The Key to Avoiding Red Herrings
[Today’s guest post by Clinton Wilcox is part of our paid blogging program.]
I’m currently reading through a book by John S. Feinberg on modernism and postmodernism*, and he made a claim in his book that I thought would be excellent to share. It’s also a point that I’ve been raising in my presentations on abortion.
Feinberg tells us that, in a debate, there are two reasons that you need to clarify any issue at hand: 1) you need to think through the logic of the case presented, and 2) if you don’t, the case that you are attacking may be only peripheral to the topic at hand. Many people skip the first reason and proceed right to the second. An example of this would be a conservative Christian who tries to argue against evolution by throwing out arguments for the existence of God. But that’s only a peripheral issue in the debate, because even if God exists, the theory of evolution could still be correct. The Christian may be thinking that God’s existence would disprove evolution, because if God exists, there’s no need for a naturalistic explanation of the origins of life. But the Christian isn’t making the case he thinks he is, and is completely failing to address the actual arguments for evolution.
The abortion debate is similar. In order to adequately argue your pro-life or pro-choice case, you have to present a positive case (that is, a case that supports your position) and possibly a negative case (that is, a case that responds to your opponent’s arguments). Good pro-life arguments support the biological humanity and philosophical personhood of the unborn child. Good pro-choice arguments argue that the unborn are not persons or that a woman should not be legally compelled to refrain from killing the unborn child. When we keep this in mind, it’s easy to see how many arguments are really about peripheral issues and don’t even respond to the case presented. These are side issues; they may be affected by the issue at large, but by making a point on a peripheral issue, you do not move any closer to refuting the core argument.
Let’s take the pro-life position first. If a pro-life person makes an argument that the unborn are fully human and fully persons, then arguments about difficult situations, such as poverty, or from personal rights, like the right to choose or privacy, are not an adequate argument for the pro-choice position. If pro-life people are right, and the unborn really are full human persons, then poverty would not justify killing them (as it would not justify killing a human child outside the womb), nor would the “right to choose” or right to privacy. Conversely, if the pro-choice position succeeds, and the unborn either are not persons or do not have the legal right to remain dependent on the mother, then a woman can have an abortion for any reason, whether or not we find it indecent (which is, incidentally, a point that Thomson made in her essay A Defense of Abortion, source of the famous violinist thought experiment). If a pro-choice person is going to respond to a pro-life argument, they must directly attack the case that the unborn are biologically human and philosophically persons and show how they are not, in fact, human or persons.
Now let’s take the pro-choice position. If a pro-choice person makes an argument that the unborn are not persons or that a human embryo or fetus does not have the right to remain “plugged into” a woman against her will, then arguments about how abortions hurt women or about how women could make an adoption plan for the child instead of aborting are not responsive points. If the unborn really are not persons or do not have the right to remain “plugged in,” then a woman should logically be allowed to have an abortion for any reason: even if that reason is to avoid the emotional pain of bonding with the child and then having the child be raised by someone else. Also, all surgeries carry an element of risk, so if there is nothing morally wrong with killing the unborn child, the fact that it hurts some women is not a response to the pro-choice argument.
Bearing this in mind will hopefully avoid frustrations in the pro-choice person, who may feel as if they’re not being listened to because the pro-life person is responding to a peripheral argument, but not directly addressing the argument being presented. In our attempt to have good, intelligent discussions on the abortion issue, we need to keep in mind what our arguments for the pro-life position are, what the arguments for the pro-choice position are, and how to adequately respond to those arguments.
*The book I’m reading through is Can You Believe it’s True? Christian Apologetics in a Modern & Postmodern Era, but the principle that I’m espousing in this article is one that anyone, religious or non-religious, can benefit from.
It depends to some extent what you're trying to argue. For example, if I'm trying to convince you that abortion bans are immoral, you're right, I have to either convince you that a fetus is not a person or that it does not have the right to use someone else's body.
On the other hand, if I'm trying to convince you that abortion bans will hurt women and that you are morally obligated to have a plan in place to mitigate those harms once you do manage to pass such bans, then talking about abortion and poverty or abortion and abusive relationships is absolutely relevant. And if I'm trying to convince you that abortion bans are ineffective and that improving the social safety net in general is a better way to combat abortion than simply banning it, then talking about illegal abortions is absolutely relevant.
Those are important concerns, and many pro-life people address them, but they're still irrelevant to the question at hand. How does it follow that if I argue that the unborn are full human persons and it's wrong to kill full human persons that arguing we'll need to have a mitigation plan in place refutes that? It doesn't, and that's the point of this post. Talking about poverty, while important, is irrelevant to the central question of abortion — what is the unborn? Once you settle *that* question, then you can have a discussion about whether or not we should have mitigation plans in place.
Why is "what is the unborn?" any more central to the debate than, say, "does anyone have the right to use anyone else's organs?"
Because what the unborn is determines the morality of the issue. If the unborn is not a full human person, then there would be nothing wrong with abortion. It would literally be like having a tooth pulled or a mole removed. But if the unborn *is* a full human person, then abortion would be immoral. Only then must the pro-choice person either concede the debate or try and argue either that the unborn is *not* a person, or that the unborn, while a full human person, does not have the right to use the mother's body. So the question of what the unborn is has to be determined first. If the unborn is not a human person, then you don't even have the consider bodily rights since there would be nothing wrong with abortion.
I can just as easily say that if the unborn does not have the right to use the mother's body, then we don't even need to consider whether it's a person or not.
As far as I'm concerned, there are three central questions to the abortion debate:
Is an unborn human a person?
Does any person have the right to use someone else's body without her consent?
Criminalizing abortion will probably save some fetus's lives and will also probably cause some women's deaths; will criminalizing abortion save more lives than it costs? (With some subissues involving the fact that criminalizing abortions often means electing pro-life politicians with counterproductive agendas, such as opposing birth control.)
In order for criminalizing abortion to be correct, you have to answer yes to all three questions. Answering no to any one of the above questions settles the debate and means that criminalizing abortion is wrong. That is why I consider all three questions to be equally central to the abortion debate. Pretending that a "yes" answer to the first question settles the debate is disingenuous.
Are you beginning to feel like a broken record?
I have noticed that many Pro-Choicers know that the unborn who are aborted are human, but they don't really care about that. They can easily point to other examples of humans killing other humans such as war or capital punishment. Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choicers are clearly speaking different languages and have different priorities.
"Because what the unborn is determines the morality of the issue. If the
unborn is not a full human person, then there would be nothing wrong
Clinton, it troubles me to see you say such a thing. Do you really mean to say that what type of life something is determines the morality of killing it?
Imagine if you were somehow transformed into a bull. Would it then be acceptable to kill you just because your physical form changed?
Yes I would agree. There are people who aren't Pro-Choice that being a person isn't enough, but that isn't the whole story either. & yes the politics sux that many of the people who oppose abortion are IMO inconsistent on the what a value of a human life means as well e.g. capital punishment and opposing some form of universal health care.
I can–and many pro-choicers who care deeply about bodily autonomy do–say, "Okay, EVEN IF a fetus were a person, it wouldn't have the right not to be aborted, because…"
There are people who legitimately feel that bodily autonomy is more important than personhood. And they are correct–a "no" answer to question 2 preserves the right to abortion just as well as a "no" answer to question 1. If the answer to question 2 is no, you are wasting your time trying to answer question 1.
You may feel that personhood is more important, but you do not have the right to dictate to everyone else discussing abortion what they should care about.
Regarding people who die because of abortion: this includes (a) women like Savita Halappanavar, who are denied lifesaving abortions because of their "pro-life" physician's scruples, but also (b) women who die in illegal abortions because there is no legal alternative, and also (c) fetuses conceived in poor women who choose abortion because of lack of social services, and/or who get pregnant because they can't afford birth control. Yes, if we elected you this wouldn't happen, but most of the time in the US passing anti-abortion legislation means voting for Republicans, who are just as interested in being anti-birth control or anti-welfare as in being anti-abortion.
For that matter, without some sort of bodily autonomy or practical consequences argument, a "no" answer to the question of fetal personhood does not end the abortion debate. Giant pandas, wolves, and bald eagles are unquestionably not persons, but we still grant them the right not to be killed, as members of endangered species–and this is totally acceptable because doing so doesn't infringe on any person's rights.
Nonpersonhood of the unborn is why I don't care when people have abortions. Bodily autonomy is why I do care when people like you try to force people to carry to term. In calling personhood the "central issue" of abortion–and in publishing articles saying that we must address the central issue alone–you are trying to take the question I actually care about off the table. I call foul.
"In order to adequately argue your pro-life or pro-choice case, you have to present a positive case (that is, a case that supports your position) and possibly a negative case (that is, a case that responds to your opponent's arguments)."
That is not accurate/complete. Simply having an argument may sound like a good idea, but if the argument is invalid, it is actually worthless. So, my main tactic in the Overall Abortion Debate is to reveal the invalidities in all the arguments used by abortion opponents. The definition of "person" that they use is totally inadequate/Stupidly-Prejudiced, for example, since it denies personhood to Koko the Gorilla, any/all non-human intelligences throughout the Universe, and even (if exists) God.
I've found so many invalidities in the arguments posed by abortion opponents that, as a result, I discovered some good reasons ("arguments") to allow abortion. Here is one (#7 on my list):
By focusing human culture on the idea that "person rights" is more important than "human rights", allowing abortion prepares the way for future beneficial and unprejudiced contact with non-human intelligent beings, whether they be extraterrestrial in origin, or turn out to be local, such as, say, Genuine Artificial Intelligences, a few decades from now. (Also, the personhood of whales and dolphins is still being debated. One might wonder how much irrational Prejudice against them is embodied in the arguments that they don't qualify as persons, especially by, say, those with a vested interest in the whaling industry….) When the human species allows abortion, it is basically evidence opposing the notion that we are so arrogant and puffed-up with egotistical prejudiced self-importance that we think we're the greatest thing to come along since Nature invented sexual reproduction. Actions speak louder than words!
One reason pro-choicers don't need to care about the human-ness of the unborn is because, unlike abortion opponents, they know the unborn are not innocent. Worse than a fictional "vampire" is how they act –vampires don't dump toxic biowastes into the bodies of their victims–and the classic penalty for vampirism (by an entity much more qualified as a "person" than an unborn human!) is destruction.
Oh, and the argument that the unborn have no understanding of what they are doing is worthless, since that detracts from any claim they qualify as persons! Instead, it proves they are mere animal organisms, and therefore have no more right to avoid destruction than, say, a tapeworm. One of the OTHER things that invalidates many anti-abortion arguments is an attempt to "have things two different ways" –Stupid Hypocrisy, that is.
"How does it follow that if I argue that the unborn are full human persons and it's wrong to kill full human persons that arguing we'll need to have a mitigation plan in place refutes that?"
So long as your argument is flawed/invalid/worthless, it doesn't matter what conclusion you were trying to reach.
I see the quote above contains TWO things that should be argued. The second is "It is wrong to kill full human persons." Many abortion opponents support the Death Penalty, however, which certainly involves killing full human persons.
So, that leads to a THIRD thing you have to argue, even if you had a successful argument for the first thing (that the unborn qualify as persons) –which you DON'T have.
You would have to argue that despite actions committed by unborn humans that no adult would be allowed to do (like deliberately inject poisonous and addictive and mind-altering substances into someone else), they must always be exempted from a death penalty.
"if the unborn does not have the right to use the mother's body, then we don't even need to consider whether it's a person or not."
I agree with the first thing Clinton wrote below, in response to that. (Other things written below reveal an inconsistency –why call it a "child" if it is not proved to be a person?)
Let me bring up an alternate view regarding what you wrote. A "loaded question" always contains an assumption that you are expected to accept, before you try to answer the question. But accepting that assumption destroys the credibility of your answer, regardless of what your answer actually is. In the "bodily autonomy" argument for allowing abortion, you are STARTING with the assumption that both involved entities are persons.
That plays into the hands of abortion opponents! It must be avoided at all times! Make them prove the unborn human qualifies as a person, before worrying about what what one person has a right to do to another, just to survive.
(1) The bodily self-determination argument only plays into the hands of abortion opponents if everyone involved is actually incapable of understanding the phrase, "If I agreed with you that embryos were people–which I don't, but if I did–I still wouldn't agree with you that abortion should be banned, because…." Most people making logical arguments are capable of understanding counterfactuals.
(2) Why do you care about the abortion debate? Clinton's desired anti-abortion laws would give embryos the right not to be killed, even though they are not people. The Endangered Species Act gives bald eagles (also not people) the right not to be killed. Why do you oppose Clinton's policies rather than the Endangered Species Act?
Unborn humans are not in any sense in the sort of "short supply" as members of various endangered species. They don't need protection, therefore.
Another way of looking at the situation is this:
While ONE argument supporting legal abortion directly focuses on one possible consequence of the Earth's human population explosion, there is at least one other consequence that many people wish to address. This is the encroachment of our ever-growing cities and their support-structures (such as farmland) upon the wilderness, destroying habitats for other species and driving many of them to actual extinction (not just to the brink of extinction). Since it is known that human psychological health can benefit from interactions with Nature, it logically follows that the more diverse is the global ecosystem, the more it can benefit humanity. So, we have a conundrum in which the more humans exist, the more we need greater amounts of wilderness, not less –simply because the less there is, the more it must be shared, and a "wilderness" simply cannot be any such thing if it is jammed full of humans 24/7. So, for our own psychological health, we need to be able to say that other species are as important as our own. Since allowing abortion helps reduce the rate of human population growth, it logically follows that it is a useful tool in our repertoire, which we have available for saving other species from our onslaught.
If you were a powerful politician, and a pro-life politician offered you a deal that involved (say) donating a lot of money to environmental conservation, or providing all women with fully-subsidized, high-quality birth control on demand (which is probably a better way to reduce the birth rate than legal abortion), and in exchange wanted abortion criminalized, would you take that deal?
No, because abortion is still needed as a back-up plan, when contraceptives fail. And even high-quality contraceptives sometimes fail.
Also, there are OTHER reasons to allow abortion, which like that one have nothing to do with environmentalism. I've made a list that you can find by Googling the quoted phrase "some reasons to allow abortion". The previous paragraph is an aspect of #2 on that list. It is NOT your ordinary list!
There may be a similarity between #3 on my list, and the bodily-rights argument, but they are not actually the same. That's because I'm specifically aiming that argument at Prejudice and Hypocrisy, and the LIE of "fetal innocence", which are the real fundamentals of most anti-abortion arguments.
The bodily-rights argument is about what one person can be expected –or not expected– to do for another person. #3 is about ASSAULT. The two arguments have stealing-of-nutrients in common, but that's all. I'm pretty sure the bodily-rights argument does not include hooking up the violinist so his body wastes are dumped into the source of nutrients (poisoning your well is never a good idea!), and it certainly doesn't include infusions of addictive and mind-altering substances into the body of the source of nutrients.
To some extent my arguments do indicate that forbidding abortion is worse than allowing it, and therefore can be called "wrong". For example, if it is wrong to deliberately promote a Malthusian Catastrophe, such that 80+% of the entire human species would die, then forbidding abortion, one of the tools that can HELP prevent such a thing, has to be wrong.
In general, I have tried to NOT say things that would specifically promote abortion. The closest I come to that is #4, phrasing it as something for Society to decide, and not for any specific individual to insist-about. After all, a major thrust of my arguments is that we don't have the right to force others to do things! Society would have the means to PAY (or otherwise encourage) people to get abortions, for situations like #4. Yes, of course Society could also pay people to not have abortions, but I don't see many abortion opponents going that route; they'd rather use force/enslavement. I simply don't want to descend to their level.
There is more to arguing about fetal personhood than the Abortion Debate, and I bring this up when talking about future interactions with non-human intelligences (#7). We DON'T need any definition of "person" that promotes Prejudice for humans, generically over non-human persons; we have far too much History showing us that Prejudice against persons is bad.
Therefore it doesn't matter in the slightest who believes that the unborn are persons, not if they can't actually prove it. Lacking such proof, they can be relegated to the same ignore-the-idiots category as members of the Flat Earth Society, and they deserve to be told exactly that –and Society should follow-through with it.