Are you deeply interested in doing what is right or are you committed to a point of view?
Rule #1: Do Not Assume the Worst About Your Opponent
Defenders of abortion do not hate babies; many have them. And pro-lifers do not hate women; their ranks are filled with them. Instead, we are divided on a fundamental question: Is the unborn a member of the human family? Pro-lifers say yes. Abortion-choice advocates by and large say no. We should focus on that fundamental question without second guessing the motives of those answering it.
If you support abortion, I hope you don’t believe pro-lifers hate women. But if you do, I think you are right about one thing: If the unborn are not human, choosing abortion is no different than choosing vanilla ice cream over chocolate. Both are mere preferences. If that’s the case, I am indeed unfairly imposing my views on women based solely on my personal tastes. You’re right about that. However, if the unborn are part of the human family, can you see things my way? That is, if you shared my position that abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being, wouldn’t you do everything you could to stop it? Wouldn’t you want unborn humans protected by law just like everyone else? Of course, I realize you don’t share my position, so my point here is really quite modest: The issue that separates us is not that I hate women and you love them. What separates us is that I believe the unborn are human beings and you don’t. That’s the issue we need to discuss.
Rule #2: Judge Arguments, Not People
Stay focused on the argument, not the person making it. Test your arguments and theirs, for validity and soundness. Validity test: Does the conclusion follow logically from the premises? Soundness test: Are the premises true?
You’ll go off the rails if you personalize the discussion.
For example, to assert that only women can speak on abortion attacks the person rather than his or her argument. It also raises a troubling question: Which women get to speak? As Christopher Kaczor writes in The Ethics of Abortion, there is no such thing as a “woman’s perspective” on abortion anymore than there is a male perspective or a brown-eyed person’s perspective.2 Indeed, feminists, let alone women in general, do not share a single perspective on the issue. This is true even for feminists who support abortion. For example, feminist Naomi Wolf calls abortion “a real death” while feminist Katha Pollitt thinks it no different than vacuuming out your house.3 In short, while gender perspectives on abortion help us understand personal experience, they are no substitute for rational inquiry. Rather, it is arguments that must be advanced and defended and those arguments stand or fall on their merits, not the gender of those espousing them. After all, pro-life women make the same arguments as pro-life men.
Rule #3: Dismiss Labels, Not Arguments
Pro-life arguments are sometimes dismissed as “religious,” as if the pro-life advocate is trying to impose his religious beliefs on a pluralistic society.
However, the “religion” objection is a dodge, not a refutation. As Francis J. Beckwith points out, arguments are either true or false, valid or invalid. Calling an argument “religious” is a category mistake like asking, “How tall is the number three?” Pro-lifers argue that 1) it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings, 2) abortion does that, therefore, 3) abortion is wrong. If critics can refute that argument with evidence, go for it. But it won’t do to dismiss it with a label.
Moreover, pro-life advocates aren’t imposing their views any more than abolitionist Christians were imposing theirs or the Reverend King was imposing his. Rather, they’re proposing them in hopes they can persuade their fellow citizens to vote them into law. That’s how a constitutional republic like ours works. Pro-life advocates are not looking to establish a theocracy they impose on non-Christians, only a more just society for the weakest members of the human family.
Indeed, it is no more religious to claim a human embryo has value than to claim it doesn’t. Both claims answer the same exact question: What makes humans valuable in the first place?
Rule #4: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
Pro-life advocates sometimes forget their own argument! Abortion is not wrong because it kills a potential doctor who cures cancer or a potential Mozart who dazzles the music scene. It’s wrong because it unjustly kills an actual human being, regardless of his or her stage of development, gifting, or brilliance. Put simply, it’s just as wrong to intentionally kill a beach bum as it is Steve Jobs!
Abortion-choice advocates sometimes forget to engage the essential pro-life case. Here’s the thing: If you support abortion, you may be right. It’s possible there’s nothing wrong with intentionally killing a human fetus and therefore pro-life advocates are mistaken. But you must argue for that by refuting the essential pro-life argument. You can do that by showing the argument is invalid or that it’s unsound (or both). Attacking pro-lifers personally won’t do.
Rule #5: Don’t Make Unfair Demands on Your Opponent
As we will see, the abortion issue is about one question: Is the unborn one of us? And yet, advocates on both sides of the debate sometimes change the subject and redefine their opponents in ways that are less than charitable.
Pro-lifers may tell abortion-choice advocates that if they were truly “pro-choice,” they’d support school choice, religious liberty choice and tax choice—to name a few. But many abortion-choice advocates do not support these other issues. Therefore, so the argument goes, abortion-choice advocates are not “pro-choice.” They are “pro-death!”
This is unfair. Anyone with a working knowledge of the abortion debate knows that “pro-choice” refers to a specific choice—the choice of a woman to abort her unborn offspring. True, that choice must be defended morally, but to demand that abortion-choice advocates prove their credentials by taking on additional causes is unfair. What matters are the arguments they advance, not the additional causes they embrace.
Likewise, abortion-choice advocates may insist that if pro-life advocates were truly “pro-life,” they’d be “whole-life” and take on other “life” issues like poverty, immigration reform, support for refugees, foster care advocacy, better wages for the poor, gun control, and the list goes on and on. However, most pro-lifers (so the argument goes) don’t really care about these other issues. Thus, they are not “pro-life,” only “pro-birth” or “anti-abortion.”
This, too, is unfair. Why should anyone believe that because you oppose the intentional killing of an innocent human being, you must therefore take responsibility for all societal ills?
Pro-life advocates, as individuals, will care about many issues, not just a few. However, it does not follow that the operational objectives of the pro-life movement must be broad and inclusive as well. Imagine saying to the American Cancer Society, “If you were truly against disease, you’d fight other illnesses as vigorously, as passionately, as loudly as you do cancer!” Or, consider the gall of telling Black Lives Matter, “You don’t care about all black lives, only those killed by police brutality.”
Indeed, why is the “whole-life” argument never used against other groups who target specific forms of injustice? If an inner-city daycare program only receives kids after school, do we blast them for not operating 24/7?
Of course, abortion isn’t the only issue, any more than slavery was the only issue in 1860 or killing Jews the only issue in 1940. But both were the dominant issues of their day. Pro-lifers are not wrong to give greater moral weight to the greater moral issue. Imagine telling an abolitionist in 1860, “You can’t be against slavery unless you address its underlying causes.”
Rule #6: Don’t Pretend All Views Are Equally Valid
A popular bumper sticker reads, “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one.”
Notice what the sticker does. Instead of refuting the essential pro-life argument, it changes the subject. It treats the pro-lifer’s moral claim (abortion is wrong) as a mere preference one (abortion is about likes and dislikes). This is intellectually dishonest. It’s possible to like something and still say it’s wrong. Maybe I like driving my father-in-law’s new Corvette without permission. That doesn’t make it right.
Morality is about what’s right and wrong, not what we prefer. Try this: “Don’t like slavery? Don’t own a slave.” Anyone who would say that does not understand the nature of moral reasoning.
Nevertheless, many people want it both ways. They condemn abortion with words but want it to be legally available. They say things like, “I personally oppose abortion, but don’t want to impose my beliefs on others who disagree.”
The obvious question is, Why do you personally oppose abortion? If abortion does not intentionally kill an innocent human being, why be opposed at all? Imagine if I said, “I personally oppose spousal abuse, but I won’t impose my personal beliefs on you. After all, your moral beliefs are just as valid as my own.” If I said that, you would not say I was neutral. You’d say my moral compass was broken.
Moral neutrality on abortion is impossible. If you believe that all moral views are equally valid, you are not neutral. You are espousing relativism, a worldview that says right and wrong are either up to the individual or his or her society, not any objective truths we discover. Morality, like choosing your favorite flavor of ice cream, is strictly a matter of personal preference. Relativism is not neutral. Relativists think they are right and non-relativists are wrong. If not,why do they correct non-relativists who argue that moral truth is real and knowable?
Applied to abortion, moral neutrality is impossible. Either you believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life or you don’t. The pro-life view is that humans are intrinsically valuable in virtue of the kind of thing they are. The abortion-choice view is that humans have value only because of an acquired property like self-awareness or sentience. Notice that both positions—pro-life and abortion-choice—use philosophical reflection to answer the same question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Pick a side. There is no neutral ground.
State neutrality is also impossible. Either the state recognizes the humanity of the unborn and thus protects them or it doesn’t and thus permits killing them. Imagine it’s 1860 and the Supreme Court says, “We take no position on whether or not slaves are human beings. When scientists, philosophers, and theologians can’t agree on that question, the Court is in no position to decide. Therefore, individual slave owners can choose for themselves whether to free their slaves or keep them.” A court that rules that way is not neutral. It’s taking the position that slaves do not deserve the same liberties free people do.
Watch out for phony appeals to tolerance. The classical view of tolerance, which I support, goes like this: I think your idea is mistaken, but I will tolerate you expressing your view and making your case. The classical view tolerates humans as being equally valuable but rejects the claim that all ideas are so. Indeed, the very concept of tolerance presupposes I think you are wrong. Otherwise, I’m not tolerating you; I’m agreeing with you!
The new (phony) tolerance really isn’t tolerant. It insists that all ideas are equally valid (except those that claim to be true with a capital T) and if you say differently, we won’t tolerate you. The new tolerance does not seek understanding and dialogue, only censoring of opposing views.
At the end of the day, if disagreement means there are no moral truths, then slavery, genocide, and rape are mere matters of personal preference.4
Rule #7: Don’t Assume Arguments Won’t Work
Both sides may overstate their case. I’ve heard abortion-choice advocates say abortion “is a settled issue,” one fully integrated into American culture. “It’s not going away. You can forget about changing minds.”
I’ve heard pro-life Christians say the only way to end abortion is to preach the gospel–that outside Jesus, pro-life arguments make no sense to unbelievers.
Why should we believe either claim? Both sides unnecessarily complicate the persuasion process. Slavery and racial segregation were settled for generations, yet abolitionists in the 19th century and civil rights activists in the 20th turned public opinion against both practices. If slavery and segregation weren’t settled, neither is abortion.
Meanwhile, former abortionist Bernard Nathanson switched from being pro-choice to being pro-life while still an atheist. Only later did he embrace theism. Amherst philosopher Hadley Arkes, a recent convert to theism, wrote brilliant defenses of the pro-life view and devastating critiques of moral relativism as an agnostic Jew. Meanwhile, syndicated columnist and atheist Nat Hentoff courageously defended the pro-life view his entire life but never converted to Christianity.
This shouldn’t surprise us. If arguments against sex trafficking and spousal abuse resonate with non-Christians, why can’t arguments against abortion resonate as well?
True, atheists have difficulty grounding their moral claims. After all, in a universe that came from nothing and was caused by nothing, human beings are cosmic accidents and right and wrong are up to us to decide. However, just because an atheist has trouble grounding moral claims does not mean he can’t recognize them.
At Life Training Institute, we include the gospel in virtually every pro-life presentation, but not because it’s a necessary condition for understanding pro-life arguments. We do it because post-abortive men and women have but one fix for their sinful choices: Jesus, their perfect substitute, who bore the wrath of God in their place. Instead of saying that outside Jesus, pro-life arguments make no sense, Christians should say, “outside of Jesus, forgiveness of sin makes no sense.”
In short, the case we present is accessible to anyone with an open mind, Christian or not.