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Abortion and Soundbites: Why Pro-Choice Arguments Are Harder to Make

Arguments are nowadays often presented as soundbites: as slogans, tweets, memes and even gifs. Arguments developed in detail often meet the response TL;DR (Too Long, Didn’t Read). This is unfortunate—especially when tackling the topic of abortion. Soundbites make many pro-life arguments seem stronger than they really are, while the complexities of pro-choice arguments can’t be readily reduced to soundbites.

Pro-Life Soundbites

Abortion is wrong because:

  • fetuses are human or human beings.
  • human beings have rights.
  • human rights protect all humans.
  • we should advocate for equality, including equality for unborn human beings.
  • abortion ends a life.
  • abortion is killing.

These soundbites can sound good because human beings are generally wrong to kill; human rights do protect human beings; human rights apply to all humans; equality is a good thing; and ending lives and killing are often wrong. Denying these things often results in silly assertions: that fetuses in human women aren’t human or aren’t alive, or that abortion doesn’t involve killing, etc.

That these soundbites are based on what seems to be common sense can make these simple cases against abortion seem strong.

Pro-Choice Presentations

Presentations of pro-choice perspectives often begin with abstractions:

  • What does human mean? Does everything human have rights?
  • Why do human beings have rights? What makes humans have rights?
  • Do human rights really protect everything and everyone that is human, or all human beings?
  • Do basic human rights include a right to someone else’s body? How could someone gain that right? What kind of rights to assistance do human rights entail?
  • Denying equality among human beings is very bad, but is equality sometimes inappropriate or even wrong? What does equality mean?
  • When is killing not wrong? Does killing ever raise few, if any, moral issues whatsoever?

Since pro-choice positions depend on more precise and complex theoretical thinking, they are harder to effectively communicate—especially when audiences and discussion partners will not—or cannot—seek to understand more deeply and carefully.

Pro-Choice Soundbites

Consider some common pro-choice soundbites:

  • My body, my choice.
  • A woman can do whatever she wants with her own body.
  • People who oppose abortion just want to control women.
  • If you’re against abortion, don’t have one.
  • Abortion is just a medical procedure.
  • Abortion is a personal choice.
  • Every child a wanted child.
  • Abortion is not up for debate.

The problems with these soundbites are obvious to anyone who doesn’t already accept them.

  • No. You cannot choose to use your body to murder someone.
  • No. You cannot do everything you want with your own body: you cannot murder someone.
  • No. If women are doing something that should be illegal, they should be controlled, just as anyone else should.
  • No. You wouldn’t say Against child abuse? Then don’t abuse children! so this response is foolish.
  • No. If abortion is wrong, it’s not a mere medical procedure.
  • No. We can’t or shouldn’t make certain personal choices, if those choices are profoundly wrong.
  • No. That a child is unwanted wouldn’t entitle anyone to kill that child.
  • No, abortion is up for debate. What do you think we are doing in talking about it?

Not every pro-choice soundbite generates these reactions, but many do. Pro-choice soundbites just don’t have the same initial plausibility as pro-life soundbites.

Critiques of Pro-Life Soundbites

Pro-choice critics don’t argue that pro-life soundbites are completely wrong. Pro-choicers argue that, if we look at the details, their initial plausibility fades: thinking them through reveals that the ideas don’t have the implications their advocates think they do.

  • If human means biologically human, that means that random human cells and tissues have rights, which they don’t. So just because fetuses are biologically human doesn’t mean they have rights.
  • We can ask why human beings have rights: why do rocks and vegetables not have rights? A long-influential family of theories of rights proposes that we have rights because we are conscious and feeling beings. This theory suggests that pre-conscious embryos and early fetuses don’t have rights.
  • While people say that all human beings have rights, they don’t. Human corpses don’t have rights. Brain-dead human beings do not have the rights we have: letting their bodies die would be wrong if they had, say, the right to life. Babies born missing most of their brains seem to not have the rights that regular babies have: it’s hard to see why letting them die, even when they could be kept alive, would be wrong, since being alive does them no good. Not all human beings have features that rights are supposed to protect, so it seems that not all human beings have rights. So just because fetuses are human beings doesn’t, in itself, mean they have rights.
  • The right to life is not a right to everything someone needs to live—especially someone else’s body. Explaining if, how and why a fetus would have a right to a pregnant woman’s body is a challenge.
  • Denying equality among humans is very bad. But advocating for equality between human beings and, say, isolated human cells or organs (or plants or bacteria) would be wrong. And what does equal mean? Not everything is equal: there is such a thing as justified, reasonable discrimination: there might be good reasons to deny that human embryos and early fetuses are equal to us.
  • Killing random cells, bacteria, plants, etc. is often not wrong at all. There is killing that’s wrong and killing that isn’t wrong: just because abortion is killing doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Identifying these problems requires showing that things are more complicated than they seem. It requires seeing that some common ways of understanding aren’t quite correct and might even be harmful.

There are, of course, more sophisticated arguments against abortion. These often appeal to claims about human embryos and fetuses’ essence or essential properties, their rational natures and their being the same kind of beings that we are. These abstract claims and arguments are harder to evaluate. However, close critical examination reveals that these abstract arguments do not succeed: they raise more questions than they answer.

Critical Thinking and Abortion

Developing strong critical thinking skills requires training and practice.

In our recent short, introductory, open-access book on abortion, Thinking Critically About Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should be Legal, we review a lot of bad arguments and ways of understanding abortion, from all sides. Our main positive arguments for pro-choice perspectives, briefly stated, are these.

  • It is wrong to kill adults, children and babies because they are conscious, aware and have feelings. Since early fetuses entirely lack these characteristics, it is not inherently wrong to kill them, so most abortions are not morally wrong, since most abortions are done early in pregnancy, before consciousness and feeling develop in the fetus.
  • Furthermore, since the right to life does not include the right to someone else’s body, a fetus might not have the right to the pregnant woman’s body—therefore she has the right to not allow the fetus use of her body. This further justifies abortion, at least until technology allows for the removal of fetuses to other wombs. Since morally permissible actions should be legal, abortions should be legal: it is an injustice to criminalize actions that are not wrong.

These arguments are not new, but they are new to most people, since most people are not familiar with the philosophical literature on abortion. Versions of these are likely to be the best arguments for pro-choice perspectives out there.

Soundbite-Free Advocacy

So, what can a pro-choice advocate do? Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t provide soundbites. You’re better off saying nothing than giving what sounds like a bad argument—perhaps because it is a bad argument.
  • Very clever and creative people could develop good pro-choice soundbites. These are likely to be based on abstract and theoretical considerations. But developing any such soundbites in an echo-chamber, with little reflection on how they would be received by the outside world, is a strategy for failure.
  • Denying that the issues can be reduced to soundbites might do some good: acknowledging complexity can help.
  • We’d all like to engage and persuade everyone, but it might be best to focus on people who are able and willing to engage complexity: judges and legal officials are generally able and willing to do that; elected politicians are less likely to. Focusing on audiences willing to listen and productively discuss would reduce discouragement and frustration. Many people are well-meaning and willing to engage the issues in serious, respectful and responsible ways. But these discussions aren’t likely to be fruitful if they appeal to soundbites.

This isn’t about persuasion in the sense of manipulation, public relations or anything that could be called sophistry. We want to move people towards reasonable, justified messages.

While pro-life soundbites often move people, they do not seem to move people towards views that are ultimately justified by strong evidence and arguments: we believe this can be demonstrated by reasoning rigorously, patiently and critically about those arguments. Our book’s subtitle is Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should be Legal because we believe that critical thinking reveals that this view is supported by better arguments than its opposite. Soundbites don’t help show that, to most people. We need to find out what will.

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45 comments

  1. The pro-life position is much more easily defensible, and more technically/scientifically correct. However, I think the pro-choice position is more practically correct, at least for early pregnancy stages, so I am pro-choice.

    The argument that people should be able to have abortions because the baby doesn’t have a right to the mother’s body strikes me as stupid. Parents have a legal obligation to keep their children alive and healthy, and their bodies are required for them to do this. They legally must use their bodies to feed their children, bathe their children, etc. and/or put their bodies to work to earn money to pay someone else to do these things. It is not legal to kill one’s children or to allow them to die via neglect.

    1. From the perspective of incentive-setting, this sounds like a strong anti-natalist position. You’re severely punishing people for causing conception at all. It’s hard to call that a “pro-life” position, considering that people who don’t have unprotected coitus will never be faced with these severe disincentives, even though all their children are technically also dead.

      1. You mean incentive to have children? You’re saying that you don’t think parents should be legally responsible for their children’s lives?

        I’m not sure it makes sense to call something that never existed dead. I think for something to be dead it has to have been alive first, or at least it has to have existed.

        1. I think there’s a weird bias in common sense morality that nonexistence from never coming into existence is seen as much better than nonexistence from coming into existence and then being erased from existence again. It doesn’t matter if you call that “dead” or not, the point is that the end result, nonexistence, life-years not lived, is equivalent.

          Of course I understand that we need laws against murder, so we can live without having to anticipate people murdering us without consequence. But this bias seems to go beyond that function. Of course, you could argue that being born is unpleasant and death is unpleasant as well, so that never coming into existence is less painful.

          An alternative to decades of child support obligations would be that the relationship between parents and children could be seen as mutually voluntary. In my ideal world, all relationships should be based in consent and even young people should have the right to obtain painless suicide methods if they want to choose nonexistence for themselves. Then again, I’m also for the legalization of consensual child labor and prostitution, so my ideal world is far away from the common Overton Window. I don’t care enough to go to a culture war over it, but I do care enough about my own personal self-determination rights that I reserve the right to cause arbitrary harm to people who deny me my right to die painlessly at any time I choose. Also, following the current incentive structure, I don’t support any children. The taxation I’m being forced to pay for poor kids has resulted, among other things, in reduced productivity on my end – no one has ever blamed me for that. It’s a weird way to set incentives is all I’m trying to say.

            1. And why should I care about your opinion? Common sense morality is riddled with inconsistencies and arbitrary biases, and moral realism is false anyway.

              In my opinion the majority’s position is really fucked up, but not a single person cares about my opinion unless I set a hard incentive gradient to back it up, so that’s what I do.

              I give zero shits about your status attacks, they can’t replace arguments, they convey no information other than hostility and they don’t even address the inconsistencies I’ve mentioned.

                1. I’m one of those people who find moral calculations to be abhorrent. We are not reducible to spreadsheets. Thus I can’t really discuss the subject with our friend, who thinks that the only morality is a reciprocation contract.

                  1. No one forces you to debate. However, I will point out that child labor is in fact socially accepted. The shooting of Stranger Things was child labor. It just happened to be a form of high-status child labor that the majority selfishly wanted, so people don’t call it child labor, which has a negative connotation.This is not about principles, but about framing.

                    As for reciprocation contract, I personally harm the interests of those who harm my interests whether or not they agree on the principle. No one has to consent to be my enemy, in fact they don’t even have to understand why. I’m just kind enough to let people know, and I dislike preference falsification so I don’t lie about what I want. It’s very easy to use that as a status attack and declare oneself morally superior over me, but that doesn’t make the retaliation costs go away. Moralism isn’t a mind-control spell that makes harming people’s personal preferences a free action. I control my agency, you control yours only. It still amazes me how many people don’t understand something this basic.

    2. Thank you for reading and for your comments. To respond to one of them, there do seem to be relevant differences between, on the one hand, babies and children and, on the other, embryos and early fetuses. So what’s true of babies and children (e.g., that they have rights to be taken care of and that parents – or someone – is obligated to take care of them) need not apply to early fetuses. We discuss why it’s at least a stretch – if not a mistake – to call early fetuses “babies” — and reason that what’s true of babies and children is also true of fetuses – in the first section of our book here: https://www.abortionarguments.com/p/full-text.html#defining

      Thanks!

      1. Well it always comes down to whether or not fetuses are considered to be human beings or not (which technically they are and practically they are not). But the argument that people cannot be legally forced to used their bodies to enable the survival of other human beings that are dependent on them is invalid, as this is already the law for post-birth humans.

        1. I wonder if attempts to calculate when human life starts, tho they might be necessary for the law — just as we decide when you’re old enough to drive — are not really the point. It seems to me the point is that it is abhorrent that a woman should want to violate the very thing that makes her special and that nature intends her to do. We have to be practical of course — very few any longer have an issue with contraception and early abortions are a sensible compromise, but when a woman wants her newborn killed, surely that is deeply disturbing? Surely mother-love is the prototype on which all loves are modeled? I once heard a quote that it’s not that abortion should be illegal, but that it should be unthinkable. A culture that trivializes abortion is dehumanized.

  2. You could not be more wrong. Complex argument is only valuable after the overarching issue has been framed. That the conflict is framed as “life” versus “choice” was always going to be a problem for those that think abortion should be a safe and legal option. Those that want to keep abortion legal should emphasize life again. A world without legal abortion means more women’s lives will be in danger. It will force the practice underground. It really is that simple. Life for many woman can be hard. We should not make it harder.

    1. Thanks for your response, but I think you have offered up another soundbite that is also likely to be ineffective. Here’s a paragraph from our book about that:

      “4.2.2.4 “Women and girls will die if abortion isn’t allowed.”

      Historically, this has been true, and is likely to remain the case. However, this fact is apt to not be persuasive to some people who believe that abortion is wrong: they will respond, “If someone dies because they are doing something wrong like having an abortion, that’s ‘on them,’ not those who are trying to prevent that wrong.” Observing that women will die if abortions are outlawed doesn’t engage any arguments that abortion is wrong or give much of a reason to think that abortion is not wrong. Again, this type of engagement is necessary for progress on these issues.”

      Thanks!

      1. Exactly. Men are often injured themselves while beating their wives, therefore safe, legal, professional wife beaters should be licensed to beat wives. No more back-alley wife beating! The meth industry is rife with violence (see ‘Breaking Bad’) simply because it is forced underground. Make pushing meth legal and all this back-alley murder will end.

        1. Thanks for your response. For what it’s worth, if I understand what you are saying, your response *appears* to be “question-begging” or merely assuming that abortion is wrong: at least, that’s what I think is suggested by what you are saying and the way you are saying it. There’s a discussion of question begging arguments on all sides of these issues here:

          https://www.abortionarguments.com/p/full-text.html#bad

          Thanks!

          1. “if I understand what you are saying, your response *appears* to be “question-begging””

            I’d call it a reducto ad absurdum no? I’m only pointing out that the idea that any law, the breaking of which can result in harm to the criminal, is not sufficient grounds to abolish that law. It is something to be considered however. Prohibition was enacted with the best of intentions but by pushing booze underground it fomented crime, and that was sufficient reason to repeal prohibition. But few would say it’s sufficient reason to legalize meth sales, yes? Thus, giving women legal abortions will no doubt save ‘back-alley’ abortions, but it will also result in the death of many innocent babies-to-be. I myself think there is no simple answer.

  3. “If human means biologically human, that means that random human cells and tissues have rights, which they don’t. ”

    Surely the ordinary meaning of “human” in this argument is “living human being” or “living member of the human species.” Your view is that only the (dispositionally) conscious, feeling human beings have rights, while the (dispositionally) unconscious, unfeeling members don’t. The other side grants rights to all human beings, conscious and feeling or not. The dispute hinges on the moral importance of consciousness and feeling, and the right answer doesn’t strike me as obvious.

    Having said that, most of this piece is a model of honesty and fair thinking, a very nice contribution in a public forum on a difficult question.

    1. Thank you for your kind words!

      And we can only hope that more people, when they say ‘human’, they say the better words that they might really mean to be saying: that can only help.

  4. The book, while worth reading, made the mistake of not starting at the level of how we justify moral beliefs in the first place. You need a story that can withstand laypeople’s objections. The main reason why people I know are hesitant to get into disputes with pro-life people is because the conversation basically always ends up at an impasse when the pro-lifer asks, “How do we have objective ethics without God?” If the answer appeals to Aristotle, Kant, or Mill, even assuming that they had arguments that could furnish that, anyone not intimidated by an appeal to a Great Philosopher can just ask, “Okay, now in your own words, can you explain why someone should believe that?” The project of finding good pro-choice arguments should start with an anti-skeptical beginning, and the best results are probably going to be secured by the fastest growing view in moral epistemology: ethical intuitionism. If ethical intuitions aren’t respectable, neither are intuitions about what constitutes a person. Since the whole enterprise lives or dies with intuitions, unabashedly start there. Anything less and the whole idea of “we need strong arguments and evidence” is basically just boilerplate for a Philosophy 101 flier (which will likely also ignore intuitionism).

    1. Thanks for your observations. Probably *most* writings on practical ethics do not discuss how we justify moral beliefs in the first place: in making arguments they often appeal to intuitions about cases, and the principles and reasons that can be used to justify those initial intuitions. So, to use on example you mention, many people have the “intuition” that their personhood would end at death and, as we suggest, their reasons for that can be used to give insight into the nature of personhood. So, yes, there is a sense in which the book is based on a kind of intuitionism, as well as some other insights that are related to some of the moral theories you mention.

      About religious ethics, we do have a brief discussion of the Euthyphro problem and how the question you report that people often ask can be answered. And we hope the discussion in the book, although brief, gives *some* demonstration about what “strong arguments and evidence” looks like.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. “It is wrong to kill adults, children and babies because they are conscious, aware and have feelings.”

    That would imply that killing nonhuman animals is also wrong, at least those that are conscious, aware and have feelings.

    A better norm from my perspective is that killing adults and children against their will should be illegal and socially punished, because it violates their strong personal preferences and we should have norms and laws against violating people’s strong personal preferences. Killing babies should be illegal and socially punished if there are people who have a legitimate claim and a strong personal preference that the baby not be killed, e.g. if the baby’s parents don’t want it to be killed. (Babies themselves don’t have strong personal preferences yet, at least not in a way they can’t articulate; they also don’t understand death yet, which means they don’t have a personal preference against death.)

    This can be applied consistently to nonhuman animals as well without invoking speciesism: I wouldn’t kill your dog against your wishes because you have a legitimate claim and a personal preference that the dog not be killed, but I have no problem with the killing of factory-farmed animals.

    Similarly, I have no problem if people want to abort their fetuses, but I would have a problem if people wanted to abort other people’s fetuses against their will.

    Of course, an implication of this norm would be that people can kill their own babies even after birth as long as the baby doesn’t yet have a personal preference to not die. That implication is outside the current Overton Window, but I’d be willing to bite this bullet.

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    1. This is the property argument. If I kill your dog I’ve robbed you of your property. If I kill your fetus against your will, likewise, but if you want neither the dog nor the fetus, then killing either is ok. As you say, by this logic, killing a newborn is also fine if it is not wanted. This morality was common in ancient times. But the situation changes when the child develops a strong personal preference to live but this does not apply to animals even tho they develop very SPPTL as a matter of course. An amoeba demonstrates SPPTL. But the amoeba is not conscious perhaps you will say — it has no fear of death.

      Then would it be ok to terminate an unwanted person if they were unconscious at the time? And if a newborn baby is only property, at what point does it in effect become ‘it’s own property’ and thus have the right to life? Slave owners faced this problem by simply saying that one’s property is always one’s property, thus the children of your slaves remain your slaves for their whole lives. The children do not belong to their parents because the latter are themselves property and property can’t own property.

      1. Some good points. I don’t agree that nonhuman animals ever show a SPPTL. First of all, they are not persons. Secondly, I think that’s a misunderstanding of their behavior. They show evolved aversions to the *correlating stimuli* of impending death, such as pain, fear, deprivation, hunger, thirst, etc. But ironically, death actually erases all those negative stimuli from their consciousness when their brain functions shut down permanently. Nonhuman animals don’t have the necessary intelligence to conceptualize death robustly enough to have an actual preference for life over death. The same is true for newborns and perhaps very small children. Of course, this line of argument is a little vague since many adults have beliefs that undermine the informedness of their preference, such as belief in a false afterlife. So it’s not all-or-nothing.

        As for where to draw the line in development, I don’t think there are absolutes at all. I’m not a moral realist and I’m more interested in pragmatic coordination of our mutual interests as I am in moral absolutes. I was also just faced again with people who wished for me to be tortured and murdered online; this always reminds me that maybe their torture and murder is okay also, and I have no reciprocal or otherwise self-interested reason in preventing that. It just seems a gross coordination failure of human mutual interests to live in a state where there are no norms against torture or murder. If it had been reciprocated, I’d say once a person can articulate a preference to not die, such as “Mommy, I don’t want to die”, perhaps don’t murder them? But I’m sure one could come up with counter-arguments even for that, in some hypothetical situations.

        As for the unconscious unwanted person, I’d suggest if they had a previous preference, going with that seems doable and sensible. If they can be woken up again within pragmatic time frames, asking them seems better than overruling their determinable or previous preferences. Of course, this too depends on reciprocity; as a non-altruistic reciprocator, I no longer have a reason to care about most people’s preferences or rights if most people don’t care about my preferences or rights. I don’t think we have a robust human rights consensus and maybe we should just update our moralism talk accordingly. I don’t intrinsically care about fetuses, or other adults for that matter.

        1. “as a non-altruistic reciprocator, I no longer have a reason to care about most people’s preferences or rights if most people don’t care about my preferences or rights”

          That’s at least honestly put. I believe that although pro-choice folks often like to posture themselves as being concerned about others — the ‘rights’ of wimin — I suspect that what’s really going on is that we the born no longer have any concerns about being fetuses again, so … to hell with fetuses. As you say, I can never enter into reciprocation with a fetus, therefore I have no reason to give a damn about fetuses. Ayn Rand would agree with this morality: only greed is real and even when we might appear to be doing something for someone else, it’s really just more greed.

          Perhaps it boils down to simple ethical preference which is comparable to an aesthetic preference: I find greed to be disgusting, and I measure a civilization by how it treats the most defenseless within it, and the unborn are the most defenseless. At some point it simply can’t be debated: some people want to be hyenas and some don’t.

          1. It still is the case that no fetus has a preference to not be aborted. No fetus is against abortion, including his or her own abortion. Preferences to live only develop later. You can use hindsight, but even that doesn’t give you pro-life: In hindsight, I would have preferred to be aborted as a fetus.

            It still is also the case that we could have had human rights standards to not violate each other’s personal preferences, and I would have reciprocated it if we had had them. And of course you are violating women’s personal preferences in order to impose your ethical preference which is comparable to an aesthetic preference on them. I’ve seen the same in animal rights activists: Be a vegan or you don’t deserve human rights. This sort of behavior is why I don’t support their human rights anymore. That would have required reciprocity. It’s a bad equilibrium of course; now they get neither my support for animal rights nor for their own human rights, which they could have had if they had supported my rights.

    2. Thanks for these thoughts. Appeals to preferences are related to appeals about consciousness, feelings and so on: at least if you have the former, you have the latter and, as we describe the latter, that entails having the former also.

      But don’t dogs and other at least mammals and birds typically have preferences? (E.g., the would generally prefer to not be in a tiny, tiny cage, compared to being in such a cage?) And don’t babies typically have preferences also? (For example, they would prefer to be, say, warm than very, very cold?). If not, you might have a very “heady” idea about preferences that doesn’t distinguish (A) having preferences and (B) articulating those preferences. It seems someone can have preferences but not articulate them. Does that seem mistaken?

      Thanks!

      1. You’re right. However, no fetus has a preference to not be aborted. I don’t believe in the right to X for beings who have no preference for X. Furthermore, and I didn’t make this explicit enough, I don’t believe in rights for beings who don’t have the basic intelligence needed to reciprocate the rights norm. This is usually connected to being a person, in our current world being a human of sufficient cognitive development. The reason for this is that rights, to me at least, are less moral concepts than coordination tools for our mutual interests; I’m interested in human rights only if they benefit me and the people who’ve net-benefited me. That requires both an understanding of the norm and an actual willingness to abide by it. However, it doesn’t have to extended to non-reciprocators such as nonhuman animals, far-future generations, or people who laugh in your face if you tell them you have rights. Or human fetuses who don’t understand the concept. One complication with this reciprocity-based view is that we may personally lose our intelligence and we may still want norms to not be tortured in that case. But we can solve this by simply enhancing the norm to respect the articulated or deducible preferences of beings who were once people who supported this norm.

  6. For a pair of philosophy profs arguing for a more philosophical perspective, you could use some basic philosophical rigour. At the very least, a principled defence of abortion requires an argument from principles that your audience accepts. Instead, you’ve conflated legal, moral, and practical principles together, and then mixed these with empirical claims and rhetorical moves, creating a confusing casuistic stew. Take this point:

    (1a) If human means biologically human, (1b) that means that random human cells and tissues have rights, which they don’t. (1c) So just because fetuses are biologically human doesn’t mean they have rights.

    The first inference (in 1b) is a reductio ad absurdum of 1a that begs the question. The moral (and legal status) of the fetus as a person is precisely the point at issue. You’ve merely asserted (implicitly and without argument) that the fetus is “random cells and tissues” to get the absurdity. But we are all just random cells and tissues. You haven’t touched the central claim of anti-abortionists because you haven’t shown that fetuses differ from babies in a categorical way—i.e., you haven’t shown a morally and legally significant difference like the one between, say, a dead body and a living human being.

    I realize that you later introduce the sentience argument to make this categorical distinction:

    (1a) ….A long-influential family of theories of rights proposes that we have rights because we are conscious and feeling beings. This theory suggests that pre-conscious embryos and early fetuses don’t have rights.

    A theory suggests, does it? Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize it was a “long-influential family of theories.” Had I fully appreciated that argument-by-adjective on the first reading my skepticism would have washed away like leaves in the autumnal rain. Seriously, let me put it to you bluntly: We’re talking about who gets rights and who dies and you’re bloviating about what “influential theories….suggest,” theories that you don’t name or offer me any reason to give a shit about. That’s an appeal to false authority. I read that as “Here’s a useful tactic: Invoke unnamed theories of rights that support your point.”

    So what are these theories and why should I be persuaded by them? What’s wrong with my theory of rights that doesn’t rely on sentience as a criterion? This point does nothing to clear things up:

    While people say that all human beings have rights, they don’t. Human corpses don’t have rights. Brain-dead human beings do not have the rights we have: letting their bodies die would be wrong if they had, say, the right to life. Babies born missing most of their brains seem to not have the rights that regular babies have: it’s hard to see why letting them die, even when they could be kept alive, would be wrong, since being alive does them no good. Not all human beings have features that rights are supposed to protect, so it seems that not all human beings have rights. So just because fetuses are human beings doesn’t, in itself, mean they have rights.
    Are you talking about laws, morals, facts about laws and morals, or all these things? I can’t tell, though it doesn’t matter because all the propositional content is linked with conditional and speculative connectors “seems / if / hard to see why” and the main terms are ambiguous and multivalent, mostly because of the context in which they’re used: human being, human corpses (in the context of rights), brain-dead human beings, right to life, babies (in various states of disrepair), etc.

    Another bit:

    The right to life is not a right to everything someone needs to live—especially someone else’s body. Explaining if, how and why a fetus would have a right to a pregnant woman’s body is a challenge.

    It might be a challenge if babies self-generated, but they don’t. You only get babies when you engage in action likely to create them. Of course, nothing’s so simple as that in law or morals, and I don’t know which we’re talking about here, so I’ll leave it there.

    1. Hi, thanks for this interesting reaction.

      You say a lot, but I’ll just respond to the first main objection, since that gets things going. You write “You’ve merely asserted (implicitly and without argument) that the fetus is “random cells and tissues” to get the absurdity.”

      It’s worth observing that this is factually incorrect: we did not *assert* that the fetus is a “random [human] cells.” We observed that *if* someone says that anything human has rights, we can ask what’s meant by ‘human,’ and *if* human means ‘biologically human’ then that suggests that “random [human] cells” have rights.

      No where is there an assertion that the fetus is “random cells and tissues.” Correct?

      Thanks!

  7. I’d be interested in reading the authors’ explanation of how a partial birth abortion is not morally problematical.

    1. Ray, this issue is addressed on pp. 51-52 of their e-book (which is free). They acknowledge that late-term abortions are morally problematic. Personally, I would support a ban on abortion after twenty weeks (with very limited medical exceptions) in exchange for easy access to abortion before that point. This is the situation in most Western European countries.

      1. Mornin’ K, nice to see you here. Helen should get more support. I agree with your stance. The quest for a moral formula that provides a nice neat answer is doomed to fail. There are only difficult compromises. Abortion is the extinguishing of a life-to-be that has already started, it is nothing like an appendectomy. It is anathema to the modern feminist that she should ever have responsibilities and duties, she has only rites and pleasures. Yet the obvious fact is that an unwanted pregnancy is a huge burden and we should face that. Asking a raped 12 year old to carry a pregnancy is almost grotesque. Forcing life on a fetus known to be deformed is also grotesque. So yeah, the morning after pill, no questions asked, first trimester, hang down your head in shame, but yes, no questions asked. But as time goes on it gets closer and closer to just plain murder and a line must be drawn. Seems they were floating the idea of permitting infanticide in some states a while back.

  8. That is a well written article. I like the level of honour and commitment to truth as opposed to enmity and manipulating a win. I have 2 questions from someone perhaps on the other side of the fence. I was raised in your average liberal atheist home and have become critical of abortions from a lot of reflecting and thinking. This process has been unsettling to my previous outlook but that’s life sometimes.

    Consciousness, when temporary, is not a bar used to measure moral worth. I’m sure you’ve thought about a knocked out person before and our imperative to help them, as opposed to doing what we feel like. I’ll try to hit closer to the mark.

    If you were in a Coma for a year, and would wake up with severe mental and physical disabilities, but you could over 2 decades work back to full health with out disability, and have the opportunity for a fulfilling life afterwards, would you want to live through that coma?

    Question 2 is that if a child did not choose to be created by the couple, does the couple not have a duty to fulfill their obligation to the life they created? The “Right to use another’s body” argument cuts both ways when life and death decisions are made about the fetus’ body.

    That obviously leads to a discussion about the nature of human rights and precludes rape as a factor, but I wanted to hit those two bullet points on the main themes.

    Thanks again for the article and I look forward to reading your short to understand better details. Now it’s time to get ready for work.

    1. Great reply to the two main arguments. What’s also interesting about the “consciousness = moral worth” argument is that with a bit of thought, it starts to become very uncomfortable, since we don’t really have a good grasp of what consciousness/thoughts/feelings *are*. In terms of arguing for pro-choice, it essentially becomes “stop eating meat, or be pro-life.”

      I think morally, we’re on much safer ground sticking with “potential for humanity”. A person in a coma, asleep, or in the fetal stage of development, all have the potential to *be* human, in a way that a brain-dead body, or sperm cell do not. We can go back and forth as to how much impairment really qualifies, but in philosophical terms, we can draw a much clearer line that is generally recognized as safe, to borrow a term.

      1. Thanks for this suggestion about appealing to “potential.” I will note that appealing to “potential” at least sometimes seems to be a problematic move. Here’s a section from the book on that:

        “5.1.4 Fetuses are potential persons

        If fetuses aren’t persons, they are at least potential persons, meaning they could and would become persons. This is true. This, however, doesn’t mean that they currently have the rights of persons because, in general, potential things of a kind don’t have the rights of actual things of that kind: potential doctors, lawyers, judges, presidents, voters, veterans, adults, parents, spouses, graduates, moral reasoners and more don’t have the rights of actual individuals of those kinds.”

        It’s also important to note that the “potentials” for sleeping people and never-been-conscious fetuses are different. The sleeper has the potential to pretty quickly return to past consciousness, whereas the fetus doesn’t have that. Perhaps that makes a difference?

        Thanks!

        1. I think you’re equivocating with the word “potential” there. The sleeper, and the fetus, given the requisites for life, *will* both become conscious human beings. A “potential doctor” will not become a doctor until they are certified to have the necessary knowledge. A more reasonable analogy would be that of the elected president prior to assuming office. We understand that the person *will* have the rights of president, and we take measures to protect their lives (we actually go a step further, as even presidential candidates get special treatment). We even protect *past* presidents because of the office they once held. We *also* protect the rights of pre-moral reasoners (aka children) before they can be exercised, limiting parents’ abilities to abrogate their children’s future choices.

          I think the usage of “rights” here is probably also problematic, but I can’t put my finger on it exactly. There seems to be some overlap between “that which an individual is entitled to possess” (e.g. life) and “that which an individual is entitled to do” (e.g. write a prescription). MacIntyre would probably say that even accepting “human rights” as generally held is giving away the game on its own, but at least we can be consistent.

          As for the issue of a difference in the amount of time for a fetus to become conscious vs the time for a sleeper to become conscious, that’s a matter of degree. If we’re going to go that route, we might as well just go full Hume, with all the concomitant horrors.

    2. Thanks for your reactions and questions here. I’ll say that it seems like your Coma case is potentially difficult: one thing that we might want to know about is what kind of psychological connections (e.g., memories, relations) you would retain to your “prior self” so to speak. Would there be many, or would it almost seem like there is a new person there?

      About Question 2, I’d suggest you read the book’s sections on “question-begging arguments” and the discussion of Thomson and the right to life, which address the concern you raise.

      Thanks!

      1. “Thanks for this suggestion about appealing to “potential.””

        If there is an honest disagreement between choicers and lifers (presuming both to have some genuine concern for morality), then perhaps is it the different values given to the past, present and future. The lifer will say that killing a fetus is destroying the future — the potential — of that little person. The choicer will respond that that little person has no past (which would have value and therefore should be conserved) and therefore that little person is not a person. The utterly narcissistic radfem will say that the only thing that could possibly matter is wiminzrites to do whatever they want — only the present matters.

  9. While it may be getting into the area of “sophistry”, PR and manipulative persuasion you reject, I have often been frustrated when my attempts to convince pro-choice (or pro Planned Parenthood more specifically) to modify their arguments are rebuffed (often with liberal use of ad-hominens and vitriol). I am firmly pro-choice, and wish to help further this cause. However I am dismayed by the rhetoric of some on this side, I feel it is often, at best, unpersuasive to what ought to be the target audience, or at worst actually counterproductive to the cause.

    One issue that has come up a few times is anti-abortion activist’s opposition to government funding of PP clinics *at all* (as we know, in USA federal government money cannot be used to pay direct costs for abortion procedures, doctors fees, surgical trays, anesthesia etc,. But it can pay for other women’s health care, and the general operating costs of the clinic). Many PP boosters loudly deride opposing federal funds to PP as stupid, since it doesn’t pay for abortions directly. But, I have argued with them, it does support keeping the clinic open. Follow the logic of someone who is against abortion: they want abortions to be less easily available. Abortion being easily available depends on the clinics staying open. If the federal dollars are withdrawn, some of the clinics will close. Abortion will be less available. Makes perfect sense. Again, i am not arguing against federal money to PP -I think it should be increased! I am just telling the pro-PP activists that their argument is weak. It’s likely to be unpersuasive to people they should be trying to persuade. I have been met with extreme anger at times for presenting this argument. I have never had anyone concede it’s a logical argument, whether they agree with or not. Most of them seem to not even understand the argument. A fair number of them seem like they are making a deliberate effort to not understand it. They usually respond with the same old tired soundbites.

    I had a similar exchange regarding a high production value image PSA PP put out a couple of years ago. It featured a young Latina woman, early 20s. She explained she was bisexual, and had a very active sex life, with many partners both short and long term. She was currently in post grad at university, on a sholarship studying Art History. It was explained that we need to fund PP so she can continue to receive frequent STD tests and other checkups, because it is important that this beautiful young women remain free to continue her prolific and libertine sexual lifestyle.

    While I agree on funding PP for her needs, and actually really, really wish I could emulate or participate in her lifestyle, I argued that this PSA is not likely to resonate well with a lot of viewers. Let’s assume the target audience is people who are “on the fence” about PP funding. People who are very liberal already support it strongly, so they aren’t a target audience. That target is likely to be somewhat conservative to moderate, working class. Not people who have the ability to participate in the kind of lifestyle this gorgeous young woman does, even if they wanted (or allowed themselves) to. They are likely to be, if not strongly religious, at least a bit oriented towards conservative sexual morality (prudish). The depiction of this fortunate young woman is likely to inspire envy, even resentment. Then when they are told they need to direct more of their tax dollars to supporting her sexual adventures, resentment turns to resentment.

    About 15 people responded. Half of them were vile insults aimed at me. The rest were variations of “you don’t know what you are talking about”, “it’s not your place to say”, or “people don’t actually think like that.

    These people often are truly living in an echo chamber. Articles like this are sorely needed.

  10. The claim that making a point becomes too hard to understand when the argument is limited to a short amount of time or written with a minimal amount of verbiage is bullcrap.
    How long did it take for you to understand the meaning of bullcrap? One word, eight letters and a point made that anyone can understand.

    The claim presented in the very first paragraph of this piece is bullcrap. Pro choice arguments are NOT harder to make than pro life arguments.

    As soon as I read that, I stopped reading.

    IF the pro choice argument is harder to make than the pro life argument it’s not due to the length of the time allotted or amount of space allowed to make the argument, but instead it’s a matter that most sound minded people understand that misrepresenting or erroneously identifying something, anything, usually results in a non starter when it comes to showing interest in the argument.

    For example, Making the argument that infanticide for the purpose of self satisfaction is actually just a “women’s right to choose,” is as full of bullcrap as putting forth the argument that rape is actually just a “social event”.

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    1. Thanks for this reaction. I am reading you as saying that “bullcrap’ arguments usually will and should be recognized as such. While I hope that’s so, that leaves it an open question how any non-bullcrap arguments will be engaged with. Thanks.

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