Seth Millstein at Bustle has compiled a list of 11 pro-choice responses to common pro-life arguments. I’m genuinely grateful to him for doing so, since it involved taking the pro-life positions actually somewhat seriously, instead of assuming that pro-lifers only oppose dismembering fetuses because they hate women and are obsessed with sex. Millstein also highlights the weaknesses of the arguments on both sides. It’s true that not every pro-life argument is a good one, and that’s an important thing for pro-lifers to remember (so that we can stop using ineffective or inaccurate arguments). But spelling out the arguments on both sides also shows the ultimate indefensibility of the “pro-choice” side.
Today, I want to consider the first three of his eleven arguments, because they strike me as the most important ones.
Common Argument #1: A fetus is a human being, and human beings have the right to life, so abortion is murder.
This is obviously the biggest issue. Millstein responds to it by saying “I’m probably not going to convince you that a fetus isn’t a life, as that’s basically the most intractable part of this whole debate,” but then offers four revealing arguments for the pro-choice side:
- “A fetus can’t survive on its own. It is fully dependent on its mother’s body, unlike born human beings.”
This argument proves the very thing that he’s trying to deny: that the fetus is alive. The sentence “A rock can’t survive on its own” is meaningless, because a rock isn’t alive, so we can speak of it surviving or dying. The fact that Millstein acknowledges that, without the mother’s help, a fetus will die establishes that the fetus is alive.
In any case, the argument that fetuses aren’t alive because they rely on their mothers for nutrients is bizarre and incoherent. A breastfeeding child relies fully on his mother for nutrients, too. If you abandon a small kid in the desert, he’ll die pretty quickly. In what world does that prove that he was never alive in the first place?
Besides that, after the fetus becomes “viable,” he or she can survive outside of the womb, with medical assistance. That point of viability is moving ever closer to conception, at least in the First World. Today, an unborn child in America has a fighting chance of surviving outside of the womb if she’s born at 23 or (especially) 24 weeks. An unborn child is Somalia has much worse odds. By Millstein’s argument, should we conclude that the unborn American is a human with rights, but the unborn Somalian isn’t?
This argument could be summed up as “without help, you’re almost certainly going to die soon, so you’re not really alive.” But worded that way, it’s obviously indefensible.
- “Even if a fetus was alive, the “right to life” doesn’t imply a right to use somebody else’s body. People have the right to refuse to donate their organs, for example, even if doing so would save somebody else’s life.”
Unlike the organ donation cases, there are moral and legal obligations between parents and children. If you don’t feed your children and they die, you done a terrible thing (and committed an awful crime), even though you’re not legally required to write a check to save starving children halfway around the world. That’s because we recognize that there’s a special bond that parents have with their children, because those children are dependants, as in, dependant upon their parents. Pro-choice arguments that deny this relationship strike at the heart of our humanity.
When I say that, I’m not exaggerating. Radical libertarianism and pro-choice political philosophies operate in a fictional world in which everyone enters society as a radically-free autonomous creature. That’s never been the case for anyone. Every single one of us entered this world as a fetus, wholly dependant upon others (even long after our birth!) to take care of our basic human needs. Without some kind of family or someone to take care of us, each of us would have died. Liberalism has classically recognized this, and used it as an argument for a stronger social net: none of us can make it on our own, so we must look out for one another. But the pro-choice arguments for abortion take a dark twist on that, saying in essence that those who can’t make it on their own have no rights (not even the right to live!), since they’re an imposition. It’s a repudiation of everything good about liberalism.
That’s the biggest point, but there’s another reason that the organ donation analogy fails. If I wake up, as in the “Violinist” thought experiment, to find someone strapped to me using my organs, I don’t have the legal or moral right to poison them or cut them into pieces. Abortion doesn’t just remove the fetus’ lifeline to her mother; it directly kills the child. The organ donation analogy conveniently ignores that dimension.
- The “right to life” also doesn’t imply a right to live by threatening somebody else’s life. Bearing children is always a threat the life of the mother (see below).
Millstein is subtly manipulating terms here. He’s saying that because the mother’s life is “threatened,” therefore the child is “threatening somebody else’s life.” That false. Legally, a “threat” is “a menace; a declaration of one’s purpose or intention to work injury to the person, property, or rights of another.” Nobody is seriously claiming that the baby is saying “I’m going to kill you, mom!” or even that she is purposely endangering her mother’s life. She’s simply existing. Existing isn’t threatening somebody else’s life.
Think about it this way: back in the 80s, there was fear and confusion about how AIDS was transmitted, and no one knew whether it could be transmitted by simple skin contact, or through the air, etc. Not unreasonably, people felt that their health and life were threatened. Does that mean that the AIDS patients were “threatening somebody else’s life,” and that they should be murdered? If you prefer, replace “AIDS” with an actual airborne virus: the point still stands. Sometimes other peoples’ existence is an inconvenience or even a health risk. But you don’t get to kill them for that reason, and that’s not what “self-defense” means.
- A “right to life” is, at the end of the day, a right to not have somebody else’s will imposed upon your body. Do women not have this right as well?
A “right to life” isn’t a right to not have somebody else’s will imposed upon your body. Food regulations banning me from drinking unpasteurized milk are an imposition on how I treat my body. No serious person claims that those are a contradiction of the “right to life.” The right to life is a much more fundamental right. By the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment, it’s a right to not be killed without due process.
There’s no universal right “to not have somebody else’s will imposed upon your body,” and supposedly “pro-choice” people regularly demonstrate this by affirming all sorts of impositions on the choices and bodies of other people. But even if there were such a right to not have somebody else’s will imposed upon your body, can you imagine a more dramatic violation of it than having someone murder you in the womb against your will?
It’s worth noting that all four of Millstein’s arguments could boil down to “fetuses are weaker and more dependant that we are, so they have no human rights.” This is a barbaric “might makes right” mentality that grinds the weak underfoot, and runs directly contrary to almost all of the other positions affirmed by the Left.
Common Argument #2: If a woman is willing to have sex, she’s knowingly taking the risk of getting pregnant, and should be responsible for her actions.
Millstein responds by denying that childbirth is always responsibility, since he thinks poor children should be killed, so that they don’t have to go through a life of suffering (or so that we don’t have to suffer their existence). He words it more gently, of course: “I’d argue that if a mother knows she won’t be able to provide for her child, it’s actually more responsible to have an abortion, and in doing so prevent a whole lot of undue suffering and misery.” That’s just another variation of “crush the weak,” so let’s look at his other argument:
If you think getting an abortion is “avoiding responsibility,” that implies that it’s a woman’s responsibility to bear a child if she chooses to have sex. That sounds suspiciously like you’re dictating what a woman’s role and purpose is, and a lot less like you’re making an argument about the life of a child. [….]
Presumably, you oppose abortions even in cases where contraception fails (and it does sometimes fail, even when used perfectly). If that’s true, you’re saying that, by merely choosing to have sex — with or without a condom — a woman becomes responsible for having a child. And that’s a belief that has everything to do with judging a woman’s behavior, and nothing to do with the value of life.
At the end of the piece, he summarizes this point succinctly: “Women do not have a “responsibility” to have children, and certainly don’t assume such a responsibility by virtue of deciding to have sex.” So it’s sexist to say that women who consensually have sex should be responsible for the children that they procreate.
To see what a great argument this is, replace “woman” with “man” and “getting an abortion” with “shirking child support payments.” It’s so sexist and judgmental of you to assume that just because a man has sex, he should be responsible for his children! Your insistence that he take care of the children that he procreated dictates what a man’s role and purpose is.
Hopefully, you see the subtle double standard at play. With men, we have no problem saying: “you chose to have a sex, a child was created, now you are responsible for providing for that child.” Pretending that it’s sexist to say the exact same thing to women just isn’t a serious argument. Men are legally and morally expected to engage in sexual behavior with an awareness that their actions have potential consequences, including fatherhood. Holding women to the same standard isn’t sexist: it’s just treating women as rational, morally responsible actors.
Common Argument #3: But I’m okay with abortions in cases of rape.
Millstein is right on point here when he responds:
Why only in those cases? Are the lives of children who were conceived by rape worth less than the lives of children who were willfully conceived? If preserving the life of the child takes primacy over the desires of the mother — which is what you’re saying if you if you oppose any legal abortions — then it shouldn’t matter how that life was conceived.
It’s true that consensual sexual intercourse carries with it the responsibility of parenthood, but the pro-life argument isn’t “this baby is your punishment for sex.” Rather, the pro-life argument is that all humans, regardless of how they were conceived or how poor they are or how weak and need they are or how much their parents love them, have a right not to be murdered. And if we chip away at this right, the rest of our “rights” discourse is meaningless. If we don’t even have a right to not get murdered (or if only some of us get that right, because we’re strong), you can save your breath about the rest of our “rights.”
People who are “pro-life except in cases of rape” want a smaller caveat to the principle that we have a right to life, but it’s still an indefensible caveat. While we’re on the subject, people often say that they are pro-life except in cases of “rape or incest.” This is one of those things people seem to say without really thinking it through. Are you referring to non-consensual incest? In that case, you’re just saying “rape or a more specific type of rape,” and it’s redundant. Or are you saying that even in cases of consensual incest, the child should be aborted because they might be deformed or physically or mentally impaired in some way? If that’s the case, it’s just another case of “crush the weak.” But whatever the case, the “incest” exception makes even less sense than the rape exception.