The Key to Avoiding Red Herrings

Cross-posted from Secular ProLife

I’m currently reading through a book by John S. Feinberg on modernism and postmodernism*, and he made a claim in his book that I thought would be excellent to share. It’s also a point that I’ve been raising in my presentations on abortion.

Feinberg tells us that, in a debate, there are two reasons that you need to clarify any issue at hand: 1) you need to think through the logic of the case presented, and 2) if you don’t, the case that you are attacking may be only peripheral to the topic at hand. Many people skip the first reason and proceed right to the second. An example of this would be a conservative Christian who tries to argue against evolution by throwing out arguments for the existence of God. But that’s only a peripheral issue in the debate, because even if God exists, the theory of evolution could still be correct. The Christian may be thinking that God’s existence would disprove evolution, because if God exists, there’s no need for a naturalistic explanation of the origins of life. But the Christian isn’t making the case he thinks he is, and is completely failing to address the actual arguments for evolution.

The abortion debate is similar. In order to adequately argue your pro-life or pro-choice case, you have to present a positive case (that is, a case that supports your position) and possibly a negative case (that is, a case that responds to your opponent’s arguments). Good pro-life arguments support the biological humanity and philosophical personhood of the unborn child. Good pro-choice arguments argue that the unborn are not persons or that a woman should not be legally compelled to refrain from killing the unborn child. When we keep this in mind, it’s easy to see how many arguments are really about peripheral issues and don’t even respond to the case presented. These are side issues; they may be affected by the issue at large, but by making a point on a peripheral issue, you do not move any closer to refuting the core argument.

Let’s take the pro-life position first. If a pro-life person makes an argument that the unborn are fully human and fully persons, then arguments about difficult situations, such as poverty, or from personal rights, like the right to choose or privacy, are not an adequate argument for the pro-choice position. If pro-life people are right, and the unborn really are full human persons, then poverty would not justify killing them (as it would not justify killing a human child outside the womb), nor would the “right to choose” or right to privacy. Conversely, if the pro-choice position succeeds, and the unborn either are not persons or do not have the legal right to remain dependent on the mother, then a woman can have an abortion for any reason, whether or not we find it indecent (which is, incidentally, a point that Thomson made in her essay A Defense of Abortion, source of the famous violinist thought experiment). If a pro-choice person is going to respond to a pro-life argument, they must directly attack the case that the unborn are biologically human and philosophically persons and show how they are not, in fact, human or persons.

Now let’s take the pro-choice position. If a pro-choice person makes an argument that the unborn are not persons or that a human embryo or fetus does not have the right to remain “plugged into” a woman against her will, then arguments about how abortions hurt women or about how women could make an adoption plan for the child instead of aborting are not responsive points. If the unborn really are not persons or do not have the right to remain “plugged in,” then a woman should logically be allowed to have an abortion for any reason: even if that reason is to avoid the emotional pain of bonding with the child and then having the child be raised by someone else. Also, all surgeries carry an element of risk, so if there is nothing morally wrong with killing the unborn child, the fact that it hurts some women is not a response to the pro-choice argument.

Bearing this in mind will hopefully avoid frustrations in the pro-choice person, who may feel as if they’re not being listened to because the pro-life person is responding to a peripheral argument, but not directly addressing the argument being presented. In our attempt to have good, intelligent discussions on the abortion issue, we need to keep in mind what our arguments for the pro-life position are, what the arguments for the pro-choice position are, and how to adequately respond to those arguments.

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