Sunday, April 15, 2012

A pro-choice argument that really drives me batty

So everybody knows I'm maximally pro-choice, right? I oppose restrictions on abortion at any time during pregnancy. My reasoning is three fold: 1) Before 20-odd weeks or so, the fetus is clearly not a person by any reasonable standard, so there is no good reason whatsoever to oppose abortion in this interval; 2) the vast majority of very late abortions are performed for legitimate medical reasons, and any attempt to legislate against the few truly elective abortions that occur in this time frame would be exploited by theocratic assholes who have a very different definition of "legitimate medical reasons" than I do; and 3) even if that weren't the case, The Famous Violinist thought experiment provides a pretty compelling argument against restricting abortions at any time.1

But there's a pro-choice argument that I hear from time to time which makes my spine crawl. Namely, it's the whole "if you don't like abortion, don't get one" thing. I've heard people I really respect repeat this howler, I think my wife even said it in passing one time, yet I have to say, it really gets my dander up.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to address any of the arguments being made by anti-choice advocates, and in fact it fails in such a way that it could suggest to them that we simply haven't understood what they are trying to tell us, and if only they just showed us one more gruesome picture...

To see the absurdity of this argument, all we have to do is apply it to other scenarios: "If you don't like drunk driving, don't do it." "If you think Trayvon Martin's killing was wrong, don't go shooting yourself a black boy." "If you think fracking is wrong, don't do it." You see my point.

Now, this form of argument is valid in certain contexts where all sides agree that what is being legislated is solely an individual's moral choice, with no effect on any other individuals. It's a mostly valid argument in terms of drug laws, for example. It's entirely valid when it comes to most types of censorship. It's still not a knock-down argument even in those cases, because those endorsing those draconian prohibitions are at least nominally arguing that there are secondary effects which harm society at large. (And in the case of drug use, they are technically correct; if everybody stopped using recreational drugs tomorrow, it would be a tremendous savings to health care -- not that drug laws could ever accomplish that, but let me stop before I digress too much) It is a knock-down argument when it comes to same-sex marriage. In this case, it is agreed by all parties that the harm is not some tangible effect of the act, but that the harm is the act itself -- and in those cases, the "if you don't like it, don't do it" argument is valid.

"Ah," says my fellow pro-choice advocate, "but this is exactly like those cases, because a fetus is not a person. So no other 'people' are being affected!" Well, yes, I agree. (Well, I think it's trickier when you get past 20-odd weeks, but I will steer away from this because, as I hope I made clear in my opening paragraph, I consider that to be a philosophical question not relevant to public policy) But the point is, anti-choice advocates don't agree with that, or at the very least that is not the argument they are making. I am not aware of any anti-choicer whose talking points consist of, "Yeah, a fetus isn't a person, but abortion is bad anyway and I don't like it so people should stop!" (That, sadly, is the basic gist of the talking points made by censorious prudes, but once again I am needlessly digressing...)

By making the "if you don't like it, don't get one" argument, the message you are sending to anti-choice advocates is that you haven't even considered the idea that a fetus might be a person, that this is a new concept for you. I imagine that must be pretty emboldening to them. All they have to do is show you that a fetus is a person, and you'll realize that your entire reason for being pro-choice is as silly as "if you don't like 'stand your ground' laws, don't stand your ground!"

And even if I am wrong about how this argument is received by anti-choicers, it's still a dumb argument and verges on arguing in bad faith. It pretends that the other sides' arguments are something other than what they are. The fact that the other sides' real arguments are equally bad does not excuse this. If I argue that the video evidence of the moon landing must be fake because the moon is made of green cheese and we don't see green cheese in the videos, you cannot respond by simply reiterating the existence of the videos. That does not address my (clearly absurd) premise, nor does it address the resulting argument, which is that despite the videos' appearance of legitimacy, we know it must be fake because it failed to show sufficient evidence of emerald fromagerie. You must start by first telling me the moon is not made of green cheese, or else you have failed to tell me anything of value.

In order to address mainstream anti-choice arguments, you must either go after the idea that a fetus is a person, or you must make an argument in favor of personal bodily autonomy a la the Famous Violinist. When you make the silly argument I attacked here, all you are saying (in the minds of an anti-choice advocate) is, "If you don't like murder, don't kill anybody." Come on, people, we are actually right here, we ought to be able to do better!!

1It occurred to me after writing this that my position is informed by quite a few pragmatic arguments as well, e.g. legal abortion and availability of contraception decreases both abortions and all types of unwanted pregnancies; illegal abortions are dangerous and will happen anyway (i.e. even if you thought abortion was an outright evil, there would still be an argument for legalization in terms of harm reduction), etc. I don't feel these arguments are philosophically necessary for my position, but they are important nonetheless and I only really omitted them in the interest of space: This post is not about why one should be pro-choice (in fact I am assuming most everyone who ever reads this already is), it is about one particularly bad pro-choice argument. Still, I feel bad giving short shrift to these additional pragmatic arguments in my opening paragraph.


  1. I use that statement when the other person has clearly indicated they will never consider personal autonomy of value to end the discussion. And to make it clear I refer to miscarriages, abortions, inducing and c-sections as terminating a pregnancy hoping to make it clear that if we were serious about "saving all embryos" we would be developing artificial uteri.

  2. ack what a word salad that first line is. rephrase. I use that phrase to end discussion if I feel the other person would never consider personal autonomy to be important.

  3. I guess I can see it's use as a conversation-ender. I'm still not fond of it, for the reasons I discussed, but if it's a situation where you're not trying to convince the person anyways and just want to end discussion, I suppose it's valid.

    When I get irritated about it is more like when the argument is just thrown out there, not necessarily directed at anyone in particular, but like e.g. on a Facebook post. The example that spurred me to write this blog post, for example, was a friend who shared a photo from Being Liberal (the photo was a catchy phrase to the effect that Roe v. Wade wasn't the start of women having abortions, it was the end of women dying from them) with a caption that read, "If you're against abortions then don't have one."

    I kind of feel like the caption might as well have read, "Liberals still haven't heard all of your clever pro-choice arguments, so please enlighten us!" ;)

  4. I think people say it to shut pro life nutjobs up. Thats why i say it