sperm and eggs are genetic halves of “potential” human beings. Should heroic efforts be made to save and preserve all of them, everywhere, because of this “potential”? Is failure to do so immoral or criminal? Of course, there’s a difference between taking a life and failing to save it. And there’s a big difference between the probability of survival of a sperm cell and that of a fertilized egg. But the absurdity of a corps of high-minded semen-preservers moves us to wonder whether a fertilized egg’s mere “potential” to become a baby really does make destroying it murder.

Opponents of abortion worry that, once abortion is permissible immediately after conception, no argument will restrict it at any later time in the pregnancy. Then, they fear, one day it will be permissible to murder a fetus that is unambiguously a human being. Both pro-choicers and pro-lifers (at least some of them) are pushed toward absolutist positions by parallel fears of the slippery slope.


Another slippery slope is reached by those pro-lifers who are willing to make an exception in the agonizing case of a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. But why should the right to live depend on the circumstances of conception? If the same child were to result, can the state ordain life for the offspring of a lawful union but death for one conceived by force or coercion? How can this be just? And if exceptions are extended to such a fetus, why should they be withheld from any other fetus? This is part of the reason some pro-lifers adopt what many others consider the outrageous posture of opposing abortions under any and all circumstances–only excepting, perhaps, when the life of the mother is in danger.

By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions. Instead, the United States is far behind other nations in the development of safe and effective methods of birth control–and, in many cases, opposition to such research (and to sex education) has come from the same people who oppose abortions.continue on to Part 3

For the complete text, including illustrations, introductory quote, footnotes, and commentary on the reaction to the originally published article see Billions and Billions.

The attempt to find an ethically sound and unambiguous judgment on when, if ever, abortion is permissible has deep historical roots. Often, especially in Christian tradition, such attempts were connected with the question of when the soul enters the body–a matter not readily amenable to scientific investigation and an issue of controversy even among learned theologians. Ensoulment has been asserted to occur in the sperm before conception, at conception, at the time of “quickening” (when the mother is first able to feel the fetus stirring within her), and at birth. Or even later.

Different religions have different teachings. Among hunter-gatherers, there are usually no prohibitions against abortion, and it was common in ancient Greece and Rome. In contrast, the more severe Assyrians impaled women on stakes for attempting abortion. The Jewish Talmud teaches that the fetus is not a person and has no rights. The Old and New Testaments–rich in astonishingly detailed prohibitions on dress, diet, and permissible words–contain not a word specifically prohibiting abortion. The only passage that’s remotely relevant (Exodus 21:22) decrees that if there’s a fight and a woman bystander should accidentally be injured and made to miscarry, the assailant must pay a fine.

Neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas considered early-term abortion to be homicide (the latter on the grounds that the embryo doesn’t look human). This view was embraced by the Church in the Council of Vienne in 1312, and has never been repudiated. The Catholic Church’s first and long-standing collection of canon law (according to the leading historian of the Church’s teaching on abortion, John Connery, S.J.) held that abortion was homicide only after the fetus was already “formed”–roughly, the end of the first trimester.

But when sperm cells were examined in the seventeenth century by the first microscopes, they were thought to show a fully formed human being. An old idea of the homunculus was resuscitated–in which within each sperm cell was a fully formed tiny human, within whose testes were innumerable other homunculi, etc., ad infinitum. In part through this misinterpretation of scientific data, in 1869 abortion at any time for any reason became grounds for excommunication. It is surprising to most Catholics and others to discover that the date was not much earlier.

From colonial times to the nineteenth century, the choice in the United States was the woman’s until “quickening.” An abortion in the first or even second trimester was at worst a misdemeanor. Convictions were rarely sought and almost impossible to obtain, because they depended entirely on the woman’s own testimony of whether she had felt quickening, and because of the jury’s distaste for prosecuting a woman for exercising her right to choose. In 1800 there was not, so far as is known, a single statute in the United States concerning abortion. Advertisements for drugs to induce abortion could be found in virtually every newspaper and even in many church publications–although the language used was suitably euphemistic, if widely understood.

But by 1900, abortion had been banned at any time in pregnancy by every state in the Union, except when necessary to save the woman’s life. What happened to bring about so striking a reversal? Religion had little to do with it.Drastic economic and social conversions were turning this country from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. America was in the process of changing from having one of the highest birthrates in the world to one of the lowest. Abortion certainly played a role and stimulated forces to suppress it.


One of the most significant of these forces was the medical profession. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, medicine was an uncertified, unsupervised business. Anyone could hang up a shingle and call himself (or herself) a doctor. With the rise of a new, university-educated medical elite, anxious to enhance the status and influence of physicians, the American Medical Association was formed. In its first decade, the AMA began lobbying against abortions performed by anyone except licensed physicians. New knowledge of embryology, the physicians said, had shown the fetus to be human even before quickening.

Their assault on abortion was motivated not by concern for the health of the woman but, they claimed, for the welfare of the fetus. You had to be a physician to know when abortion was morally justified, because the question depended on scientific and medical facts understood only by physicians. At the same time, women were effectively excluded from the medical schools, where such arcane knowledge could be acquired. So, as things worked out, women had almost nothing to say about terminating their own pregnancies. It was also up to the physician to decide if the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman, and it was entirely at his discretion to determine what was and was not a threat. For the rich woman, the threat might be a threat to her emotional tranquillity or even to her lifestyle. The poor woman was often forced to resort to the back alley or the coat hanger.

This was the law until the 1960s, when a coalition of individuals and organizations, the AMA now among them, sought to overturn it and to reinstate the more traditional values that were to be embodied in Roe v. Wade.continue on to Part 4

If you deliberately kill a human being, it’s called murder. If you deliberately kill a chimpanzee–biologically, our closest relative, sharing 99.6 percent of our active genes–whatever else it is, it’s not murder. To date, murder uniquely applies to killing human beings. Therefore, the question of when personhood (or, if we like, ensoulment) arises is key to the abortion debate. When does the fetus become human? When do distinct and characteristic human qualities emerge?

Section 8 Sperm journey to becoming Human 

We recognize that specifying a precise moment will overlook individual differences. Therefore, if we must draw a line, it ought to be drawn conservatively–that is, on the early side. There are people who object to having to set some numerical limit, and we share their disquiet; but if there is to be a law on this matter, and it is to effect some useful compromise between the two absolutist positions, it must specify, at least roughly, a time of transition to personhood.

Every one of us began from a dot. A fertilized egg is roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The momentous meeting of sperm and egg generally occurs in one of the two fallopian tubes. One cell becomes two, two become four, and so on—an exponentiation of base-2 arithmetic. By the tenth day the fertilized egg has become a kind of hollow sphere wandering off to another realm: the womb. It destroys tissue in its path. It sucks blood from capillaries. It bathes itself in maternal blood, from which it extracts oxygen and nutrients. It establishes itself as a kind of parasite on the walls of the uterus.By the third week, around the time of the first missed menstrual period, the forming embryo is about 2 millimeters long and is developing various body parts. Only at this stage does it begin to be dependent on a rudimentary placenta. It looks a little like a segmented worm.By the end of the fourth week, it’s about 5 millimeters (about 1/5 inch) long. It’s recognizable now as a vertebrate, its tube-shaped heart is beginning to beat, something like the gill arches of a fish or an amphibian become conspicuous, and there is a pronounced tail. It looks rather like a newt or a tadpole. This is the end of the first month after conception.By the fifth week, the gross divisions of the brain can be distinguished. What will later develop into eyes are apparent, and little buds appear—on their way to becoming arms and legs.By the sixth week, the embryo is 13 millimeteres (about ½ inch) long. The eyes are still on the side of the head, as in most animals, and the reptilian face has connected slits where the mouth and nose eventually will be.By the end of the seventh week, the tail is almost gone, and sexual characteristics can be discerned (although both sexes look female). The face is mammalian but somewhat piglike.By the end of the eighth week, the face resembles that of a primate but is still not quite human. Most of the human body parts are present in their essentials. Some lower brain anatomy is well-developed. The fetus shows some reflex response to delicate stimulation.By the tenth week, the face has an unmistakably human cast. It is beginning to be possible to distinguish males from females. Nails and major bone structures are not apparent until the third month.By the fourth month, you can tell the face of one fetus from that of another. Quickening is most commonly felt in the fifth month. The bronchioles of the lungs do not begin developing until approximately the sixth month, the alveoli still later.

So, if only a person can be murdered, when does the fetus attain personhood? When its face becomes distinctly human, near the end of the first trimester? When the fetus becomes responsive to stimuli–again, at the end of the first trimester? When it becomes active enough to be felt as quickening, typically in the middle of the second trimester? When the lungs have reached a stage of development sufficient that the fetus might, just conceivably, be able to breathe on its own in the outside air?

The trouble with these particular developmental milestones is not just that they’re arbitrary. More troubling is the fact that none of them involves uniquely humancharacteristics–apart from the superficial matter of facial appearance. All animals respond to stimuli and move of their own volition. Large numbers are able to breathe. But that doesn’t stop us from slaughtering them by the billions. Reflexes and motion are not what make us human.

Section 9 Sagan’s conclusion based on arbitrary choice of the presence of thought by unborn baby

Other animals have advantages over us–in speed, strength, endurance, climbing or burrowing skills, camouflage, sight or smell or hearing, mastery of the air or water. Our one great advantage, the secret of our success, is thought–characteristically human thought. We are able to think things through, imagine events yet to occur, figure things out. That’s how we invented agriculture and civilization. Thought is our blessing and our curse, and it makes us who we are.

Thinking occurs, of course, in the brain–principally in the top layers of the convoluted “gray matter” called the cerebral cortex. The roughly 100 billion neurons in the brain constitute the material basis of thought. The neurons are connected to each other, and their linkups play a major role in what we experience as thinking. But large-scale linking up of neurons doesn’t begin until the 24th to 27th week of pregnancy–the sixth month.

By placing harmless electrodes on a subject’s head, scientists can measure the electrical activity produced by the network of neurons inside the skull. Different kinds of mental activity show different kinds of brain waves. But brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy–near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this–however alive and active they may be–lack the necessary brain architecture. They cannot yet think.

Acquiescing in the killing of any living creature, especially one that might later become a baby, is troublesome and painful. But we’ve rejected the extremes of “always” and “never,” and this puts us–like it or not–on the slippery slope. If we are forced to choose a developmental criterion, then this is where we draw the line: when the beginning of characteristically human thinking becomes barely possible.

It is, in fact, a very conservative definition: Regular brain waves are rarely found in fetuses. More research would help… If we wanted to make the criterion still more stringent, to allow for occasional precocious fetal brain development, we might draw the line at six months. This, it so happens, is where the Supreme Court drew it in 1973–although for completely different reasons.

Its decision in the case of Roe v. Wade changed American law on abortion. It permits abortion at the request of the woman without restriction in the first trimester and, with some restrictions intended to protect her health, in the second trimester. It allows states to forbid abortion in the third trimester, except when there’s a serious threat to the life or health of the woman. In the 1989 Webster decision, the Supreme Court declined explicitly to overturn Roe v. Wade but in effect invited the 50 state legislatures to decide for themselves.

What was the reasoning in Roe v. Wade? There was no legal weight given to what happens to the children once they are born, or to the family. Instead, a woman’s right to reproductive freedom is protected, the court ruled, by constitutional guarantees of privacy. But that right is not unqualified. The woman’s guarantee of privacy and the fetus’s right to life must be weighed–and when the court did the weighing’ priority was given to privacy in the first trimester and to life in the third. The transition was decided not from any of the considerations we have been dealing with so far…–not when “ensoulment” occurs, not when the fetus takes on sufficient human characteristics to be protected by laws against murder. Instead, the criterion adopted was whether the fetus could live outside the mother. This is called “viability” and depends in part on the ability to breathe. The lungs are simply not developed, and the fetus cannot breathe–no matter how advanced an artificial lung it might be placed in—until about the 24th week, near the start of the sixth month. This is why Roe v. Wade permits the states to prohibit abortions in the last trimester. It’s a very pragmatic criterion.

If the fetus at a certain stage of gestation would be viable outside the womb, the argument goes, then the right of the fetus to life overrides the right of the woman to privacy. But just what does “viable” mean? Even a full-term newborn is not viable without a great deal of care and love. There was a time before incubators, only a few decades ago, when babies in their seventh month were unlikely to be viable. Would aborting in the seventh month have been permissible then? After the invention of incubators, did aborting pregnancies in the seventh month suddenly become immoral? What happens if, in the future, a new technology develops so that an artificial womb can sustain a fetus even before the sixth month by delivering oxygen and nutrients through the blood–as the mother does through the placenta and into the fetal blood system? We grant that this technology is unlikely to be developed soon or become available to many. But if it were available, does it then become immoral to abort earlier than the sixth month, when previously it was moral? A morality that depends on, and changes with, technology is a fragile morality; for some, it is also an unacceptable morality.

And why, exactly, should breathing (or kidney function, or the ability to resist disease) justify legal protection? If a fetus can be shown to think and feel but not be able to breathe, would it be all right to kill it? Do we value breathing more than thinking and feeling? Viability arguments cannot, it seems to us, coherently determine when abortions are permissible. Some other criterion is needed. Again, we offer for consideration the earliest onset of human thinking as that criterion.

Since, on average, fetal thinking occurs even later than fetal lung development, we find Roe v. Wade to be a good and prudent decision addressing a complex and difficult issue. With prohibitions on abortion in the last trimester–except in cases of grave medical necessity–it strikes a fair balance between the conflicting claims of freedom and life.What do you think? What have others said about Carl Sagan’s thoughts on 


Carl Sagan asserted, “Acquiescing in the killing of any living creature, especially one that might later become a baby, is troublesome and painful.” 

Scott Klusendorf put together these talking points:

Abortion Advocate: Abortion is a private choice between a woman and her doctor.

Pro-Lifer: Do we allow parents to mistreat their children if done in private?

Abortion Advocate: Of course not. Those children are human beings.

Pro-Lifer: Then the issue isn’t privacy. It’s “What is the unborn?”

Abortion Advocate: But many poor women cannot afford to raise another child.

Pro-Lifer: When human beings get expensive, may we kill them?

Abortion Advocate: Well, no, but aborting a fetus is not the same as killing a person.

Pro-Lifer: So, once again, the issue is “What is the unborn? Is the fetus a human person?”

Abortion Advocate: But you’re being too simplistic. This is a very complex issue involving women who must make agonizing decisions.

Pro-Lifer: The decision may be psychologically complex for the mother, but morally it is not complex at all. When blacks are mistreated in a certain society; do we spin a tale about com­plex, agonizing decisions for the whites in power or do we condemn the evil of racism?

Abortion Advocate: Aborting a fetus that is not a person is one thing, discriminating against black persons is quite another.

Pro-Lifer: So we’re agreed: If abortion kills a defenseless human being, then the issue wouldn’t be complex at all. The question is, “What is the unborn?”

Abortion Advocate: Enough with your abstract philosophy. Let’s talk about real life. Do you really think a woman should be forced to bring an unwanted child into the world?

Pro-Lifer: The homeless are unwanted, may we kill them?

Abortion Advocate: But it’s not the same.

Pro-Lifer: That’s the issue, isn’t it? Are they the same? If the unborn are human like the homeless, then we can’t kill them to get them out of the way. We’re back to my first question, “What is the unborn?”

Abortion Advocate: But you still shouldn’t force your morality on women.

Pro-Lifer: You don’t really believe what you just said. You’d feel very comfortable forcing your morality on a mother who was physically abusing her two-year-old, wouldn’t you?

Abortion Advocate: But the two cases are not the same.

Pro-Lifer: Oh? Why is that?

Abortion Advocate: Because you’re assuming the unborn are human, like the two-year-old.

Pro-Lifer: And you’re assuming they’re not. So the issue is quite simple, isn’t it? It’s not forcing morality; it’s not privacy; it’s not economic hardship; it’s not unwantedness; it’s “What is the unborn?”

The Vanishing Pro-Life Apologist: Putting The “Life” Back Into The Abortion Debate

Article ID: DA021

By: Scott Klusendorf

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 22, number 1 (1999). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:



The past few years have witnessed a stunning development in the pro-life movement. Many pro-life leaders now think we can make abortion rare by downplaying the moral question, “Does abortion take the life of a defenseless human being?” They favor a new strategy that appeals to the self-interests of women rather than moral truth. One leader asserts that an emphasis on unborn babies will only drive women of childbearing age away from the pro-life movement. But this new strategy is dangerous because it leaves the pro-abortion culture largely unchallenged. At the same time, it unilaterally strips the pro-life movement of its most powerful tools of persuasion. If pro-life advocates are to make abortion unthinkable, they must speak frankly about the nature of abortion.


For the past 26 years, pro-life apologists have argued that elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being. The rationale for their argument is clear-cut and can be expressed in the following syllogism:

1. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a moral wrong.

2. Elective abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human person.

3. Hence, elective abortion is a moral wrong.

Despite the clarity and soundness of this argument, some pro-life leaders now question its ability to persuade. They contend that although abortion is an objective moral evil, pro-life advocates should reconsider their arguments or risk alienating women of childbearing age.


Paul Swope, for example, calls it a “failure to communicate” when pro-lifers focus primarily on the fetus rather than the felt needs of women. “The pro-life movement,” he writes, “must show that abortion is not in a woman’s own self-interest, and that the choice of life offers hope and a positive, expanded sense of self.”1

Swope believes pro-life advocates have won the moral and philosophical debate over the status of the fetus, but have failed to address the needs of women. He cites research indicating that even “pro-choice” women agree that abortion is killing. “The women believe that abortion is wrong, an evil, and that God will punish a woman who makes that choice.” Yet, the choice of abortion becomes one of self-preservation (at least socially), and since the woman did not intend to get pregnant, she reasons that “God will ultimately forgive her.”2

Until recently, the pro-life response was to point out that hardship did not justify homicide, but Swope thinks that a focus on babies only makes matters worse. He writes, “The pro-life movement’s own self-chosen slogans and educational presentations have tended to exacerbate the problem, as they focus almost exclusively on the unborn child, not the mother.”3

Pro-life feminist Frederica Matthews-Green agrees, “Pro-Lifers will not be able to break through this deadlock by stressing the humanity of the unborn. [T]hat is a question nobody is asking. But there is a question they are asking. It is, ‘How can we live without it?’ The problem is not moral, but practical.”4

There is merit to what both say. Pro-lifers must do more than stress the humanity of the unborn, especially with those facing the terror of unplanned pregnancy. This is why crisis pregnancy centers are so important. It is also true that for some abortion-minded women, appeals to self-interest may dissuade them from killing their babies.

But Swope and Matthews-Green are not saying we should reframe the debate in the narrow context of crisis counseling. Rather, they are telling the pro-life movement in general to speak less of the fetus and more to the self- interested needs of women. Although both have made important contributions to our cause, I think they are mistaken for the following reasons.

1. It is simply not true that the pro-life movement has won the debate over the status of the fetus. Both authors rightly point out that a majority of Americans support legal abortion even though most say that it is morally wrong. They interpret these contradictory findings to mean that while pro-lifers have won the moral debate over the humanity of the fetus, practical considerations keep many Americans committed to abortion.

Swope and Matthews-Green are confusing what the public says with what it truly believes. People hold contradictory and incoherent views on abortion precisely because they don’t really believe that the unborn are fully human, despite their rhetoric to the contrary. As philosopher Francis Beckwith points out, why do women only kill their fetuses when confronted with practical difficulties, rather than their already born children, if they truly believe their fetuses are fully human?5

Put differently; is there any reasonable person in America today who would argue that while he personally opposed the enslavement of blacks, he wouldn’t oppose the legal right of his neighbor to own one if he so chose? In fact, when people tell me they personally oppose abortion but think it should be legal anyway, I ask a simple question to audit their core beliefs about the unborn. I ask why they personally oppose abortion. Nearly always, the response is, “I oppose it because it kills a baby,” at which point I merely repeat their own words. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight: You say you oppose abortion because it kills a baby, but you think it should be legal to kill babies?” Those who are intellectually honest respond with stunned silence before conceding, “Gee, I never thought of it like that.” But many others reply glibly, “Well, it’s not the same thing.”

People who talk like this cannot possibly have thought much about the status of the fetus, let alone have resolved the issue in our favor. When it comes to first trimester abortion, polling data suggests the public has indeed resolved the issue, but it hardly agrees with us. A whopping 62 percent support the practice precisely because they don’t think the unborn at that stage of development are human persons.This is not a practical problem, but a deeply moral and intellectual one.

2. A strategy centered primarily on the self-interest of the woman sets a dangerous precedent for the pro-life movement. As Dr. Beckwith points out, even if appeals to self-interest temporarily reduce the number of abortions, it does not follow that our culture is becoming pro-life.

Say, for example, that Planned Parenthood releases a study demonstrating that women who abort live on average 10 years longer than those who don’t. Or, take an exact case from Boston where the National Abortion Access Project is running ads (soon to be released nationally) depicting abortion as “the responsible choice” for women who don’t want to “pay the price and have the baby.”

What principled argument against abortion can Swope or Matthews-Green make in either case? Beckwith writes, “Nurturing an unprincipled, self-interested culture may have the unfortunate con­sequence of increasing the number of people who think that unless their needs are pacified they are perfectly justified in performing homicide on the most vulnerable of our population.”7

Swope replies that moral persuasion simply does not work with many women. Consequently, he produces pro-life television ads that speak to the self-interest of women rather than the morality of abortion. He claims to have data proving the ads not only save babies, but change public opinion as well. “A 30 second ad with the objective of reaching women of childbearing age is simply not the place to teach about abstract moral obligations,” he writes.8

Perhaps so, but we shouldn’t then claim that these ads genuinely convert people to the pro-life view. True conversion on any ethical issue requires moral and intellectual assent. How can there be moral and intellectual assent if nothing in the ads speaks to moral or intellectual issues? What you get in this case are not true converts to the pro-life position, but self-interested converts who may readily abandon their newly found pro-life views. As one abortion rights leader put it, “The overwhelming majority of Americans are against abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and their own personal circumstances.” That is the heart of the issue.

Data from the pregnancy care profession seems to confirm this. Pro-life crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) outnumber abortion clinics nearly two to one, but there are still 1.3 million abortions annually. In fact Care Net, the nation’s largest affiliate of CPCs, reports that 80 percent of clients seen by its centers are not abortion minded.10 That means the vast majority of women considering abortion blow right by the local CPC on their way to Planned Parenthood. This is true despite Care Net’s laudable 1993 goal of making pregnancy care centers “so accessible and so effective in serving women that we put abortionists virtually out of business by the end of the decade.”11

Four years ago, I visited a well-funded midwestern CPC whose staff took me through comfortably furnished residential quarters that can house 40 pregnant women, most in their own private rooms. Residents enjoy impressive meals and round-the-clock medical care. The CPC also has a large, well-stocked library, classrooms in which clients pursue various courses of study, and an impressive list of services offered to women not in need of residency. The facility has the capacity to care for hundreds of nonresident clients as well. It’s hard to imagine a crisis pregnancy center that is more caring and more in tune with the self-interested needs of its clients.

Despite this CPC’s effective management and comprehensive services, it saved 80 babies that year in a metro area in which some ten thousand were killed! At times, the facility was less than half full. When pregnant women reject help from one of the best-run CPCs in the country, we don’t have practical problems; we have moral and philosophical problems. We struggle in the practical realm precisely because the culture does not agree with us that abortion is a serious moral wrong. But this center is hardly alone.

According to research presented by the Family Research Council (FRC) at a 1998 Focus on the Family conference for crisis pregnancy center staff the number of abortion-minded clients visiting CPCs is declining nationwide. For example, 10 CPCs, noted for their size and strong leadership, were asked to report their statistics for 1994 to 1996. The number of abortion-minded clients increased in four centers, but decreased in six. The number of “service only” clients (those coming in for diapers, clothing, etc., but not at risk for abortion) increased in seven, remained unchanged in one, and decreased in two. The FRC report warns that if these trends continue throughout the CPC movement, it could “threaten the primary mission of centers — to reach women at risk for abortion.”12

It’s not that women at risk are unaware that CPCs can help. According to a 1997 survey by the Wirthlin Group, 66 percent of American women were aware of crisis pregnancy centers and the services they provide, while 49 percent knew of their local center. Most important, 87 percent of those aware of CPCs believed they have a positive impact on the women they serve.13 Despite excellent services and high approval ratings, these centers are failing to reach the women most at risk.

Crisis pregnancy centers are vital to the pro-life movement, but even if there were one on every street corner in America, it would never “put abortionists virtually out of business,” much less by the end of the decade. “I’m glad that some women can be loved into loving their babies,” writes Gregg Cunningham of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. “But I won’t let that fact blind me to the reality that there are many others who will kill their babies if they are not made more horrified of abortion than they are terrified of their own crisis pregnancies.”14

3. Downplaying the truth about abortion patronizes the very women we are trying to help. Speaking of pro-choice women facing a crisis pregnancy, Swope writes, an “emphasis on babies, whether dismembered fetuses or happy newborns, will tend to deepen the woman’s sense of denial, isolation, and despair, the very emotions that will lead her to choose abortion.”15

Swope is right that pro-lifers must address the woman’s emotional concerns but wrong to say that we must downplay the truth about abortion in order to do this. Are we to conclude that women can’t look at abortion objectively? As feminist author and abortion advocate, Naomi Wolf, points out, this view is condescending to women:

The pro-choice movement often treats with contempt the pro-lifers’ practice of holding up to our faces their disturbing graphics….[But] how can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making a judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view is unworthy of feminism.16

Some (though thankfully not all) CPCs have a policy forbidding the use of abortion pictures in counseling sessions, even when the client may consent to viewing them. As unpleasant as it seems, breaking people’s hearts over abortion is often an indispensable predicate to changing their minds. Pictures change the way they feel, and facts change the way they think. Both are vital. “I wish it weren’t so, but whatever might be a CPCs reasons for categorically rejecting the use of graphic depictions of abortion, those reasons had better be more important than the lives of the babies who will die because of that policy,” writes Cunningham.17

4. Downplaying the truth about abortion is totally unnecessary and strips the pro-life movement of its most powerful tools of persuasion. We can win if we force abortion advocates to defend killing babies. The national debate over partial-birth abortion (PBA) is a case in point. Though President Clinton has twice vetoed legislation banning the procedure, the debate has helped pro-lifers in at least five ways.

First, public opinion has shifted modestly in our favor. Although Swope disputes that this has anything to do with PBA, the evidence is compelling.18 Since the partial-birth issue was first raised in 1995, the percentage of those who think abortion should be legal under any circumstances has dropped on average from 33 percent to 22 percent.19 The trend among women 18 and over is also encouraging. According to a 1999 study by The Center for Gender Equity, more women oppose abortion than support it. Fifty-three percent now say abortion should be illegal altogether or allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life.20 That’s an eight-percent shift away from abortion rights compared to a poll taken two years prior.

Why the shift? For the first time in 25 years, the debate is about the abortion act itself and how it affects the unborn.21 “When someone holds up a model of a six-month-old fetus and a pair of surgical scissors, we say ‘choice’ and we lose,” writes Naomi Wolf.22

At a National Abortion Federation meeting in 1996, Kathryn Kohlbert cautioned delegates that if the debate over partial-birth abortion focuses on what happens to the unborn, their side will get “creamed.” She urged focusing exclusively on the woman:

If the debate is whether or not the fetus feels pain, we lose. If the debate in the public arena is what’s the effect of anesthesia. [on the fetus], we’ll lose. If the debate is on whether or not women ought to be entitled to late abortion, we will probably lose. But if the debate is on the circumstances of individual women, and [how] the government shouldn’t be making those decisions, then I think we can win these fights.23

We have yet to convince many of the inhumanity of abortion in the first trimester. But graphic depictions of abortion have put our opponents on the defensive.

Second, the shift in public opinion has led to legislative progress. Despite recent setbacks in the states of Washington and Colorado, where ballot initiatives banning PBA suffered narrow defeats, the trend has been remarkably positive for the pro-life movement. For instance, New Jersey legislators — including many liberal Democrats — are supporting limits on abortion. According to The New York Times, the New Jersey experience is typical of the national trend where 31 states have now passed measures restricting access to abortion. Pro-lifers are forcing liberals to defend the abortion act itself. In New Jersey; lawmakers were actually shown videos of abortion procedures prior to a committee vote on PBA.24

Mary Balch, director of the National Right to Life State Legislative Department, explains her success with liberal lawmakers: “All we had done was to say to them, ‘Pro-abortionists support removing a large, living unborn baby almost entirely from her mother’s womb, stabbing her in the head with scissors, and sucking out her brains. Are you willing to support that?”25

Swope replies that his strategy does not necessarily apply to legislative or political change, but only to reaching the general public. This misses the point entirely. Politicians will restrict abortion precisely because public opinion demands it. Most legislators, especially those who are pro-abortion, are not going to support pro-life legislation in the absence of intense pressure from constituents. What changed the minds of constituents in this case was not concern for the self-interest of women, but the brutal reality of abortion.

Third, both the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology have issued reports condemning partial-birth abortion.26 The AMA has gone even further, stating that late-term abortions are rarely, if ever, needed to save the mother’s life or physical health.27 Though abortion advocates within the AMA have protested that the reports were politically motivated, they’ve presented no evidence to challenge the fact that partial-birth abortion procedures are nearly always performed on healthy women carrying healthy babies. Both organizations have a history of supporting abortion-on-demand, yet the debate over PBA forced each to issue statements questioning the morality of some abortions.

Fourth, PBA legislation has raised the issue of fetal pain, further calling into question the morality of abortion. An editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association states, “It is beyond ironic that the pain management practiced for an intact D&X on a human fetus would not meet the federal standards for the humane care of animals used in medical research.”28 Other medical journals have raised similar concerns.29

Fifth, the PBA debate has undermined the credibility of abortion advocates in general. Simply put they were caught lying, and even their staunchest supporters in the media felt cheated. Pro-abortion columnist Richard Cohen writes, “I was led to believe that these late-term abortions were extremely rare and performed only when the life of the mother was in danger or the fetus irreparably deformed. I was wrong.”30 A short time later, Ron Fitzimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, admitted that he and others intentionally lied to the public when they said only four-hundred of these grisly procedures were done each year. He confessed that thousands of these procedures are performed annually on perfectly healthy mothers carrying perfectly healthy babies.31

The partial birth debate damaged the pro-abortion side because it focused on what abortion does to the unborn. Pro-lifers did two things right. First, we forced abortion advocates to defend the indefensible. Second, we marshaled factual evidence to show that our opponents were lying. That’s the essence of effective pro-life apologetics as we approach the twenty-first century.


The primary challenge confronting the pro-life movement is not persuading the public that our position is practical, but that our position is true. Public revulsion over partial-birth abortion has given us a rare opportunity to frame the debate in moral terms. But we are doing precious little to press our advantage.

This past January, I conducted a state-by-state survey of major pro-life events around the country. State pro-life groups were eager to send me their list of activities, as January is their most active month due to the anniversary of Roe. vWade. Listed were numerous banquets, rallies, Christian rock concerts, potluck suppers, golf tournaments, marches, candlelight vigils, prayer services, and religious events. Shocking was the fact that not one of the events I surveyed remotely related to impacting the culture at the idea level or equipping our people to think and defend their views persuasively.32

The American public is confused and holds contradictory positions on abortion because people think the issue is morally complex. This confusion can be cleared up if pro-life apologists frame the debate around one question, as Gregory Koukl, president of Stand to Reason, explains: “Imagine that your child walks up when your back is turned and asks, ‘Daddy, can I kill this? What is the first thing you must find out before you can answer him? You can never answer the question “Can I kill this?” unless you’ve answered a prior question: What is it?”33

The answer to the question “What is the unborn?” trumps all other considerations. It is key to answering virtually every objection to the pro-life view. The following dialogue illustrates why there is only one issue to resolve, not many:

Abortion Advocate: Abortion is a private choice between a woman and her doctor.

Pro-Lifer: Do we allow parents to mistreat their children if done in private?

Abortion Advocate: Of course not. Those children are human beings.

Pro-Lifer: Then the issue isn’t privacy. It’s “What is the unborn?”

Abortion Advocate: But many poor women cannot afford to raise another child.

Pro-Lifer: When human beings get expensive, may we kill them?

Abortion Advocate: Well, no, but aborting a fetus is not the same as killing a person.

Pro-Lifer: So, once again, the issue is “What is the unborn? Is the fetus a human person?”

Abortion Advocate: But you’re being too simplistic. This is a very complex issue involving women who must make agonizing decisions.

Pro-Lifer: The decision may be psychologically complex for the mother, but morally it is not complex at all. When blacks are mistreated in a certain society; do we spin a tale about com­plex, agonizing decisions for the whites in power or do we condemn the evil of racism?

Abortion Advocate: Aborting a fetus that is not a person is one thing, discriminating against black persons is quite another.

Pro-Lifer: So we’re agreed: If abortion kills a defenseless human being, then the issue wouldn’t be complex at all. The question is, “What is the unborn?”

Abortion Advocate: Enough with your abstract philosophy. Let’s talk about real life. Do you really think a woman should be forced to bring an unwanted child into the world?

Pro-Lifer: The homeless are unwanted, may we kill them?

Abortion Advocate: But it’s not the same.

Pro-Lifer: That’s the issue, isn’t it? Are they the same? If the unborn are human like the homeless, then we can’t kill them to get them out of the way. We’re back to my first question, “What is the unborn?”

Abortion Advocate: But you still shouldn’t force your morality on women.

Pro-Lifer: You don’t really believe what you just said. You’d feel very comfortable forcing your morality on a mother who was physically abusing her two-year-old, wouldn’t you?

Abortion Advocate: But the two cases are not the same.

Pro-Lifer: Oh? Why is that?

Abortion Advocate: Because you’re assuming the unborn are human, like the two-year-old.

Pro-Lifer: And you’re assuming they’re not. So the issue is quite simple, isn’t it? It’s not forcing morality; it’s not privacy; it’s not economic hardship; it’s not unwantedness; it’s “What is the unborn?”

What we must change is not our message, but our behavior. Babies are dying whose lives could be saved if pro-life advocates were equipped to argue their case persuasively. We can win if we force abortion advocates to defend killing babies. The battle over partial-birth abortion indicates this.

When the pro-life debate has faltered, it’s because the focus has been shifted from the real issue: What is the unborn? The reluctance of some pro-lifers to advance moral arguments is a tacit admission they either don’t have a moral case to offer or lack the courage to proclaim it. Either way, these pro-lifers have not merely failed to communicate, they’ve abandoned the fight altogether. This we cannot do.


1. Paul Swope, “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate,” First Things, April 1998.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Frederica Matthews-Green, Real Choices (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1994), 32.

5. Francis J. Beckwith, letter to the editor, First Things (October, 1998).

6. Susan Yoachum, “California Pro-Choice — Early-on Poll Says Late-Term Abortions Opposed,” The San Francisco Chronicle, 10 March 1997, and The New York Times/CBS poll (January 1998).

7. Francis J. Beckwith, “Taking Abortion Seriously,” unpublished paper, 1999. This paper will be presented at the 51st Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Danvers, Massachusetts, 17-19 November 1999.

8. Reply to Francis J. Beckwith’s letter to the editor, First Things, October1998.

9. David Shaw, “Abortion Bias Seeps into News,” The Los Angeles Times, 1-4 July 1990.

10. Care Net Volunteer Training Manual, 1995, 24.

11. “Action Line” (the former newsletter of the Christian Action Council, the group now known as Care Net), January 1993; see also Kim Lawton, “20 Years after Roe, Christianity Today, 11 January 1993, 38.

12. Kurt Young, “Assessing Center Impact Increasing Center Effectiveness,” Family Outreach Council, February 1998. This paper was presented at a Focus on the Family conference specifically to address the decline in abortion-minded clients.

13. Poll cited in National Rights to Life News, 7 May 1998.

14. 12 April 1993 letter from Gregg Cunningham to Scott Klusendorf.

15. Swope.

16. Naomi Wolf, “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” The New Republic, 16 October 1996.

17. 12 April 1993 letter from Cunningham to Klusendorf. I have letters on file from CPCs that have responsibly used graphic visual aids to deter women from abortion.

18. Swope credits his ads (in states where they run) rather than PBA for the shift, but this flies in the face of nearly every opinion poll taken since 1997. Pollsters consistently cite PBA for the change in public attitudes. See also n. 21.

19. USA Today/CNN poll, 1997; cited in Ruth Padawer, “Partial Birth Battle Changing Public Views,” USA Today, 17 November 1997.

20. Study conducted by the Center for Gender Equality, January 1999. Cited in John Leo, “The Joy of Sexual Values,” U.S. News and World Report, 1 March 1999. Another sign of slippage in support for legal abortion is UCLA’s annual survey of college freshman, where in 1998 only 50.9 percent favored the practice, down front 65 percent in 1990.

21. Even pro-abortion feminists concede this. Faye Wattleton, Executive Director of the Center for Gender Equity said the debate over PBA has affected women’s overall views on abortion. “We’ve been seeing an erosion of support [for abortion], and that probably grows out of the late-term abortion debate.” (Cited in The Boston Herald, 4 February 1999.)

22. Naomi Wolf, “Pro-Choice and Pro-Life,” The New York Time’s, 3 April 1997.

23. Diane Gianelli, “Abortion Rights Leader Urges End to Half-Truths.” American Medical News, 3 March 1997.

24. Abby Goodnough, “Trenton Turning from Its longtime Support of Abortion Rights,” The New York Times, 22 February 1998.

25. “The Untold Story of Partial-Birth Abortion,” National Right to Life News, 15 March 1999.

26. On the AMA, see M. L. Sprang and M. G. Neerhof, “Rationale for Banning Abortions Late in Pregnancy,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 26 August 1998. On the ACOG, see Diane Gianelli, “AMA Report: Third Trimester Abortions Rarely Necessary” American Medical News, 26 May 1997.

27. Gianelli, “AMA Report.”

28. Sprang and Neerhof.

29. Xenophon Giannakoulopoulos, et al, “Fetal Plasma Cortisol and B-Endorphin Response to Intrauterine Needling,” The Lancet (July 9, 1994): See also Diane Gianelli, “Anesthesiologists Question Claims in Abortion Debate,” American Medical News, 1 January 1996.

30. Richard Cohen, “Late Abortions Can Transcend the Issue of Choice,” The New York Times, 26 September 1996.

31. David Stout, “An Abortion Advocate Says He Lied about Procedure,” The New York Times, 26 February 1997. See also Gianelli, “Abortion Rights Leader Urges End to Half-Truths.”

32. I am speaking here only of major events as advertised by pro-life groups. I do not mean to imply that local pro-life groups or individuals did nothing to persuade the public.

33. Gregory P. Koukl, Precious Human Unborn Persons (San Pedro, CA: Stand to Reason, 1997), 4-5.



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