Why James Dobson is unable to speak of the actual murder of actual children

Dr. James Dobson is a popular, influential and revered evangelical author, radio host and political activist.

On his radio program Monday, Dobson offered his explanation for the massacre Friday at a Connecticut elementary school:

Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I’m not talking politically, I’m not talking about the result of the November 6 election; I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God.

I mean millions of people have decided that either God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me. And we have killed 54 million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too.

And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God Almighty, and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.

(Audio here.)

I feel bad for Dobson.

Like most of us, he is rightly horrified by the slaughter in Newtown. He is reeling, recoiling, and struggling to come to grips with the shock and sorrow he feels in response to the murder of 20 children, all aged 6 and 7, and of the teachers and school leaders who cared for them.

But Dobson has no way of expressing this horror and sorrow — not even to himself. He has elsewhere expended the vocabulary that would allow him to speak of it, or even to think of it, and it has left him with no words to articulate, to grasp or to convey the deep sadness he is feeling.

That sadness is right and true and appropriate. It is a proper human response to the murder of children.

But for Dobson, “the murder of children” refers not to Sandy Hook, but to abortion. Hence the weird assertion on his radio program Monday that the murder of 20 schoolchildren is somehow God’s judgment falling on America because of the murder of “54 million babies.”

The incoherence there comes from Dobson’s heartfelt and undeniable recognition that the Newtown massacre was far, far worse than any number of abortions. He knows that. He feels that.

But Dobson has painted himself into an ethical and rhetorical corner and so he cannot allow himself to admit that.

For decades, James Dobson has insisted that abortion is “murder,” that it is “killing babies” and that no distinction — ethical, moral, theological, legal — can be allowed between those “unborn babies” and actual babies. Like most evangelicals and many Catholics, Dobson has always fiercely maintained that the killing of unborn “children” is no different from the killing of actual children.

But whenever horrible crimes like this one occur, then Dobson, just like the rest of us, beholds what has happened and recognizes that it is vastly different and wholly incomparable.

Dobson knows this. Decades of rhetorical obfuscation have deprived him of any way of expressing it or of admitting it, but James Dobson still knows this.

All that talk has left him unable to describe what he is feeling or why. He doesn’t know how to name the sorrow he feels on the news of the actual murder of actual children.

But he knows that this is a different thing. He knows that his revulsion at this crime is nothing at all like the opposition he has always expressed to abortion, even though for all these years he has used identical language demanding that we all regard the two things as identical and equivalent.

But they are not identical and they are not equivalent. Dobson knows this. Every moral intuition he has screams that these things are not equivalent.

We all know this. All of us. Even those of us who have staked our rhetoric, our politics, and our moral reasoning on the glib pretense that it is not so.

Every “pro-life” evangelical, every Operation Rescue picketer, every March for Life participant, every Christianity Today editorialist, every Catholic bishop, priest and pope knows that the murder of 20 children is essentially different and far worse than any 20 abortions. All their beloved rhetoric of “abortion is murder” and “abortion kills unborn children” turns to ashes in the wake of incidents like the slaughter in Newtown.

It seemed so simple. Declare that “personhood begins at conception” and everything clicks neatly into place. You can then insist that no ethical or moral distinction exists between a fetus and a child, between a zygote and a 6-year-old. And ethics seems so much simpler when we don’t have to make or acknowledge distinctions. Then we can have thick black lines and unambiguous rules. We can make sweeping ethical claims with the certainty and clarity we have always coveted.

That certainty and clarity is a delicious indulgence. It means we don’t even have to listen when others point out the distinctions that might threaten our clear, bold lines. When others try to argue that a fetus has great value, but not the same value as a child or as a mother, we can dismiss them as apologists for “murder.”

The simplicity and clarity of this claim of personhood-from-conception is so appealing that most of the time it more than makes up for the persistent nagging intuition that it’s not true. The appeal is almost enough to overcome the sense we can never be rid of that a zygote and a 6-year-old are obviously different, and that pretending the two are equivalent is deeply offensive to some moral intuition that we can never wholly silence.

And when, as on Friday, something horrific happens to force us to remember that, then even someone like James Dobson — one of the most forceful and vocal proponents of the “abortion is murder” claim — is unable to maintain the pretense.

That pretense is corrosive. It is rotting the hearts, minds, souls and tongues of good Christian people. And it has to stop.

Read the names of the slain children — the precious persons murdered Friday in Newtown.

Then go ahead and give it your best shot. Try to sustain the pretense. Try to tell yourself that this is no different from 20 abortions. Try to tell yourself that every fetus, every zygote, every frozen embryo at a fertility clinic, is morally and ethically and theologically and legally identical to these 20 children. Try to tell yourself that every abortion does and should sadden you just exactly as much as the cruel snuffing out of each of these sacred young lives.

Can you do that? Can you sustain that pretense?

Poor Dr. Dobson gave it his best shot, but he failed. I don’t think you can do it either. I don’t think you should.


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  • CoolHandLNC

    I don’t mean to suggest that anyone is obligated to be kind to her, whether because of her personal loss or for any other reason.

    That isn’t exactly what I meant. People sometimes use their personal grief as a bludgeon or shield. For example, I was at a public hearing about a proposed policy to do random drug testing on students who apply for parking passes at my son’s high school. One vocal proponent told a story about his son who had died of a drug overdose. I definitely felt he was using the story to intimidate. I stepped up and politely said that was terrible about his son, but the proposed policy was an ineffective waste of resources, with the potential through false-positive to create real problems for innocent students. Too, it would not address alcohol, the most frequently abused drug. (The policy was enacted. I have no idea whether they actually test anybody.)

    The same sort of thing comes up in reverse with the argument “if your wife were murdered wouldn’t you want the killer to get the death penalty”. My response would be that I might want to cut out his still-beating heart with a pocketknife then go and burn down the town he came from, but that isn’t how I decide what to do, nor is it how we should decide how to run our society. To my mind, that someone has an emotional story potentially diminishes their credibility, to the extent that they might not be thinking clearly. 

  •  > pro-lifers genuinely believe abortion is murder.  Period

    So, does it follow that pro-lifers believe that someone who performs an abortion should be subject to the same legal penalties as someone who performs any other murder, and that someone who arranges for an abortion to be performed should be subject to the same legal penalties as someone who hires someone to commit any other murder?

  •  Yup, agreed with all of this, or close enough.

    Had this been my first time around the mulberry bush with Ginny, I might have bothered to follow up my polite expression of sympathy with a more detailed response, as you did with your polite expression of sympathy for the gentleman at the hearing.

    It isn’t, so I didn’t.

  • Lunch Meat

    I don’t know. If someone broke into a neo-natal intensive care unit and killed those premature infants — born at 30 weeks or 27 or even 24…. I
    mean, why should we feel outraged about that, and not about abortions
    at 24 or 27 or 30 weeks?

    I think I can make this analogy work. Let me just get my red pen…

    If neonatal incubators were sentient, animate, had moral agency, and could feel pain and it interfered with their normal functioning to support a premature infant, and parents with premature infants forced the infants on the incubators without asking if the incubators wanted to support the infants, because there was no other way to keep the infants alive, and the incubators rejected and killed those premature infants — born at 30 weeks or 27 or even 24…. I
    mean, why should we feel outraged about that, and not about abortions
    at 24 or 27 or 30 weeks?

  • Carstonio

    “Pro-life” doesn’t mean just opposition to abortion, but also opposition to its legality. “Pro-choice” means support for its legality, and this group includes many people who believe abortion to be wrong.

    If one wants to reduce abortions, the most humane course is better access to contraception and better sex education so women conceive only when they choose to do so, and better support for women who do choose to become mothers.

    Making abortion a crime is woefully ineffective is one’s goal is to prevent abortions. But it’s wonderfuly effective if one’s goal is to shame women who don’t want to become mothers. Even exceptions in cases of rape or incest wrongly treat the desire for sex without motherhood as a legal or moral crime. Criminalizing abortion would treat women and their wombs as community property.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    We did care for a teenager in a crisis pregnancy in our home.  She was our own prodigal daughter who came back to Jesus and to her family because of her precious unborn daughter, my granddaughter.  Not only did she save Lily’s life, but Lily was instrumental in saving her mother’s life.  Sadly, Lily’s heart stopped beating at full term, and we were left with empty arms, an empty cradle and holes in our hearts.  We walked out the pro-life talk.  Check out Hannah Rose’s inspirational story.


  • Lunch Meat

    I forgot to mention that the parents in question have no intention of compensating the incubator for its time, or indeed even of coming back to take responsibility for the infant, and once the infant is developed enough to not need life support, the incubator will be legally and financially responsible for it, and will be expected to either raise it or arrange for someone else to do so, and the incubator has no way to transfer the infant to another incubator who might be willing to accept the responsibility.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Sorry, I’m just trying to imagine an animate neonatal incubator with financial responsibility. With what would it endorse its paychecks? The IV needle?

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    I am certainly not attempting to elicit empathy or compassion from anyone for my family’s profound suffering.  My essay is all mine, birthed today out of my critical thinking skills and compassion for all people, including Dr. James Dobson.  I came here to show my undying support for a man who, for 32 years, has been instrumental in helping shape the person I have become.  He has been a mentor to me throughout my entire marriage.  I will be eternally grateful to him and his organization, Focus on the Family. 

  • Lunch Meat

    And where does it earn its money? Clearly it must have a job. Picture a neonatal incubator as a teacher, or a writer, or a CEO, or a lawmaker, or a McDonald’s fry cook. Or maybe a starving street musician.

    (The fact that I did my level best to fix the analogy, and that’s how it came out, should tell you how fundamentally broken it was in the first place.)

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    I appreciate your kind expression of sympathy, Dave, for apparently unworthy, me  I saw Jesus in that thoughtful gesture.   :)

  • It is hardly my place to evaluate your worth. And while I’m not a Christian, I welcome the company of any entity that manifests itself in thoughtful gestures.

  • AnonymousSam

    Is anyone else having issues with this thread and Disqus e-mail subscriptions? I just checked and at least one third of the replies are not being sent to me via e-mail.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Aw shit. Because work flat refuses to load Disqus comments.

  • Lunch Meat

    My essay is all mine, birthed today out of my critical thinking skills
    and compassion for all people, including Dr. James Dobson.

    Just curious…if it was just “birthed” today, was it an essay before you wrote it, while you were still thinking about it, or was it a potential essay?

  • Tricksterson

    IIRC Moore was shocked that he became the most popular character from that series.

  • Moore must have been vastly overestimating the moral maturity of his audience, and it makes him sound painfully naive at the time. “No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise,” is damn appealing for the stand it makes against someone who, for all his big ideas and moralistic claims, just committed a series of tragedies and then a statistic (aka holy crap lots of murders).


    The only commonality they have is that both terminate a fetus

    An abortion terminates a pregnancy. Fetuses don’t get aborted. Pregnancies get aborted.

    We need to be very cautious about accepting their frame. One of the big differences between an abortion and murdering a child is that “murdering a child” is a thing that happens to a child. “having an abortion” is something that happens to an adult woman.

    (The further thought occurs that this isn’t that far removed from “Oh yeah? Well cars kill more people than guns. Why aren’t you trying to ban cars?” in that both of them are based on willfully ignoring the difference between something whose entire raison d’etre is killing, and something whose actual purpose is at best tangentially related to killing)


    I hate to break it to everyone, but pro-lifers genuinely believe
    abortion is murder.  Period.  They don’t do it to control anyone.  That
    doesn’t even make sense–do the pro-life women want to . . . control . .
    . other women?  Or something ridiculous?

    So… You think that a reasonable response to systematic mass murder is… to vote republican? To picket abortion clinics?

    I spent the better part of this weekend seeing it demonstrated that an awful lot of the exact same people who claim abortion is murder believe that if you see someone systematically murdering 20 children, the only reasonable response is to get a gun of your own and shoot him.

    So, 20 kids and the reasonable response is to go all Charles Bronson, but millions of kids every year and the reasonable response is to vote for Rick Santorum?

    Does. Not. Fucking. Compute. 

    If they really believed abortion was murder, there would be a lot more dead women and doctors.

  • AnonymousSam

    That doesn’t even make sense–do the pro-life women want to . . . control . . . other women?  Or something ridiculous?

    There are plenty of conservative women who argue that women should not be allowed to work, receive educations or go outside without their husband’s presence, so it’s not as though there aren’t women out there who are perfectly willing to shoot themselves in the foot.

  • Essays begin at misconception.

  • Carstonio

    A valid concern. It would be accurate to also describe miscarriages as terminating pregnancies. The point I’m making is the same as yours – these folks claim that abortion is the equivalent of gunning down children but their responses to the two aren’t even comparable.

  • Carstonio

    My first exposure to Dobson was from a book on marriage that I received as a wedding present. Midway through, Dobson goes on a two-page rant about gender roles, insisting that women were created deliberately to be inferior and subservient to men. The instrument has not been invented that could measure the repulsiveness of that claim. Put aside for a moment the fundamental immorality and injustice of mandatory gender hierarchy. No one asks to be born into a sexual identity, and I have difficulty imagining any woman wanting a life where she’s always under the control of a man, whether it’s a father or a husband. If that were just part of life, it would be a very good reason for females to abandon society entirely like in Methuselah’s  Children.

  • DorothyD

    Right, and that was the point I was trying to make earlier, except more broadly. These people don’t act as if they’re confronting a monstrous evil that must be stopped. At best, they act as if they’re declaring loyalty or support.

    Maybe it’s a problem of immediacy. I can understand how someone who believes abortion is murder might be inclined to focus mainly on stopping the abortion that’s happening today or this week, to the neglect of future abortions of pregnancies that haven’t even happened yet. Just like someone whose neighbor’s house is on fire is all about getting the fire department there as fast as possible and in the meantime organizing a bucket brigade or getting out the garden hose. And to continue the analogy, supporting the fire department when millages come up for renewal, and understanding the necessity of things like manufacturing and construction codes that reduce the possibility of fire in the first place.

    And not just ignoring all those things, not calling in the fire department, watching their neighbor’s house burn down and then saying neener neener.

    Yup. It’s mostly about the misogyny.

    (I had no idea where that analogy was going when I started typing and now that I look it over I’m pretty sure I did some sort of slight-of-hand somewhere in there…)

  • PatBannon

    This, very much. Fred does this a lot, and this is a point of contention I have with him, deep though my respect for him is. I too fail to see the difference between the sentiments Fred expresses and religious nutjobs insisting that there is no such thing as an atheist, just people perversely denying that which they know to be true.

    Well…there are a few differences. Fred is speaking about one person as opposed to a whole group, and Fred is actually trying to be charitable and assume the best of his subject.

  • PatBannon

    Also this.

  • Loki100

    Congratulations on doing something the extreme right always does–politicizing a tragedy for advancing your beliefs on abortion.

    What… what? This is a level of insanity that makes me actually want to question your reading comprehension. Fred Clark posted this as a response to James Dobson politicizing a tragedy for advancing his beliefs on abortion.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    If you truly believe that Fred out anyone else here thinks miscarriage is nothing, then you need to quote examples because I don’t believe it.

    Luckily I believe no such thing, and haven’t suggested otherwise.

  • Kryptozoon

    “I hate to break it to everyone, but pro-lifers genuinely believe abortion is murder.  Period.  They don’t do it to control anyone.  That doesn’t even make sense–do the pro-life women want to . . . control . . . other women?  Or something ridiculous?”

    Women do often want to control other women, either to reduce competition for males by preventing each other from offering easier access to sex, or, more likely, to satisfy some really hideous kind of envy I think primarily motivates the anti-choice movement. Here is how I think it works:

    In my experience, any anti-choicer can be trolled into a frothing rage about those other people suspected of having ample access to sex and enjoying it without the associated traditional baggage. The growth of these anti-choicers was stunted by their upbringing, their culture, their religion, and now they have to cope with the terrible inferiority complex, the sneaking suspicion of permanent children that they aren’t really grown-ups like those other people. So they can be called to fight to make sex more costly and dangerous for others, but not in those exact words, because who wants to acknowledge being an emotional cripple out to cripple others as well? And thus have been homosexuality (as everybody knows homos have it even easier than heterosexuals when it comes to cruising for a sexual adventure), out-of-wedlock sex (they should bear the consequences of their actions!), contraception of any kind (what, make it safe for them?) thoroughly demonized in their minds, and this is why they do convince themselves that they are, in fact, acting on righteous impulses – it’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance resolution, believe that I am a stunted freak or believe I’m a noble crusader?

  • Loki100

    They don’t do it to control anyone.

    That does not matter. It does not matter that they don’t want to control people and therefore are anti-choice. What matters is the fact that their only response to abortion is to try to control people.

    That doesn’t even make sense–do the pro-life women want to . . . control . . . other women?  Or something ridiculous?

    You do realize that there are dozens of women who have fabulous careers dedicated to the fact that women should not have careers? There have always been women perfectly happy to self-righteously oppress other women. Slut shamming and food shamming are two of the most common ways, but they are hardly the only ones.

    The Bible doesn’t even address the issue.

    The bible has an abortion ritual in it…

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    (The further thought occurs that this isn’t that far removed from “Oh yeah? Well cars kill more people than guns. Why aren’t you trying to ban cars?” in that both of them are based on willfully ignoring the difference between something whose entire raison d’etre is killing, and something whose actual purpose is at best tangentially related to killing)

    That and it’s general red herringness. Car accidents kill people too? Well, let’s work on car safety then, because we have the amazing ability to deal with more than one problem at a time.

  • Carstonio

    And not just ignoring all those things, not calling in the fire
    department, watching their neighbor’s house burn down and then saying
    neener neener.

    Great analogy. Exceptions for rape and incest would be requiring the homeowner to provide proof that the fire was arson when calling the fire department.

  • DorothyD

    I was thinking at first that the fetus is what has to be rescued, which would have the house-fire analogous to an abortion that must be prevented. But somewhere midstream my brain switched over to the woman’s perspective – she wouldn’t be seeking an abortion unless she had some good reason for it. Having a baby at that time would be a disaster for her and it’s that disaster that she wants to prevent.

    So then manufacturing and building codes are analogous to access to health care, contraception and education to prevent pregnancy. Fire departments analogous to access to an abortion clinic should she become pregnant anyway and I hope no one would ask first whether she’d been smoking in bed or something. Or as you say, only calling for help if it was arson and she could prove it. 

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    As exemplary Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

  • Carstonio

    The risk with using analogies such as yours is that they’re too often misread as being about abortion itself. I read your analogy as applying specifically to Dobson’s characterization of abortion and the disconnect with his behavior.

  • AnonymousSam

    Given that Mother Teresa also equated suffering with godliness and thus opposed the use of anesthetics, I don’t consider her view on morality to be particularly enlightened.

    But hey, she also opposed secular learning and praised obedience over thinking skills, so I imagine you can find plenty to appreciate about her.

  • DorothyD

    That’s how I started thinking about it – as others already said, if he really thought abortion was murder, he’d be doing a lot more to prevent it. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which absolutely applies when we’re talking about, you know, children. Should a woman who gets an abortion in a jurisdiction where it’s legally murder get the same twenty-five-to-life as she would if she paid someone to kill her three-year-old?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Eh. Broken clock syndrome.

    (I typed ‘broken cock’ first. brb giggling forever)

  • DorothyD

    As exemplary Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

    It is a poverty for you to decide that another woman must live as you wish. 

    The woman’s house is on fire. To her, that’s what it is. If she wanted to be pregnant, she’d see it as a cozy little blaze in the fireplace.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Not strictly true. I understand that Savita in Ireland wanted that pregnancy. It’s just that the pregnancy went wrong in a way potentially fatal to her (and for bonus points certainly fatal to the fetus, but the fetus was taking its time about expiring), and she wanted the pregnancy less than she wanted to live.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’ve never particularly had a high view of Mother Theresa to begin with, so this clock manages to be wrong even more often than most. Let’s just say the Salvation Army could appreciate her model of charity– “No, you don’t get any because you’re a disgusting pagan. Hey! Stop learning about physiology! The last thing we want to do is HELP people! The point is dying in agony, people, get it through your thick skulls!”

  • DorothyD

    Eh, it still works. In Savita’s case, the fire escaped from the fireplace. Sadly. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which still ends up with house on fire.

  • DorothyD

    To which the only sane response is “put out the damn fire.” 

  • Carstonio

    Don’t make assumptions about why some women have abortions. Or why some women don’t. Whatever good that Mother Theresa accomplished, her central sin was in presuming to know what was best for people, and helping them on her terms. Both are wrong no matter what one’s religious affiliation or one’s position on abortion.

  • And assumption is the brother of all fuck-ups.

  • VMink

    What should the punishment be for a woman who has an abortion in a jurisdiction where abortion is illegal?

    Stoning, right?  Death by stoning?  That’s appropriate, isn’t it?

  • Kiba

    I’ve never particularly had a high view of Mother Theresa to begin with,

    That makes two of us. Not a fan at all. She discouraged the sisters working in her facilities from attaining any kind of medical training because God is supposed to empower the weak and the ignorant, but when she, herself, fell ill she went and sought out proper medical treatment. 

  • Kiba

    For those who haven’t yet made her acquaintance, Ginny here is a  56 year old conservative who prides herself on not learning new things or arguing in good faith, is prone to walls of copy-and-paste rants from conservative websites about the evils of abortion, and rarely bothers to acknowledge when she is asked a legitimate question. Those thinking to make an argument in return to the above would be better served by shouting at a wall for a few hours. The wall is more responsive.
    Also, lest it be lost in the wall of words, yes, Ginny just blamed abortion on the teaching of evolution.

    She’s also a tiresome hypocrite with a martyr complex who treats others like shit then complains when she’s called on it.