Ask The Colson Center

Do Prolife Laws Hurt the Prolife Cause?


Timothy D Padgett

From the Colson Center audience:

On a recent episode of the Gospelbound Podcast, Colin Hansen and David French argued from Prohibition and Abolition that abortion won’t end unless the culture gets there before the courts do. I think that Chrissy Teigen and John Legend have done more in one night to advance that cause than any Presidential election or Supreme Court nomination.

An honest, not argumentative, question: Will it help to change laws on the federal level if doing so is turning the culture against life?

The Colson Center responds:

There’s something to that. People don’t believe what they think; they think what they believe. They find the evidence they seek to support what they already wish to be true.

Americans didn’t change their minds on LGBT issues because of some abstract reevaluation of philosophical points but because, through things like “Will & Grace” and “Glee,” homosexuals stopped being the icky “other” and became the funny folks who just wanted to be loved. Our cultural imaginations changed our philosophical minds. At the same time, I think it’d be naïve to think that legal affairs like Obergefell played no role in this decision.

While the culture shifted in the wrong direction on that particular issue, there’s a lesson to be learned from it. Legislation alone is insufficient to move the needle on prolife issues, but it is an important part of that overall conversation.

Nearly every time we do something at the Colson Center on the courts and abortion, we say something like, “Overturning Roe is a vital step for life, but it’s only one step. We need to create and encourage a culture of life, making abortion not just illegal but unthinkable.” The problem, however, comes when we begin to think that the importance of these cultural steps means that we don’t need the judicial steps of making abortion illegal.

While laws, by themselves, are not enough to change hearts and minds, but must be accompanied by moral persuasion, laws can be a part of that same cultural shift. The fancy way to put it is that law has a didactic element. More simply, laws don’t just keep us from doing bad things; they show us what is good and shape us accordingly.

Think back to American history and the other great moral crises we have faced. Both slavery and segregation were outlawed long before people’s hearts and minds caught up with the ethical implications of the philosophical principles.

With good cause, we can point to the efforts of those like the Freedom Riders, whose moral example pushed the culture to make real what its beliefs had always officially maintained about human equality. Even so, let’s not ignore the part played by the law in those moments. The Presidential edicts, legislative acts, and court decisions of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s helped to push society along the path of moral progress.

With the rolling back of segregation, long before the culture was sold on the idea, the American people had to consider that they were allowing their prized principles and acknowledged truths to be trumped by political convenience and simple prejudice.

Antislavery laws are even more to the point. The abolitionist stance among Northern states drew its strength from the moral conviction of Northern citizens, who were either opposed to slavery outright or at least indifferent enough to support antislavery laws. But, passing these laws in the North, long before the Civil War in many cases, did not end slavery in the South.

Far from it.

Arguably, in many cases the growing abolitionist attitude among Northerners actually hardened the hearts of those in Dixie, leading to things like the Fugitive Slave Law and the Dred Scot decision. What these laws did do was to declare that abolitionists would no longer accommodate the desecration of their fellow man or appease those who wished to do so. They forced the nation to consider its ways.

As Southerners came increasingly to see slavery as the their “peculiar institution,” the growth of abolitionism in the North became, in Southern eyes, an existential threat to their way of life. It became less about the material wealth to be gained and more about their status as lords of the manor and their autonomy to live as they liked. They did not, on paper, deny the humanity of the enslaved, yet they maintained that their rights were not to be denied, by either restriction or restraint.

Even when the Confederacy was on its knees in 1865, finally getting slavery banned was a hard sell. But, if you’re familiar with the history, or have seen the movie Lincoln, you’ll know that not all of the powers that be were fully on board with banning the loathsome practice. It was a close-run thing, with many hesitant to enact abolitionism. Yet, the abolitionists persisted, much to their credit and to our moral well-being.

As we’re seeing today with our own moral crisis, antislavery legislation did not change the culture by itself. But, by declaring their position and outlawing this desecration of human dignity, the abolitionists shaped the discussion and changed the long-term argument against slavery. Yes, we need the abortion equivalent of Slave Narratives and Uncle Tom’s Cabin as works of persuasion, but along with them, we must continue to pursue our new abolitionism in the legal spheres as well.

Indeed, we need more stories like what we saw with Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, but that’s not the silver bullet we might wish it were. Consider this. In response to the tragic pain of this famous couple, Planned Parenthood tweeted out their sympathy, even to the point of referring to the little lost one as “their son.” Not their cellular cluster, not their potential human, not even their fetus or embryo. They said “son.” So far, so good, but not far enough.

Think about it. Does anyone believe that Planned Parenthood is going to abandon abortion now that they’ve admitted it was a son? Will our culture accept the implications of an unborn humanity, or will we continue to turn a blind eye to the least among us? Don’t hold your breath.

What care we have is not enough to change our minds about the fundamentals of this issue. Our care for this son extends only so far as the parents consider him a son. Were these same parents to choose abortion, our cultural view would return “him” to an “it.”

Stories play their role, but they will not move the moral needle among the many elites and ordinary folks for whom abortion is a primal right, even if the unborn child is human. For many at the forefront of the prochoice movement, it’s not about the notion of an unborn humanity; it’s about the absolute freedom to express, to live as sexually free without fear of any encumbrance. Their rights are not to be denied, by either restriction or restraint.

Neither passing laws nor telling stories will be enough on their own. The prolife movement must be holistic in its approach, drawing inspiration from the moral crusades of the past, bringing their insights into the enduring struggles of the present and future.


Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series where Colson Center staff respond to questions and comments from our audience.

If there is an issue you would like to see addressed, send an email to

If Christianity is true, as we say it is, then Christians should be willing and able to offer what Francis Schaeffer called “honest answers to honest questions.”

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