Bad Ways People Argue About Abortion
What are bad ways to respond to an argument?
1. Dismiss rather than argue — Arguments stand or fall on their merits, not:
the gender of those making them: As Christopher Kaczor points out, there is no such thing as a “woman’s perspective” on abortion anymore than there is a male perspective or a brown-eyed person’s perspective. Indeed, feminists, let alone women in general, do not share a single perspective on the issue. This is true even for feminists who support abortion. For example, feminist Naomi Wolf calls abortion “a real death” while feminist Katha Pollitt thinks it no different than vacuuming out your house. In short, while gender perspectives on abortion help us understand personal experience, they are no substitute for rational inquiry. Rather, it is arguments that must be advanced and defended and those arguments stand or fall on their merits, not the gender of those espousing them. After all, pro-life women make the same arguments as pro-life men.
the religion of those making them: Set aside that there are secular pro-lifers and religious pro-choicers. Calling an argument “religious” is a dodge, not a refutation. As Francis J. Beckwith points out, arguments are either sound or unsound, valid or invalid. Calling an argument “religious” is a category mistake like asking, “How tall is the number three?” Pro-lifers argue that it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings, that abortion does that, therefore, it’s wrong. If critics can refute that argument, fair enough. But dismissing it with a label won’t do.
the origins of those making them: A Muslim philsopher by the name of Al-Ghazali once formulated the following argument for theism:
P1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
P2: The universe began to exist.
C: The universe has a cause.
Should Christian theists reject the argument based on its non-Christian origins? Of course not. The argument stands or falls on its merits, not the person or belief system generating it. Likewise, even if the pro-life argument originates from religious sources, it does not follow that it is defacto bad.
the motivations of those making them: Suppose an elite trial lawyer defends a client solely for the money. Does his motivation for taking the case invalidate his argument? Not at all. He may care little for his client, but his case stands or falls on its merits, not his motivation for taking it. Likewise, even if it were true that pro-lifers only defend the unborn for political expediency (which is not remotely true), it wouldn’t follow that their pro-life argument is invalid or unsound.
Main point: Thoughtful pro-life advocates present an argument for their position. That argument may be mistaken but it must be refuted rather than dismissed.
2. Assume rather than argue — Consider this example from chapter 32 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck contrives a story to explain to Aunt Sally his late arrival by boat:
“We blowed out a cylinder head.”
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Notice it’s simply assumed the black man is not one of us. It’s not argued for, merely assumed. President Obama made a similar assumption with the unborn. In a press release celebrating Roe v. Wade, he said that we need abortion because “this is a nation where everyone has a right to pursue their own dreams.” But he never told us if “everyone” includes the unborn. He just assumed it did not. Or, consider the back-alley argument: “The law can’t stop all abortions. Women will be forced to get dangerous illegal ones and will die in the back-alleys of America by the thousands.” We will evaluate the truth of the back-alley claim later, but notice how the objection assumes the unborn are not human. Otherwise, the argument is saying that because some people might die while attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so. But why should the law be faulted for making it more risky for one human to intentionally destroy another completely innocent one?
As noted above, the abortion debate turns on the status of the unborn–that is, do the unborn count as one of us? At the street level, many justifications for abortion assume the unborn are not human. Put differently, they are question-begging. That is, they simply assume what they are trying to prove without offering a shred of evidence to support their assumption.
Consider this quote from Katha Pollitt in her book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. In what ways does Pollitt assume the unborn are not human?
“Abortion is often seen as a bad thing for society, a sign of hedonism, materialism, and hyper-individualism. I argue that, on the contrary, access to legal abortion is a good thing for society and helping a woman obtain one is a good deed. Instead of shaming women for ending a pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self-knowledge. We should accept that it’s good for everyone if women have only the children they want and can raise well. Society benefits when women can commit to education and work and dreams without having at the back of their mind a concern that maybe it’s all provisional because at any moment an accidental pregnancy could derail them for life. It’s good for children to be wanted, and to come into this life when their parents are ready for them.”
Questions for Pollitt:
- Are the unborn part of “society?” As Beckwith points out, you cannot argue that abortion is “good” for society when the very question of who is part of society — that is, whether or not it includes the unborn — is the very question in dispute in the abortion debate.
- In what way is abortion “good?” It’s only good if you assume the unborn are not human. Pollitt needs to argue for that, not merely assume it.
- What do you mean by “everyone?” Are the unborn included in “everyone?”
- What do you mean by “women [should] have only the children they want?” Pro-life advocates argue that the pregnant woman already has a child. The only question is what she will do with him.
- Toddlers derail dreams, education, and careers. Can we kill them to avoid life-altering transitions? Her argument only works if you assume the unborn are not human, like toddlers are.
In short, her arguments fail unless you assume the unborn are not human.
The following objections to the pro-life argument are all question-begging. They fail unless you begin with the assumption the unborn are not human — which is the very point under dispute in the abortion controversy:
- Anti-choicers don’t trust women to make their own personal choices. — If parents want to rough up their toddler in the privacy of the bedroom, should we trust them to make their own personal choices?
- Anti-choicers want to force poor women to bring another child into this world. — When human beings get expensive, may we kill them?
- Restricting abortion is unfair to poor women who, unlike rich women, can’t afford to travel to places where abortion is legal. — Argument assumes abortion is a moral good poor women will be denied. However, since when is equal opportunity to intentionally kill an innocent human being a moral good? As Francis Beckwith points out, “The vices of the wealthy are not virtues simply because the poor are denied them”
- Abortion is needed to control overpopulation and preserve scarce resources. — Why not kill toddlers or teenagers who consume allegedly scarce resources?
- Abortion is needed to prevent child abuse. — Should we kill two-year old abuse victims to prevent their abuse at age five?
- Abortion prevents unwanted children. — The homeless are unwanted; may we kill them? The objection falls on its head unless you assume the unborn are not human.
- Laws against abortion impose morality. — Would you say the same thing about laws against killing toddlers?
- Abortion is needed to prevent disabled children. — Since when are damaged humans non-humans? Is it okay to kill disabled two-year olds?
- Embryonic stem cell research is morally permissible because it promises healing — Healing to whom? Are the embryos destroyed by this research “healed” by it? Is it “good” for them? Suppose the issue was destroying two-year-olds to cure five-year- olds. Should we ignore our moral qualms and focus only on the alleged cures? Only by assuming the embryos are not human does this argument work.
- Support for embryonic stem cell research reflects a selfless love for one’s neighbor who may need the cures it promises. — Is the embryo my neighbor? Does destructive embryo research further his well being?
Here’s a tactic for addressing critics who assume the unborn are not human. It’s called “trot out the toddler” and you should memorize it! Here’s how it works. If you think a particular argument begs the question regarding the status of the unborn, ask yourself if this justification for abortion also works as a justification for killing toddlers. If not, the argument assumes the unborn are not fully human. Now, it may be the case that the unborn are not fully human and abortion is therefore justified. But this must be argued with evidence, not merely assumed by one’s rhetoric. Suppose, for example, that a friend justifies elective abortion this way: “Women have a right to make their own private decisions. What goes on in the bedroom is their business and no one else’s.” When you hear this, don’t panic. Trot out a toddler:
Pro-lifer: You say that privacy is the issue. Pretend that I have a two-year old in front of me (hold out your hand at waist level to illustrate this). May I kill him as long as I do it in the privacy of the bedroom?
Abortion-choice advocate: That’s silly, of course not!
Pro-lifer: Why not?
Abortion-choice advocate: Because he’s a human being.
Pro-lifer: Ah. If the unborn are human, like the toddler, Should we kill the unborn in the name of privacy any more than we’d kill a toddler for that reason?
Abortion-choice advocate: You’re comparing apples with oranges, two things that are completely unrelated. Look, killing toddlers is one thing. Killing a fetus that is not a human being is quite another.
Pro-lifer: Ah. Maybe you are right about that. But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Are the unborn human beings, like toddlers? Perhaps they are not. But you need to argue for that, not merely assume it.
Abortion-choice advocate: But many poor women cannot afford to raise another child.
Pro-lifer: When human beings get expensive, may we kill them? Getting back to my toddler example, suppose a large family collectively decides to quietly dispose of its three youngest children to help ease the family budget. Are you okay with that?
Abortion-choice advocate: Well, no, but aborting a fetus is not the same as killing children.
Pro-lifer: So, once again, the issue is: What is the unborn? Is the fetus the same as a human being? We can’t escape that question, can we?
In short, the question-begging nature of each of each statement from the abortion-choice advocate above can be exposed by asking if the reasons given for abortion justify killing a toddler. If not, the statement assumes the unborn are not human like the toddler is, and thus begs the question.
Finally, a pro-life advocate debating Pollitt can expose her assumptions by saying the following:
Men and women, I agree completely with everything Ms. Pollitt just said. She’s right that abortion is a personal, private matter that should not be restricted in any way. She’s right that we shouldn’t interfere with personal choices. She’s right that pro-lifers should stay out of this decision. Yes, I agree completely IF. IF What? If the unborn are not human beings. And if Ms. Pollitt can demonstrate that the unborn are not members of the human family, I will concede this exchange and so should everyone else who is pro-life. Contrary to what some may think, the issue that divides Ms. Pollitt and me is not that she is pro-choice and I am anti-choice. Truth is, I am vigorously “pro-choice” when it comes to women choosing a number of moral goods. I support a woman’s right to choose her own health care provider, to choose her own school, to choose her own husband, to choose her own job, to choose her own religion, and to choose her own career, to name a few. These are among the many choices that I fully support for the women of our country. But some choices are wrong, like killing innocent human beings simply because they are in the way and cannot defend themselves. No, we shouldn’t be allowed to choose that. So, again, the issue that separates us is not that she is pro-choice and I am anti-choice. It’s not that she loves women and I hate them. The issue that divides us is just one question, What is the unborn?
3. Attack rather than argue — If you attack the person rather than his or her argument, you commit the ad-hominem fallacy. Ad-hominem simply means “name calling.” Attacking the person is fallacious because even if the personal attack is true, it does nothing to refute the argument presented.
Example: “Men can’t get pregnant. Only women should decide the issue.”
Arguments don’t have gender; people do. Pro-life women use the same pro-life arguments. Moreover, if men can’t speak on abortion, Roe v. Wade should be reversed because nine men decided it. In short, we’re left with bizarre reasoning: Imagine saying that only generals should decide the morality of war.
Example: “Pro-life advocates have no right to oppose abortion given they refuse to adopt unwanted children.”
The claim is untrue, but suppose it was. How does a pro-life advocate’s alleged unwillingness to adopt a child justify an abortionist killing one? And how does their alleged behavior flaw refute the formal argument they present? In short, it doesn’t. At best, the attack only demonstrates the pro-life advocate fails to live out his view, not that his argument is invalid or unsound.
Example: “Pro-life advocates are inconsistent for opposing abortion but not the death penalty.”
First, suppose that pro-life advocates are inconsistent (which they are not). How does their alleged inconsistency refute their pro-life syllogism? How does it disprove the humanity of the unborn? Could the unborn still be human and abortion wrong even if pro-lifers are inconsistent? Of course. Second, the argument attacks a strawman. The pro-life view is not that it is always wrong to kill, only that it’s wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. Third, the consistency sword cuts both ways. The abortion-choice advocate who makes this claim is generally against capital punishment but supports abortion. Doesn’t that make him inconsistent? Perhaps so, but it hardly refutes his argument. Neither does it refute the pro-life one.
Example: “Pro-life advocates are too narrow and should broaden their focus to oppose war, poverty, economic inequality, care for the environment, AIDS, etc.”
Suppose pro-life advocates are too narrow. How does that justify intentionally killing an innocent human being in the womb? Could abortion still be wrong even if pro-lifers fail to fulfill all their alleged obligations? Meanwhile, how does it follow that because pro-life advocates oppose the intentional killing of an innocent human being, they must take responsibility for fixing other societal ills? We’ll take up that question later, but for now, notice it does not refute the pro-life argument.
Example: “Pro-life advocates should work to reduce abortion by focusing on its underlying causes rather than working politically to make it illegal.”
Again, suppose pro-life advocates fail to adequately address the root causes of abortion. How does their alleged failure to apply their pro-life ethic refute their pro-life argument? At best, this attacks the character of pro-lifers, but does nothing to show their argument is invalid or unsound. Moreover, why care about “reducing” abortion in the first place if it doesn’t intentionally kill an innocent human being? Imagine someone saying that the underlying cause of spousal abuse is psychological, so rather than banning wife abuse, the state will provide free counseling for men. There are underlying causes for rape, murder, and theft, but that hardly means it’s misguided to pass laws against them.
4. Assert rather than argue. Suppose a pro-life advocate lays out the pro-life syllogism above and defends it with science and philosophy (a case we’ll take up later). Instead of refuting the pro-life syllogism, the critic responds, “Well, women have a right to choose.” Is that an argument or assertion?
- It’s an assertion because no evidence is offered to support the claim. The obvious question to ask in response is, “Choose what? And where does the right to choose come from?”
- Suppose the critic presents no argument and no evidence for either question. He simply asserts a right to choose. To expose the undefended assertion, we could ask, “Why would you believe a thing like that?”
- Sometimes the assertion comes in the form of a hidden premise. For example, a critic may discount a pro-life argument with an assertion: “The embryo is not self-aware and has no immediately exercisable desires.” The hidden and undefended premise is that self-awareness and desires give us a right to life. But the critic presents no argument for that hidden premise. Why does self-awareness or having desires matter? That is, why are they value-giving in the first place when determining human value? These claims must be argued for, not merely asserted.
- Lesson #1: Clearing the Ground
- Lesson #2: Abortion & Worldviews
- Lesson #3: What is the Unborn?
- Lesson #4: What Makes Humans Valuable? Part 1: The Substance View of Human Beings
- Lesson #5: What Makes Humans Valuable? Part 2: Specific Academic Challenges to the Substance View
- Lesson #6: What About Those Who Bite the Bullet?
- Session # 8: Debate Review and Analysis / Prepping for Engagement