This has been bothering me for some time. The most obvious example of it is the abortion debate, especially in Internet circles. The pro-lifers like to nock their arrows and let them fly, but they forget to put fletching on the arrows, so they always miss the mark. The pro-choicers are setting up straw men and knocking them down, but they don’t even knock them down well.
Both sides tend to look like the Star Wars kid.
So, in response, I’m going to break down the big problems in the arguments on both sides and hopefully this will help someone, anyone, to understand what they’re doing wrong and to discover what the debate is really about. I will do my best to be unbiased, and if I am being biased I want somebody to call me on it. Also, if I neglect to address an argument on either side, or to criticize an argument effectively, I want to know so that I can refine the discussion.
Basic Argument TheoryArguments generally start with two or more premises, and reason leads us to the logical conclusion from those prepositions. Example:
P1: Cars have wheels.
P2: A 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue is a car.
C: A 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue has wheels.
Note that you can only draw the conclusion (abortion is good/bad) if people accept all of your premises.
Arguments that are unconvincing generally have one of the following problems:
1. They assume that people accept their premises.
2. They don’t state all of their premises.
3. They skip premises altogether and move on to the conclusion.
The last problem is the worst of them all, because it only serves to make people angry.
The Pro-Life SideThe pro-lifers generally have two arguments, although the two are inter-related. However, if you accept either argument, it is profoundly convincing.
Argument 1: The Bible says abortion is wrong.
Quoting the Bible is a fine and dandy persuasive tool, if you are arguing with someone who believes in the infallibility of the Bible, or at least in some moral authority exemplified in the Bible. Here is how the argument should look, and why it doesn’t work:
P1: The Bible says that unjustifiable killing is wrong (murder).
P2: The Bible says that life begins at conception.
P3: There is no justification for killing an unborn life (they haven’t done anything wrong).
P4: Abortion kills unborn life.
Sub-conclusion: The Bible condemns abortion.
P5: The Bible is authoritative.
Final conclusion: Abortion is wrong.
The problem with this argument is that most pro-choicers don’t accept P5. If they don’t accept P5, what you’re left with is “The Bible condemns abortion.” To pro-choicers, this sounds like this argument:
P1: The Koran says that you should not eat pork.
P2: The Koran is authoritative.
C: You should not eat pork.
This is unconvincing to Christians because they don’t accept P2. Non-Christians likewise don’t accept the Bible as authoritative, and therefore the argument has no effect on them.
Argument 2: Abortion is murder.
This is basically the secularized version of the above argument. This is how it goes:
P1: Murder (the unjustifiable killing of a human) is wrong.
P2: A fetus/embryo/zygote is a human.
P3: Abortion ends the life of (kills) a fetus/embryo/zygote.
C: Abortion is wrong.
The problem with this argument is that pro-choicers do not accept P2. I’ll get back to that later.
The Pro-Choice SideThe pro-choice side has many more arguments. They are generally more complex than the pro-life arguments. The problem is that as long as pro-lifers accept the above arguments, none of these arguments will be good enough. Pro-lifers believe that abortion is murder, and murder is the ultimate moral wrong. The moral wrongs that pro-choicers seek to rectify are not as compelling as murder. Of course, to a pro-choicer, abortion is not murder.
Argument 1: A woman has the right to do what she wants with her body.
P1: A woman’s body is her own business and no one else’s.
P2: A fetus/embryo/zygote is part of a woman’s body.
P3: Abortion removes tissue (fetus/embryo/zygote) from a woman’s body.
C: Abortion is acting on a woman’s body, and is nobody else’s business.
The problem with this argument is that pro-lifers do not accept P2. People get emotional about P1, and they think that pro-lifers don’t accept P1, but this is not the case. I think that nearly everyone would agree about P1. So, therein lies the matter: what is a fetus/embryo/zygote? I’ll get back to that later.
Argument 2: Imposing moral standards on other people is wrong.
P1: (assumes that Argument 1 is accepted)
P2: Morality is relative.
P3: Imposing moral standards on other people is wrong (immoral).
C: Making others lose their right to choose abortion is wrong.
This is a highly problematic argument. First, it assumes that Argument 1 is accepted, and we have already established that pro-lifers do not accept it. Second, Christians do not accept P2 because they believe that the Bible is authoritative and absolute. Finally, it is (arguably) self-contradictory because P2 and P3 seem to be in conflict. If morality is relative, then there is no standard on which to judge what is wrong—and therefore there is no basis for stating that imposition of morality is wrong.
It also fails because government polices morality all the time (gambling, prostitution, stealing, and even murder). Yes, most morality laws also have an economic or public health justification, but for many of these laws this element is a stretch.
There are things that can be done to refine the argument, but these too are problematic. You can replace P2 and P3 with the premise that “the only immoral thing is to impose morals on other people,” but this premise in itself is arguably self-contradictory, and in any case is unconvincing. Plato and Aristotle would throw a fit about that.
You could also replace P3 with another sub-conclusion that since morality is relative, there is no rational basis for deciding what is moral. This is a much more acceptable argument, but it also reduces its persuasive force. It is much more powerful to say that something is wrong than it is to say that there is no way to decide whether something is right. Also, I reiterate that the government polices morality all the time.
Argument 3: Pro-lifers are hypocritical.
P1: Pro-lifers are against the killing of fetuses.
P2: Pick one of the following:
a. Pro-lifers approve of the death penalty
b. Pro-lifers bomb abortion clinics
c. The Bible has pro-death messages
P3: If a person has two viewpoints that are apparently in conflict, then all of their views are meaningless.
C: Pro-lifers’ views are meaningless.
This is also a highly problematic argument. P3 is a stretch, and I think most people would agree that it is not a valid premise (people who don’t like Justice Scalia often agree with some of his opinions, regardless of whether they are apparently contradictory). Also, most of the premises under P2 are faulty, for example P2a and P2c, but that’s an issue for another day. P2b, in addition, is faulty because this focuses on an extremely small subset of pro-lifers, and would be analogous to looking at pro-choice men who beat their wives.
Argument 4: People will get abortions anyway.
P1: If abortion is outlawed, people will get abortions from disreputable practitioners.
P2: Abortions from disreputable practitioners are unhealthy and dangerous.
SC: Outlawing abortion will lead to an increase in unhealthy and dangerous abortions.
P3: Unhealthy and dangerous activities are to be avoided.
C: Abortion should not be outlawed.
This is actually a solid argument from a purely theoretical standpoint. However, it is a weak argument persuasively. There are many laws that can be subjected to similar arguments: loan sharking, drug trafficking, et cetera. Does this mean that they should be legalized? Sure, if we legalized meth then it would be produced by professional chemists, and so it would be (perhaps) less dangerous and fewer labs would explode. But this is undercut by noting that meth in itself is harmful and it is better to discourage and attempt to eradicate it than to give up and allow it to happen.
Argument 5: We have no business regulating abortion because we still haven’t solved problem X.
I won’t go to the trouble of laying out the premises here because this argument is overall just silly. Problem X can be anything: world hunger, the environment, poverty, cancer, or anything else. But who decides which problem is more important?
Regardless, I can’t recall the name of the theory that refutes this, but it essentially uses the following equation: A * B = C. A is the seriousness of the problem and B is how easy it is to solve the problem. C is your return on investment of time. If a problem is serious, it makes more sense to put more work into it to solve the problem. Conversely, if a problem is easy to take care of, but the problem is not serious, it still makes sense to fix the problem. Usually, however, Problem X may be serious, but it is also extremely difficult to fix, and therefore the return on investment is less and it makes sense to defer fixing the problem until other problems (with a higher return on investment) are fixed.
Argument 6: You can’t impose different laws on men than you do on women.
Again, I won’t go into the premises and conclusion on this one, but it suffices to say that if you assume that a fetus is human, then you are not regulating the mother, but are regulating instead the fetus. This argument focuses on the pregnant mother, not on the fetus itself and whether it is human.
The Crux of the Matter: What is Human?So, it is clear that only two arguments remain effective, and so these should be the focus of discussion: Argument 2 from the pro-life side and Argument 1 from the pro-choice side. Let’s sum them up in ways that everyone can agree on, in one argument:
P1: Murder (the unjustifiable destruction of a human) is wrong.
P2: A woman’s body is her own business and no one else’s.
P3: Abortion destroys a fetus/embryo/zygote.
Sub-conclusion 1: If a fetus/embryo/zygote is human, then abortion is murder and is wrong.
Sub-conclusion 2: If a fetus/embryo/zygote is not human, then abortion is acting on a woman’s body and the state does not have a right to prohibit it.
So we can see, as the courts have correctly concluded, that the whole debate should focus on whether or not a fetus/embryo/zygote is human. If they are not human, then the pro-life arguments have no force and may be viewed as sexist or oppressive. However, if they are human, the pro-choice arguments are overridden by the pro-life arguments and may be viewed as barbaric and inhumane. But how are we to determine what constitutes a human being?
(Side note: I realize that linguistically P3 may bother some people. Some prefer to say that abortion terminates a pregnancy. This, however true it may be, is really a euphemism because pregnancy is defined as the state in which a woman has a fetus/embryo/zygote in her womb. Therefore it makes more sense to focus on the fetus/embryo/zygote itself.)
As far as I can tell, there are only four views as to when a fetus/embryo/zygote becomes human: birth, conception, intermediate point, and viability.
View 1: Birth
I will address this view first, as I think there are fewer adherents to this view than any of the others. The view is attractive because it provides a bright-line rule and is very easy to apply. It’s also attractive to a few pro-choice advocates because it gives women the most latitude to decide whether they want to have a baby. Most people, however, view it as somewhat barbaric. Also, there is no rational basis for this view. Would it then be permissible to abort the fetus during labor? If not, then a week beforehand?
For an example illustrating why this is problematic, take the example of two women. They become pregnant on the same day and the tissue inside develops at the same rate. The first woman delivers a week premature, but the second delivers a week late. Essentially, both fetuses are the same at the expected due date, but this definition would allow the second woman to abort on the expected due date.
The real problem with this is that it defines X by looking at Y. Magma is molten rock inside the earth, but lava is molten rock outside the earth. The two things are really the same, so it doesn’t make sense to treat them differently.
View 2: Conception
This view is attractive because it also provides a bright-line rule. It also makes sense because conception is the point at which a new strand of unique DNA is formed. It’s problematic to some, however, because they can’t see it and it doesn’t look like a human being to them. In addition, it often does not grow into what people see as a full-fledged human being because of miscarriages. So to some it seems that at conception something merely has the potential to become life. Pro-choice advocates, who look at it as potential rather than fact, would argue that this could be extended to apply to simple sperm and eggs. This argument has no force because sperm and eggs each have only half a strand of DNA.
View 3: Intermediate Point
This view can be attractive because it provides a bright-line rule. Where, however, do you draw the line? There seems to be no rational basis for drawing the line at any given point in between conception and birth. What is the difference between a fetus at 6 months and a fetus at 7 months? The only rational basis given can be viability, which I will cover next. Essentially, this view can only be sustained on the basis that it is a bright-line version of the viability standard, so we must take a point at which viability is most likely and draw the line there.
View 4: Viability
This is the standard that the courts and most pro-choice advocates have adopted. It is attractive to many people because it provides the point at which the fetus is most likely to survive, and because it gives wide latitude to women that want to get an abortion. I believe Roe v. Wade and its progeny give a good reason to choose this point: it is at the point of viability that the state gets a bigger interest in protecting the fetus. Before viability, the fetus is likely not to survive anyway without the help of the mother. After viability, the fetus would likely survive without the mother’s help, and so the mother should have no right to kill it just because it inhabits her womb.
There are essentially three problems with this view:
First, viability is a very malleable concept, and the percentage chance of survival does not mean that any given fetus would or would not survive outside the mother. This view, like view 3, sacrifices the actual outcome for the sake of probability.
Second, if you take the position that viability makes a fetus human, there are highly offensive logical extensions of the view. For one thing, should we try to make life good for a child who has a genetic defect that will kill him by the time he turns 18? Does someone that needs life support remain human?
Third, and most importantly, this is not really a principled distinction, and so it is really balancing the interests and does not actually determine at what point a fetus becomes human. It assumes that you can balance the right of a human to live based on their chances of survival. Example: assume a jumbo jet with 400 passengers is going to crash. If we do nothing, they have a 10% chance of survival. Are they still human? Everyone would answer yes, but some would point out that there is no other interest that we must balance against theirs. This shows, however, that it is not a principled distinction. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is another interest. We can act to raise their chance of survival to 25%, but we put 100 more people at a 70% risk of death. So the returns are as follows:
No action: 360 people likely die (all on the jet) on average.
Action: 300 people on the jet likely die, but 70 other people likely die. This actually risks 10 more deaths on average, but if we assume that it is an all-or-nothing endeavor to save them, then most people would believe that we should take the risk.
Yes, this may be an overly dramatic example, but is the right to privacy more compelling than the right to live?
This view also raises the question: how can it be murder when someone shoots a pregnant woman in the belly, but not murder when it is her choice? It seems that if you adopt viability as your view, you can’t call it murder but must instead call it something else, like simple assault and battery, or battery resulting in the termination of pregnancy without the mother’s consent.
Conclusion: Am I Really Being Biased Here? What Is the Scope of Government Power?Conception appears to be the only principled place to draw the line. Viability does not actually give us a basis for deciding the humanness of a fetus.
However, morals do not dictate what the government should do. The inevitable conclusion from the above discussion is that abortion ends the life of a human being. But it is the states that have the power to define murder as a crime.
The inevitable conclusion is that it is not the courts who should decide, but rather the legislatures. I won’t try to make any arguments about whether the Commerce Clause and the 10th Amendment put this within the scope of federal regulation or whether it should be reserved to the individual states, but it is apparent that legislatures of one sort or the other should be free to decide whether they want to call this murder, or some other crime, or whether they want to allow abortion.
It seems to me apparent that the government, in the form of legislatures, should be able to decide which interest is more important: the life of an unborn human or a woman’s right to privacy. Most people would agree that one person can’t kill another simply to maintain their right to privacy, and most American law in fact supports the view that human life is more important than individual privacy. Here is how the argument goes:
P1: Human life begins at conception.
P2: The right to live is more important than the right to privacy.
P3: The right to privacy is the only interest that legalized abortion serves, at least in the eyes of the courts.
Sub-conclusion: Abortion can’t be justified simply on the basis of the right to privacy (the Constitution).
P4: If the Constitution does not invalidate a law, then legislatures are free to make that law.
Conclusion: Legislatures should be free to decide the legality of abortion.