[Today's guest post by Kris Skul is part of our paid blogging program.]
We already know that religious arguments against abortion are ineffective at reaching a general audience—that’s why Secular Pro-Life exists. But not every secular defense is airtight, either. Many common pro-life arguments are readily refuted by abortion supporters, even if they make no reference to God. Below I list five to avoid.
1. “If your mom had chosen abortion, you wouldn’t be here.”
Reasonable pro-choice response: “Then I wouldn’t be here to care.”
Your opponent knows everybody starts out in the womb. If they are intellectually honest, they will recognize that their position means they believe their own mother should have been able to end their life during that stage. That may seem unfathomable to someone who understands identity as inseparable from physical existence, but pro-choice people just don’t think that way. In the words of abortion-rights advocate Frances Kissling, “the ‘I’ who stands before [pro-life challengers] is not the ‘I’ that was once a fetus.”
In different circumstances, with different women, perhaps neither my husband nor I would be here. And that’s fine, or rather, we wouldn’t be around to declare it fine or not-fine . . . To me, the pro-lifer position is I love my mother, and I’m so grateful she had me. The pro-choice position is I love my mother, and I’m so grateful she had the right to choose what was best for her and her family. Both positions are honorable in their way. But only one of them imagines my mother as more than my mother—as a person autonomous of me, and certainly autonomous of the blastocyst that turned into me.
When you say “If your mom had chosen abortion, you wouldn’t be here,” what you’re really doing is asking “Aren’t you glad she didn’t?” This approach hinges on the assumption that the answer is always “yes.” But is it?
If faced with death, I’d imagine most people would prefer to live. I know I would. The issue here, however, is not a choice between existing and ceasing to exist but rather between existing and never having been born—that is, between existing and ceasing to exist before one is aware one exists. That’s a far more complicated question, and it’s one I’m not sure I can answer.
Death means a lot of different things to different people, but we can probably all agree that premature death, at the very least, means I can no longer fulfill my ambitions or do the things I enjoy. I’d rather keep living than die because I have some idea of what death means—enough to conclude that life is the better option, anyway. But what about never having been born? By virtue of my existence, I can’t possibly comprehend non-existence. And I can’t make a judgment, one way or another, about something I can never know.
2. “Think of the siblings or friends you could have had if it wasn’t for abortion.”
Reasonable pro-choice response: “I can’t miss someone I’ve never met.”
Let’s say you went to college in New York, and that’s where you met the majority of your friends. Now suppose you’d chosen a school in California instead. Would you still have made friends? Probably. But they wouldn’t have been the same ones.
Now imagine somebody told you that going to college in New York was a mistake—because by going to college in New York, you missed out on the friends you would have made in California. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense! Yet that’s effectively what you’re saying if you insist abortion is wrong because it robs the living of relationships that could have been.
Closely related is the “What if Einstein had been aborted?” argument. The problem with this one—besides the obvious rejoinder of “What if Hitler had been aborted?”—is that it suggests that the right to life is earned. But a future criminal has no less of a right to live than a future philanthropist. The human fetus does not have value because of what it may one day accomplish; it has value because it is human.
3. “Life is a beautiful thing. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to experience everything life has to offer!”
Reasonable pro-choice response: “I’m glad you like your life, but life isn’t beautiful for everyone.”
Unfortunately, not every life is beautiful. Some people struggle with poverty or abusive families. Some, by the happenstance of where they were born, live in oppressive societies that offer them little mobility. For those of us who enjoy a comfortable standard of living, it can be easy to forget that not everyone has the same luxury.
Regardless, if we affirm life as the most basic human right, then to kill a developing human because (s)he is likely to struggle later on is morally unjustifiable. What we should really be saying is not that every life is wonderful (and certainly not that every life is wonderful at every point in a lifetime), but that every person deserves a chance to make a good life for themselves, as they define that good. To decide that an individual’s life will not be worth living before that individual has even been born is the height of arrogance.
4. “How can you call yourself a feminist if you advocate for the killing of unborn women?”
Reasonable pro-choice response: “A fetus with two X chromosomes is not a woman.”
The primary purpose of feminism is to affirm the rights of women and girls as relevant to the power dynamic between the sexes. Feminism aims to address practical situations in which men and women are given unequal opportunity, as in education, employment, or politics. It also combats cultural perceptions of women that suggest they have comparatively lesser worth.
But here’s the kicker: Modern pro-choice feminists are concerned with the rights of born persons—or, more specifically, born persons whose autonomy is at stake. It is not their goal to defend every human female in every situation.
It’s not inconsistent for a self-proclaimed feminist to support abortion access if (s)he views it as integral to a woman’s ability to maintain control over her life. To the pro-choice feminist, the only party worthy of consideration is the pregnant woman: the independent moral agent whose freedom is threatened by the prospect of carrying to term. Under this view the fetus is an aggressor, and so its sex is irrelevant.
Consider an analogy: if I’m attacked by a female assailant and defend myself using physical force, do I lose the right to call myself a feminist? Obviously, that’s an exaggeration—and I personally don’t think unplanned pregnancy and criminal assault are even remotely comparable. But I do believe the “unborn women” appeal is a gross misrepresentation of feminism. Both questions are likely to elicit the same incredulity from someone who is a feminist and pro-choice.
Historically, feminism has been opposed to all forms of discrimination and violence. It’s fair to point out how abortion contradicts those values. But that argument does not rely on the sex of the abortion victim.
5. “A woman who gets an abortion will regret it.”
Reasonable pro-choice response: “Not always.”
While some women do suffer emotionally after their abortions, many do not. Precise numbers are hard to establish because the existing studies are at odds, but I can say one thing with confidence: it is impossible to know how any given woman will react without knowing her circumstances. Suggesting that she will regret her decision just because some women do is patronizing and unlikely to be well-received.
The “women regret abortion” argument generally assumes that women possess an innate desire to be mothers, and that therefore no woman could willingly choose abortion. Granted, many women who abort are driven by external pressures, like financial hardship or coercion from partners or relatives. Pro-lifers are absolutely right to concern themselves with these pressures. Yet others decide to abort because they just don’t want kids. Amanda Marcotte addressed this point in a widely-circulated piece from March 2014:
I like my life how it is, with my ability to do what I want when I want without having to arrange for a babysitter. I like being able to watch True Detective right now and not wait until baby is in bed. I like sex in any room of the house I please. I don’t want a baby. I’ve heard your pro-baby arguments. Glad those work for you, but they are unconvincing to me. Nothing will make me want a baby.
We need to be honest with ourselves: carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term is almost always an inconvenience for the woman. Even if she chooses adoption, she must still endure the physical and emotional effects of pregnancy for several months. That’s no small task, especially if she has reasons for wanting to hide her pregnancy from others—I’m thinking of a teenager from a strict family or a woman who conceived during an affair, to name two examples. I can certainly understand why abortion might be a tempting option in these cases.
But I still don’t think it should be legal.
To explain, it is necessary to compare the degree of harm suffered by the woman (should she carry to term) with the degree of harm suffered by the fetus (should she choose to abort). In the absence of medical complications, the consequence of continuing a pregnancy—though it may vary with regard to its severity—boils down to inconvenience: a disturbance in one’s way of life. The consequence of abortion is nothing less than death; that is, the complete elimination of life. This is not a matter of valuing the rights of the fetus over the rights of the woman, as critics have charged. Rather, it is a matter of valuing the right to life over the right to comfort—if indeed such a right exists.
I am thankful, of course, for campaigns like Project Rachel, Silent No More, and You Are Not Alone, which offer support to post-abortive women who regret their decision. I likewise appreciate resources such as Aid for Women in Chicago, which provide assistance up to and including housing for mothers in need. And I have absolutely no problem with cautioning women considering abortion that some have reported negative psychological consequences following the procedure. But that isn’t a guarantee—and to use it as the foundation for your pro-life advocacy is ethically and intellectually problematic.
Remember that while some or all of the above arguments may bolster your own resolve in fighting abortion (like religion does for many people), they are not necessarily convincing to others. Because they rely heavily on emotional appeals, they are only useful when conversing with someone who feels the same way as you. In that sense, appealing to emotion is just about as effective as appealing to religion.
More importantly, each of these, though undoubtedly well-intentioned, takes away from the crux of the issue—namely, that abortion is the legal killing of a member of the human species. Any approach that fails to emphasize this, even if it resonates with you personally, is limited in its utility.
If we accept that it’s wrong to kill a human with no say in the matter, then we cannot accept elective abortion. That doesn’t change, even if our hypothetical opponent supports their own mother’s ability to have chosen it. Not even if the fetus will be born into less-than-ideal circumstances. Not even if every woman were to approach the topic in the manner of Amanda Marcotte.
It’s simple, really. I’m not against abortion because it’s deprived me of a friendship I may or may not have had. I’m not against abortion because “life is beautiful,” whatever that means. I’m not against abortion because it’s “anti-feminist,” or even because some women deeply regret choosing it. I’m against abortion because it ends a human life. And that’s all the reason I’ve ever needed.