The late former President Dwight Eisenhower once said "Never question another man's motive. His wisdom, yes, but never his motives."
Unfortunately, in the world of 2019 political discourse, this sort of thinking is being beaten into non-existence.
A recent piece by Jill Filipovic over at the Guardian is a prime example. A poll conducted recently purports to show the real motivations driving the pro-life movement are sexist ideas about the role of women in American society. Given how mainstream the Guardian is, Jill’s piece deserves an adequate response.
Unfortunately, her piece is far from brilliant. She highlights her ignorance of the pro-life position with the very first sentences,
“According to self-identified ‘pro-life’ advocates, the fundamental divide between those who want to outlaw abortion and those who want to keep it legal comes down to one question: when does life begin? Anti-abortion advocacy pushes the view that life begins at conception; the name of their movement carefully centers the conceit that opposition to abortion rights is simply about wanting to save human lives. A new poll shows that’s a lie. The 'pro-life' movement is fundamentally about misogyny.”
The poll, commissioned by the Feminist organization Supermajority, and taken by the research firm PerryUndem, allegedly shows the “real motivation” behind the pro-life movement is misogynistic ideas about women. Writes Filipovic,
“A Supermajority/PerryUndem survey released this week divides respondents by their position on abortion, and then tracks their answers to 10 questions on gender equality more generally. On every question, anti-abortion voters were significantly more hostile to gender equity than pro-choice voters.”
It should be noted that from the start, the objectivity of the poll should be called into question by anyone paying attention (including Filipovic). Supermajority, who commissioned the report, is led by none other than the former president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, and Diedre Schifeling, of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. The data collection firm which put the study together, PerryUndem, has also done previous work for Planned Parenthood. While this does not per se undermine the data itself (it could still be accurate), it does immediately call into question the objectivity of those who commissioned the study. It seems those conducting the study have an ideological axe to grind. It seems a bit rich, really, that an organization led by someone whose character and career were repeatedly questioned by the pro-life movement would undertake a study to try and destroy an entire movement's credibility by making them look like sexist jerks. Imagine if the president of a National Pro-life network, like Susan B. Anthony List or National Right to Life stepped down from their position because of the actions of pro-choice activists in impugning their bad character. Then, later, goes to work for an activism organization that funds a study on the moral characteristics of pro-choice activists. Would that fly? The answer is no, so this study should not be given any real weight whatsoever. Sorry, Jill, but you really need to try harder.
This study is not the most helpful tool for determining the true motivations for pro-lifers. However, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose it’s true: pro-lifers (including the women in the movement) are all evil, nasty, misogynistic jerks.
So what? Pro-lifers contend it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Elective abortion does that. Therefore, elective abortion is wrong.
We argue that position using science and philosophy. Scientifically, we know the preborn are human. Embryology confirms this in a multitude of sources. Defenders of abortion admit this as well, including many abortionists themselves. Philosophically, there is no essential difference between the preborn and the born which justifies killing the preborn to benefit the born. As Stephen Schwarz puts it, the four categories of difference between born and preborn (size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency) are not good enough reasons to kill an innocent human being before birth but protect them afterwards.
Even if it is true that all pro-lifers are misogynistic, women-hating jerks who want to impregnate women and force them to make sandwiches in the kitchen, it does not mean we are mistaken about the wrongness of abortion. The study, even if true, is meaningless, in addition to being juvenile. Pro-choice activists need to do the hard work of actually answering our arguments, not resorting to cheap “studies” which try to prove we are all jerks. Jill makes one of the most elementary mistakes when it comes to statistics: She confuses correlation with causation. Suppose there is a correlate between holding sexist views towards women (and, as we have seen, this is a very questionable claim) and opposing abortion. As any statistical manual or critical thinking text will tell you, it is not enough to show a statistical correlation unless you can connect it with a cause. The wonderful little poll Jill writes about cannot do that, so it should be thrown into the garbage heap in favor of a better argument.
Incidentally, the study Jill references itself assumes a very low view of women. While acknowledging the existence of pro-life women (which includes the women who edited this piece), Jill crassly assumes women who disagree with her are either too fearful or too stupid to arrive at a conclusion about the morality of abortion of their own free will. On Jill’s view, the only women who are truly enlightened are those who agree with Jill, because no thinking woman would allegedly oppose abortion. This highlights a sheer disdain for other women on Jill’s part; a disdain she ironically criticizes her opponents for supposedly engaging in.
The study Filipovic covers is irrelevant. It would be great if her piece ended there. But, she launches into a monologue about how evil she thinks pro-lifers are.
It should be mentioned there is an unspoken assumption which has come to dominate much of the lay-level defenses of abortion recently. Supposedly, if it can be shown that pro-lifers are inconsistent on one or more of their views, then it follows the movement has ulterior motives and should be rejected.
Frankly, this assumption is just plain stupid. Arguments about moral principles do not work like that. No one can be 100% consistent in all their views. Humans makes mistakes.
ilipovic then goes on a rant making a whole litany of accusations about how Trump got elected by white men fearful of their wives being equal to them (seriously?), how the Catholic church is misogynistic about not letting women into leadership roles, and then she comes to the point of calling the pro-life movement racist:
“But evangelicals didn’t seem to think much about abortion until an earlier pet issue, racial segregation, began to fall out of favor. Around the same time, women’s social roles were rapidly changing. The birth control pill brought with it an avalanche of opportunities and freedoms, and women, finally fully able to have sex for fun and prevent pregnancy, took full advantage. The ability to delay a pregnancy – and later, the ability to legally end one – meant that women didn’t have to choose between romance and ambition (and it meant women could be choosier about romance, making a more considered decision about who and whether to marry).”
Suppose it is all true. Again, so what? Maybe some pro-lifers were racists; if so, then shame on them. At the same time, Jill conveniently ignores all the work done by pro-life men and women of color, including decrying the massive abortion rates in Black communities. The question still remains: is it or is it not wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being in the womb? Filipovic still hasn’t answered the essential pro-life argument outlined above.
Instead, she dismisses it, asserting when arguments about how abortion would damage the family did not work, pro-lifers focus on “the life of the fetus.” Writes Filipovic,
“Defending life, abortion opponents have long claimed, has absolutely nothing to do with opposing rights for women. Except, of course, that it does. Abortion rights advocates have spent decades pointing out that these self-styled pro-lifers don’t seem to care much about “life” once a baby is born. They want to cut aid to needy children and healthcare to poor mothers and pregnant women. They oppose contraception and sex education – the most effective ways to reduce the abortion rate. Many of them continue to support a president who separates small children from their parents and keeps them in squalid cages. “Life,” it seems, has precious little to do with being ‘pro-life’.”
This is the surest proof Filipovic has missed the point. Remember the essential pro-life argument? It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. Elective abortion does that. Therefore, elective abortion is wrong. Pointing to inconsistencies in pro-life behavior as evidence of pro-lifers’ "real" motivations to control women is a fantasy, akin to denial of the moon landings or a round earth.
But suppose pro-lifers did not care about life after birth. Pro-lifers contend not only that the preborn are an oppressed group, but that they are oppressed with so much against them (such as publications like the Guardian) that they deserve special attention. Now if they are not, then go ahead and make that argument. But leave out the cheap rhetorical shots. That might work in high school feminism clubs, but not in real life debates.
Filipovic has resorted to accusations yet again instead of actually answering the pro-lifer’s argument.
Jill alleges pro-lifers are hiding their true motives behind support for the preborn. So let’s do a little thought experiment: Suppose pro-lifers did care about kids at the border (and many do), they supported a whole host of Leftist pet projects like the ones Jill mentions above (and many do), would she then oppose abortion? It is hard to believe she would, so this statement by Jill is just a smokescreen, a red herring.
Let's take this a step further. If it is true pro-lifers "only want to control women," then why on earth are they pushing the Born-Alive Infant Protection Acts? It cannot be because of "women's choice"; the woman's health and body are no longer relevant once the child is born.
Here's another question: How many pro-life activists agree with thinkers like Alberto Giubilini, Francesca Minerva, Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, and others that not only is abortion permissible, but also killing newborns is acceptable? How many pro-lifers support infanticide? The number is virtually zero. The very idea of a anti-abortion infanticide supporter is just plain laughable. Put that in your poll and study it.
If the entire basis for the pro-life movement is to control women, then why are there pro-lifers opposing embryo-destructive research, which also does not involve a woman's body at all? The theory that pro-lifers are lying about support for the preborn so they can control women's bodies is silly. You will never see pro-life sidewalk counselors outside of breast enlargement clinics, tattoo parlors, or medical centers offering elective mastectomies or sterilization. It turns out we actually do want the preborn to be seen as valuable human beings just like the born.
Further, this allegation that pro-lifers do not actually care for life outside the womb is one which can be subjected to statistical analysis. It turns out when the data on charitable giving or other philanthropic exercises is taken into consideration, it is religious conservatives who are the most generous with what they have compared to those on the political left. Since religious conservatives tend to make up the bulk of the pro-life movement, this is a helpful means of determining how "compassionate" pro-lifers are likely to be. The Philanthropy Roundtable journal confirmed this in a study from several years ago. Even the Leftist-leaning New York Times was forced to admit in 2018 that yes, conservatives are in fact more charitable.
This isn't all. Pro-lifers regularly step up to help women and men in need during crisis pregnancies. Human Defense Initiative regularly raises and sends support to parents and children in need. Consider the fact the four largest life-affirming pregnancy care organizations (NIFLA, CareNet, Heartbeat International, and Obria) run over 2400 affiliated centers. These are run most often on donations and with volunteer support, and provide food, clothing, medical care (i.e., Obria works with centers to become licensed medical clinics), adoption assistance, shelter, and parenting classes.
Speaking of shelter, the National Maternity Home Coalition has over 400 affiliated maternity homes, which shelter and support thousands of women annually. Many women who are homeless, escaping domestic violence, battling addiction, or otherwise in need of a place to stay benefit greatly from these homes. It takes a certain sort of cruel narcissism to dismiss all of these activities by pro-lifers as sexist.
Pro-life conservatives (whom Jill has a disturbing amount of hatred for) actually do care for those in need. The problem is not that pro-lifers hate the poor and downtrodden; the problem is that what is deemed truly “pro-life” most often by the people who actually hate the pro-life movement looks suspiciously like it only includes the already-accepted policy ideals of the pro-abortion activist. While those policies may actually do good, that claim needs to be argued, not substituted for middle school-level insults. It simply strains credulity to believe every single member of a social movement is seething with callous disdain for people other than the preborn.
Economist Arthur Brooks, in his study on compassionate behavior and political persuasion, Who Really Cares, highlights the problem plaguing notions of what happens when we redefine "compassion" in favor of our pet political ideals:
“Charity depends on behavior, not on motive. Looking for motives leads to the nonsensical argument that someone who gives nothing but supports the idea of helping others is more generous than a person who donates to charities and causes but who has no apparent great love for mankind. Although this argument might have theological merit, it is not useful for understanding private generosity and its benefits for society. (And it sounds suspiciously like an excuse to not write a personal check)."
The problem is that what is deemed truly pro-life is being redefined in favor of Leftist political ideals (welfare, social justice, etc.). Now, maybe Leftist policies will promote more good in the long run. That remains to be seen, however, and attacking opponents of Leftist policies as "hateful," "sexist," and "racist" is unbecoming of anyone who graduated fifth grade. These policies (like the ones that Jill lists) need to actually be argued for, and not merely assumed to be the better ideas. Debates on policy agendas are healthy in a free society; framing one's opponents as inherently evil for rejecting said policies is not.
Jill Filipovic’s piece is a prime example of bad thinking. Instead of directly answering the charge by her opponents (Elective abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings, and is therefore unjust), she sidesteps the issue at the heart of the abortion debate: What are the preborn? Name-calling and accusations are not arguments, and should not be afforded the same respect as real arguments.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.