Exposing Irrational Abortion Arguments
If we care about truth, we will courageously follow the facts wherever they lead. Here are five common pro-choice mistakes when arguing for abortion.
They confuse objective claims with subjective ones.
Personal preference takes precedent over moral claims, which are simply dismissed rather then refuted. Objective truth is replaced with moral relativism.
They attack the person rather than refute the argument.
This is known as an ad hominem fallacy, which appeals to one's prejudices rather than to reason, as attacking one's opponent rather than debating the issue.
They assume what they are trying to prove.
This mistake is called begging the question. Here arguments are based upon assumptions rather than evidence.
They confuse human value with human function.
Abortion advocates make the mistake of identifying personhood by what someone does rather than by what someone is.
They disguise their true position by appealing to the hard cases.
The horrible case of rape is used by abortion advocates as a smokescreen to camouflage their true objective, the legalization of abortion for any reason whatsoever.
When pro-life advocates say that elective abortion is morally wrong because it unjustly takes the life of a defenseless child, they are making a particular type of claim. Specifically, they are making a moral claim about the rightness or wrongness of abortion.
Those who are pro-choice often misconstrue the kind of claim the pro-lifer is making in order to respond to one they like better, which is a subjective claim.
Consider the following pro-choice responses to the moral claim of pro-lifers.
"That's just your view."
As a guest on the television show Politically Incorrect, former super-model Kathy Ireland gave a carefully reasoned scientific and philosophic defense of the pro-life position. The show's host, Bill Maher, ignored her evidence completely and shot back with (paraphrase) "Kathy, that's just your view."
What's wrong with this response? Maher was confusing a moral claim with a preference claim. There is a difference between disliking something and thinking it is morally wrong. When pro-life advocates say that abortion is morally wrong, they are not saying that they personally dislike abortion or would prefer that people not have one. They are making an objective, moral claim.
Imagine someone saying to you, "A spaceship has landed on the roof." How would you respond to this claim? It would do no good to say, "That's just your view." To refute the claim, you must show that it is false. The correct response is to say, "Your evidence is lousy. I looked on the roof and there isn't any spaceship there."
At no point did Bill Maher challenge Kathy Ireland's facts and arguments. In effect what he said was "Go away, Kathy. You have your views and I have mine." Those who are pro-choice attempt to dismiss evidence rather than refute it. Maher was confusing a preference claim with a distinctly moral one. Subjective preference claims cannot be evaluated as true or false because they are matters of personal taste.
Kathy Ireland claimed that abortion is wrong because it takes the life of a defenseless child. She believed that she was right. Maher's glib answer did nothing to prove her wrong. In fact, one could stop Maher dead in his tracks by saying, "Bill, it's just your view that it's just my view."
"Don't force your morality on me."
A student at a Southern California college said this to Scott Klusendorf after he made a case for the pro-life position in her sociology class. She was in effect saying, "Morality is relative; it's up to me to decide what is right and wrong." This is called moral relativism, the belief that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only personal preferences. Therefore, they insist that we should tolerate other views as being equal with our own.
Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith point out that relativism is seriously flawed for at least three reasons. (For their full refutation of relativism see Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air.)
First, relativism is self-refuting---it commits intellectual suicide. The student said it was wrong for Scott to force his views on others, but she could not live with her own rule. Although the dialogue was pleasant, she tried to force her views on him.
Scott summed up his conversation with the young lady, saying, "With all due respect, here's what I hear you saying. Unless I agree with you, you will not tolerate my view. Privately, you'll let me think whatever I want, but you don't want me to act as if my view is true. It seems you think tolerance is a virtue if and only if people agree with you."
Put succinctly, her argument for tolerance was in fact a patronizing form of intolerance. She spoke of moral neutrality but tried to force her own views on Scott.
Second, it is impossible for a moral relativist to say that anything is wrong, including intolerance. If morals are relative, then who are you to say that I should be tolerant? Perhaps my individual morality says intolerance is just fine. Why, then, should I allow anyone to force tolerance on me as a virtue if my preference is intolerance?
A moral relativist cannot legitimately say that anything is wrong or truly evil. Greg Koukl once challenged a relativist with this question: "Do you think it is wrong to torture babies for fun?" She paused, then replied, "Well, I wouldn't want to do that to my baby." Greg responded, "That's not what I asked you. I didn't ask if you liked torturing babies for fun. I asked if it was wrong to torture babies for fun." The relativist was caught, and she knew it.
Third, it is impossible to live as a moral relativist. As C. S. Lewis points out, a person who claims there is no objective morality will complain if you break a promise or cut in line. If you steal his stereo, he will protest loudly. Simply put, moral relativists inevitably make moral judgments. They espouse a view that they cannot live with.
Moral relativism is expressed one other way: "I'm personally opposed to abortion, but I still think it should be legal." When people say this to Scott Klusendorf, he asks why they personally oppose abortion. Invariably they reply, "I oppose it because it kills a human baby." At that point he merely repeats back their words. He says, "Let me see if I got this straight. You oppose abortion because it kills babies, but do you think it should be legal to kill babies?" Of course not.
Greg Koukl suggests this tactic: The next time somebody says that you shouldn't force your morality on them respond with only two words...why not? Any answer given will be an example of that person forcing his morality on you!
During an HBO special, comedian Rosanne Barr told the audience, "You know who else I can't stand is them people that are anti-abortion.... I hate them. They're ugly, old, geeky, hideous men. They just don't want anybody to have an abortion, because they want you to keep spitting out kids so they can molest them."
Do you see what is happening here? Instead of defending her view with facts and arguments she attacked the character of pro-lifers. We call this the ad hominem fallacy, which appeals to one's prejudices rather than to reason, as attacking one's opponent rather than debating the issue.
It is fallacious reasoning, because even if the personal attack is true, it does nothing to refute the pro-lifer's argument that the unborn are members of the human community. Suppose that we grant that pro-life advocates are hideous, old men who molest children, as Rosanne Barr contends is true. How does this in any way refute the pro-life claim that abortion takes the life of a defenseless child? Clearly, it does not. The attack is therefore irrelevant to the argument for life.
There are those who insist that because pro-life advocates oppose the willful destruction of an innocent human being, they must therefore assume responsibility for all of society's ills. In other words, you are not truly pro-life unless you treat the deforestation of the Amazon with the same moral intensity that you do the unjust killing of a human fetus. This is careless thinking and highly unfair to those who take abortion seriously.
Imagine the gall of saying to the American Cancer Society, "You have no right to focus on curing cancer unless you also work to cure AIDS, heart disease, and diabetes." Contrary to what some think, the abortion debate is not about poverty, capital punishment, the redistribution of wealth, or protection of the environment. It's about one issue: What is the unborn? The answer to that question trumps all other considerations.
This unfair chastisement of pro-lifers is not an outrage but a distraction. How does my alleged unwillingness to adopt a child justify an abortionist killing one?
Attacking Pro-lifers for Their Speech
On July 11, 2000, a knife-wielding man attacked Vancouver (BC) abortionist Garson Romalis in a downtown clinic. Abortion advocacy groups seized on this brush with death to score cheap political points against their opponents, notably Canadian Alliance Party leader Stockwell Day, who opposes abortion.
Day was quick to condemn the attack against Romalis as "outrageous and untenable," but that did not satisfy the local abortion advocates. Marilyn Wilson, president of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, said that Day had "indirectly sanctioned" the violence against Romalis with his extremist rhetoric.
Why was Mr. Day responsible for the attack? It's quite simple. He disagrees with Ms. Wilson on abortion and has said publicly that elective abortion is the unjust killing of an innocent human being. "Day is going to try and deny that he would support any violence," she said in a press release, "but his rhetoric does incite other people who share his beliefs against abortion to violence." She then called Day a "fanatic" for "the amount of anti-choice, extremist rhetoric that's out there."
Bear in mind that to Ms. Wilson, "fanatic" and "extremist" mean anyone who deviates in the slightest from her own position, which is that abortion should be legal for any reason whatsoever during all nine months of pregnancy. According to her, if you say that elective abortion takes the life of a defenseless child, as Day believes it does, then your irresponsible rhetoric will cost an abortionist his life.
Marilyn Wilson's statements are intellectually dishonest for four reasons.
First, let's assume that pro-life rhetoric does in fact lead to acts of violence against abortionists (though there is no good reason to suppose that this is so). Would this in any way refute the pro-life argument that elective abortion unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being?
Second, it is blatantly unfair of Ms. Wilson to demonize pro-life advocates for espousing their sincerely held beliefs. Would an animal rights activist be responsible for the firebombing of a clothing store by a deranged environmentalist? More to the point, is Ms. Wilson responsible if, upon reading her press release, a pro-abortion activist shoots Stockwell Day for the purpose of saving the community from such an awful extremist?
Third, it does not follow that because a lone extremist stabs an abortionist, the pro-life cause itself is unjust. Dr. Martin Luther King, for example, used strong language to condemn the evil of racism during the 1960s. In response to his peaceful but confrontational tactics, racists unjustly blamed him for the violent unrest that sometimes followed his public demonstrations. Are we to believe that a handful of rioters made Dr. King's crusade for civil rights entirely unjust?
Fourth, if it is extreme to call elective abortion killing, then abortion advocates bear partial responsibility for the stabbing of Dr. Romalis. The fact is that pro-lifers aren't the only ones who call abortion killing. Abortion-choice advocates do, too.
Late term abortionist, Warren Hern, presented a paper at the annual meeting of Planned Parenthood Physicians in San Diego in 1978. He wrote, "We have reached a point in this particular technology [D&E abortion] where there is no possibility of denial of an act of destruction by the operator. It is before one's eyes. The sensations of dismemberment flow through the forceps like an electric current."
"Abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun. It is dangerous to your life and health." This is what Planned Parenthood stated in a brochure in 1963.
A Crass Form of Reverse Sexism
Finally, some pro-life advocates are attacked for their gender. Men are told, "You can't get pregnant, so leave the abortion issue to women." Besides its obvious sexism, the statement is seriously flawed for at least three reasons.
First, arguments do not have genders, people do. Since many pro-life women use the same arguments offered by pro-life men, it behooves the abortion advocate to answer these arguments without fallaciously attacking a person's gender.
Second, to be consistent with their own reasoning, abortion advocates would have to concede that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, was bad law. After all, nine men decided it. In truth Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have no problem with men speaking on their behalf. Comparing their sexist remarks with their behavior, we can restate their argument as follows: "No man can speak on abortion unless he agrees with us." Once again, this is a classic case of intolerance.
Third, since lesbians and post-menopausal women cannot naturally get pregnant, must they be silent on the issue of abortion? Female sportscasters have never experienced a groin injury. Does this mean that they have no right to broadcast football games on national television?
Personal attacks, even if true, will not make the pro-choice case, nor will they refute the pro-life advocacy for the unborn.
Advocates of elective abortion must show that the unborn are not fully human for their case to succeed. But instead of proving this conclusion with facts and arguments, many simply assume it within the course of their rhetoric. We call this begging the question, and it's a logical fallacy that lurks behind many arguments for abortion.
A person begs the question when he assumes what he is trying to prove. Suppose federal prosecutors confronted you with this question: "Have you stopped cheating on your taxes?" Obviously, the question is unfair. It assumes that you have broken the law, which is in fact the very point the prosecutors are trying to prove.
Arguing that abortion is justified because a woman has a right to control her own body assumes there is only one body involved---that of the woman. But this is precisely the point abortion advocates try to prove. Hence, they beg the question.
Some argue that no one knows when life begins, and that abortion must remain legal through all nine months of pregnancy. Here we have the assumption that life does not begin until birth---the exact point abortion advocates are trying to prove. This is hardly a neutral position. It's a clear case of begging the question.
Consider the coat hanger/back-alley argument, which states that women will once again be forced to procure dangerous illegal abortions if laws are passed protecting the unborn. Why should the law protecting the unborn be faulted? Should we legalize bank robbery so that it's safer for felons? Even abortion advocate Mary Anne Warren points out, "The fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of forbidding it." Again, the issue isn't safety, but rather the status of the unborn.
In short, if you think a particular argument begs the question regarding the status of the unborn, simply ask if this justification for abortion also works as a justification for killing toddlers or other humans. If not, the argument assumes that the unborn are not fully human. 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.
Abortion advocates like Mary Anne Warren claim that a person is a living entity with feelings, self-awareness, consciousness, and the ability to interact with his or her environment. Because a human fetus has none of these capabilities, it's not a person.
Warren makes two assumptions here, neither of which she defends. First, she doesn't say why anyone should accept the idea that there can be such a thing as a human being that is not a human person. What's the difference? Have you ever met a human who wasn't a person? Second, even if Warren is correct about the distinction between a human being and a human person, she fails to tell us why a person must possess self-awareness and consciousness to qualify as fully human. In other words, she merely asserts that these traits are necessary for personhood but never says why these alleged value giving properties are value giving in the first place.
In his article Why Libertarians Should be Pro-Choice Regarding Abortion, Libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson makes points like Warren. His larger purpose is to tell us who is and is not a subject of libertarian rights. He argues that humans have value (and hence, rights) not in virtue of the kind of thing they are (members of a natural kind or species), but only because of an acquired property, in this case, the immediate capacity to make conscious, deliberate choices. According to Narveson, because fetuses lack this acquired property, they have no rights. Therefore, a woman's choice to abort does not negatively affect the fetus or deny it any fundamental liberties.
But this can't be right! Newborns, like fetuses, lack the immediate capacity to make conscious, deliberate choices, so what's wrong with infanticide? What principled reason can Narveson give for saying, "No, you can't do that?"
Peter Singer in Practical Ethics bites the bullet and says there is none, that arguments used to justify abortion work equally well to justify infanticide. Abortion advocates Michael Tooley and Mary Anne Warren agree. For example, if the immediate capacity for self-consciousness makes one valuable as a subject of rights, and newborns like fetuses lack that immediate capacity, it follows that fetuses and newborns are disqualified. You cannot draw an arbitrary line at birth and spare newborns. Following Narveson's logic, infanticide, like abortion, would be morally permissible.
Philosophically, it's far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature. Humans have value simply because they are human, not because of some acquired property that they may gain or lose during their lifetimes. If you deny this, it's difficult to say why objective human rights apply to anyone.
Natural Rights Versus Legal (Positive) Rights
Put differently, pro-life advocates, echoing Lincoln, argue that we must distinguish between natural rights and legal ones. Natural rights are those rights you have simply because you are human. They are grounded in your human nature, and you have them from the moment you begin to exist. For example, you have a natural right not to be harmed without justification as well as a natural right not to be convicted of a crime without a fair trial. Government does not grant these basic rights. Rather, the government’s role is to protect them.
In contrast, legal (or positive) rights are those rights you can only acquire through accomplishment or maturity. These rights originate from the government. They include the right to vote on your eighteenth birthday, and a right to drive on your sixteenth.
But your natural right to live was there all along. It came to be when you came to be.
To further illustrate, if you are an American, you do not have a legal right to vote in the next Canadian election for the simple reason that you are not a Canadian citizen. But just because you lack the right to vote in Canada does not mean that you lack the right to basic protections whenever you visit that country. Likewise, just because a fetus may not have the positive right to drive a car or vote in the next election does not mean he lacks the natural right to not be harmed without justification.
Elective abortion unjustly robs the unborn of his or her natural right to life. In Natural Rights and the Right to Choose Hadley Arkes explains: "No one would suggest that a fetus could have a claim to fill the Chair of Logic at one of our universities; and we would not wish quite yet to seek its advice on anything important; and we should probably not regard him as eligible to vote in any state other than Massachusetts. All these rights and privileges would be inappropriate to the condition or attributes of the fetus. But nothing that renders him unqualified for these special rights would diminish in any way the most elementary right that could be claimed for any human being, or even for an animal: the right not to be killed without the rendering of reasons that satisfy the strict standards of justification."
Do Women Have a Natural (Fundamental) Right to Abort?
Secular liberals insist that abortion is a fundamental human right the State should not infringe upon. Borrowing a question from Hadley Arkes, we ask, "Where did that right to abortion come from?" In other words, is it a natural right that springs from our nature as human beings, or is it a legal (positive) right granted by the government? If the latter, the abortion advocate cannot really complain that she is wronged if the State does not permit her to abort. After all, the same government that grants rights can take them away.
On the other hand, if the right to an abortion is a natural right---a right one has in virtue of being human---then the abortion advocate had that right from the moment that she came to be, that is, from conception! Thus, we are left with this amusing paradox: According to the logic of many abortion advocates, unborn women do not have the right to life while in the womb, but they do have a right to an abortion! In short, liberals cannot tell us where rights come from or why anyone should have them. As Arkes points out, they have talked themselves out of the very natural rights upon which their freedoms are built.
Some people argue that legal abortion protects rape victims from compulsory motherhood. They castigate pro-lifers as cruel and insensitive toward women suffering from sexual assault. This seems like a powerful objection, as nearly everyone understands that rape is profoundly evil. Victims of this heinous crime deserve our best care.
But there's a moral consideration as well. How should a civil society treat innocent human beings that remind us of a painful event? May we kill them so that we can feel better? Put differently, can you think of any other case where, having been victimized yourself, you can justly turn around and victimize another completely innocent person?
If the unborn is a human being, he or she should not be killed to benefit the mother. Hardship does not justify homicide. Hence, we are back to one question that trumps all others in the abortion debate: What is the unborn?
The appeal to hard cases is flawed in another way that has nothing to do with one's attitude toward women or the morality of abortion. It is flawed because it is misleading.
Here's why. The pro-choice position is not that abortion should be legal only when a woman is raped, but that abortion is a fundamental right she can exercise for any reason that she wants during all nine months of pregnancy. Instead of defending this position with facts and arguments, many disguise it with an emotional appeal to rape. In fact, arguing for abortion-on-demand from the hard case of rape is like trying to argue for the elimination of all traffic laws, because you might have to break one rushing a child to a hospital. Francis J. Beckwith uses this illustration in Politically Correct Death.
To expose the smokescreen of abortion advocates just say, "Okay, I'm going to grant for the sake of discussion that we keep abortion legal in cases of rape. Will you join me in supporting legal restrictions on those abortions done for the convenience of the mother?" The answer is almost always no. Why was rape brought up in the first place? This is simply a strategy to disguise their own extreme view that abortion should be legal for any reason whatsoever.
If abortion advocates think that abortion should be a legal choice for all nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever, including sex selection and convenience, they should defend that view with facts and arguments. Exploiting the tragedy of rape victims is intellectually dishonest.