It has become fashionable in recent times for abortion choice advocates to make a series of accusations, assertions, and quasi-arguments in response to pro-life efforts in order to dismiss pro-life claims about the immorality of abortion.
In light of the passage of bills restricting abortion in the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri over the past several weeks, these responses have become commonplace in abortion discussions. They are used routinely on social media, in online forums, and in the mainstream media. Even many politicians have jumped on this bandwagon, making assertions that, when subjected to closer scrutiny, actually fail to adequately rebut their opponents’ case.
Because of the media attention of pro-life legislation, let’s clarify the argument against abortion that pro-lifers are raising. The argument can be summarized in syllogism (a fancy term for laying out one’s argument in logical fashion):
- It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
- Elective abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
- Conclusion: Therefore, abortion is wrong.
As any book on basic logic and critical thinking will explain, if both premises are true, and the conclusion inevitably follows, the argument is sound. Consequently, any argument that fails to show the falsity of either premise, or the logical incoherence of the argument is ultimately irrelevant.
Pro-lifers contend both premises are true. Pro-lifers argue that there is no essential difference between the preborn and the born that would disqualify the preborn from protection, or would make it acceptable to purposely kill them. As Stephen Schwartz points out, the differences between born and preborn fall into four categories: Size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Given that born humans also differ drastically in each of the categories, using any or all of the categories to rule out protection for preborn humans is ad hoc and arbitrary.
Likewise, Premise 1 is also true for another reason, as killing any human being permanently prevents that human being from ever experiencing the goods of life in the present or in the future. As Don Marquis and Christopher Kaczor have argued, killing any human being, at the very least, deprives that individual of any possibilities of enjoying future goods (Marquis’ view) or of any current and future flourishing (Kaczor’s view). Flourishing, in this context, means any of the goods in life, including life itself. To put it into perspective, if I had been killed as an infant, I could never have experienced the good things of life such as being loved by my parents, learning to ride a bike, my first day of school, graduation, my first kiss, etc. This also would apply to me before I was ever born. The argument also helps make sense of our most common intuitions (“He died so young!,” “She died before having experienced what life had to offer,” etc.). Simply put, killing a human being deprives them of the good of life itself.
One of the common justifications given for abortion is that unwanted pregnancy will prevent a young woman from being able to accomplish the goals necessary for her to succeed in life (an understandable concern, but one that need not be true). However, pregnancy is only temporary; abortion permanently precludes the preborn human being from ever receiving or experiencing the goods of life. As Helen Watt points out, if anyone had to choose between losing one’s own life or being pregnant, nearly everyone would pick pregnancy. This is not to skirt past the challenges that can come with pregnancy, nor is it to imply it is acceptable to force someone into pregnancy. Rather, it is simply putting into perspective the notion of who suffers the greater evil in abortion versus pregnancy.
Premise 1 is philosophically sound. Likewise, Premise 2 is also sound, a point that is widely contested by pro-abortion choice advocates, but is also affirmed by many advocates of abortion, including abortionists themselves. Three examples include:
- Willie Parker: “It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. I agree. And abortion kills a human being. I agree” (Feb 21, 2019; Debate at UNC-Wilmington)
- Warren Hern: “We have reached a point in this particular technology [D&E abortion] where there is no possibility of denying an act of destruction. It is before one’s eyes. The sensations of dismemberment flow through the forceps like an electric current.” (Paper regarding the psychological impact of D&E procedures on abortion providers, presented to Association of Planned Parenthood Physicians; San Diego, Oct 26, 1978)
- Faye Wattleton: “I think we have deluded ourselves into believing that people don’t know that abortion is killing. So any pretense that abortion is not killing is a signal of our ambivalence, a signal that we cannot say yes, it kills a fetus.” (“Speaking Frankly,” Ms., May / June 1997, Volume VII, Number 6, 67.)
The notion that elective abortion as currently performed today doesn’t result in the killing of a human being is false. Human embryology (the study of human embryos) also confirms that what is within the womb following normal fertilization is biologically a member of the human family.
There are also other arguments that have been offered up by a variety of thinkers to defend the view that abortion is immoral, from feminist arguments, to arguments that ground personhood in shared human nature instead of function (thus eliminating the inherent problems that naturally follow functional arguments), arguments from inherent capacities, and several more that would turn this from an opinion piece into a book length treatment of the issue if they were to be discussed.
Quite simply, the pro-life arguments against abortion are not the mere quoting of out-of-context Biblical proof-texts, but instead rest on a solid intellectual foundation that our critics must take the time to understand and answer seriously.
Unfortunately, with the recent passage of Heartbeat abortion bans in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri, abortion-rights activists increasingly employ arguments and assertions that attempt to dismiss the arguments being made by pro-life advocates.
The dismissals are popular, but they are woefully inadequate to answer the pro-lifer argument. While multiple book length treatments have been published, answering nearly every objection, here I will respond to five of the most common faulty counter-arguments today. While they are popular and rhetorically appealing, they ultimately fail to answer the essential pro-life argument.
1. “If abortion is murder, masturbation is genocide.”
While a popular slogan, the remark is just plain silly. Attempting to dismiss the argument that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being, the claim is snarkily asserted, often without further comment. While it started out as a meme and a sassy routine by comedian Monty Python, it has found new life in the legislatures of several states. I have personally had it shouted my way by enraged pro-abortion college students on more than one occasion. Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta even went so far as to assert that “‘[e]very sperm is sacred’ is now law in Alabama.” (A very ignorant claim, if one bothers to actually read the text of the law, which can be found here).
The claim, while trying to make a mockery of the notion that a human being is killed in abortion, is so idiotic that it almost needs no further response than an eye roll. Clearly, no pro-life advocate is arguing that every sperm or egg cell has the value of a human being, let alone preborn human beings. One wonders if those who raise such an assertion are even paying even remote attention to the issue of abortion at all or have even given it the slightest thought. One only need to peruse an embryology text in order to see that those asserting such are not even bothering to pay attention. (A list of around sixty such sources can be found here). In fact, if one reads the textbooks of abortion providers, they will see that abortion is not the mere removal of sperm cells. The assertion is meaningless.
As any introduction to embryology text will point out, sperm cells are oriented towards union with an egg cell (otherwise known as an “ovum”). Once a single sperm cell unites with an egg cell, both cells cease to function as separate individual gametes and function as a new, unified whole. As Helen Watt observes,
“Clearly, both sperm and ovum are alive in some sense, just as blood cells are in some sense alive, both when they help to constitute their living source and when they leave that source behind them. However, the life of sperm and ova and blood cells is that of living parts-even if now separated parts-rather than living wholes. The orientation of sperm and ova relates to future fertilization, not to development as what no gamete can be: a self-organizing or ‘whole’ organism. The very existence of the gametes ends when the sperm and ovum fuse.”
This becomes more obvious the longer one thinks about it. Sperm cells (and egg cells) don’t have the naturally oriented capacity to grow and develop as individual beings of a particular species. Embryos do. Once fertilization has occurred, sperm and egg cells have fulfilled their role: uniting to give rise to a new type of organism, and developing oneself along the path of that organism. Embryos do this of their own volition, apart from any outside direction from their mothers. Sperm cells don’t do this, and it’s easy to see why. They lack the capacity to do so because they are only oriented towards union with an egg cell. Consider a sperm donor bank. Left alone for nine months, will sperm cells randomly grow into babies? It’s silly to even ask such a question. Clearly, the objection is based on a simple failure to think carefully about a critically important topic and at least devote some effort to understand one’s ideological opponents.
2. “The early embryo doesn’t look human.”
There are serious arguments about the gradualist position regarding abortion rights. (For an overview of these arguments and critiques, see Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion, pg. 87-99).
This argument is different. Often expressed as a meme, the argument takes on several forms, claiming that “This doesn’t even look remotely human!” Or a series of pictures of embryos with the remark “These are all mammals. Quick! Which one is the human?”
The memes are snarky, but in the words of Jay Watts, memes really are not that hard. “It doesn’t look human” may pass in a feminist theory class, but it is the product of lazy thinking.
First, it’s not all that apparent that the embryo looks non-human to start with. The memes usually assert, “This is what the abortion bans protect, not your daughter or sister.” One only need look at images of embryos in the womb to see the memes are usually overstating their case. Indeed, as Helen Watt points out, an embryologist could simply say “Well, that’s exactly how human beings look at that stage of development.” Given the embryo doesn’t die and thus gives rise to a different organism (like some plants do, such as ferns), or that it doesn’t combine with any new tissue to entirely rewire its own genome (that already occurred at conception), it seems odd to think the embryo still needs to “become human.”
The embryo will keep growing through all the stages of human development. Asking the early embryo to “look more human” before we accord it treatment as such is as silly as asking a newborn to look like a 25-year old before we will respect her. Aside from that, some humans do come out looking “non-human” even after birth. Joseph Merrick (The “Elephant Man”) and Ota Benga (The “Missing Link”) were both asserted to be more animal than human, and yet both were entitled to the same human dignity as every one of their “normal” contemporaries. Meanwhile, mannequins in store windows may look decisively (and even frighteningly) human but are undoubtedly not. Body shape and size are irrelevant for deciding what a thing is intrinsically.
But maybe it very well is true, the early embryo doesn’t look intuitively appealing. So what? As Helen Watt notes, while some people see the early embryo as “unhuman,” many don’t. Couples adopting an IVF embryo may bond with their embryonic child at a very early stage, when we are told that child was no more than a random growth.
More broadly, Richard Stith points out that often it isn’t the claim about the unborn’s humanity that is mistaken; it’s our intuitions. As Stith writes, if the picture of the early embryo was revealed to be one of our loved ones (or ourselves), we would view the embryo in an entirely different light. The memes being passed around online assert, “This THING has more rights than your daughter or sister or mother.” But what if that “thing” was your daughter? Or sister. Or mother. The whole question begins to look very different when viewed in that light.
We have a tendency to end up approaching human development in a way that is actually foreign to the nature of biological development. Living creatures are not put together piece by piece, as a smartphone or car or a house is. Rather, they develop themselves from within along a directed (though sometimes damaged) path. In a world of 3D printing, this is an easy mistake anyone can make.
Stith makes the point clear with a helpful illustration:
“The difference between making and developing is not just an accident of language. Suppose we’re back in the pre-digital days and you’ve just taken a fabulous photo, one you know you will prize, with your Polaroid camera. (Say it’s a picture of a jaguar that has now darted back into the jungle, so that the photo is unrepeatable.) You are just starting to let the photo hang out to develop when I grab it and rip its cover off, thus destroying it. What would you think if I responded to your dismay with the assertion: “Hey man, it was still in the brown-smudge stage. Why should you care about brown smudges?” You would find my defense utterly absurd. Just so for pro-lifers, who find dignity in every human individual: To say that killing such a prized being doesn’t count if he or she is still developing in the womb strikes them as outrageously absurd.”
Quite simply, our intuitions can be drastically mistaken at times, and aren’t the best tool for assessing issues of great human meaning.
One further thought on this, according to many psychologists, is that it is easy to be conditioned to have certain emotive responses to an outside stimuli (Think of Pavlov’s famous dog feeding experiment). To put it plainly, it is entirely possible that we have been conditioned to view the early embryo as intuitively “non-human,” and thus not worth our time. But is this really a conclusion drawn out by careful reasoning? It wasn’t all that long ago (even unfortunately happening today) that many people were led to believe racial minorities were less than human, or were disgusting, or were worthless or imbecilic. Given those intuitions were clearly (and outrageously) mistaken, isn’t it possible we are making the exact same mistake with humans before birth?
Christopher Coope commentates,
“A man might be more upset by the death of his goldfish than the death of his uncle-he would not necessarily have to reproach himself for that. And of course we should not be drawing earnest conclusions about their respective ‘moral statuses’! Nor should we be wondering whether goldfish days are somehow more valuable than avuncular days…the whole topic invites humbug…Sometimes people feel devastated at a miscarriage, sometimes relieved, quite often a bit of both. Each reaction can be appropriate. What dies, however, is the same in either case.”
In other words, our intuitions are very unreliable in determining what is owed to members of the human family.
A similarly related assertion is often made that the preborn embryo is a sort of parasite. Abortionist Warren Hern makes this point indirectly in his book Abortion Practice. However, the assertion is also quite silly when viewed in light of certain factors. As HDI contributor Rebekah Dyer points out,
“First, the fetus is the same type of organism as the mother. Parasites are different organisms which latch on to another species, causing it harm.
Second, parasites are not where they belong, but the preborn child is precisely where it is supposed to be. The natural changes that take place in the woman’s body to make room for this new little human do not damage her body. Although there may be challenges in being pregnant, they are in no way legitimately comparable to the damage and harm a parasite does to another organism.
Third, women are able to receive health benefits from the natural, temporary changes that take place in her body…
Finally, the relationship of the preborn to the mother is a healthy, beneficial, and natural one. That is not true of a parasitic relationship.”
3. “If we grant fetuses personhood, should we give them carpool lane access/social security numbers/voting rights?”
Raised as a sort of brilliant response to pro-life arguments, the question is actually pretty silly when examined closely. Often pro-lifers are stunned into silence not by its brilliance, but by how nonsensical it is.
For instance, we grant certain legal privileges to born children because it can make life a bit easier. Carpool lanes were created to help limit the number of drivers on the road, not as a privilege for suddenly being called a person in law. Since fetal human beings (like any human being under 16) are not going to be driving, the notion of granting carpool access to single pregnant moms is silly.
Jay Watts makes a helpful observation,
“Historically speaking, we aren’t that far removed from abortion being illegal throughout most of the United States, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence people fifty years ago were paralyzed with confusion over such matters.
This isn’t really that hard. It is a simple confusion between legal rights, which are conferred by the government, and natural rights, which are ours by our nature. The government can manage certain privileges like driver’s licenses and the drinking age, but the fundamental goal of a just government is to protect the natural rights of its people: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The only thing that follows from recognizing the full humanity of the unborn and their natural right to life is that we will all have to refrain from killing our offspring before they are born. No further absurdities are necessary, just greater moral discipline.”
Read through any Supreme Court case on the abortion issue and you will see that confusion over whether to grant the preborn recognition for carpool lanes was not the reason abortion was liberalized. It’s silly to think it is a reason abortion should remain as such.
A similar assertion is often made regarding the concept of personhood itself. Willie Parker made this claim in his debate with Mike Adams in February 2019. Parker claimed that “Yes, I’ve killed human beings.” Then, smugly, he retorted “But I have yet to kill a single person. If you call the police on any day I am performing abortions, they won’t come, because I am not killing persons.”
Parker thinks he is being tricky, but he is far from profound. Sure, he has yet to kill a legal person. That isn’t the point. The question, for the most part, is not whether the preborn are currently persons in the law. The question is rather: Should we consider them persons in the law to begin with? To assert the preborn are not legal persons is hardly relevant, since the abortion debate for decades has hinged on whether or not the preborn are human enough to count as recipients of our protection in the first place.
4. “No uterus, no opinion!”
After the passage of the Alabama heartbeat bill, nearly the first words out of the mouths of all the critics were complaints that the bill was voted on by men, and was written by men (Apparently, it takes too much effort to look up the fact that the Governor of Alabama who signed the bill into law is…a female.)
Pro-life men hear this sort of retort all the time. There are many variations (“Men have no say over women’s bodies!”, ”This is patriarchy!”, “Stop mansplaining!”, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament!”)
It’s also quite silly.
First off, the demand to hear from pro-life women is almost always a dishonest one. There are a multitude of pro-life activists, apologists, and authors who are female, such as Lila Rose, Kristan Hawkins, Christina Marie Bennett, Erika Bachiochi, Stephanie Grey, Helen Watt, Helen Alvare, Mary Ann Glendon, Rev. Alveda King (niece of famous Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King jr.) and countless others (including HDI’s own staff and writing team being more than half female). Hundreds (possibly over a thousand) of the student led Students for Life of America chapters nationwide are led by females, in numbers that dwarf pro-choice student groups. Many, if not most, pro-life pregnancy support organizations are led by women from all walks of life.
In light of all of these facts, will our critics now admit that abortion is wrong because it intentionally kills an innocent human being? Nope. They just find another excuse to ignore or dismiss the pro-life position. Many are quick to even accuse pro-life women of harboring internal misogyny (Which is incredibly elitist. Why bother to accept the idea women can’t succeed or be valued without the help of pro-abortion activists to begin with?) During college campus outreach with the Center for Bio-ethical Reform in San Diego county a few years ago, this became readily apparent. When the counter-protesters began to notice there were women volunteers with the CBR team, they changed their picket signs from “No uterus, no opinion!” to “Mind Your Own Uterus!” The demand to hear from women was a dishonest cop-out. So why even bother raise the issue of gender of pro-life advocates in the first place, given that it is not the principle reason they support abortion?
The essential pro-life argument is that it is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. Abortion does that. Therefore, abortion is wrong. How does the ability to get pregnant strengthen or weaken that essential argument? It doesn’t. If all pro-life men were to disappear overnight in an event similar to the “Thanos snap” in one of the recent Avengers movies, the pro-life movement would still be a thriving movement that our critics will need to honestly address. Critics would still need to answer that essential argument. Bringing up gender is a pointless distraction.
Second, the assertion is also bad form. It is an example of argumentum ad hominem, meaning arguing “against the man” or against the person making the argument. As Francis Beckwith bluntly points out, arguments don’t have genitals. People do. The strength of an argument stands or falls on the reasons behind it, not the gender of the presenter. The “if men can get pregnant abortion would be as available as Starbucks” line is straight-up delusional. If men could get pregnant (which, apparently, they now supposedly can), abortion would still be immoral, based on the argument pro-lifers are making.
Third, as Beckwith also notes, the argument actually works against the abortion rights advocate, if it even works at all. If the presumption is that men cannot become pregnant and thus have no intimate experience with pregnancy, then isn’t this all the more reason to let men drive the national conversation about abortion, and disregard women as biased? After all, if women can get pregnant, their intimate knowledge of pregnancy would skew their understanding of the facts. Not being able to get pregnant would lead one to be more objective about the facts of the abortion issue.
This is sexist, though. Women are just as capable of moral reasoning as men are; conversely, men are just as capable of moral reasoning as women are. Sure, some men may be naive about the nature and experience of pregnancy, but so what? Is it or is it not acceptable to intentionally kill an innocent human being in the womb? That is the question we must resolve.
5. “Opposition to abortion is rooted in white supremacy.”
By far the most outrageous accusation made against pro-lifers is that their movement is rooted in “white supremacy.” The term has become a buzzword in the past ten years, especially in light of the bizarre resurgence of Neo-Nazi and White Nationalist activism groups in the past five years. In light of this, the accusation that pro-lifers are all white supremacists has become a common attack.
This is far from the random rants of online activists living in the basement. This has become fairly commonplace even in academia. Abortionist Willie Parker asserted in his book Life’s Work that pro-life activists are trying to “keep the purity of the white race.” Democratic Legislator Brian Sims of Pennsylvania harassed a group of teenagers and an older woman for being white. Step on to any college campus, and you will hear the label thrown around in abundance.
Labels are not arguments, and they are most definitely not rebuttals. Anyone who wishes to assert that opposition to abortion is rooted in white supremacy must explain why that happens to be the case. Not simply label the entire movement a term that brings with it horrible connotations and then dismiss it with a smirk and remarks like “They’re all just racists.” One needs to do a lot better than that. Pro-lifers are arguing that it is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. Abortion does that. Therefore it’s wrong. Critics who accuse pro-lifers of being “white supremacists” are among the most ignorant of all people. It’s bad enough when claimed by online bloggers and Twitter users; it’s wholly embarrassing when uttered by educators, doctors, and elected officials.
The lack of self-awareness within the abortion rights movement becomes much more readily apparent when one considers that the ongoing white supremacy resurgence has shown favor to abortion as a means to their stupid and disgusting ends. Further, racism and abortion are both sides of the same horrible coin. They are both rooted in the ideology of some lives being worth less than others. One just trades racial membership for membership in the community of born human beings.
Opponents of racism and opponents of abortion are fighting for the same fundamental thing: the equal protection of all human beings from unjust discrimination and harm. The right of all human beings to be recognized as, well, human! It is the advocate of abortion who is in the same awkward position as the racist, arguing that some just aren’t human enough to count. Throw in the origins of the abortion industry and its ties to racist and eugenic groups, and the abortion rights movement is left with quite a bit of explaining to do. It’s a false dichotomy to assert one must either oppose racism or oppose abortion. They aren’t mutually exclusive. You can do both.
Even more shocking to consider is that abortion disproportionately takes place within minority communities. In Alabama, location of the much-hated “Heartbeat ban” on abortion, women of color are 65% of abortion patients in the state, despite being 32% of the state’s population. Similar figures occur in New York City, where more African American babies are aborted than born. To put it plainly, abortion is a white supremacists dream come true.
Now, perhaps pro-lifers are mistaken. Perhaps women of color (and other women) are in dire situations where abortion is a justifiable option. However, consider if instead of choosing to abort their babies, they gave birth and killed them at one year of age for the reasons people choose elective abortions. Would that fly? What’s the difference between a born child, and a preborn one, that allows us to kill one but not the other? That is the question that must be resolved.
Our critics must argue that the preborn are not human enough to count, instead of changing the subject.
In conclusion, many of the objections raised by enraged abortion advocates over the past couple of weeks are not convincing. Provided, they are not the only ones, nor do other arguments go without significant challenges (see the titles linked above for summaries and critiques of the more sophisticated pro-abortion arguments). However, these are several of the most widely circulated criticisms of pro-life arguments, and my hope is that people will begin to apply more careful analysis to the claims than is currently being offered up.
When it comes to issues involving the very question of what it means to be human, we are obligated to take such questions seriously and carefully. Answering such questions by punting to “Well my opponents are all old, white, Christian Republican men” is simply not good enough. It’s dangerous, and frankly, just plain cowardly. If an action will result in the death of another human being, one must do far better than to showcase their proudly held prejudices with vulgar memes and hashtags.
Lastly, many of these assertions and memes are very often laced with profanity, as if using obscene language makes one’s point much more solid. It doesn’t. In fact, all it does is show one to be an unsophisticated but emotional fool, with the emotional instability of a spoiled five-year-old who just had his favorite toy taken away. If abortion is a moral right, it has to be grounded in something a bit more solid than one’s emotions and passions. And that requires clear and concise argumentation, not the posting of snarky memes and soundbites.