Men, misogyny, and hypocrisy: When the abortion debate is about you
Discussions about important topics can become less about ideas and more about the people who express them. That's often true in the abortion debate.
Supporters of abortion don't always defend abortion or critique the pro-life position. Sometimes they offer criticisms of individuals who are pro-life instead. They attack pro-life people rather than the pro-life argument.
This is called the ad hominem fallacy. It is a mistake in reasoning because the personal criticism, even if true, has no bearing on the issue under consideration. It has no relevance to whether the pro-life view is correct. That view must be assessed on it own merits.
Ad hominem arguments in favor of abortion usually criticize pro-life people's gender, motivations, or consistency. Here's why these arguments are flawed.
Gender: 'You're a man'
"I don't understand how any man thinks that he has the right to dictate to women what they should do with their body," says Daily Show host Trevor Noah. "Men know nothing about what it's like to be a woman."
It's true that men can't fully understand what pregnancy is like. But it's also true that abortion is right or wrong, just or unjust, irrespective of the gender or personal experiences of any particular individual. Indeed, millions of women—including women who have experienced pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, and adoption—think the pro-life argument is sound.
That argument cannot just be dismissed because of a trait of a person who happens to be advocating it.
Motivations: 'You're a misogynist'
The pro-life movement is driven by "the wish to restrict sexual freedom, enforce sectarian religious views on a pluralistic society, and return women to traditional roles," writes feminist author Katha Pollitt. Some abortion supporters accuse pro-lifers of outright misogyny and a desire to "shame" or "punish" women.
Pro-life people know first-hand that these charges are false and absurd. Indeed, an analysis by political scientist Jon A. Shields notes that pro-life sentiment has remained strong even as views about the role of women have sharply liberalized over the last several decades. Shields concludes that "pro-life activism and beliefs have little to do with gender traditionalism."
The real motivations of pro-lifers are no secret. Pro-lifers are motivated to stop unjust killing and save lives. They are motivated by the proposition that all members of the human family—born and unborn, male and female—have an equal dignity and right to life. Every human being, pro-lifers think, deserves our respect and compassion.
But suppose none of this is true. Suppose pro-life people are the worst people in the universe. That still doesn't make abortion okay. To show that abortion is just, supporters of abortion have to actually show that abortion is just. They can't simply make personal attacks.
Consistency: 'You're a hypocrite'
Numerous ad hominem arguments accuse pro-life people of inconsistency or hypocrisy. If pro-lifers really cared about human life, these arguments allege, they would act or believe differently than they do.
Some people, for example, claim that pro-lifers are inconsistent if they support capital punishment and war. But many pro-lifers oppose those practices (not all pro-lifers agree), and, in any case, one could oppose the intentional killing of the innocent (abortion) without also opposing state execution of convicted murderers or wars fought against unjust aggressors.
Others say that pro-lifers are inconsistent if they oppose certain economic, social welfare, sex education, or contraception funding policies. Pro-lifers, again, may have differing views about these issues. People on all sides, both conservatives and liberals, think that their views best advance the common good.
Some claim that opponents of abortion must be willing to adopt unwanted babies. Many pro-lifers do choose to adopt, but one's willingness or unwillingness to adopt children has nothing to do with the ethics of killing them. Imagine a lifeguard who rescues a drowning homeless man. No one would criticize the lifeguard's rescue operation on the grounds that she didn't offer to provide the rescued man with room and board.
More generally, supporters of abortion often assert that pro-lifers don't care about life after birth. That's plainly false. Pro-life individuals, ministries, and churches devote enormous resources to bettering the lives of those in need. The pro-life movement itself operates thousands of pregnancy care centers, maternity homes, post-abortion organizations, and other services to women and their families.
Of course, individuals, organizations, and movements cannot fight for every good cause. They must choose to commit to specific issues (no one criticizes a cancer charity for not also working to combat poverty). The pro-life movement is committed to securing the right to life of all human beings, and unborn children—unlike other members of our species—are currently denied protection of their right to life under the law.
All of these charges of inconsistency (and others) against pro-lifers have two problems. First, the charges are generally not fair or accurate (i.e., there is no inconsistency after all). Second, pro-lifers' inconsistency would not prove that the pro-life position is false or that abortion is permissible.
Maybe pro-lifers are hypocrites. Abortion still takes the life of a valuable human being.
It's not about us
Pro-life advocates shouldn't get overly preoccupied with defending themselves. Nor should they employ their own ad hominem attacks against abortion supporters. That especially happens on social media, where name-calling and accusations of bad faith can overwhelm respectful dialogue.
Instead, we have to redirect the conversation. We have to focus on the question that really matters. Do unborn human beings have a right to life?
The abortion issue isn't about abortion supporters, and it isn't about us. It's about the ones whose lives are on the line.
This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of NRL News.