What are Bad Ways to Argue? A Review

What are Bad Ways to Argue? A Review

You don’t need to memorize answers to every objection to the pro-life case. Stay focused on five bad ways people typically respond.

To review, the essential pro-life argument can be put formally in the following syllogism:

Premise #1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.

Premise #2: Abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings.


Conclusion: Abortion is morally wrong.

Pro-life apologists defend that syllogism with science and philosophy. We argue from science that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. We argue from philosophy that there is no relevant difference between you the embryo and you the adult that justifies killing you at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency (SLED) are not good reasons for saying you could be killed then but not now.

Of course, even with a clear case, your critics may object. But here’s the good news: You don’t need to memorize responses to every possible objection. Just ask yourself one key question: Does the objection refute my essential pro-life argument? That is, does it prove the unborn are not human or that intentionally killing them is okay?

Nearly always, the answer is no on both counts. Your critic is changing the subject rather than engaging your syllogism. Don’t let him get away with it. Stick to your syllogism while graciously pointing out five bad ways people respond to it.


  1. They assume rather than argue—Consider this example from chapter 32 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck contrives a story to explain to Aunt Sally his late arrival by boat:

“We blowed out a cylinder head.”
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

Notice it’s simply assumed the black man is not one of us. President Obama was no better with the unborn. On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he said: “Today, as we reflect on the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, we recommit ourselves to the decision’s guiding principle: that every woman should be able to make her own choices about her body and her health. We reaffirm our steadfast commitment to protecting a woman’s access to safe, affordable health care and her constitutional right to privacy, including the right to reproductive freedom. And we resolve to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, support maternal and child health, and continue to build safe and healthy communities for all our children. Because this is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams” (emphasis added).52 The President’s statement was question-begging. He never told us if “everyone” includes the unborn. He just assumed it did not. Our job, as pro-life Christians, is to expose that assumption and focus the debate on the status of the unborn. Consider the back-alley argument: “The law can’t stop all abortions. Women will be forced to get dangerous illegal ones.” Note how the objection assumes the unborn are not human. Otherwise, the argument is saying that because some people die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal to do so. But why should the law be faulted for making it riskier for one human to intentionally take the life of another completely innocent one? True, laws can’t stop all illegal behavior, but they stop most. Laws against rape don’t stop all rape, but we still legislate to protect women. In The Case for Life, I refute the myth that thousands of women died annually from illegal abortion. But your first step is to expose the faulty assumption. It won’t work to say we should be a society that supports “choice” when the very question of who is part of that society, that is, whether or not it includes the unborn, is itself under dispute in the abortion debate.


  1. They attack rather than argue—Bring up abortion and you’ll quickly hear that men can’t get pregnant, meaning only women should decide the issue. But this response attacks the person rather than his argument. In short, it’s completely beside the point. Arguments don’t have gender; people do. Pro-life women use the same arguments as pro-life men. Indeed, if men can’t speak on abortion, Roe v. Wade should be reversed because nine men decided the case. Should only generals decide the morality of war? You’ll also hear that pro-life advocates have no right to oppose abortion unless they adopt unwanted children. Rather than buying your critic’s premise, recognize the objection for what it is—a disguised attempt to change the subject. Let’s go back to our syllogism: P1—It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. P2—Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being. Therefore, C: Abortion is morally wrong. Now ask your critic this question: How does my alleged unwillingness to adopt a child justify an abortionist intentionally killing one? Put simply, how does it refute my essential pro-life argument?


  1. They assert rather than argue—Suppose you lay out your essential pro-life argument and defend it with science and philosophy. Instead of refuting your argument, your critic responds, “Well, women have a right to choose.” Is that an argument or an assertion? It’s an assertion because no evidence is offered to support the claim. The obvious question is, “Choose what? And where does the right to choose come from?” Your opponent presents no argument and no evidence for either question. He simply asserts a right to choose. To expose the undefended assertion, ask, “Why would you believe a thing like that?” Sometimes the assertion comes in the form of a hidden premise. For example, a professor discounts your case with an assertion: “The embryo is not self-aware and has no immediately exercisable desires.” The hidden and undefended premise is that self-awareness and desires give us a right to life. But he presents no argument for that hidden premise. Begin by exposing it: “Why does self-awareness or having desires matter? That is, why are they value-giving in the first place when determining who lives and who dies?”


  1. They confuse functioning as a human with being a human—After you expose the hidden premise in the professor’s claim, show how his objection proves too much. Newborns are not self-aware and lack immediately exercisable desires. Can we intentionally kill them? His claim also results in savage inequality: As mentioned above, self-awareness comes in degrees and so does having desires. No one reading this sentence shares those things equally. Thus, if self-awareness or having desires grounds our value as persons, those with more of these characteristics have greater value (and, hence, a greater right to life) than those with less. You can toss human equality to the back of the bus!


  1. They hide behind the hard cases—Two types of people bring up rape—the inquirer and the crusader. The former is looking honestly at the arguments but stumbles emotionally with saying the mother must give birth. The crusader is not honest. He just wants to make you look bad by painting you as an extremist. Your approach to each is different. For the inquirer, gently ask: “Given we both agree a woman who is sexually assaulted suffers a terrible injustice and may in fact be reminded of it should she give birth, how should a civil society treat innocent human beings who remind us of a painful event?” Let the question sink in. Then, ask, “Is it okay to kill them so we can feel better?” If the unborn are human, hardship does not justify homicide. For the crusader, say: “I’ll grant for the sake of argument we allow abortion in cases of rape. Will you join me in opposing all other abortions?” He won’t. He wants all abortion legal. Now, call his bluff. “Your position is not that abortion should be legal only in cases of rape. You want it legal for any reason the mother wants. Why don’t you defend that position instead of hiding behind rape victims?” In short, even if the rape objection works, which it does not, it would only justify abortion for rape, not for any reason the mother wants. Francis Beckwith puts it well: Arguing for the abolition of all abortion laws because of rape is kind of like arguing we should get rid of all traffic laws because you might need to run a red light rushing a loved one to the hospital.53

Memorize the pro-life syllogism. Practice it out loud. It will keep you on message when critics change the subject.

Putting it All Together

Suppose you have one minute to summarize the pro-life case with an aggressive reporter. What should you say?

“I am pro-life because it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. The science of embryology establishes that from the earliest stages of development, you were a distinct, living, and whole human being. You weren’t part of another human being like skin cells on the back of my hand; you were already a whole living member of the human family even though you had yet to mature. And there is no essential difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today that justifies killing you at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not good reasons for saying you could be killed then but not now.”