There are some arguments that a pro-life advocate should not use, because they don’t directly address the key issue in the abortion debate: “What are the unborn?” Greg Koukl writes in his book Precious Unborn Human Persons, “If the unborn is not a human person, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human person, no justification for abortion is adequate." Koukl uses a story to illustrate the point that we can’t answer the question “Can I kill this?” unless we know the answer to the prior question “What is this?” I usually paraphrase Koukl’s story in this way.
Imagine you’re at the kitchen sink washing the dishes. Your five-year-old child runs up behind you and says, “Mommy [or Daddy], can I kill this?” What is the first question you will ask? Probably, “What is it?” After all, if it’s a cockroach, then it’s time to get out a can of Raid. If it’s a cat, some people who resent cats may waver on the answer, but most of us would say the answer is no. But what if it’s his two-year-old sister? Along with saying no you’d better call a counselor!
We give different answers for each situation because the answer to the question “Can I kill this?” depends almost entirely on the identity of the thing being killed. Every honest person involved in the abortion debate admits something is killed during an abortion. If it is mere tissue, then abortion is no more immoral than clipping a toenail. But if a human being with the right to life is killed, then abortion is immoral.
If we fail to answer the question “What are the unborn?”, we will argue pointlessly about subjects that have nothing to do with whether abortion is right or wrong. That is why Scott Klusendorf’s “trot out a toddler” tool is so effective in our conversations: It gets us back to “the one question” in a concise and creative way. In order to stay on that one question, pro-life advocates must be wary of distractors, or people who want to move the conversation away from discussing what the unborn are.
During JFA outreach events, I often visited the tables of pro-choice student groups to see what their best counter-arguments were. I’ve rarely heard arguments that the unborn are not human beings. Instead, I’ve poured over countless pamphlets with titles like “Pro-life Myths Exposed.” These pamphlets argue that abortion does not cause depression, breast cancer, or any other negative side effects for women. The pro-choice advocates I encountered thought that as long they could prove abortion was safe for the woman having it, their argument for legal abortion would be successful.
However, pro-life advocates can also be guilty of being distractors who turn the conversation away from the key question “What are the unborn?” Here are the top seven arguments pro-life advocates should not use as their main argument against legal abortion:
- “Would you have aborted Beethoven?”
- “What if you had been aborted?”
- “Abortion tortures babies.”
- “The Bible [or the Church] says abortion is wrong.”
- “What about adoption?”
- “Abortion hurts society.”
- “Abortion hurts women.”
I understand that many pro-life advocates use these arguments, and I don’t mean to impugn their intelligence by saying these arguments are ineffective. Rather, I hope these pro-life advocates will be as open-minded toward my assessment of these arguments as they wish pro-choice advocates would be toward their arguments against abortion. Moreover, I think that many of these arguments can be rehabilitated to serve the pro-life cause, so long as they serve to answer the question “What are the unborn?”
“Would you have aborted Beethoven?”
In this argument, the pro-life advocate describes a child enduring a miserable and impoverished life (they may even throw in a disability such as deafness for good measure). He then asks the pro-choice advocate if that child should have been aborted. If the pro-choice advocate says yes, the pro-life advocate says, “I just described the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. So you would have aborted the great Beethoven?”xcv Other famous figures can be substituted, but the idea behind this argument is that a woman should not abort her child, because even if the child will have a difficult life, that does not mean it will not be a good and productive life. Although the argument is true, it suffers from two problems.
First, this argument makes contraception, or even abstaining from sex, as bad as abortion, because those acts also potentially deprive the world of future Beethovens. If the pro-life advocate objects that abortion kills a future Beethoven while contraception or abstinence merely prevents that human from coming into existence, I would simply add that abortion is wrong not because it kills a future musical genius but because it kills a human being who could have any kind of future if he were not aborted. Second, this argument can be easily turned on its head. If we should not abort one child because he could become the next Beethoven, then perhaps we should abort another child because he could become the next Hitler.xcvi The bottom line is that it is wrong to abort an unborn child because he already is a person in the womb who has a valuable future ahead of him that abortion unjustly takes away from him.
“What if you had been aborted?”
The question “What if you had been aborted?” is meaningless from the pro-choice perspective. If the pro-choice advocate had been aborted before birth, then he would never have existed in the first place. The pro-life advocate’s question is on par with asking, “What if your parents had decided to not have sexual intercourse on the night you were conceived?” This argument is appropriately answered by saying, “I wouldn’t exist to miss the life I never had.” This argument also fails to capture the moral gravity of abortion. After all, we wouldn’t oppose infanticide by asking, “Well, what if you had been killed when you were a newborn?” We would just say, “What’s the matter with you! You can’t kill newborns. They’re human beings!”
“Abortion tortures babies.”
Pro-life and pro-choice advocates usually agree that it is wrong to cause living creatures unnecessary pain. If abortion caused an unborn child pain, this could offer common ground in the campaign to make abortion illegal. However, there seems to be little evidence at this time that abortion causes pain in unborn children who are younger than twenty weeks old (the time when 99 percent of abortions take place).xcvii While it’s possible these studies are flawed in various ways, most laws that aim to restrict abortions after the point at which an unborn child could feel pain set that mark at twenty weeks.
Even if the unborn felt pain from the moment of conception, this would not be an argument against legal abortion; it would be only an argument against painful legal abortion. This fact would force abortion providers to use anesthesia or other painless abortion methods, but it would not be a reason to outlaw abortion. After all, dogs and cats can feel pain, but it isn’t illegal to kill them. If we fail to prove the unborn are human beings, then there is no reason to not kill unwanted human fetuses humanely in the same way we kill unwanted animals.
This does not mean pro-life advocates should give up their efforts to promote legislation that protects pain-capable unborn children. Banning abortion after the fetus can feel pain, or even requiring the use of anesthesia to ease the pain of dismemberment, could serve a useful educational purpose and cause people to at least oppose some abortions and be suspicious of abortion in general.
“The Bible [or the Church] says abortion is wrong.”
There are two problems with the argument that abortion should be illegal because it is prohibited in the Bible or by Church teaching. The major problem is that civil law in the United States must be non-sectarian, i.e., not based solely upon the authority of one particular religion. Just as U.S. Catholics should not be forced to live under the teachings of Islam (such as Sharia law), Catholics should not impose aspects of our Faith onto others through the law. An obvious example would be a requirement for all Americans to attend Sunday Mass. Of course, if a teaching of the Church benefits the common good, then it would be fine to legislate that teaching.
For example, paragraph 2356 of the Catechism the Catholic Church states that raping children is a sin. It would not be wrong for a Catholic lawmaker to outlaw child rape, even if he does so because the Church forbids it. That’s because child rape can be shown to be wrong using secular principles of morality, and outlawing rape benefits the common good. In the same way, a Catholic legislator could argue that abortion should be outlawed because, like laws forbidding child rape, laws against abortion benefit the common good by respecting the right of children. Also, like rape or homicide, the crime of abortion can be shown to be wrong using secular principles of morality.
The minor problem with the argument is that the Bible nowhere explicitly states that abortion is wrong. As pro-choice religion professor Roy Ward writes, “One thing the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort.’”xcviii Of course, the Bible also nowhere states that airplane hijacking or Internet pornography are wrong, but we can reasonably infer those actions are wrong from explicit commands found in the Bible, such as “Thou shall not steal” or “Anyone who lusts commits adultery in his heart.” In chapter twelve I will show how pro-life Christians can make a compelling biblical case against abortion and answer objections like Ward’s that claim the Bible is silent on the issue. But for now, keep the conversation focused on secular reasons to oppose abortion that all rational people can recognize and accept.
“What about adoption?”
Between 2006 and 2010, 2.5 million women had taken steps to adopt a child.xcix Many adoptive couples pay the birth mother for her pregnancy-related expenses, and some are willing to adopt children with disabilities such as multiple sclerosis. For some pro-life advocates, the answer to an unwanted pregnancy is simple: Give up your baby for adoption. Of course, while one might “give up” a beloved sweater at a garage sale, women don’t “give up” their babies to anyone (it’s more appropriate to say a woman places a child for adoption). Unfortunately, many women describe the experience of placing a child for adoption as a kind of death. Pregnancy resource centers routinely report that women fear adoption more than either abortion or raising their child themselves.
Adoption is a good thing, but we should describe the choice to place a child for adoption as a heroic one. We should not casually suggest a woman choose adoption any more than we would casually suggest a woman choose to saw off her own leg if she were caught in a bear trap. It may be what she needs to do, but that does not make her decision any less heart-wrenching. The only thing that can motivate a woman to make this difficult choice (especially if raising the child is not an option) is to know that abortion ends a child’s life and would be the worst choice of all.
Finally, even if a woman lived in a country where adoption was not available (or was illegal), this would not make it right to abort the child, since we don’t support killing orphans no one wants to adopt. Rather than be our main argument against abortion, the availability of adoptive parents should be what we present as our practical response to abortion. After we’ve used science and philosophy to show that abortion is wrong because it ends the life of an innocent human being, we can suggest adoption as a nonviolent alternative.
“Abortion hurts society.”
Pro-life advocates sometimes say that abortion has caused a “birth dearth,” and declining birth rates in some countries will have dire consequences, such as a lack of young people that can pay into the Social Security system. Like the Beethoven argument, this argument assumes abortion is wrong because of its consequences on society and not because of what abortion actually is. It also proves too much and would lead to the same conclusion the Beethoven argument led to: that contraception or abstinence are just as wrong as abortion, because they too deprive the world of millions of human beings. A pro-life advocate might object and say, “Obviously abortion is worse than contraception because it involves killing children.” If that is the case, then why even argue that abortion is bad for society in the first place? Why not say any society that allows the killing of helpless humans is an inherently bad one, regardless of whether or not Social Security is being funded?
Just as abortion’s negative effect on society doesn’t prove it is morally wrong, it’s supposed positive effect on society doesn’t prove it is morally right. In their bestselling book Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner claimed that legal abortion reduces crime, eliminating unwanted children who would grow up to be criminals. They maintained that the declining crime rates in the 1990s were proof of this, because that was when the “unwanted” children aborted en masse just after Roe v. Wade would have become adult criminals. Although this claim has been challenged by other economists, even if it were true, so what? It’s probably also true that if we killed unwanted, impoverished toddlers, future crime rates would decline, but that wouldn’t make it moral to do so.
“Abortion hurts women.”
Some pro-life advocates say the movement has focused too much on the baby and that it should instead focus on the message that abortion hurts women, since our culture identifies abortion as being a “woman’s issue. ”These advocates say we should show abortion-minded women that abortion is not in their best interests—it allegedly increases their risk of developing breast cancer, infertility, and clinical depression.
Now, I’ve seen the devastating effects abortion has on women as well as men who were involved in choosing abortion for their spouses. As an observer at post-abortive retreats, I have listened to women describe how abortions they had fifty years ago still cause them anguish and heartbreak. While I agree abortion can have serious consequences for the woman who has one, I don’t see how that fact justifies outlawing abortion. There are many things in life that have serious negative consequences: for instance, tobacco, alcohol, fast food, and impulsive weddings in Las Vegas. In spite of that, few think we should pass laws banning them. Showing that abortion hurts women does not show why we should outlaw abortion.
Advocates of the woman-centered approach may respond that abortion-minded women can at least be deterred from choosing abortion by being shown evidence of abortion’s negative health effects. But proving abortion is, on the whole, worse for women than giving birth can be difficult and involves making sense of a bulk of complex medical research.ciii Relying on personal testimonies in lieu of academic studies won’t help much, either. For every testimony pro-life advocates can offer that abortion has hurt a woman, pro-choice advocates can find someone who is adamant that she does not regret her abortion. The woman-centered approach may indeed be successful in keeping some women from choosing abortion. However, I’m skeptical that this approach will, in the long-term, create a culture of life where a majority of people believe unborn children have the same basic rights as born children.
The “woman-centered” pro-life strategy is like arguing that killing civilians in war is wrong because it results in post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers. That’s a relevant fact—as well as indirect evidence that innocent human beings are being killed—but it’s not why killing civilians is wrong. The intentional killing of innocent civilians is an intrinsically evil act, and the negative side effects (such as PTSD) flow from the act’s evil nature.
Pro-choice advocates could even admit abortion hurts women and address the issue by working to develop treatments to eliminate the negative effects of having an abortion. I once informally debated a pro-choice advocate who said women’s negative reactions to abortions are caused by pro-life rhetoric. According to her, the best way to reduce the negative emotional effects of abortion is to stop saying abortion kills babies.
The foregoing doesn’t mean I think the woman-centered approach has no place in the pro-life movement. I encourage women to share their testimonies once they feel comfortable speaking publicly about their abortions. These gripping stories add a personal element to the discussion that makes the arguments for the pro-life position more persuasive.
So when a woman at a pro-life event holds up an “I regret my abortion” sign, she should hold another sign that says, “Ask me why.” The woman-centered approach may not provide the complete case for why abortion should be outlawed, but it does provide a great opportunity to start a conversation about why women regret their abortions; namely, that they regret being an accomplice to the death of their own children. If that is the reason women regret their abortions, then the case for outlawing the procedure becomes much stronger.
Stay on the one question
Rather than make ineffective arguments against abortion, pro-lifers must stay focused on the one question that matters most: What are the unborn? As Greg Koukl’s dishwashing story shows, if the unborn are not human beings, then getting an abortion is little more serious than going to the dentist to have a tooth pulled. Since we would not outlaw tooth extractions in order to reduce the number of them that occur, we should not outlaw abortion simply to reduce the number of abortions that occur—if, that is, the unborn are not human beings.
But if they are, then abortion can’t be justified any more than killing a two-year-old could be justified. If we wouldn’t kill two-year olds because they were unwanted, and if the unborn are as human as a two-year-old, then it follows that we should not kill unborn children, even if they are unwanted.cvi Unfortunately, if you make this point in such a blunt way, opponents may feel lectured to or judged and ignore what you have to say. A more effective approach involves asking a series of questions that helps the person with whom you’re speaking come to this conclusion on his own—which is exactly what we do with “trot out a toddler” and why I consider it the best way to keep our conversation on track. In the next three chapters I’ll explain what the pro-life advocate must do once our conversations reach the all-important question “What are the unborn?”
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