Philosophy in the abortion issue: part three
[Today’s post is the third and final article in a series on abortion and philosophy by SPL member Clinton Wilcox. Part one is here and part two is here.]
Now we’ve seen what goes into an argument, and how to possibly respond to an argument. We’ve also seen some arguments that commit logical fallacies, that is, errors in reasoning. Now we’ll look at some arguments that are simply bad arguments, from both sides of the abortion fence.
Bad Pro-Life Arguments
If Mary were pro-choice, there would be no Christmas.
A perfect one with which to begin, considering the upcoming Christmas holiday. Obviously, as anyone involved with Secular Pro-Life understands, this argument is completely unconvincing if you’re talking to a non-Christian. (Moreover, a pro-choice Christian audience will recognize it as just bad theology. Why would God have entrusted his son, Jesus, to a woman who might have aborted him? The Biblical passage itself shows that God didn’t force Mary to carry Jesus; Mary indicated to God that she was willing to carry the child.)
This is exactly like the argument, which I mentioned in part one of this series, that we’ve aborted Beethovens or the people who would find the cure for cancer. The pro-choice side can just respond with “If Hitler was aborted, there would be no Holocaust.”
Your mother was pro-life.
This argument is usually spoken to a pro-choice person, indicating that their mother was pro-life because that person wasn’t aborted. But how do you know that? Pro-choice people have children, too. You might say “Your mother chose life,” which is closer to accurate but still not so. Pro-choice people also go through times in their lives where they are fully prepared to have a child so abortion doesn’t even enter into the equation. This is just a silly thing to say.
Many women regret their abortion.
This is true, of course (and shoved under the rug by pro-choice advocates). However, just because someone runs the risk of regretting an action doesn’t make the action in choice immoral. You may regret having that extra piece of cheesecake last night, but that doesn’t make the act of eating cheesecake immoral. Besides, it’s also true that many women don’t regret their abortion. So while a woman who regrets their abortion (or perhaps is suffering psychologically for it) needs the proper care and empathy, this, in itself, is not an argument against abortion.
Bad pro-choice arguments.
Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one.
This is one I hear all the time, but it’s just a ridiculous and inane argument. It can be used for anything else. Don’t like slavery? Don’t own a slave. Don’t like murder? Don’t kill anyone. Don’t like rape? Don’t rape anybody. This objection does not make an immoral act moral. Like slavery, murder, and rape, abortion is so wrong that no one ought to be doing it. You can’t justify abortions by appealing to a woman’s “choice” or privacy, any more than you can excuse child abuse by appealing to a parent’s “choice” or privacy.
If abortion is made illegal again, women will resort to back alley abortions and coat hangers.
This is simply false. First, even if it’s true, then it is a tragedy. One woman dying is too many. But why should the law be faulted for making it more dangerous to kill an innocent human being? Bank robbers run the risk of being shot and killed by police. Should we legalize bank robbery to make robbing banks safer for bank robbers? Pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren affirms this: “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 prohibiting it.” 
Second, even before Roe v. Wade, women simply weren’t having “back alley” abortions and using coat hangers. Doctor Mary Calderone wrote, thirteen years before the Roe v. Wade decision, that “the conference estimated that 90 per cent of all illegal abortions are done by physicians. Call them what you will, abortionists or anything else, they are still physicians, trained as such; and many of them are in good standing in their communities.” 
Third, as Bernard Nathanson wrote in his book, Aborting America:
“The practice of abortion was revolutionized at virtually the same moment that the laws were revolutionized, through the widespread introduction of suction curettage in 1970. (Even before this, antibiotics and other advances had already dramatically lowered the abortion death rate.)…Though is it preferable that this be done by a licensed physician, one can expect that if abortion is ever driven underground again, even non-physicians will be able to perform this procedure with remarkable safety. No woman need die if she chooses to abort during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy…As for the self-induced abortion, by thrusting a coathanger or other dangerous object into the womb, this
will also be a thing of the past. Compounds known as prostaglandins can now be used to bring on contractions and expel [the human embryo/fetus], and would readily be available for do-it-yourself abortions in vaginal suppository form.” 
This is simply an emotional argument that has no basis in fact.
Making abortions illegal won’t stop them.
Perhaps not. But this is a lousy reason for keeping abortion legal. The same argument can apply to anything: making rape, theft, and murder illegal hasn’t stopped them. A civilized society makes the killing of innocent human beings illegal, so although murder statutes don’t always stop people from murdering, it is still illegal to do so. Even though abortions won’t stop women from aborting, we are not justified in keeping it legal.
These are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bad arguments in the abortion issue (and for more bad arguments, refer back to part one of this series). If we avoid these and other bad arguments, rather than clinging to them as if they’re meaningful, then our discussions on the topic of abortion will be much more fruitful. The best pro-life arguments focus on the nature of the unborn human being. The best pro-choice arguments focus on bodily rights. Let’s try to add some depth to our discussions rather than using the same tired (and bad) arguments we hear all the time.
 Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” in Joel Feinberg, et al, The Problem of Abortion, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984), p. 103.
 Mary S. Calderone, M.D., “Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem,” American Journal of Public Health, July 1960.
 Bernard N. Nathanson, M.D., Aborting America, New York, Doubleday, 1979, p. 194.
Good stuff! Keep it coming.
Thanks for writing this, you said a lot of things that needed to be said.
Thanks, JDC! These are arguments that I see all the time. It's a little disheartening, because it's easy to see where the error in reasoning lies. Sometimes people just use any arguments against the other side, regardless of how weak the arguments are. But it really causes the conversation to go nowhere.
I thought the Calderone quotation was good.
With regard to the last argument you addressed, I do not disagree that abortion should be made illegal. However, if trying to enact certain abortion restrictions has little chance of actually saving unborn babies while another initiative would have a better chance, I think the pro-life movement should focus its very limited political clout toward the more viable public policy. The right-to-life movement should be about saving babies, not winning abstract philosophical debates.
By the way, I am not aware of any good pro-choice arguments — whether focused on bodily rights or otherwise. Comments like that make me wonder which side some of the posters are on around here.
"Comments like that make me wonder which side some of the posters are on around here."
Well I know I, for one, am very concerned that you–anonymous internet detractor person–feel unsure whether SPL posters are "really" pro-life.
Abortion should be made illegal because it is the unjustifiable killing of innocent human beings. Making abortion illegal will save lives — there will be women who will not have abortions who would have otherwise.
Philosophy is not abstract. Some of it is, certainly — but in the field of ethics, or bioethics, specifically, in which the abortion issue lies — is not an abstract philosophical issue. What makes killing humans wrong? That's not an abstract issue. If killing humans is wrong, then we ought not to do it. The unborn are humans, so if killing all humans is wrong, we ought not do it. It's not an abstract debate, it's a practical debate on how we should treat human beings. The philosophical field of ethics is about how we should live our lives.
"Making abortion illegal will save lives — there will be women who will not have abortions who would have otherwise."
The argument, though, is that outlawing abortion, by itself, would not save any babies at all — or save very few. The argument seems to have some merit. My understanding is that very few prosecutions occurred of abortions — particularly early-term. In addition, the rate of maternal deaths was not affected very much by legalization. That suggests that the number of abortions did not increase very much. (Of course, your quotation from Bernard Nathanson about the introduction of "safer" methods might affect that analysis.)
Still, I think pro-lifers put too much emphasis on imprisoning abortionists and too little on other policies. There were many other policies that changed between the enactment of abortion laws in the Nineteenth Century and the handing down of Roe v. Wade that resulted in the proliferation of abortion.
Making abortion illegal should be our goal. Even if it saves no lives, the reality is that in a civilized society, whether or not it can be enacted, the killing of innocent human beings is illegal. By making it legal, our government is saying that it is okay to kill innocent human beings under certain circumstances.
Maternal mortality rate has nothing to do with whether or not abortion is legal. Abortions are illegal in Ireland and it's one of the safest places (if not *the* safest place) in the world to be a pregnant woman. Maternal mortality rate has everything to do with how good medical technology is in that country and how available it is.
"Making abortion illegal should be our [only] goal."
I could not disagree more. An abortion victim is just as dead if abortion is illegal as if it is legal. Furthermore, you are presumably supporting only laws that punish the abortionist and woman, while leaving the man unpunished. Such a law does not completely outlaw abortion.
"Maternal mortality rate has nothing to do with whether or not abortion is legal."
You are making my point. If the legalization of abortion did not reduce the chance that an abortion would result in maternal mortality, and maternal mortality stayed the same when abortion was legalized, then, mathematically, the number of abortions must not have increased upon legalization.
You want a good pro-choice argument–"Sex is inevitable (since most people would not be able to get someone to marry them without agreeing to sex afterwards) and therefore women should not be forced to be pregnant against their will."