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Five Bad Ways to Argue About Abortion
by Scott Klusendorf

Pro-life advocates argue that elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being. In support of this conclusion, pro-lifers cite both scientific and philosophic evidence. Nonetheless, some people ignore the evidence pro-life advocates present and argue for abortion based on self-interest. That is the lazy way out. If we care about truth, we will courageously follow the facts wherever they lead. But there are pitfalls. Here are five common mistakes people make arguing for abortion

Mistake #1: Confuse objective claims with subjective ones (or confuse claims about ice cream with claims about truth).

When pro-life advocates say that abortion is morally wrong because it 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.

Many people, however, misconstrue the kind of claim the pro-lifer is making in order to respond to one they like better. Consider the following responses to the statement, Abortion is morally wrong.

• "That's just your view."

On a recent edition of the television show Politically Incorrect, super model Kathy Ireland gave a carefully reasoned scientific and philosophic defense of the pro-life position. The show's host, Bill Maher, shot back with, "Kathy, that's just your view."

What's wrong with this response? Maher was confusing a moral claim with a preference claim. But there is a difference between disliking something (say, for example, a particular flavor of ice cream) and thinking it is morally wrong. Put simply, when pro-life advocates say that abortion is morally wrong, they are not saying they personally dislike abortion or would prefer that people not have one. Rather, they are saying that elective abortion is objectively wrong for everyone, regardless of how one feels about it. This is why the popular bumper sticker "Don't like abortion? Don't have one!" misses the point entirely. It confuses the two types of claims. Try this: "Don't like slavery? Don't own one!"

Now it may be the case that pro-life advocates like Kathy Ireland are mistaken about their claim. Perhaps their evidence that abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless child is weak and inconclusive. But instead of proving this with facts and arguments, abortion advocates like Bill Maher ignore the evidence altogether. "Well, that's just your view." This not only relativizes the pro-lifers claim, it is intellectually lazy. It attempts to dismiss evidence rather than refute it.

Imagine if I were to say, "There is a pink elephant in the corner of the room just beneath the window." How should you respond to my claim? Perhaps I'm mistaken (and chances are I would be), but it would do no good to say, "That's just your view." The problem is I was not offering an opinion, I was claiming to be right. To refute me, you must show that my claim is false. The correct response is to say, "Your evidence is lousy. We looked in the corner and there is no elephant."

But again, Maher did not do that. At no point did he challenge her facts and arguments. What he said in effect was "Go away Kathy. You have your views and I have mine." This was very condescending because he did not even entertain the possibility that she had good evidence for her claim. Nor did he acknowledge the type of claim she was making.

To sum up, Maher was confusing a preference claim with a distinctly moral one. Preference claims cannot be evaluated as true or false because they are matters of personal taste. You cannot reasonably argue that vanilla ice cream is objectively better than chocolate.

But moral claims are different. They can be evaluated as true or false based on the evidence. They do not say, This is better tasting, they say, This is right. Kathy Ireland's claim was, Abortion is wrong because it takes the life of a defenseless child, and I think I'm right. Maher's glib response did nothing to refute this.

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 me after I 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. We call this moral relativism, the belief that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only personal preferences. Therefore, we should tolerate other views as being equal to our own.

Relativism, however, is seriously flawed for at least three reasons. First, it is self-refuting. That is to say, it cannot live by its own rules. Second, relativists cannot reasonably say that anything is wrong, including intolerance. Third, it is impossible to live as a relativist.

1) Relativism is self-refuting--it commits intellectual suicide. The student said it was wrong for me to force my views on others, but she could not live with her own rule. Although our dialogue was pleasant, she clearly tried to force her views on me.

Student: You made some good points in your talk, but you shouldn't force your morality on me or anyone else who wants an abortion. It's our choice, isn’t it?

Me: Are you saying I'm wrong?

Student: I’m not sure. What do you mean?

Me: Well, you think I'm wrong, don't you? If not, why are you correcting me? And if so, then you're forcing your morality on me, aren't you?

Student: No, I just want to know why you are telling people what they can and cannot do with their lives.

Me: Are you saying I shouldn't do that? That it’s wrong? If so, then why are you telling me what I can and cannot do? Why are you forcing your morality on me?

Student: (regrouping): I’m confused. Look, the simple fact is that pro-choicers are not forcing women to have abortions, but you want to force women to be mothers. If you don't like abortion, don't have one. But you shouldn’t force your beliefs on others. All I am saying is that pro-life people should be tolerant of other views.

Me: Is that your view?

Student: Yes.

Me: Why are you forcing it on me? That’s not very tolerant, is it?

Student: What do you mean? I think women should have a choice and you don't. It’s your view that’s intolerant, wouldn’t you say?

Me: Okay, so you think I'm wrong. What is it you want pro-lifers like me to do?

Student: You should let women decide for themselves and tolerate other views.

Me: Tell me, what exactly do pro-choicers believe?

Student: We believe everyone should decide for themselves and tolerate other views.

Me: So you are demanding that pro-lifers become pro-choicers.

Student: What?

Me: 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 views on me.

A recent editorial in the Toronto Star was similarly intolerant of pro-life advocates. While decrying the "single-minded moral supremacism" of those who call abortion killing, journalist Michele Landsberg writes:

Will no priest or minister publicly resolve to stop the indoctrination of youth to view abortion as murder? Is none ashamed of the blood-drenched holocaust vocabulary used so cynically (and anti-semitically) to whip up fervor for the crusade? Where are the outspoken cries of conscience by bishops and cardinals who should be appalled by the evidence of links between anti-abortion fanatics and far-right militias, neo Nazis, and white supremacists? Is there no religious leader who regrets his church's role in feeding this blind frenzy? Will none of them repent of their excesses, will none call a halt to their sickeningly manipulative campaigns of "precious little feet," their fake "documentaries" about screaming fetuses? You'd think that the world had enough lessons in the dangers of hate speech.

Like hers? It doesn't seem to trouble Ms. Landsberg that her own vitriolic rhetoric could incite pro-choicers to commit acts of violence against pro-lifers. She continues:

It was the unbridled hate speech of fundamentalist fanatics in Israel who spurred on the "devout" murder of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin....We've seen how homophobic rantings from right-wing American leaders, notably the Senate republican leader, led to escalating gay bashings, culminating in the heart- wrenching death of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming....Denominational schools [should] begin to teach respect for the laws of our pluralistic society, rather than preaching single-minded moral supremacism.

Again, like her own?

Notice what is going on here. She decries "moral supremacism," but says that anyone who disagrees with her view on abortion is an indoctrinator of youth, a fanatic, an anti-Semite, a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist, a manipulator of facts, a purveyor of hate speech, homophobic, a gay-basher, a religious bully, responsible for the death of Matthew Shepherd, and finally, a fundamentalist fanatic like those who murdered Yitzhak Rabin.

One can hardly imagine a finer piece of self-refuting rhetoric. All, of course, in the name of tolerance.

While driving my sons to a recent baseball game at Dodger Stadium, a young woman in a white pickup truck began tailgating me. Visibly angered by a pro-life sticker on my rear window, she stayed on my bumper for a mile or so. Finally, she pulled beside me and extended a certain part of her anatomy skyward as she passed. She then cut in front of me.

At that moment, I noticed a bumper sticker on her truck. It said, "Celebrate Diversity." The message was clear: In a pluralistic society, we should tolerate the views of others. Ironically, the driver saw no contradiction between her unwillingness to tolerate (or celebrate) my point of view and her bumper sticker that said we should tolerate all points of view. That is what I mean when I say that relativism is self-refuting.

2) 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?

The truth is, a moral relativist cannot legitimately say that anything is wrong or truly evil. My colleague 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. She chuckled and went on to another subject.

If it is up to us to decide (rather than discover) right and wrong, then there is no difference between Mother Theresa's morality and Adolf Hitler's morality. Hitler was not evil, he just had preferences different from our own.

3) 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. And if you steal his stereo, he will protest loudly. If I were a crook, I would reply to the relativist, Do you think stealing stereos is wrong? Well, that's just your view. My morality says it's perfectly acceptable. Who are you to force your views on me? Simply put, moral relativists espouse a view they cannot live with.

"I'm personally opposed to abortion, but I still think it should be legal."

When people say this, I ask a simple question to clarify things. I ask why they personally oppose abortion. Invariably, they reply, We oppose it because it kills a human baby. At that point, I merely repeat back their words. "Let me see if I got this straight. You oppose abortion because it kills babies, but you think it should be legal to kill babies?"

Would these same people argue that while they personally opposed slavery, they would not protest if a neighbor wanted to own one? This was precisely what Stephen Douglas did during his debates with Abraham Lincoln. That argument did not work with slavery and it will not work with abortion. Either elective abortion kills a defenseless child or not. If it does, we should not tolerate it. Period.

Mistake #2: Attack the person rather than refute the argument. (Ad hominem fallacy)

Instead of defending the abortion act itself, some "pro-choice" advocates personally attack those who do not share their views. At a 1995 "Rock for Choice" concert in Pensacola Florida, vocalist Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam shrieked from the stage: "I'm usually good about my temper, but all these men trying to control women's bodies really piss me off. They're talking from a bubble. They're not talking from the street, and they're not in touch with what's real. Well, I'm f----ing mean, and I'm ugly, and my name is reality. Music--that is my religion. I would never force my beliefs on anyone--that's the thing."

During an HBO special, comedian Rosanne Barr told the audience: "You know who else I can't stand is them people that are antiabortion....I hate them. They're ugly, old, geeky, hideous men. They just don't want nobody to have an abortion, cause they want you to keep spitting out kids so they can molest them."

Do you see what is happening here? Instead of defending their views with facts and arguments, Rosanne Barr and Eddie Vedder are attacking the character of pro-lifers. We call this the ad hominem fallacy. It is fallacious reasoning because even if the personal attack is true, it does nothing to refute the pro-lifer's argument.

Let's grant, for the sake of discussion, that pro-life advocates are hideous old men who molest children, as Roseanne 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 the pro-life advocate is making.

Consider also the claim that pro-lifers are hypocritical to protest abortion unless they adopt babies they do not want aborted. For the moment, let's assume there are not two million American families willing to do this, as is the case. How would the alleged reluctance of pro-lifers to adopt babies justify the act of abortion? While it is true that pro-life advocates should help those facing crisis pregnancies, it is not true that abortion is justified whenever that obligation is left unmet.

Imagine a bigot arguing, Unless you agree to marry my wife, you have no right to oppose me beating her. Or, Unless you are willing to adopt my three sons by noon today, I shall execute them. If you reject his ultimatum, is he morally justified performing acts of violence on innocent victims?

Sometimes people 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 several 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 was bad law--after all, it was decided by nine men. They must also call for the dismissal of all male lawyers working for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, etc., on abortion related issues. Since abortion advocates are unwilling to do this, 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, lesbians and post-menopausal women cannot naturally get pregnant; must they be silent on the issue?

Finally, think of the bizarre rules we could derive from this argument:

• "Since only generals understand battle, only they should discuss the morality of war."

• "Because female sportscasters have never experienced a groin injury, they have no right to broadcast football games on national television."

• "Only Jewish people have a right to condemn the holocaust."

Again, abortion advocates must offer facts and arguments in support of their position. Attacking people personally, even if those attacks are true, will not make their case or refute ours.

Mistake #3 : Assume what you are trying to prove.

Advocates of elective abortion must show that the unborn are not fully human or their case crumbles. But instead of proving this conclusion with facts and arguments, many people simply assume it within the course of their rhetoric. We call this "begging the question" and it is a logical fallacy that lurks behind many arguments for abortion.

A person begs the question when he assumes what he is trying to prove. Imagine you are undergoing an IRS audit. If federal prosecutors were to ask, Have you stopped cheating on your taxes?, your defense lawyer would strongly object. The reason is simple: The question assumes you have broken the law, the very point prosecutors are trying to prove. Your attorney would rightly demand they prove guilt with facts and evidence, rather than assume it with rhetoric.

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.

Or, take the claim that no one knows when life begins, therefore abortion should remain legal. But to argue that no one knows when life begins, and that abortion must remain legal through all nine months of pregnancy, assumes that life does not begin until birth--the exact point abortion advocates try to prove. This is hardly a neutral position. It is a clear case of begging the question.

So is the coat hanger argument, which states that women will die from illegal abortions if laws are passed protecting the unborn. But unless you begin with the assumption that the unborn are not human, you are making the highly questionable claim that because some people die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so. Should we legalize bank robbery so it is safer for felons?

If you think a particular argument begs the question regarding the status of the unborn, simply ask, Would this justification for abortion also work as a justification for killing toddlers or other humans? If not, the argument assumes the unborn are not fully human.

Again, it may be the case that the unborn are not fully human and abortion is therefore justified. But this must be proven with facts and evidence, not merely assumed by one's rhetoric.

Mistake #4: Confuse functioning as a person with being a person.

Abortion advocates like Mary Anne Warren claim that a "person" is a living entity with feelings, self-awareness, and the ability to interact with his or her environment. Because the fetus, she alleges, can do none of these things, it cannot be fully human. Warren is espousing a doctrine known as functionalism, the belief that human beings are defined by what they can and cannot do. Functionalism, however, is seriously flawed because it fails to make a number of critical distinctions.

First, one can fail to function as a person and yet still be a person. People under anesthesia or in a deep sleep cannot feel pain, are not self-aware, and cannot reason. Neither can those in reversible comas. But we do not call into question their humanity because we recognize that although they cannot function as persons, they still have the being of persons, which is the essential thing.

Here is the key question: How many functions can I lose and still be myself? If I lose my sight, am I still me? If my legs and arms are lost, am I still me? If I cannot speak or hear, am I still me? What if I can no longer play chess or think critically? What if my IQ is less than 50? Wouldn't I still be a person with value?

Do I, as a person, become disposable simply because I cannot do everything you can? Do I lose the right to live because I am helpless and dependent? Do stronger, more capable people have more rights than others?

The answer is obviously no. No physical change or loss of function will cause you to cease being you unless that change ends your life. When a living thing like the unborn human comes into being, it remains what it is regardless of the shape of its body or present capabilities.

Second, one must be a person in order to function as one. Non-sentient frogs do not become persons simply by acquiring sentience (the ability to feel pain, etc.). Nor do robots become persons by assembling cars or loading freight. Rather, a person is one with the natural, inherent capacity to perform personal acts, even if that capacity is currently unrealized. One grows in the ability to perform personal acts only because one already is the kind of thing that grows into the ability to perform personal acts, i.e., a person.

Third, the rights of individuals in our society are not based on their current (actual) capacities, but on their inherent capacities. This sounds complex, but we make this distinction all the time. For example, no one doubts that newborn humans have fewer actual capacities than do day-old calves. Baby humans are rather unimpressive in terms of environmental awareness, mobility, etc. Yet this does not lead us to believe that the calf belongs in the nursery while the infant can be left in the barn. To the contrary, we understand that although the infant currently lacks many functional abilities, it nonetheless has the inherent capacity to function as a person. But if individual rights are grounded in one's current capacities, calves should enjoy a greater moral status than do newborns.

People who are unconscious cannot presently function as persons, but they still have the inherent capacity to perform personal acts. That is why we do not kill them. From the moment of conception, the unborn human has the natural, inherent capacity to function as a person. What he lacks is the current capacity to do so. That he cannot yet speak, reason, or perform personal acts means only that he cannot yet function as a person, not that he lacks the essential being of a person.

This same emphasis on inherent (as opposed to actual) capacity is underscored in the accepted bio-ethical criteria for brain death. Say, for example, you have an automobile accident that leaves you in a coma. Some of your friends think your quality of life is gone and want to unplug life support. Others, like your parents, rally to stop them. What should be done?

The law in this case is very specific. According to the Uniform Determination of Death Act written into the health and safety codes of each state, the deciding factor is not your current state of brain function, but your inherent state of brain function. For death to occur, there must be an "irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem." Hence, the reversibly comatose are never classified as "non-persons" under our existing legal system despite their current lack of brain function.

Again, from the moment of conception the unborn entity has the inherent capacity to have a functioning brain. What it lacks is the current capacity. Hence, there is no ethical difference between it and the reversibly comatose, the momentarily unconscious, etc., who enjoy the protection of law despite their current inability to function as persons.

Finally, functionalism dehumanizes not only the unborn, but also many people outside of the womb.

Last month, an attorney friend I was debating argued that until the 32nd week of pregnancy, the unborn's brain resembles a fish or amphibian in its evolutionary development. Therefore, the unborn are not fully human until the final stages of pregnancy.

This argument is dangerous. Darwin and his followers used it a century ago to dehumanize women. Their contention was that women were biologically and intellectually inferior because their brains were less developed than a man's. In The Descent of Man in Relation to Sex, Darwin wrote:

[Man] attains a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women--whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, history, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive of both composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages...[that] the average mental power in man must be above that of women.

Ladies, it gets worse. In his book The Mismeasure of Man, prominent paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould quotes Darwin disciple Gustave Le Bon as follows:

[Even in] the most intelligent races [there] are large numbers of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion.…Women represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and...are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without a doubt, there exists some distinguished women, very superior to the average man, but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as for example, of a gorilla with two heads. Consequently, we may neglect them entirely.

Ladies and gentlemen, what will it be? Will we acknowledge the truth found in The Declaration of Independence that human beings have value simply because they are human? Or will we join Darwin in saying only the achievers, intelligent, and powerful count as full human persons? Be careful how you decide. The results could one day disqualify you as human.

Mistake #5: Disguise your true position by appealing to the hard cases.

Some people argue that legal abortion protects rape victims from compulsory motherhood. They castigate pro-lifers as cruel and insensitive toward women suffering assault.

This seems like a powerful objection. Rape is profoundly evil. Victims deserve our best care. But there’s a moral consideration as well. Does rape involve two victims or just one? And if the unborn entity involved is human, why should she be forced to give up her life so that her mother 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? Say, for example, a drunk driver plows into your parked car, destroying it. To ease the pain of your loss, you take a sledgehammer to your neighbor’s sedan. Is this morally permissible? If a friend protests your actions, is he insensitive? Hardly. So again, the issue is not, Are pro-lifers cruel?, but, What is the unborn? If the unborn is human, it should not be killed to benefit its mother. There is no moral complexity here.

But 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 not entirely truthful.

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 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.

But this will not make their case. The argument from rape, if successful at all, would only justify abortion in cases of sexual assault, not for any reason the woman deems fit. 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 a person might have to break one rushing a loved one to the hospital. Proving an exception does not prove a rule.

To expose their smokescreen, I ask abortion advocates the following: "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 convenience which, as your own studies show, make up the overwhelming percentage of abortions?"

The answer is almost always no, to which I reply, "Then why did you bring rape up except to mislead us into thinking you support abortion only in the hard cases?"

Again, if pro-choicers think abortion should be legal for all nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever, including sex-selection and convenience, they should defend that view with facts and arguments. Cashing in on the tragedy of rape victims is intellectually dishonest.

VI. Summary and Conclusion:

To sum up, one must show that the unborn are not fully human or the case for elective abortion crumbles. Scaring people over illegal abortions or alleged invasions of privacy will not make the case. No privacy argument is a legitimate cover for a conspiracy to do serious harm to an innocent human being.

The fact that some people controvert a position does not make that position intrinsically controversial. People argued for both sides about slavery, racism and genocide, but that did not make them complex issues.

No, we can do better than that. Abortion is complex only for those who, because of their own self-interest, want to make it complex. To paraphrase what Abraham Lincoln said to Stephen Douglas, You do not have a right to do what is wrong.

Scott Klusendorf is Director of Bio-Ethics at Stand to Reason.

The preceding excerpt "Five Bad Ways to Argue About Abortion" © 1997, is from Scott Klusendorf's book "Pro-Life 101: a User Friendly Guide to Making Your Case on Campus". Permission granted to copy for personal use only.

To order his book "Pro-Life 101: a User Friendly Guide to Making Your Case on Campus", contact STR or call 310-539-3932.

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