Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ad Hominem Fallacies Derail Conversations

[Today's guest post by Nate Sheets in the third of a series. The next post in the series will arrive sometime next week.]

Like the Straw Man last week, this week’s logical fallacy is one of the more commonly-known logical fallacies: the ad hominem.

An ad hominem fallacy occurs when we attack our opponent for their character, actions, worldview, or other factor, and use that attack as a reason to dismiss their argument. It is very easy for everyone to engage in this fallacy, because our brains seem to say, “There's no reason to listen to this argument because this person’s a jerk!” And our brains seem to like being reassured in this way. Our predilection toward this type of strong thinking is so strong, it seems, that if you turn on any political cable news program, you're likely to find conversations consisting on little-else than ad hominem, with a little Straw Man thrown in occasionally. 

However, a person’s character has no basis in whether or not what they are saying is true. If someone is known to lie, we can only take that piece of information into account and apply other logical steps; but, we cannot dismiss the argument they are currently making based upon this alone.

Ad Hominem is Easy, Good Arguments are Hard

If you look at any Facebook thread, you’re likely to see ad hominem arguments abound. People who utilize the fallacy—intentionally or unintentionally—often seem blissfully unconcerned about the “meat” of whatever issue is being discussed, and focus instead on an irrelevant trait of the author or another person in the thread in order to dismiss their entire position. Even if other people are trying to have a good conversation, these sporadic comments often succeed in derailing everyone. 

Ad Hominem Attacks vs. the Ad Hominem Fallacy

For the purposes of this article, let’s differentiate between ad hominem attacks and the ad hominem fallacy. We know that with the fallacy, we ignore the point a person is trying to make and focus on a factor about the person. But does information about a person ever matter? Yes, of course.

Let’s say Kelsey Hazzard, president of Secular Pro-Life, was a known compulsive liar. (She is not, of course!) Let’s say that in her dealings online, she continually lied, was continually called out on it, and never directly addressed the accusations of lying. Perhaps Kelsey also is being investigated for tax fraud. Perhaps she bans everyone on her page who disagrees with her. Perhaps she attacks other pro-life advocates for the purposes of her own self-promotion. And let’s say she kills kittens.

The fictitious Kelsey Hazzard described above would not be a person that I would want to work with, nor would I want to believe a single word she says. This is relevant for me as far as figuring out, to what degree, I want to engage with her and consider what she has to say.

But—and this is the big “but”—none of these factors would have anything to do with whether or not any of Kelsey’s arguments about abortion are sound or not. I may not want to listen to her, but that, again, does not mean anything in regards to if her argument is true or logical. You must address her arguments, not her character, if you are to conclude that she is wrong. Of course, with such a sordid history as our fictitious Kelsey has, one might say, “I’m not going to bother.” 

Pro-Choice Examples
Fallacy Why It's A Fallacy
"Of course pro-lifers want clinic regulations! They hate women and will do anything they can to control what people do in their own lives."  Assuming that pro-lifers did indeed hate women (spoiler: we don't), that does not have any bearing on the specific arguments presented for clinic regulations. 
"Your scientific evidence doesn't matter, because you're not a biologist." Dismissing evidence put forth due to the credentials (or lack of credentials) is a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy. 

Pro-Life Examples
Fallacy Why It's A Fallacy
"What do pro-choicers know about equality? They support abortion, which disproportionately affects minorities." Supporting abortion does not mean that any point a pro-choicer is making about race is invalid. You must focus on the argument itself. 
"Senator Smith is pro-choice, so I don't care what she has to say about equal pay laws." A person's position on abortion does not have an impact on the validity of their arguments. 

Keep this question in mind: "Am I focusing on the validity of the argument and not the person?" If you're focusing on anything else about the person presenting the argument, you may very well be committing a logical fallacy. In general, attacking a person derails otherwise-productive conversations about an issue, and if we are to truly understand and appreciate the pro-choice perspective, we need to hone our skills in sticking to arguments.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Take the quiz: where do you stand on abortion?

This quiz isn't designed to convince anyone to become pro-life. It's just designed to show what you currently are: strongly pro-life, lean pro-life, lean pro-choice, or strongly pro-choice. You might be surprised! We've made it as neutral as possible, so please feel free to share with your friends.

More information about public opinion polling can be found here, and more information about the reasons abortions are done can be found here (see page 4 in particular).

Monday, September 29, 2014

The feminist movement cannot afford to ignore pro-life concerns

Emma Watson at the United Nations, via CBS News
[Today's guest post by Victoria Godwin is part of our paid blogging program.]

Emma Watson. Who doesn’t love her? Emma Watson seems to be strong lady who has carried herself with poise and grace even whilst being in the spotlight. I love her acting, applaud her drive to get her university degree, and truly respect her quest to make a difference in this world by serving as the U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador. Needless to say, she has certainly always been at the top of my “celebrity girl crush” list! So when I started listening to her HeForShe speech at the U.N. headquarters, I was very excited and was nodding enthusiastically (watch/read the transcript here). But when she said the line, “…I should be able to make decisions about my own body,” my heart and excitement plummeted.

Now, in theory, that line could have many innocuous meanings. Decisions about one's body might include, for instance, the decision to abstain from sex until you feel you are readya serious international concern, given the startling number of child marriages. It might also refer to decisions about contraception, confidential mental health treatment, and even what clothing to wear. But in practice, "decisions about my body" is coded language for the dismemberment of unborn children.

Assuming she is referring to the legal right to abortion, I’m going to also assume that she does not realize that over 200 million girls are missing in the world due to legal abortion and infanticide, a phenomenon explored in depth in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky. I’m not here to lecture you all on how I feel about the legality of abortion, but I firmly believe that gender equality can only be reached if we address what is occurring worldwide: prenatal sex-selection and female infanticide. Gender
equality begins at conception, but on this, Ms. Watson not only has missed the mark, but has ignored what the anti-abortion feminists have been fighting for for years.

As Emma points out later in her speech, “…not all women have received the same rights that I have. In fact, statistically, very few have been." However, this statement doesn’t necessarily only cover inequalities in wages, education, and general respect for women. This especially rings true in countries such as China and India, whose regional birth sex ratios can reach discrepancies of ~120+ male births for every 100 female births. This skewed ratio of male to female births is not just seen in countries such as India and China where in some parts cultural traditions have made it preferable to have male children; it is seen in the US and the UK as well. Sex-selective abortion is currently illegal in the United Kingdom, where Emma calls home. Despite its illegality, studies have discovered a skewed birth sex ratio among the second children of some immigrant families in the UK. It is currently estimated that between 1,400 and 4,700 girls are missing from the UK.

On the other end, sex-selective abortion is legal in the majority of the states in the US, where a woman can get an abortion on-demand and for any reason. Unfortunately, prenatal gender discrimination is evident in the US. Forms of gender preference were shown in a 2011 Gallup poll where 40% of Americans reported that they would prefer a boy if only allowed one child, in contrast to the 28% who would prefer a girl, statistics that are shockingly similar to those found in 1941. This opens the door wide to sex-selective abortions that are still legal in 42 states. Also in the US, parents are allowed to choose embryos by sex through in vitro fertilization, an option that 40% of Americans believe is appropriate. This suggests once again that gender preference is a serious issue that ought to be addressed as IVF technology advances and abortion remains on-demand.

Now that being said, do I think that making sex-selective abortion and IVF sex selection illegal is (by itself) going to fix this issue? No, it’s much more complex than that, as shown by attempts to restrict sex-selective abortions in India. But after listening to Emma’s speech, I was left wondering why the “hard questions” like sex-selective abortion and female infanticide are frequently left out of feminist discussions. While her efforts are indeed commendable, discussions on the gender wage gap and gender stereotypes tend to be much more palatable than discussing why being a girl can mean a death sentence. Most of all, I want to see more “nontraditional” feministsnamely men and pro-lifersstep up, get involved, and talk about these uncomfortable issues and to push the boundaries of what it means to be a feminist. Using Emma’s words, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

At the end of the speech, Emma invites men to participate in the fight for female equality. But in her comment alluding to abortion rights, she has perhaps inadvertently excluded anti-abortion feminists from this “HeForShe” discussion for gender equality, exactly the opposite of what she claims her goal is: a united front. My fellow anti-abortion feminists and I desire the same things that Emma Watson states in her address. We fight for maternity leave, we fight to close the wage gap, we volunteer our time at domestic abuse shelters and pregnancy centers, and we spread awareness about gender discrimination across the world and close to home. We want females to have the same rights as males; but first, we have to let them be born.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Straw Men Make For Poor Arguments

[Today's guest post by Nate Sheets in the second of a series. The next post in the series will arrive sometime next week.]

The Straw Man

One of the more commonly-known logical fallacies is the Straw Man Fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we set up an argument in a negative or exaggerated way, in order for us to easily take it down. (This should not be confused with the ad hominem logical fallacy, which we will cover next week.)

From Dinosaur Comics
Straw Men are Easy, Good Arguments Are Hard

It makes sense that mostly everyone engages in Straw-Man-thinking, even if we know intellectually that such reasoning doesn't stand up. Our brains evolved to sort what we encounter into categories for survival--these stereotypes often stick around and impact our thinking as we go throughout our lives. If we utilize Straw-Man-thinking innocently, I believe this is because of our stereotypes toward an opposing viewpoint. Of course, in the course of arguments, people tend to Straw Man intentionally or lazily, because they do not want to invest time investigating the reasoning of their opponents further. 

Buzz shows Woody a typical Youtube comment thread.
How Straw Men Play Out

If I set up an argument in my favor--for example, "The pro-choice side wants to make contraception available because they want to promote a culture of promiscuity"--then I do not need to do much to make my case. If such a thing were the real reason why many pro-choicers favor contraception access, then it would be apparent to the average listener that such reasoning was foolish. But, as any reader of this blog will know, "promoting a culture of promiscuity" is not the reason pro-choicers (or pro-lifers who also favor contraception) want contraception available. 

I sometimes experience Straw Men on my own opinion on abortion (on the rare occasions I bring it forth) from both sides of the debate. If I say "I'm against abortion", pro-choicers may respond with, "Making abortion illegal will kill women through back-alley abortions!" That is a straw man because I said I was anti-abortion, not that I wanted to make abortion illegal. 

Additionally, when we talk about making the pro-life movement secular-friendly, many pro-lifers defensively react with statements such as, "We have a right to our religion! Without the religious, the pro-life movement would be nothing! That is a straw man because SPL never said we should take away the rights of the religious, nor have we said we should remove religion from the abortion debate entirely


Pro-Choice Examples
Fallacy Why It's A Fallacy
"Pro-lifers are against equal rights for women." This misrepresents the pro-life stance. Generally, pro-lifers are in favor of equal rights, however the specific issue of abortion brings up unusual circumstances not covered in other areas of feminism.
"Forced gestationers tend to engage in all sorts of complex arguments, when occam's razor dicates that all their positions (until fairly recently) are far better and more simply explained by wanting to punish people for sex." The term "forced gestationers" misrepresents the pro-life position and forces the reader to imply a variety of false assumptions about what the movement stands for. Additionally, the pro-life movement does not promote punishment for sex directly, so evidence would be required that it promotes it indirectly.

Pro-Life Examples
Fallacy Why It's A Fallacy
"Pro-choicers think that the unborn baby isn't alive. They obviously don't know about science." Unless specifically stated, pro-choicers understand that the fetus is alive.
"Pro-choicers are against clinic regulations because they do not care about women's health and safety." Pro-choicers are against pro-life bills relating to clinic regulations, not all clinic regulations.
"Abortion is murder, and pro-choicers support murder." Abortion is not, legally, murder. Pro-choicers obviously disagree that it is murder, so it misrepresents their position to say that they are "for" it.

So What Should We Do?
Again, it is much easier to disprove our opponent's argument if we take it upon ourselves to frame it. If we took the time to take their arguments at face value, we might actually find that we agree on several points, and can work together to create some solutions that benefit all. 

In the end, in order to maintain a fruitful and honest discussion, we should aspire to describe our opponents position in such a way where they would say, "Yes, that is what I believe."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The calm before the storm

Four months from now—in late January—I know exactly where I'll be.

Via Wikimedia Commons, actually. I don't
know who took this photo.
Like I said: people notice!
I'll be on a plane to Washington, D.C. to carry the bright blue, massive, you-can't-miss-it banner in the March for Life. Then I'll be at the Students for Life of America conference, where roughly 2,500
on-fire campus pro-life leaders will converge, showing them how they can reach their classmates of every faith and no faith. On the West Coast, my colleague Monica will lead the SPL contingent at the Walk for Life in San Francisco, followed by yet another Students for Life conference for western schools.

I call it Roe season. It's hectic, it's non-stop, and it's my favorite time of the year. It's when I get to connect with all of you in person, recruit more young people to Secular Pro-Life, and give students the tools they need to save lives.

Roe season is also, by far, the most expensive part of SPL's year.

When we speak on college campuses, we don't charge an honorarium. We know that pro-life student groups usually have limited budgets. Some student leaders have told us that our events would not have been possible if we didn't have our no-honorarium policy.

When we share pro-life news and commentary on this blog, we don't bug you with advertisements. And when our pieces are reprinted in outlets like, we don't charge for that, either.

Our #1 priority is to spread the secular pro-life perspective as far and wide as we possibly can, because we know that many people can only be reached by us. That often means foregoing potential sources of income.

We need you.

Yes, it's only September. But Roe season is looming on the horizon, and we're already making plans for this to be our best year yet!

If you benefit from Secular Pro-Life—if we've shown you that you aren't alone, if we've helped you talk to your friends about hard topics, if we've stretched your mind—then please chip in at Our goal is $5,000. I know we can do it!

Thanks so much for everything.
Our exhibit booth at least year's SFLA conference.
The cost of an exhibit booth has gone up. Please help!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fun with Demographic Data

[EDIT: A prior version of this article stated abortion rates "per 100,000 women of reproductive age." The Guttmacher Institute actually uses a rate per 1,000 women. We regret the error. Unfortunately, it's too late to change the graphic.]

Last week, Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) spotlighted an interactive map from the American Values Atlas, which makes it easy to compare the religious affiliations of people in various states. He noted that "[n]ext year, it’ll expand to include data on state-by-state views on topics like immigration, abortion, and LGBT issues." On abortion, I quickly put together a sneak peek.

To indicate state policies on abortion, I'm using Americans United for Life's most recent Defending Life rankings (in which #1 has the greatest protections for prenatal life).* As we live in a democracy, this is a rough proxy for public opinion in the state, albeit not a perfect one.

To measure pro- or anti-abortion behavior, I'm using two statistics, both from the Guttmacher Institute. One is the percentage of pregnancies in a state that end in abortion. The other is each state's abortion rate per 1,000 women of reproductive age. This second figure is influenced not only by whether or not a woman decides to have an abortion, but by the decisions she and her partner make before conception (e.g. abstinence and contraception).

The national average for no religious affiliation is 21%. The national average abortion rate is 16.9 per 100,000 women of reproductive age. Nationwide, 18% of pregnancies end in abortion.

Without further ado: what does that tell us? Not much, I'd posit. The problem is that this data provides ammunition to anyone, including both extremes.

A fire-and-brimstone preacher inclined to paint atheists as baby-killing (if not baby-eating) menaces to society could point to Massachusetts and cry A-ha! They have 5% more heathens than they should, and it shows with awful state policies, higher-than-average abortion rates, and women with unplanned pregnancies gravitating toward abortion. Compare that to Louisiana, AUL's #1 state in the country with very low abortion rates; no doubt that's thanks to the fact that by the grace of God, only 12% of the state is unaffiliated. Similar stories in Mississippi and North Dakota. A heaping dose of religion must be what's keeping the babies safe.

But wait!, says the caricature of a pro-choice atheist who's eager to prove that abortion is correlated with religion-based ignorance when it comes to preventing unplanned pregnancy. Wyoming has 7% more unaffiliated residents than the national average, and it has the best abortion statistics in the nation! And look at Maine, Colorado, Montana, New Hampshire: their policies may be in the middle of the pack, but they keep their abortions down through other means. (My hypothetical abortion advocate would probably leave out Arizona, which is more than a quarter unaffiliated and ranks #4 on AUL's list; it, too, enjoys low abortion rates,) Meanwhile, the abortion rates for the deluded people of Georgia are almost exactly the national average, and Maryland is slightly more religious than the national average but its abortions are through the roof. Pray on that.

None of which is productive, obviously.

Is there some correlation? Probably (there's no deeply religious state with sky-high abortion rates), and I look forward to the full analysis from the American Values Atlas, but I suspect it's a pretty weak one. Abortion is much more strongly influenced by economic factors and education than by levels of religious affiliation.

*I realize that most of our pro-choice readers will dislike this phrasing ("protections for prenatal life"), but because I interned at AUL, I know that more goes into the rankings than pure abortion restrictions; they also look at policies respecting treatment for pregnant mothers with substance abuse issues, etc.

Monday, September 22, 2014

VIDEO: Saturday's pro-life conference at Yale

Above: Feminists for Life president Serrin Foster,
SPL president Kelsey Hazzard, and John Whitehead of
Consistent Life, at the second annual Vita et Veritas
conference at Yale University
On Saturday, Secular Pro-Life participated in the second annual Vita et Veritas conference at Yale University. The students of Choose Life At Yale did a fantastic job putting this together, and we're excited to see this conference grow year over year in the future!

SPL president Kelsey Hazzard represented the non-religious perspective in an interfaith panel discussion that also included a Protestant and a Muslim, with a Catholic moderator. Check it out:

Friday, September 19, 2014

New Englanders: join us tomorrow at Yale University

Last year, we attended the first annual Vita et Veritas conference at Yale University (photo above), bringing together pro-life leaders throughout New England. It was a great success, so here we go again!

SPL president Kelsey Hazzard will once again be part of an interfaith panel (last year's included a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew). The conference kicks off tonight with a keynote speech by Students for Life of America president Kristan Hawkins. We'll be there starting tomorrow morning, and our panel is at one in the afternoon.

Get all the details and register at

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Critical Thinking and Avoiding Logical Fallacies

[Today's guest post by Nate Sheets in the first of a series. The next post in the series will arrive sometime next week.]

One pattern I often see online is that people shape their worldviews in black and white. It doesn't matter what the subject is: abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, Dr. Who, the President, or pumpkin spice lattes--everyone seems to have an opinion, and that opinion seems to rarely declare: "there is grey area here!"

This is striking--at least in my mind--because at no other time have the majority of people (in the US) had virtually all of the wealth of human knowledge literally available at anytime, in virtually any place. We have the internet, with countless dissenting opinions and information, and yet we cling to our perspective with such clarity and confidence, often with little desire to dig into the thoughts of those whose opinions differ from ours. 

I have only recently begun to think critically using certain logical skills. While I have been an atheist for at least 5 years, and a pro-lifer since being a teenager, I only began to recently understand what it means to really think critically. What I found was a whole new world of perspective, leading me to fewer sure opinions, more "I-don't-know"s, and increased wonderment at the universe. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be working out the concept of logical fallacies with all of you. I am by no means an expert in logic or critical thinking, but one thing is clear to me when I read any abortion-related article, blog post, or comment thread on the internet: people revel in their own logical fallacies. If you point it out to someone, they likely will not care, or they will change the subject. I used to react this way myself when my own logical fallacies were pointed out, because I was not familiar with the big-picture of logic and critical thinking, nor was I appreciative of them. 

Assertions and Evidence
It is easier to assert without evidence than it is to assert with evidence. Because of this reality, we often employ logical fallacies to "enhance" our assertions. What ends up happening is that assertions are made that the other side can quite easily take down. So we scramble and move on to the next argument, or we try and enhance our position with another logical fallacy. (Sometimes we don't respond or we block people from our Facebook pages, because those things are easier to do than to abandon our original assertions.)

Politicians often rely on logical fallacies and making assertions without evidence. (From xkcd)
We need to make Arguments, not assertions. 
The difference between an argument and an assertion is probably obvious: arguments give reasons for why we believe our position. Logical fallacies come into play here as well--our brains often justify our positions using seemingly-reasonable lines of thought. However, when closely examined, these lines of fault end up being fallacious, and we have to start again. Unless we're on the internet, in which case we're already 200 comments in and it's too late. 


"Abortion is wrong."
This is an assertion. There is no argument, nor is there any evidence. In other words, it sucks.

"Abortion is wrong because God says so." 
This is an argument with unacceptable evidence. There are many gods, many versions of his supposed writings, and many interpretations of those said writings. It is not a compelling argument.

"Abortion is wrong. Many biologists and doctors believe this."
This is an argument with a logical fallacy. Do you know which one? We'll talk about it in the coming posts!

I am writing these posts just as much for me as for those of you who are interested in critical thinking. Personally, I enjoy having my worldview, my beliefs, and my strategies challenged. This series of posts isn't meant to reach out to pro-choicers, nor to every pro-lifer. My hope is that when you encounter a bad argument on either side, you can identify it and (hopefully!) correct it in an effective way. My bigger hope, however, is that you begin to see these logical fallacies in yourself. 

I invite other pro-lifers with more seasoned abilities to contact me with corrections, clarifications, or other thoughts you have. You can reach me by email at

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

SPL on the Atheist Analysis podcast

On Sunday night, SPL appeared on Atheist Analysis for what was intended to be a one-hour podcast. It wound up being closer to two hours. Nobody had any sudden pro-choice to pro-life conversions (or vice versa), but it was a great discussion and we found a lot of common ground. Watch/listen below, and let us know how we did!

Your next chance to catch Secular Pro-Life will be this Saturday at the second annual Vitae et Veritas conference at Yale. Details and registration here.