This is not addressed to the leaders or ideologues of the pro-abortion movement. They, I suspect, are too far gone to be reasoned with, though I would be very happy to be proved wrong about that. Nor is it addressed to the increasing number of ethicists who argue that the killing of newborn infants ought to be legalized, since what I said about the pro-abortion movement’s leaders and ideologues goes double for them. (Including the part about me being happy to be proved wrong about them.) No, this is addressed primarily to those ordinary people who on balance consider themselves “pro-choice,” and who have repeated or accepted the common slogans and arguments of the pro-abortion movement without giving them too much thought. If you are one of those people—or, for that matter, if you know such people—keep reading.
Let’s begin by summarizing the argument that is usually given for why abortion should be illegal:
- Killing an innocent human being is gravely wrong. (Assumption.)
- Abortion constitutes the killing of an innocent human being. (Assumption.)
- Therefore, abortion is gravely wrong. (From 1) and 2).)
- Furthermore, that which is gravely wrong should be illegal. (Assumption.)
- Therefore, abortion should be illegal. (From 3) and 4).)
Let’s call this the standard argument against abortion, or the SA for short, though it’s really two arguments melded into one. Now if the premises (points 1), 2), and 4)) are true, the conclusions (points 3) and 5)) must be true. (If only 1) and 2) are true, 3) follows, but 5) does not.) Therefore, virtually all debates about abortion center around whether the premises are, in fact, true. Since few would dispute 1) or 4), it’s almost always 2) (“Abortion constitutes the killing of an innocent human being”) that is debated. (This logical bean-counting may seem pedantic, but it will prove useful in a little while.)
Now, my complaint, the reason that I’m reaching out to you, is that the most common slogans and arguments of the pro-abortion movement generally fail to address or, it often seems, even to understand the SA. And when they do address it, they often do it in very odd and misguided ways.
To amend this problem, I will give you a piece of advice. Whenever you come up with or intend to repeat a pro-abortion argument and/or pithy t-shirt slogan, ask yourself the following questions: “Does this argument and/or pithy t-shirt slogan address the SA? Does it take in its full implications? Does it at least try to refute one or more of its premises? Which one(s)?” If the answer to these questions is “no,” you should probably reconsider your argument, because the fact that some people find the SA convincing is the very reason why you’re having to make an argument or shout a slogan at all.
Here’s another question to keep in mind: “Could this argument/pithy t-shirt slogan just as well be used to argue that it should be legal to kill newborns?” Let’s call this the infanticide test. For a surprising number of common pro-abortion arguments, the answer appears to be “yes.” This does not mean that I think you support the killing of newborn children. (As you’ll remember, I already showed the door to the people who do—among which, by the way, are such leading ethicists as Peter Singer of Princeton University and Michael Tooley of the University of Colorado at Boulder.) On the contrary, I assume that you emphatically oppose it, and that you are thoughtful enough to realize that something must be seriously wrong with an argument that could lead to such a horrible conclusion.
Anyway, to demonstrate why I think much of current pro-abortion rhetoric is misguided and how the two questions above can be applied, I will give you a grab bag of common pro-abortion slogans and arguments, and try to show how and why they fail.
(One more note before we move on: As you may already have noticed, I have mostly steered clear of the euphemisms “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” I will continue to do so. The more correct and honest terms are “pro-abortion” and “anti-abortion,” and I will use those instead.)
“Get your hands off my ovaries!”
(Any number of other hilariously reductionist terms for female reproductive organs, for example “female reproductive organs,” can be and have been substituted for the word “ovaries.”)
This t-shirt slogan (and here we are definitely in the land of t-shirt slogans) frames the abortion debate as a women’s rights issue. The problem is, that’s not what it is. Here’s a thought experiment: If, by some miracle, men could suddenly get pregnant, would all we anti-abortionists go over to your side? No. The point of the SA is that it is not primarily the mother’s rights that are at issue, but the rights of the human being she is carrying inside her. This is simply because in every case except those where the mother’s life is at risk (of which more later), the stakes are just higher for the unborn child. The mother may stand to lose some of her autonomy or well-being, but the child stands to lose its life. For the same reason, slogans containing phrases like “a woman’s right to choose” or “my body, my choice” are no good, especially since these would also appear to fail the infanticide test.
You can accuse us all you want of being secret misogynists who just use the SA as a convenient cover. But there are three problems with this accusation. The first is that there is no proof of it, because it’s not true; the second is that it fails to account for the large number of women we have on our side; and the third is that the SA, if it really is a cover for misogyny, is hardly the most direct or convenient cover. Why wouldn’t we just found the “We Hate Women” party or something instead?
“If you’re anti-abortion, fine, but don’t force your private morality on me.”
On the SA, abortion is as wrong as premeditated filicide, because on the SA, that’s what it is. On the SA, saying something like, “If you don’t like abortion, fine—don’t have any abortions” makes exactly as much sense as saying, “If you don’t like child murder, fine—don’t murder your children.” It’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s no argument for not making abortion illegal. Feel free to disagree with the SA, but don’t grant the SA and then claim that its conclusion is a matter of “private morality.” This makes no sense, and it fails the infanticide test again. In fact, not only could the “private morality” line be used to argue for legalization of premeditated filicide—it could be used to argue for the legalization of anything. “If you don’t like setting fire to orphanages, fine, but don’t force your private morality on me.” And so forth.
This argument disputes premise 4) of the SA (“That which is gravely wrong should be illegal”), but does it in a very odd and implausible way. It seems to be predicated on the notion that the state and the law should be morally neutral. This is an oft-stated idea nowadays, but no-one actually believes it, and no-one would actually want to live in a society that applied it across the board. After all, we have laws against murder, rape, theft, and fraud precisely because murder, rape, theft, and fraud are wrong.
This is also a problem with the related idea that anti-abortion sentiments don’t belong in politics because they are “religious.” The trouble is, our current hang-up on infanticide (and, for that matter, slavery and gladiatorial combat) is by this token also “religious,” in that it came to the fore only when Christianity replaced Paganism. In fact, considering the leading role religion has played in most societies throughout most of history, virtually any moral standpoint with a historical pedigree (“Thou shalt not kill,” “Do unto others,” “Love thy neighbor,” and so on) can plausibly be called “religious” by this token. Even if, for the sake of argument, we grant that religion should play no role in politics, the test of whether a political point of view is “religious” is not whether it is espoused by some religion, nor whether its supporters are disproportionately religious, nor whether it is sometimes justified by appeals to religious dogma, but whether it can be justified apart from appeals to religion. Considering the existence of groups like the Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League—and considering that the SA makes no appeals to holy men or holy books—the SA passes this test with flying colors.
“If you’re anti-abortion, fine, but don’t be so extreme about it!”
Let me repeat: On the SA, abortion is as wrong as premeditated filicide, because on the SA, that’s what it is. This means that if the SA succeeds, most Western nations have, in the last decades, engaged in a holocaust that dwarfs all the other atrocities of history. And you wonder why we get so worked up about it?
To say that this line of thinking represents “extremism” is to sidestep the issue at hand. The question is not whether the conclusion of the SA and its corollaries are “extreme,” but whether they are true.
“You conservatives are such hypocrites! You talk about ‘the sanctity of life,’ but you’re also pro-war and pro-death penalty.”
Let’s not address the question of whether all or most anti-abortionists really are politically conservative or support war and capital punishment. (Although I’ve yet to meet anyone outside a Nuremberg rally who is for “war” in the abstract.) Let’s grant that claim. And let’s also grant what follows from it, namely that all or most pro-abortionists are politically liberal, anti-war, and anti-death penalty. (This last point will become important later.)
With that in mind, there are three points that must be made about this line. The first is that its premises are highly questionable. The second is that, even if we grant its premises, it doesn’t prove what it’s usually meant to prove. The third is that it, too, fails the infanticide test—in fact, if it can be taken as an argument for the pro-abortion view, it can be taken as an argument for the legalization of literally any kind of killing.
First point. The reduction of the anti-abortion cause, both by its supporters and its opponents, to slogans about the “sanctity of life” is regrettable—not because we shouldn’t be concerned about the sanctity of life, but because that phrase is often misunderstood. The line in question seems to assume that if you support the “sanctity of life,” you must completely and categorically oppose all kinds of killing. But that is not true. Very few people on either side of this issue are categorically opposed to killing. They will think that killing is always tragic, and they will be opposed to it in virtually all cases. But they will not oppose it categorically. For example, most people believe that war, albeit always tragic, is sometimes necessary, that there are cases where it is legitimate to use deadly force in self-defense, and so on.
Second point. Even if everything this line claims is perfectly true, it doesn’t prove that we anti-abortionists are wrong, but that we are hypocrites. And hypocrisy proves nothing. For example, if the president of some children’s charity turned out to be a child molester, no-one would take this as proof that child molestation is OK. Also (and this is where that latter point kicks in), the exact same argument could be applied to the pro-abortion crowd, only in reverse. “You hypocrites! You say you’re against war and capital punishment because they violate the sanctity of life, but you also support the mass murder of unborn children!” If you reply to this argument by saying, “But that’s the point. What you call ‘the mass murder of unborn children’ doesn’t violate the sanctity of life, because a fetus isn’t a human being,” you’re at least addressing the SA by disputing its second premise. But unless you give some reason for why a fetus isn’t a human being, you’re also arguing in a circle, since the question of whether a fetus is a human being is exactly what’s at issue.
Third point. If, despite what I said about the second point, we are to regard this line as an attempt at an argument for the pro-abortion side (and I stress the word “attempt”), it either fails the infanticide test (in fact, it fails the anything-cide test), or it fails to be an argument for the pro-abortion side. For if we conclude that “the sanctity of life” is a false ideal because some of its supporters are hypocrites, we must conclude not only that it is a false ideal in the case of abortion, but in all cases, including the killing of innocent children who have already been born, and of innocent adults. If we do not conclude that the “sanctity of life” is a false ideal, the question of whether an unborn child falls within the perimeter of “life”—the central question of the debate—remains unaddressed and unresolved.
“What about mothers who can’t or won’t give their children a good upbringing?”
What about mothers who can’t or won’t give their already born children a good upbringing? On the SA, the two are no different. This line fails the infanticide test. Also, have you people never heard of adoption?
“But what about rape? What about incest? What about children with serious genetic defects?”
What about already born children of rape and incest? What about already born children—or adults, for that matter—with serious genetic defects? On the SA, the two are no different.
“But what about cases where the life of the mother is at stake?”
What about cases where killing one innocent and already born person would save the life of another? On the SA, the two are no different.
“Abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.”
Abortion either does or doesn’t constitute killing. If it does, this slogan makes as much sense as—in fact, is practically synonymous with—“Child murders should be safe, legal, and rare.” If it doesn’t, this slogan makes as much sense as—in fact, is practically synonymous with—“Appendectomies should be safe, legal, and rare.” We can all agree that appendectomies should be safe and legal—but unless we had an inkling that they were morally problematic, albeit one partially suppressed for psychological or political reasons, why on earth would we specify that they should be “rare”?
I don’t know whether this profusion of bad logic is due to unreflected thought or malice, but I suspect it’s usually the former, at least among you in the rank and file. Most people—including many pro-abortionists—accept all the premises of the SA, but do not understand that they are thereby logically obligated to accept its conclusions: That abortion is gravely wrong, and that it should be illegal.
Cold logic tells us that an unborn child either is or is not a human being. If it isn’t, abortion is as morally unproblematic as pulling teeth. But if it is, the consequences of its legalization have been almost too terrible to contemplate, and anything but fervent opposition to it constitutes a crime in itself. This is the dilemma we face. I urge you to give it serious thought.