Is Pro-Choice Really Pro-Life?

I am currently reading the book “True Reason” by Tom Gilson and others (the book’s official website can be found here). This isn’t a traditional apologetics book per se. Rather, it is a collection of essays by authors responding to the new atheists’ cooption of the term “reason” to describe their worldview. The contributors are not so much concerned with making an affirmative case for Christianity as they are illustrating how so many of the techniques used by the new atheists can be described as anything but reasonable.

In surfing Facebook recently, I came across this picture attempting to present an argument in favor of the pro-choice movement. As I read it, I could not help but see some parallels between the issues raised in “True Reason” and the tactics employed by those advocating in favor of abortion.

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The text on the picture read as follows:

Pro-choice activists should reframe the abortion debate and seize the pro-life label.

A pregnant woman has a life. She most likely has a family she loves and who loves her, she has friends, she has hopes and dreams and has established her place in society. The fetus she carries has none of that. How can something with no life have any right to dictate the choices of someone who already has one?

Be pro-life. Support the woman’s right to decide what one does and does not belong in hers.

As of this writing, 291 people have “liked” this photo and it has been “shared” 81 times. It is a sad state for the pro-choice camp (as it is for the pro-life camp when its proponents resort to similar tactics) that so many people rally behind such an obviously flawed argument.

There were many things I could have pointed out in response, but I focused on two. One, which did not get a response from anyone, pointed out the logical fallacy committed by the author.

This is an example of a classic logical error called “equivocation,” using the same term (in this case “life”) to mean two different things but acting as if it means the same. In one context (i.e., the morality of abortion) “life” means possessing the quality of being alive such that you have a right to life. The examples this picture provides, however, use “life” in the context of “quality of life” (as in the phrase “get a life”). The term may be the same, but the definitions are not. It is an example of rhetorical sleight of hand that is not logically valid.

While some other pro-lifers pointed out the same error, as of when I am writing this post, nobody has responded to it.

The other response I gave was more of a reflection. I simply reiterated back the substance of this argument, cutting through the rhetorical flourish, to force people to face exactly what it is they are advocating.

So in order to be “alive” you must (1) have a family you love and who loves you, (2) have friends, (3) have hopes and dreams, and (4) have established your place in society (whatever that means). If you do not have these things, you are not “alive.”

When stated this simply, the unstated implications are obvious. If this is really our standard for being “alive,” abandoned newborn infants are not alive and enjoy no right to life. Arguably, adult homeless individuals with no family to speak of also are not “alive.”

I did get a response to this comment, although it did not squarely answer the question I presented. Instead, the author “Judy” changed the subject.

No Ken, to be alive you need to be able to live outside of my body. Until then it’s my choice.

Judy presented me with the classic viability argument. A fetus is not alive until it is viable outside the womb. One of my favorite responses to this argument is from the movie “Come What May.” It illustrates how in order for this argument to succeed it must start out by assuming that the fetus was alive in the womb, the very thing it is trying to refute.

The viability argument states that if the fetus does not survive when removed from the womb, it is not viable and therefore not alive. Essentially, we have to concede that the fetus is in a perfectly good life support system inside the womb. That system is doing its job just fine, keeping the fetus alive. According to this argument, if the fetus fails to survive when we rip the fetus out of this superior life support system and place it into an inferior one of our own making, it was not alive to begin with.

However, the very concept of whether the fetus “survives” assumes that it was alive in the first place. “Survival” means continuing to live. You cannot “continue” to live unless you are alive in the first place. The viability standard itself begins by assuming the fetus is alive inside the womb, the very thing it is trying to refute.

Sometimes that response can go over the heads of those not versed in philosophy, so I decided to try a different approach with Judy. Rather than showing her how her view is self-destructive (something Greg Koukl calls the “suicide tactic), I instead chose to “take the roof off;” i.e., demonstrate the consequences of her belief if carried to its logical conclusion.

Just to be sure I am understanding you correctly, Judy, as medical science has developed, so has the definition of when “life” begins. 50 years ago, we certainly did not have the medical technology to keep a baby alive outside the womb nearly as early in its pre-natal development as we do today. So if I am understanding you correctly, two babies/fetuses could be at the exact same stage of development, one from 50 years ago and one today, and the one 50 years ago was not yet “alive” but the one today is? Or to provide another example, two babies/fetuses today, one is in the United States with a superior medical system, the other in a poorly developed country without the medical services and technologies we enjoy here. Both are at the same stage of development. The one in the U.S. is alive but the one in the poorly developed country is not. Am I understanding your standard correctly?

Unfortunately, Judy did not respond.

These tactics are much more effective in face-to-face discussions when the person being questioned cannot ignore your inquiry. But even in online contexts they can be effective in forcing people to face the full implications of their belief and evaluate whether their worldview is really well reasoned or if they re holding to it for purely emotional reasons.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Ken Coughlan

Ken Coughlan founded Ten Minas Ministries, a Christian apologetics ministry, in January, 2006. He is now a Director with Ratio Christi. In addition to these ministries, Ken is a practicing attorney, earning his Juris Doctor from the College of William & Mary in 1998. He is currently licensed in four different jurisdictions.

You can contact Ken via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kencoughlan.ratiochristi.

  • LamberthG

    So you hold tenaciously that a few cells are a baby for only emotional reasons! Don’t equate a few cells with a slave as a person! Personhood counts, and someone comatose has that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.coughlan.7 Ken Coughlan

    @ LamberthG. Perhaps you could direct me to what in the blog post led you to conclude that I “hold tenaciously that a few cells are a baby for only emotional reasons.” Actually, I think the post was quite clear that the opposite is true. I hold that position for logical reasons, because it is inconsistent to hold otherwise.

    In fact, even the way you phrase your comment demonstrates your unspoken starting assumption that require justification. You label the item in the womb “a few cells.” On what basis? If I were to call it “a baby” without providing any additional evidence to support that position, have I offered any evidence? No, I have not. What I would have done is simply made a conclusory statement of my position. It is akin to a lawyer’s opening or closing arguments in a court trial. Those statements themselves are not evidence, nor is your label of the item in the womb as “a few cells.” When making a proposition, you have an obligation to support that proposition; i.e., WHY do you contend that it is nothing but “a few cells” and what exactly do you mean by that (after all, compared to all the cells in the universe, I could label any single individual as only “a few cells,” but that in and of itself does not exclude that individual from being a living human being).
    What you call “a few cells” actually shows signs of biological development, something unique to living organisms. Rocks do not develop biologically. Thus, it is a living organism. It also has its own DNA signature, separate and apart from the mother’s. So it is a biological organism that is NOT merely part of the mother.
    Your response also raises the classic “personhood” argument. While this is somewhat off the topic of the original blog post, it also fails when we take the roof off of it. What exactly are the requirements to be a “person?” Traditionally it is advanced as being a human life plus something else. What that “something else” is varies depending on the advocate (and you did not identify what your “something else” is in your response). For example, someone favoring this position may acknowledge that biologically the item in the womb is a human life, but continue to argue that it still is not a “person” because, while it is alive, it lacks viability or self-awareness or the ability to feel pain, or whatever their “something else” may be.
    When we follow this position through to its logical conclusion, however, it inevitably leads to us denying personhood to people outside the womb as well. Someone on a ventilator is not capable of surviving on their own biological power. A person with severe mental deficiency may lack the self-awareness the rest of us enjoy. Under this argument, killing such people is morally acceptable because they are not “persons” and therefore do not enjoy a right to life.
    The personhood argument also suffers from the problem of justification. Why should we accept one person’s definition of a “person” over another’s? The definitions are carved out with a particular destination in mind; i.e., denying the right to life to the unborn. Rather than examining the evidence and following it to its natural conclusion, personhood arguments arrive at the desired conclusion first, then seek to formulate a definition of personhood that seemingly jusitifies that conclusion. But this begs the question of what justifies the particular definition of personhood?

  • Motorchicken

    Dear Ken,
    I have been reading through several of your posts ( having just recently discovered this web site ) and I have been disappointed to see, at least from what I’ve read thus far, that much of the feedback to your insightful and respectfully written articles has only been from non-Christian detractors and elephant-hurlers.
    So this is just a small, humble comment to tell you that as a still-learning and truth-seeking Christian, I am loving your insight and I believe you have been blessed with a true apologetic gift. Thank you. I am so looking forward to reading more of what you have written.