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Presenting the pro-life case to libertarians, and the libertarian case to pro-lifers

Beneath the Pro-Abortion Logic

This originally appeared in To Rescue the Future: The Pro-Life Movement in the 1980s, ISBN 0-919225-18-7; Copyright 1983, Life Cycle Books, 2205 Danforth Avenue Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4C 1K4, 416/690-5860.


I started this essay modestly: addressing the rhetoric used by both pro-lifers and pro-abortionists. How do our “languages” differ? How can we oppose or use points in their rhetoric?

Nice. But in going on, I found I wasn’t really concerned with rhetoric. True, it’s important. We should re-check everything we write to see whether (taken strictly literally or taken emotionally) we’re conceding points to the enemy.

But I found that I was really concerned with what’s going on underneath the rhetoric — and why the two sides express themselves differently. To look at that, however, we have to ignore the abortion debate itself to some extent. Listening to it, we can sometimes be overwhelmed by the sheer number of questions involved. Besides the philosophical questions of life and rights and the person, there are the scientific ones. There are the medical ones that involve professional judgment suited to particular situations, as well as knowledge of the general facts. It’s easy to get snowed under.

But underneath the diversity, there are certain recurrent themes. Time and again, people seem to use similar arguments and show similar perspectives, however different the questions may be.

Two different ways of describing things

Without oversimplifying too much, the pro-lifer is willing to consider “internal” elements. The pro-abortionist relies on purely “external” data. For instance, when pro-lifers try to say what a person is, or what life is, or what rights are, they tend to try to “get into” life or the person or rights. They try to find out and describe what it is like to be alive or to be a person or to have rights. Pro-abortionists, however, tend to handle such questions in a totally different manner. How do persons behave? What do we, outside, observe in a creature we call “alive”?

Let’s take those two examples: “life” and being a “person.” When pro-lifers talk about being alive they talk about feeling pleasure and pain, growing, seeing colors, hearing sound. Think of a picture showing an unborn child in the womb. When she raises her hand to shade her eyes from a bright light outside, that’s important to pro-lifers. It shows what’s going on in that unborn child’s experience, “inside” her.

These things are important because they show that this creature is like me, like us. We feel pain, heat, and so forth. She does, too. Of course she’s alive! The “external” facts are evidence for an “internal” state which is what really counts in being alive. It’s what distinguishes us and all living things from mere matter, from rocks and atoms.

For pro-abortionists, a popular test is “viability.” Statistically, so many children at so many weeks will live so long outside the womb. Easy. If they can live for some specified period of time, they’re “alive.” Here, being alive is essentially a relationship of the child to the outside world. If he needs the womb (or some mechanical surrogate) in order to survive, then he’s not “alive.” And being alive can be absolutely measured from “outside.” That’s all it means: just being able to survive without certain kinds of assistance. (I agree that this idea is self-contradictory. The child has to be alive already in order to die. But let’s ignore that.)

When we are dealing with “personhood,” a similar dichotomy takes place. Both sides generally agree that something like reason and choice is necessary for someone to be a person. (Call it what you will: consciousness, volition, intellect, and so forth. Most of the terms talk about much the same thing.)

But pro-lifers and pro-abortionists approach reason and choice in radically different ways. Pro-abortionists, explicitly or implicitly, demand a manifestation, a display of reason and choice. Or they demand physical development to the point where we have display of things associated with reason (brainwaves or certain brain development, say). Being a person is a matter of what you display to me. Your being a person is dependent upon my recognizing it.

So, there’s a problem for the “pro-choicers” who recoil from things like infanticide or euthanasia. They have problems with infants, the mentally handicapped, the senile, the comatose, and so on. They obviously don’t display much reason and choice. Yet they know very well that these are persons with the right not to be killed.

Pro-lifers, however, talk of things like “capacity,” potential,” “power,” and the like. Something the child has, but needs time and growth to display. Being a person is a matter of what you are, a matter of kind, not just degree. Whether I recognize it or not doesn’t change that. And it comes to us with our very biological existence; with our genetic makeup, if you will. Moreover, that “capacity,” that “power,” that “spark” is what distinguishes us from mere animals. Even if it’s not yet displayed, as in the young, or if it’s actually been impaired, as in the aged or ill, it’s still there.

Facts versus appearances

This difference between the two views is hardly coincidental. It reflects a debate within philosophy that has been going on for at least the last 500 years or so. One school — loosely called “realism” — holds that we can find out truths about the world around us. The other school — “subjectivism,” “relativism,” and their variants — holds that all we have are the sensations and images that bounce around inside our heads. Maybe the conventions of society can make do as a substitute for facts.

Some people are only ethical subjectivists. Some will drag it into other fields, poisoning biology perhaps, but leaving physics intact. Still others will have these ideas affecting them in every aspect of reality. How, then, can subjectivists know whether their neighbors are really persons like themselves? Well, they can’t. All they can say is that their neighbors appear to be like them externally. Words come out of their mouths. (But is there reasoning going on inside?) Their faces form smiles. (But is there joy or humor?) They grimace or scream when jabbed with a knife. (But is there pain?)

Pushed to it, some pro-abortionists would admit that, no they can’t really be sure that the rest of us are anything more than appearances. We might be some weird robots. Upon being jabbed, their pain may be real enough, but ours is merely a matter of our grimacing or what not. Their reasoning is real enough, but ours may be merely words on the air. Sometimes the effects of this view are gross and instantly observable. Sometimes they are subtle and barely noticeable. They have produced a world in which “I” am not merely the center of my universe. I am the universe — there isn’t anything else.

A war of world-views

Now, this may be plowing old ground for many of you. This is the Age of Permissiveness. Ethics was the first field to fall to the subjectivists. The gospels of permissiveness and subjectivism have dominated our colleges and universities for most of this century. They are the faith of our intelligentsia. So what else is new? What is new is that many of us have had to argue against academically trained opponents before audiences whose perspectives and language have been shaped by the same forces that have produced the abortion movement. And many times these ideas masquerade as biology or science.

This situation is frequently described as a conflict between “world-views.” To some extent, that is true. We confront something that is a way of looking at the whole world — at all of reality. Yet it is also, in some sense, a conflict of worlds. It is almost as if pro-abortionists and pro-lifers lived in different universes. There are whole chunks of our world which seem missing from theirs. We live in a world in which pain and joy take place — not just ours, but other people’s too. In their world, there are only grimaces and smiles, only images on a screen.

Now, we all know that this is not the case. Their world has all the same fixtures and features as ours. It’s the same world. The problem is that they have an intellectual apparatus that has no way to explain much of reality. Indeed, it explains it away. And we also know that when their intellectual apparatus proves inconvenient, they will ignore it. Do they address war and peace as things the rightness or wrongness of which are forever in doubt? No. In certain cases, words like “just,” “unjust,” “moral,” and “immoral” are as easy for them to use as for us. They certainly act as if these words told us something about reality, and not just about their state of mind. They use the traditional language of ethics because it allows them to describe reality.

A similar dynamic goes on in the abortion debate. But with a strange difference. When they discuss the underlying questions, they are still good subjectivists. (“Who can say what ‘life’ is?”) But when they discuss the conclusion, they speak with a fervor and certainty that would make any absolutist blush. Abortion is a right. It is a matter of choice. This response is not accidental. Nor is it merely hypocritical. They must do something like this. Subjectivism is a jolly theory. It can’t be lived.

I cannot will rocks out of my path. Nor can I will rights and obligations out of existence, either. In order to defend abortion it is convenient to deny that we can find anything out about “life” or about “rights.” But in order to give any meaning to that defense, the language of rights and personal choice must be invoked.

Making war on logic

They have done this by choosing words which carry the power of traditional ethical language. But they have been applied systematically in a sort of “first-person” context. I (or you, or he, or she) have this right. There is no reference to how rights arise or what obligations they may entail. I choose (or you, or he, or she). There is no reference to what alternatives are chosen among or whether they entail consequences (or which ones).

A notion, then, is “chopped off.” It is taken without any reference to its correlative terms and concepts. Unchallenged, that makes for a very powerful rhetorical device.

To retain the full power of words like “rights,” I must repeat words that emphasize me and confer moral value on my actions. Yet I must also suppress the logical implications of those words (e.g. obligations). Again, nonsensical, but powerful if unchallenged. I have all the benefits of moral reality without the restraints.

The sad thing in some respects is that our opposition is trapped by reality, however popular their views are. Their own behavior bears it out. The more militant pro-abortionists are not characterized by anger or rage or even sorrow at what they pronounce to be threats to their rights. Rather, it is bitterness that marks them. And bitterness is most often the product of betrayal. Bitterness may be produced by betrayal by other people. Or it may be produced by the “betrayal” of events that destroy hopes.

People trapped in the contemporary mindset are set up for bitterness because reality will continually “betray” them. For men and women alike, pregnancy is an ultimate betrayal since it comes without asking whether we want it or not. It is self-betrayal, too, since it occurs because of our own action. And it destroys utterly the myth that we are our own universe — secure, able to decree whatever we will. Even in imposing death as the penalty for such a betrayal, we must approach life on its own terms. Much of the pro-abortionists’ intellectual activity goes into speaking and thinking in such a way as to pretend those facts and limits on our actions do not exist. The very existence of rights which we must invade stands as the ultimate rebuke and “betrayal.”

So our opposition has an intellectual structure, a world-view, that denies the existence of an enormous chunk of reality. To a large extent, they have crippled the language as a means to describe reality. Yet they, too, are drawn along by the forces of the real world and wish or need to employ traditional ethical language to defend their position. They have done so by taking certain concepts while suppressing those concepts’ correlative terms. So what should we do?

How do we fight it?

First of all, we can’t simply drop language that looks unacceptable to our audiences — mainly, that which looks religious or philosophical. We cannot and should not keep the debate restricted to the nature of fetal brainwaves at x weeks versus so many weeks later. The scientific and medical debates may be essential to an informed pro-life position, but, alone, they are not sufficient.

Life is sacred. So say it. But we have to realize that our language needs to be explained. We cannot escape philosophy. And people are willing to recognize its importance and necessity. Personally, I will use “sacred” along with “special,” “having rights,” and any other term that comes to mind, in order to describe a central aspect of the person: persons are not to be treated as mere things. Even the nonreligious can recognize the force and descriptiveness of words like “sacred” and “sanctity.” They will accept them so long as they do not feel they’re getting theology under the guise of a political debate.

(Quite frankly, I don’t think that many people object to the presence of religious values in public discussion, so long as “religion” is not a mask for refusing to engage in genuine discussion of issues: “If you don’t agree with me, you’re damned.” This is the way pro-abortionists like to paint pro-lifers. I think most people can recognize that most pro-lifers are innocent of the charge.)

Turning their words against them

If we wish to go on the offensive, and use language used by the pro-abortionists, then we have to keep our audience uppermost in our minds. At the outset, the main difference is between those committed to the pro-abortion cause, and those relatively uncommitted — even if they call themselves “pro-choice.” In this regard, the emotional forces at work in the committed may be too strong to counter by merely rhetorical means.

But for the relatively uncommitted, there is still the possibility of catching hold of the language of the opposition in order to turn it against them. I think that this can be done by emphasizing the correlative concepts of each of the terms they employ. When they employ “choice,” we must remind the audience of alternatives and consequences. It is not a private choice when we take another’s life. When they talk of “our rights,” we must emphasize the equal rights of others. How can we have rights without others having the obligation to respect them? And without having the obligation to respect their rights? When they say that having an abortion is the “responsible” thing to do, we’ve got to point out that “taking responsibility for our acts” can never imply imposing our will on others. Would killing someone be all right if I were willing to go to jail for it?

Regarding our hearers, we have to find out where we agree with them, and build upon it. Even if only as an abstract principle, many “pro-choicers” are willing to agree that if they thought the preborn were persons, then, yes, they’d have to agree that killing them would be the worst form of aggression. Some of those who believe in the “right” to abandon children may concede that abortion as it takes place in the real world is killing and not abandonment.

We are going to have to listen. Because many on the other side are not really on the other side — at least not all the way. They are not the ones who will casually endorse infanticide as a convenient method to control population and welfare costs. Yes, they do like the “me-first” aspects of rights and given the opportunity, will ignore the less comfy points of ethics and justice. But given the opportunity, they are also willing to recognize “responsibility,” and “obligation,” and the need for limiting our choices in the light of these principles.

That doesn’t give us very much, you say? True. But in the long run, we cannot persuade anyone of anything. We must present the truth effectively and clearly. Our hearers must decide whether they will accept it or reject it. That fundamental ability and liberty of persons to choose good or evil is, after all, why we fight abortion. Abortion is what stamps it out.

John Walker
John Walker is Research Director of Libertarians for Life; he joined the LP shortly after its formation, and is currently a member of the District of Columbia LP.