With the right-wing in resurgence, we’ll see a stepped-up assault on Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. The anti-choice movement is going to become bolder, and they’re going to push at least as hard as they did during Bush II. Thus, we have to push back.
At times, especially for newbies, their arguments can seem daunting. You know something is wrong, you’re just not sure where it went wrong or how to articulate it outside of, “No, you’re wrong!”
As you can imagine, this isn’t a very compelling or convincing argument, especially when you consider that we’re always modeling behavior for someone who hasn’t made up their opinions yet. Therefore, we need more concrete arguments, and that’s what I’m setting out to do here in addressing five of the most common (as I’ve seen, anyway) anti-choice arguments.
#1: Fetuses are Human Beings
Argument: Abortion should be banned because a fetus is a human being. Anti-choicers often cite biologists, and you’ll see (often times heavily mined) quotes from doctors and physicians to back this up. A common one I’ve seen is a quote that I can’t verify from Landrum Shettles, the father of IVF, that declares, “human life beings at conception.”
How to respond: “Yes, and?”
What’s going on here: This argument, like many of the arguments anti-choicers make, conflates “human” with “person.” This rhetorical shell game isn’t necessarily their fault, either; in common usage, most people use “human” and “person” interchangeably.
As a word, “human” is to “H. s. sapiens” what “chimpanzee” is to P. troglodytes and “dog” is to “C. l. familiaris.” What separates humans from chimpanzees and dogs, ultimately, is genetics. Therefore, it’s not outrageous to say that genetics are what defines whether or not you’re human.
But genetics do not define personhood, and words are important when you’re discussing legal and philosophical situations. Personhood is a legal and philosophical concept, not a scientific one. For instance, see the Great Ape Personhood project, or movements that push for personhood status regarding cetaceans like dolphins and whales. They aren’t human.
Legally and philosophically, “human” and “person” aren’t the same word.
Which leads us to second argument.
#2: Abortion is Slavery
Argument: Abortion is like slavery, because the slave owners didn’t regard the slaves as people, and pro-choice proponents don’t acknowledge fetuses as people, either. Sometimes, this gets tied with how common abortion is in the black and African-American community, just to hammer the point home. Other times, you’ll see it compared with the Holocaust.
How to respond: “A fetus isn’t an actual person, a slave is. Therefore, a fetus and a slave are not the same thing.”
What’s going on here: Aside from some really bad logic and flawed understanding of how evil slavery is, this argument is a continuation of the first — a conflation of “humans” with “persons.”
On the surface, it seems like the analysis of the first point dovetails into this one. After all, if you’re denying the personhood of a fetus, that’s just like slave owners denying the personhood of a slave, or Nazis denying the personhood of a Jew, right?
Well, no. First, there’s a very important distinction to make: the distinction between what is, the “actual,” and what might be, or the “potential.” We make this distinction all the time; we act differently if we know we’re getting an actual raise or actual money than if we’re getting a potential raise or potential money.
And that’s true for everything. The distinction between the actual and the potential, and the increased weight in favor of the actual over the potential, can be summed up as, “actuality is greater than potentiality.”
The slave, then, is an actual person. They have wants, needs, desires, and a life — a life that’s better without a master in it. It’s not hard to demonstrate that a slave is an actual person.
But the fetus is not an actual person — the fetus is a potential person. There’s the potential for it to be born and grow into an actual person, just like there’s the potential for you to get a new job. But you don’t have that new job, and the fetus isn’t a person, until it becomes actuality.
Thus, a fetus cannot be a slave, since it’s not an actual person, so the argument isn’t a valid one.
#3: Abortion is Murder
Argument: Terminating the fetus is the same thing as murder. Sometimes, you’ll hear people claim that the mother should be punished as a result of murder. To back this up, you may see them cite certain legal rulings.
How to Respond: “A fetus is not an actual person. Terminating it shouldn’t have the same legal or moral weight as killing an actual person.”
What’s going on here: Again, it’s more conflating “human” with “person,” but you also have a confusion of the “actual” and the “potential.” Our own legal system hasn’t helped this, since there’s confused rulings on the matter.
A fetus, you’ll recall, is a potential person. But when does this potential person become an actual person? That’s important, since terminating a potential person isn’t the same as killing an actual one.
I tend to side with tradition on this one — it becomes an actual person when it’s born, at which point its death no longer directly risks the physical health of the mother. Up to that point, if it dies, it runs the risk of going septic and killing the mother.
Rather than argue when it becomes a person, however, I’d argue that there’s already an actual person in the mix that we all agree is an actual person — the mother. And since she’s an actual person, her wants, wishes, and desires should be placed above the fetus.
Now, does this mean that the mother can kill her children?
No, because, like I noted above, it becomes an actual person when it’s born and its death no longer directly risks the health of the mother. Thus, murdering an infant or toddler in this view remains murder, while aborting a fetus is not.
#4: Life Begins at (the Moment of) Conception
Argument: Life starts at conception, and by ending life there, or otherwise impeding life, you’re committing murder.
How to respond: “Life began 3.5 billion years ago. What began during the process of conception is a potential person, not an actual person.”
What’s going on here: This one is an extension of point three, but it’s not as logically coherent. The reason this statement is so muddled is because most anti-choicers aren’t scientists and haven’t studied biology.
The context they’re aiming for with this is that the life of an individual person begins at the moment of conception, which, as I’ve shown above, is wrong. The life of a potential person begins during conception (which is a process, not a moment), but the actual person happens much later.
#5: If You Don’t Want It, Don’t Have Sex
Argument: If you don’t want the baby, then you shouldn’t have sex. Note that this is also a distillation of the natural law opposition to abortion, since it can also be argued, “pregnancy is a natural consequence of sex.”
How to respond: “Sex and pregnancy aren’t the same thing.”
What’s going on here: This one shifts gears from the other four. While the other four were at least high-minded if wrong-headed, this one reveals the true goals of the anti-choice movement: controlling sexuality and punishing sexually active women by forcing responsibility on them they don’t want or deserve.
It also reveals another problem with the way anti-choicers view the world: they don’t understand consent. A person can give consent to have sex, but consent to have sex doesn’t mean giving consent to be pregnant. And it is as simple as that — nobody has any right to anyone else’s body without that person giving permission first. This includes a fetus, which isn’t even an actual person.
Furthermore, sex and reproduction are almost completely divorced. Widespread availability of family planning methods and birth control mean that you can have sex without risking pregnancy anymore, so now more than ever saying “yes” to sex doesn’t mean saying “yes” to pregnancy.
While some anti-choicers do support birth control and access to family planning, they’re an astonishingly small percentage. That fact, when coupled with this argument, illustrates precisely what most anti-choicers think children are: a punishment for being sexually active. Which isn’t a terribly healthy relationship to have with children, but let’s face it — nobody ever accused these theocrats of having a healthy relationship with anything, including reality.
Feature image via Flickr by Steve Rhodes