Abortion discussions can get ugly real fast.
In a June 11 interview with the Des Moines Register, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) likened judges who oppose abortion to bigots who promote racism. She was just getting started.
A moment later, she put the entire pro-life movement in her crosshairs. “I think there are some issues that have such moral clarity that we have, as a society, decided that the other side is not acceptable,” the presidential hopeful said. Lest anyone miss the point, the ultra liberal Huffington Post summarized the interview in its headline: “Kirsten Gillibrand Compares Anti-Abortion Views to Racism.”
For Gillibrand, pro-lifers are not only bigots; they are religious bigots who wrongly force their sectarian views on others. “All these efforts by . . . ultra-radical conservative judges and justices to impose their faith on Americans is contrary to our constitution,” she told the paper. “Church and state are separated by law,” but the conservative right is legislating the religious views of pro-life advocates. Put simply, opposing abortion is an unacceptable form of religious bigotry.
Is Abortion About Privacy?
I think Senator Gillibrand is correct. Abortion is a private matter, and laws restricting it are unjust. She’s right that pro-lifers should not impose their views on others. She’s right that only women should decide the issue. She’s right that the government should stay out. Yes, she is right about all of that if . . . If what?
If the unborn are not human beings. And yet that is precisely the question she refused to engage. She simply changed the subject to a personal attack on pro-lifers.
Contra the senator, the issue that divides us is not that she is pro-choice and I am anti-choice, or that she is tolerant and I’m a bigot. Truth is, I am vigorously “pro-choice” when it comes to women choosing a number of moral goods. I support a woman’s right to choose her own healthcare provider, to choose her own education, to choose her own husband, to choose her own car, and to choose her own career path — to name a few. These are among the many choices I fully support for the women of our country. But some choices are wrong, like intentionally killing innocent human beings simply because they’re unwanted. No, we shouldn’t be allowed to choose that.
In short, the abortion issue is not about forcing religious views; it’s not about privacy; it’s not about who hates women and who loves them. It’s about one question: What is the unborn?
Men and women have an equal right to weigh in on that question. Religious and non-religious people do as well. A tolerant society will welcome a free exchange of ideas and judge arguments according to their merits, not according to the religion or gender of those advancing them.
The Simple, Irrefutable Logic of Life
In a society that wants to change the subject on abortion, it’s vital that pro-life advocates keep the main thing the main thing. We begin with a clear syllogism to keep discussions on point:
Premise #1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
Premise #2: Abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings.
Conclusion: Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.
Pro-life advocates defend that syllogism with science and philosophy. We argue from science that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. We argue from philosophy there is no relevant difference between you the embryo and you the adult that justifies killing you at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not good reasons for saying you could be killed then but not now.
Of course, even with a clear syllogism, your critics may object. But here’s the good news: You don’t need to memorize responses to every possible objection. Just ask yourself one key question: Does the objection refute my pro-life syllogism? That is, does it prove that the unborn are not human or that intentionally killing them is okay?
Five Ways They Avoid the Unborn
Nearly always, your critic is changing the subject rather than engaging your syllogism. When he calls you names or dismisses your argument, don’t let him get away with it. Stick to your syllogism and narrate the debate. Graciously say,
Can I make an observation? I made an argument that abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being, and I offered evidence in support. My argument may be mistaken, but I noticed that you didn’t engage it. Instead, you called me names. I’m open-minded, so if the premises of my argument are untrue, or if my conclusion doesn’t follow, I’ll happily reconsider. Can you show me where my argument goes wrong?
Sometimes that’s enough to give him pause. But don’t hold your breath for a compelling counterargument. And that’s the problem! Instead of formally arguing, the critic of the pro-life position will do one of the following five things to avoid the real question.
1. They dodge rather than argue.
Senator Gillibrand’s opposition to the pro-life position is a dodge, not a refutation. As Francis Beckwith points out, arguments are either true or false, valid or invalid. Calling an argument “religious” is a category mistake like asking, “How tall is the number three?” Pro-lifers argue that it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Abortion does that. Therefore, it’s wrong. If Gillibrand can refute that argument with evidence, she should go for it. Pro-lifers welcome her challenge. But dismissing the pro-life argument with a label just won’t do.
Pro-life Christians aren’t imposing their views any more than abolitionist Christians were imposing theirs or the Reverend King was imposing his. Rather, we’re proposing them in hopes we can persuade our fellow citizens to vote them into law. That’s how a constitutional republic like ours works. We’re not looking to establish a theocracy we impose on non-Christians, only a more just society for the weakest members of the human family.
Indeed, it is no more religious to claim a human embryo has value than to claim it doesn’t. Both claims answer the same exact question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? That is an inherently religious question with no neutral ground.
As mentioned in my earlier piece, either you believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life, or you don’t. The pro-life view is that humans are intrinsically valuable in virtue of the kind of thing they are. The abortion-choice view is that humans have value only because of an acquired property like self-awareness or sentience.
Notice that both positions — pro-life and abortion-choice — use philosophical reflection to answer an inherently religious question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Thus, if the pro-life view is disqualified for asking religious questions, so is the abortion-choice one. At issue is not which view of abortion has religious underpinnings and which does not, but which view of human value does a better job of accounting for human rights and human dignity.
Finally, what does Gillibrand mean by “the church and state are seperated by law?” Does she mean it in the modest sense that the state should not establish a denomination, or in the strong sense that religious believers have no right to bring their values to the public square and argue for them like everyone else? As Ed Feser once pointed out, why the constant harping about the separation of Christianity and the state but not the separation of secular metaphysics and the state or feminist theory and the state?
In short, do pro-life Christians get to participate in their own government, or is that right reserved only for pro-abortion secularists? If only the latter, where is that found in the constitution?
2. They assume rather than argue.
Consider the back-alley argument: “The law can’t stop all abortions. Women will be forced to get dangerous illegal ones.” Note how the objection assumes the unborn are not human. Otherwise, the argument is saying that because some people die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal to do so. But why should the law be faulted for making it riskier for one human to intentionally take the life of another completely innocent one? In The Case for Life, I refute the claim that thousands of women died annually from illegal abortion. But the first step is to expose the faulty assumption.
3. They attack rather than argue.
Bring up abortion, and you’ll quickly hear that men can’t get pregnant, meaning only women should decide the issue. But this response attacks the person rather than his argument. In short, it’s completely beside the point.
Arguments don’t have gender; people do. Pro-life women use the same arguments as pro-life men. Indeed, if men can’t speak on abortion, Roe v. Wade should be reversed because nine men decided the case. Should only generals decide the morality of war? You’ll also hear that pro-life advocates have no right to oppose abortion unless they adopt unwanted children. Rather than buying your critic’s premise, recognize the objection for what it is — a disguised attempt to change the subject. Let’s go back to our syllogism:
Premise #1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
Premise #2: Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
Conclusion: Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.
Now ask your critic this question: “How does my alleged unwillingness to adopt a child justify an abortionist intentionally killing one?” Put simply, “How does it refute my syllogism?”
4. They assert rather than argue.
Suppose instead of refuting your syllogism, your critic responds, “Well, women have a right to choose.” Is that an argument or an assertion? It’s an assertion because no evidence is offered to support the claim. The obvious question is, “Choose what? And where does the right to choose come from?”
To expose the undefended assertion, ask, “Why would you believe a thing like that?” Sometimes the assertion comes in the form of a hidden premise. For example, a professor discounts your case with an assertion: “The embryo is not self-aware and has no immediately exercisable desires.” The hidden and undefended premise is that self-awareness and desires give us a right to life. But he presents no argument for that hidden premise. Begin by exposing it: “Why is having immediately exercisable desires or having self-awareness value-giving in the first place?” The burden of proof is on him, not on you.
5. They hide behind the hard cases.
Two types of people bring up rape — the inquirer and the crusader. The former is looking honestly at the arguments, but stumbles emotionally to say the mother must give birth. The crusader is not honest. He just wants to make you look bad by painting you as an extremist. Your approach to each is different.
For the inquirer, ask, “Given we both agree a woman who is sexually assaulted suffers a terrible injustice and may in fact be reminded of it should she give birth, how should a civil society treat innocent human beings who remind us of a painful event?” Let the question sink in. Then ask, “Is it okay to kill them so we can feel better?” If the unborn are human, hardship does not justify homicide.
For the crusader, say, “I’ll grant for the sake of argument we allow abortion for rape. Will you join me in opposing all other abortions?” He won’t. He wants all abortion legal. Now, call his bluff. “Your position is not that abortion should be legal only in cases of rape. You want it legal for any reason the mother wants. Why don’t you defend that position instead of hiding behind rape victims?”
In short, even if the rape objection works, which it does not, it would justify abortion only for rape, not for any reason the mother wants. Beckwith puts it well: Arguing for the abolition of all abortion laws because of rape is kind of like arguing we should get rid of all traffic laws because you might need to run a red light rushing a loved to the hospital (105).
Memorize the pro-life syllogism. Practice it out loud. Then, argue for God’s sake as if lives hang in the balance. They do.