Why Pro-Lifers Lose Battles

February 5, 2014 | 13 comments

On a summer day 150 years ago, General Robert E. Lee ordered his men to storm Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg. To this day, no one quite knows why one of the most brilliant military commanders in American history threw his men across open fields at an enemy entrenched in an easily-defended position. Lee was warned beforehand of the folly of what would become known to history as Pickett's Charge and the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but Lee could not be swayed from his course. It was almost as if Lee thought God himself would be on the side of Lee's men, sweeping them across Cemetery Ridge to victory.

I was reminded recently of futile charges for glory while reading of the latest strategy of pro-life groups to strike a blow against the Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) and Planned Parenthood.

The Pro-Life Movement's Futile Charge

A spam email from a national pro-life organization appeared in my inbox recently, pleading with me to join a boycott of Girl Scout cookies. Pro-life groups have been urging for years that culture warriors stop buying cookies from the Girl Scouts to protest the various and sundry ways in which it is alleged that the GSUSA has offended traditional values. The most pressing concerns offered by pro-lifers relate to the dispute over the GSUSA's positions on abortion rights and sex-education for children. According to pro-life organizations, the GSUSA works hand-in-glove with Planned Parenthood. The GSUSA maintains that it does not support Planned Parenthood at the national level, although individual Girl Scout councils may choose to work with Planned Parenthood if they wish.

This year though, the controversy reached new heights when someone using the GSUSA's Twitter feed asked for nominations of influential women of 2013, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Texas Senator Wendy Davis were considered. (Davis came to national attention last year when she filibustered in the Texas Senate to kill legislation intended to more stringently regulate abortions in Texas.) In response, pro-life groups decided to organize a nationwide "CookieCott," urging consumers to boycott Girl Scout cookies this year, in the hopes of both negatively impacting the GSUSA's signature revenue source and attracting media attention to pro-life concerns about the GSUSA.

Personally, I am not a fan of boycotts. They often are the equivalent of using a club on a thumbtack—not because boycotts are overkill, but rather because a boycott is an unwieldy weapon that is difficult to aim at its target. There is also the problem that many people who support boycotts recruit new members through the manipulation of human conscience. Rather than present a boycott as one option for social justice among other legitimate options, boycotts are often presented as moral imperatives that prove one's commitment to a cause. For example, a boycott could be presented like this:

We have chosen to boycott Girl Scout cookies as a means of making known our concerns about the GSUSA's policies. Would you like to join us in this effort?

More often though, this is the type of rhetoric potential recruits hear:

You can't buy Girl Scout cookies! The GSUSA is an evil handmaiden to the Great Satan, Planned Barrenhood. Anyone who buys Girl Scout cookies is not pro-life and is a Christian in name only!

An Alternative Strategy

When I read the email, I remembered an alternative strategy I had tried out a few years ago when a Girl Scout troop was selling cookies outside a local supermarket. It worked well enough that I thought my Facebook audience might like to consider trying it out in their own neighborhoods. I wrote:

It's that time of year again, when pro-life groups are urging people to boycott Girl Scout cookies. I'm not a huge fan of boycotts, so I'm passing along an alternative tactic I came up with a few years back.

The Girl Scouts were outside the local supermarket hawking cookies. It was Lent, I didn't need the calories, and I had heard that much of the proceeds go to the national organization. Local troops get only a small percentage. So I asked one of the moms if I could donate directly to the local troop. She was puzzled and asked if I meant that I wanted to send cookies to military troops (a project that the Girl Scouts undertake as part of their cookie sales). No, I said, I wanted to know if I could give her a donation for the local Girl Scout troop to which they belonged that would stay with their troop and not be sent to the national organization.

The mom suddenly smiled with understanding and said, "Oh! Yes, of course." So I handed her $10. The troop got a small donation, of which they got to keep the whole amount; I got to make my position on the national organization clear in a constructive manner; and I didn't have two boxes of [GSUSA] cookies added to my hips. We all ended up happy that year.

Many readers liked the idea, and let me know that they thought it would be a good way to both support neighborhood children involved in local troops and to register their dissatisfaction with the national organization. But I was unsurprised to get some negative feedback as well:

If that [the pro-life cause] was the only reason I don't support Girl Scouts it would [be] a good alternative. Unfortunately [given] their materials [that] they use within the troops, and with other organizations out there that are better alternatives, I can't in good conscience do this either.

Other readers wanted to make certain everyone was informed what the Better Alternatives to the GSUSA were:

There is [a] wonderful Catholic alternative, the Little Flowers. Send a donation to a parish with this group—or [to] the American Heritage Girls, [which supports] true Christian values.

I do not object either to negative feedback or to sharing alternative resources. What made me sigh with frustration when I read these comments is that these readers seemed to be missing my point: That the strategy I was offering was one way among many legitimate strategies to inform people of your concerns on matters of social justice. 

Let's make clear upfront that supporting a boycott or an alternative organization are legitimate options. If one of those options is the one you feel is the right one for you and your family, go for it. Don't let me stop you.

But let's also think for a minute on the benefits to my proposed strategy—not because it is the best strategy, but because doing so may provide the contrast to current pro-life strategies necessary to illustrate why I think pro-lifers are losing battles in the culture war. 

So, what might be the benefits to my suggestion?

In the immediate moment, you are letting local Girl Scouts know your position on a matter of urgency to you, but in a way that they are more likely to respect and consider than they would CookieCott fliers or lectures on the alleged evils of the GSUSA.

The price of the immediate finger in the eye of the GSUSA is small—$10 per year out of pocket for you. Ten bucks is not going to buy your local troop much. But small though the donation is, it will stay within your community, benefitting only the troop and not the GSUSA. Not only that, as Czech politician and human-rights activist Václav Havel once observed about the power of small moral acts:

Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.

Does this sound hopelessly naïve? Let's suppose more people dissatisfied with the GSUSA took up this alternative. Suppose entire parishes, neighborhoods, and communities decided to give money they would otherwise have spent on GSUSA cookies to their local troops and not to the GSUSA. What would happen then?

Well, then the GSUSA might start to take notice. It might demand a share of the take, or it might forbid local troops from collecting direct donations for their troops during the cookie sales. The troops, in turn, might become upset with the GSUSA, and might decide that the GSUSA is more concerned with its own interests than it is with the girls in local communities.

What you have now created is the possibility of schism between the national organization and the troops. The GSUSA might have to cave to pro-life demands to salvage the nationwide cookie sales. Or, the troops might have to reconsider their ties with the GSUSA. Either way, you have the possibility of real change within the GSUSA—and all because enough pro-lifers decided to give money directly to cute little girls working hard for their troops.

Isn't that a more appealing scenario for the pro-life cause than the alternative that has been proposed by pro-abortion activists of evil anti-abortionists who hate cute little girls innocently peddling cookies door to door?

The Value of Strategy

Trying to convince pro-lifers of the value of strategic planning and incremental steps in the war against legal abortion is at times like beating one's head against the proverbial brick wall. Like General Lee envisioning one grand, sweeping charge that would scatter the enemy before him at Cemetery Ridge, many pro-lifers seem to think that throwing themselves upon Planned Parenthood's entrenchments will ensure complete and total victory in one fell swoop. If God is on their side, then who can stand against them?

Then they bemoan, but never learn from, their failure.

Meanwhile, the other side in the culture wars marches on unimpeded, mainly because they have followed a carefully-plotted strategy. Take, for example, the forward motion of the fight to legalize homosexual marriage throughout the world. It is now widely acknowledged that the modern homosexual civil rights movement has been working steadily since 1990 to implement the strategy laid out by Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen in their book After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the '90s. Only in retrospect have defenders of traditional marriage realized how thoroughly they were routed by the book's strategic six-point plan.

Pro-lifers will not lose the war. Victory will be ours. But we could lose more casualties than necessary before ultimate success. For that reason alone we cannot shrug at the proven success of careful strategy.

Strategic action may be effective, but we do have to ask if it is moral in itself. Can pro-lifers learn from the careful plotting of their opponents? After all, if the means are evil then they are not justified by a good end. In my opinion, strategy in the service of good to oppose evil is recommended by Christ himself:

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16).

Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Amy Schisler - Bozman, Maryland

Thank you Michelle! I am devout, practicing, pro-life Catholic who just happens to be, Heaven forbid, a Girl Scout Leader! I have been working behind the scenes on the grassroots level for many years trying to return the Girl Scouts to its Christian roots. I run a camp every summer where we say grace before meals, talk about morals and values, and truly follow the Girl Scout Promise serving God and Country. My oldest daughter earned her Gold Award (Eagle Scout) by raising money to help the Knights of Columbus purchase a sonogram machine for our local pregnancy center. My middle daughter is now planning a similar project for her Gold Award to benefit the center. My troop is almost entirely made up of Catholic girls from ages 9 to 19! We hope to be the future of Girl Scouts in America, but we can't do it if we abandon the organization. I have been likened to an abortionist and called a Planned Parenthood sympathizer. All I want is a better future for my girls, my troop, and the GSUSA. If everyone with my views quits, where will that leave us?

February 5, 2014 at 9:12 am PST
#2  Mary H - Spokane, Washington

I say this with many years of respect and gratitude for Catholic Answers and all that work with this ministry--but two things here bother me enough to comment. First, why the negative, insulting, broad-sweeping insult to "pro-lifers"? It's one thing to express an opinion of one aspect of one fight in one battle of the culture war, but to express it with such disdain for fellow pro-lifers seems overtly condescending.

Second, I question why donating to individual troops (when one doesn't know the leaders or the participants) would be any better than donating directly to the GSUSA. As Ms. Arnold admits, "individual Girl Scout councils may choose to work with Planned Parenthood if they wish." So if even the GSUSA admits that it's the individual troops that may forge this relationship with PP, why take the risk and throw $10 their way?

I admire the work and resolve the first commenter here, Amy, who is a practicing Catholic leading a group of Catholic girls, and I would consider giving her troop a donation. But donating money blindly to troops whose leaders are either unaware of GSUSA's ties to Planned Parenthood or are aware and embrace those ties? I don't want to risk it.

So I'll take the "head banging against a brick wall" approach and not buy the cookies. And if it's the practice of Catholic Answer's apologists to call me a failure for doing so, then I'll revisit my once-unquestionable judgement for sending them part of our tithing check, too.

February 5, 2014 at 10:50 am PST
#3  Steven Way - Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

I don't think any of the people who are Pro-Life are under a delusion that little things like choosing not to give their money to an organization that supports and/or is affiliated with Planned Parenthood is going to stop abortion in its tracks. The point isn't about winning; it's about acting according to our conscience. So, I will continue to generally avoid giving my money to any organization that I know is owned or influenced by Planned Parenthood. If that means saying "no, thank you" to a Girl Scout who is selling cookies or looking into an alternative to Girl Scouts for my daughter such as American Heritage Girls then so be it.

February 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm PST
#4  Stef Ofhfs - Liberty Township, Ohio

While you bring up some good points here, I believe a better strategy would be to provide information when refusing to donate/purchase. Unless I personally knew a GS leader, understood their philosophy, knew that they were on the same page with regards to the life issues (especially Catholic-church-chartered troops), etc. I wouldn't give them a cent. Many are still associated with GSUSA simply because they don't realize the connection. Others couldn't care less. But if we provide information there's a greater chance people will either take steps to make changes from the inside, or leave GSUSA altogether and make an impact that way. Some infographics would be nice, here's one to start with: http://bucultureshock.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/what-girl-scout-cookies-fund.jpg

February 5, 2014 at 3:50 pm PST
#5  Marco Salinas - San Antonio, Texas

I cannot lie- this blog post, although I know is only her humble opinion- really gets under my skin, especially the title. It bothers me to see someone who is a representative of this site, working against the positive momentum we are making with the boycott after several years of trying to spread the word. I think its arrogant to say this appears to be a "losing battle" because if you compare this topic from 2-3 years ago, there really is a big difference in the amount of people taking notice and more importantly taking a stand. I would surely not call this a loss of any kind AND if one single person can change their views on abortion as a result of this process we know for a fact its a big win, but not for us- for our Savior and for a possible innocent life which might have otherwise some how some way been effected.

This has nothing to do with personally attacking any troop leaders or trying to "take away" from the little girls involved...this is a much bigger picture and I do believe it gives each of us the chance to turn down the product and the opportunity to be a witness to someone who may not have taken the time to understand the depth of evil involved in PP or abortion etc. My daughters are in fact in the GS's and happen to have the best troop leaders around...they do all sorts of cool activities and I am happy with what they are doing at the BOTTOM level in the troop itself. That did not however stop me from letting the troop leaders know the girls would not be participating in ANY sales activities which might send money any other place than directly back to the girls themselves. I too donate directly to their troop because I know where and who my money is going to but that is not the case with donating to a random troop sitting outside of WalMart. The troop leaders respect our opinions and may not agree- hey that is ok, so long as they know where MY CATHOLIC FAMILY stands. Its given us another great opportunity to explain to the girls why we believe what we do and I can only think that this can and will make an impact in their lives as they are maturing and coming to a deeper understanding of our family's stance on faith matters. Surely this would not be achieved by not explaining to them why we are not actively participating in the cookie sales and instead boycotting this whole process altogether. They will be taken out of the GS's by 5th grade and they will know exactly why, but for now I am ok with the activities they take part in at this age and level and with my supervision of the Troop itself.

I hope Michelle can see why her article is very frustrating to the pro-life Catholic and will reconsider her stance on this topic- this is not good coming from this site.

February 5, 2014 at 4:10 pm PST
#6  Kathleen Sampson - Poway, California

I am also a devout, practicing Pro Life Catholic who has been a Girl Scout leader for a decade. Although the national organization may be influenced by their ties with Planned Parenthood, our program is one that promotes courage, confidence, and character, regardless of culture or religious affiliation. Folks in our community know that donations to our troop will be returned to the community 100 fold. We have compiled food baskets, helped seniors, made blankets, and generally tried to do things for others.

I applaud Michele's recommendation because boycotting cookies sales will hurt girls. Donating directly to troops allows girls to fund the projects that help our communities. I want my Catholic daughters to learn their faith and learn to be of service in the community. Let's learn to send the right messages.

February 5, 2014 at 4:42 pm PST
#7  Steven Way - Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio


It would be great if someone else ever described me as "devout", but I would never describe myself using that word. If I were to describe myself, I think the word "sinner" would come to mind first. But, we are under no moral obligation to buy Girl Scout cookies. And if we choose not to buy them it doesn't mean that we are doing it to "hurt girls."

February 5, 2014 at 6:51 pm PST
#8  Conrado Medequiso - Redbank Plains, Queensland

Michelle, I love reading your blogs. They are insightful and I often find myself echoing what you said during my meditations and prayers. Same with this blog. What you actually proposed is a charitable way of correcting or voicing your objection to GSUSA's association with planned parenthood. By boycotting, we are actually driving the young girls selling cookies away from the TRUTH. The thing is the girls may not have a full understanding of the situation but are convinced that they doing a good thing. Boycott is just like discrimating the girls and people, may they are young or old, react negatively to discrimination. We can only win hearts and souls through LOVE.

Having said that however, this blog is harsh to us prolifers. The title you penned is a bit condescending to the efforts exerted by everyone involved. I understand that we should be highly critical of ourselves as we are called to the perfection of charity and being the followers of TRUTH and LOVE. But I pray that we take the best out of this blog. God bless us all...

February 6, 2014 at 2:16 am PST
#9  Laura Lenz - Woodbridge, Virginia

Thank you, Michelle for your constructive article, and Amy for your testimony. As another Catholic Girl Scout leader, I watch the controversies and do my research and feel that while the Girl Scout organization has made mistakes, we should fight for our organization from within, and we do. My co-leader and I closely watch the materials and the activities that we participate in--that is our right and our duty--to ensure that the materials/activities do not contradict our values and faith. Every troop is different, but there are good Girl Scouts out there. And Michelle is right--take the long view--small steps. We are getting there and we will show the way!

February 6, 2014 at 5:49 am PST
#10  Steven Way - Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

By the way, Texas was a victory for the Pro-Life side thanks to Texas having a Republican Governor.

February 6, 2014 at 4:32 pm PST
#11  Clare Hall - Schuyler, Nebraska

The thing that I find most interesting about Catholic Girl Scout leaders is: why do you continue to participate in an organization that has ties to the Culture of Death? Is it because of your own wonderful experiences that you want to give the same to your own daughters? Can you not acknowledge the present organization is not the same as it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago? I just don't get it. Are you saying there are no other worthy organizations for your daughters to associate with? Talk about banging your head against a brick wall. You who call yourselves "devout Catholics" and continue to be affiliated with an organization whose national framework supports PP doesn't make sense. I was a GS all the way through high school; I received the Marian Award, but I would never want my daughter to be part of a group that had even the slightest ties to an organization such as PP. Sin is sin is sin is sin. Just because we commit venial sins and not mortal sins doesn't warrant us an automatic pass into heaven. Are we not to "be perfect even as our Father is perfect?" Why the compromise? Why are you holding on so tightly to that which is tainted? Open your eyes, dear sisters, and reach for the Kingdom.

February 10, 2014 at 2:14 pm PST
#12  Mary Helen Colleli - Columbus, Ohio

Clare Hall, thank you for your comment. Our daughter was a girl scout until the year that the local troops had a sleepover during which the girls would be encouraged to discuss their experiences with death. The attending girls' ages ranged from Daisies through high school. There were no trained bereavement counselors there, just troop leaders. They were not prepared for the possibility that some girls had not yet dealt with the death(s) of friends and family members, and that bringing up the topic in a group forum might be harmful to the girls. When I expressed my concerns, I was brushed off. It was the last of many straws we'd experienced in our association with GS. Our daughter did not attend, and shortly thereafter we ended our association with the troop.

Other incidents included the following situations. There was a Catholic GS troop connected with our Catholic school, but the non-Catholic mother of a non-Catholic student who had enrolled her daughter in the school "for the discipline it offers" demanded that the troop leader not have any specifically Catholic activities as she didn't want her daughter to feel left out. Several mothers complained to the troop leader, to no avail.

One year, at an anniversary campout at Ohio Camp Molly Lauman involving troops from all over Ohio, I played guitar at a evening campfire. Some of the troop leaders engaged in activity and songs that can only be described as bawdy. Homosexual themes were bandied about as well - homosexual troop leaders being a well-known phenomenon present in the GS since the late 60s/early 70s. While no scouts were present, the leaders' language and behavior were such that I soon left the group around the fire and went to bed.

Complaining later to the local GS 'authorities' about these incidents merely resulted in my being patronizingly told to "respect one another's beliefs and just get along."

GS is a broken behemoth. With the current liberal mindset that permeates the organization, it is impossible to do more than discover a few like-minded leaders who are forging ahead with changes on their own. If each troop is required to in some way - financially or otherwise - support the national organization, it's like playing with flypaper.

It seems much better to begin with a new organization such as Little Flowers whose foundation is built on traditional values, and choose a dependable authority to which individual troops will be answerable, and to whom they can go with tough questions that arise.

March 1, 2014 at 7:50 am PST
#13  Mary Kay Culp - Lenexa, Kansas

I am the state Executive Director of Kansans for Life. Just so you know, the national Girl Scouts of America national treasurer is a woman named Joan Wagnon. She is high up, if not the head right now, of the KS Democratic Party. She ran for governor once. She is an avowed pro-abortion politician. She is a friend of our former governor, Kathleen Sebelius. She once spoke positively about Dr. George Tiller, the infamous KS late-term abortionist who was murdered in 2009. I believe she was a personal friend of his.

I have a grand-daughter finishing out Girl Scouts as a 6th grader. My daughter has put her 6 year old sister into American Heritage Girls which recently started at our parish as an alternative. Our parish has both right now. At Kansans for Life we have told people over the last year about giving a check directly to the local troop. More and more Catholic parishes here are offering American Heritage Girls as an alternative and one of these days, there will be more of them than Girl Scouts I think.

If you read the research on the Girl Scouts of America ties to PP, mostly through the Worldwide Girl Scouts it is appalling. But one doesn't need to be in any way nasty to the wonderful local Moms who have devoted so much time and energy to Girl Scouts over the years. At the same time we must educate people.

There was without a doubt, a well thought-out, purposeful takeover of the Girl Scouts by organizations like Planned Parenthood, and so many higher ups in the national organization being former leaders in homosexual organizations or activists was no accident,etc.

If all this awareness can change things back, great. If not, we --especially Catholics--must continue in a kind, but determined way to offer alternatives and hope to switch as many girls over to groups like American Heritage Girls who actually have a pro-life merit badge. That's my opinion anyway.

January 20, 2015 at 9:37 pm PST

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