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Shifting the Pro-Life Paradigm


Nine atrocious Planned Parenthood videos released by the Center for Medical Progress are revitalizing the pro-life movement. While the long-standing goal of completely defunding Planned Parenthood, which currently receives $528 million of taxpayer funds, has achieved some success in recent years, CMP’s shocking videos might finally tip the scale for good. Furthermore, the videos have also shined a glaring light on the darkest sides of the abortion industry. The latest video, which was released Tuesday, filmed a conversation with StemExpress CEO, Cate Dyer, who suggested that Planned Parenthood clinics suffer from “rampant” disease and bacteria contamination.

Previously, the best way to see the result of a “terminated pregnancy” was to view a slideshow of horrendous photos of decapitated fetuses (which, if you’ve seen them, are not for the faint of heart). But the video revelations have provided another kind of shock value: unfiltered, real time looks at abortion. Photos allow us to rationalize the unthinkable because we are removed from the greater context and setting. We store photos in our own mental shoe boxes. But videos offer no such escape. It is no stretch to say that the Planned Parenthood and StemExpress executives behind the scandals — who more often than not discuss their business over a glass of wine and dinner — are akin to Hannibal Lector, the intellectual, highbrow serial killer from the film The Silence of the Lambs.

But despite what the pro-life movement has going for it at the moment, it still has a problem. More specifically, the philosophical underpinning of the pro-life movement has a problem. It’s not about marketing, or how the videos were recorded, or the righteousness of the cause. The issue is this: pro-lifers argue that every fetus has a right to life.

The Philosophical Cracks in the Pro-Life Campaign

That notion is simple and ostensibly true; only hardcore pro-choice advocates will argue that a child does not have a right to life at all. But even so, this premise, on which most of the pro-life movement is built, is susceptible to a convincing counter-argument. “Even though a child has the right to life,” pro-choicers can argue, “the mother’s right to control her body supersedes it.”

Numerically speaking, that means the pro-life movement has not resonated with upwards of 133 million Americans.

This is the argument that the slogan “my body, my choice” uses, and as far as thoughtless logic goes, it is surprisingly convincing. Consider, too, that the “my body, my choice” slogan is completely one-sided. Indeed, you control your body — but that means controlling sexual activity, not just the consequences of it. Feminists may argue that women can choose to get an abortion, but they deflect the point that bodily control means abstaining from sex if a woman (and man) are not ready to be the parents their child deserves. Sex, it seems, should be devoid of its natural consequences if one so chooses.

Of course, the “mother’s right to control her body” line of argumentation will not convince many pro-lifers. But it could convince “moderates” — the people who believe that abortion should be permitted in some cases, but certainly not all cases. According to a recent Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans fall into that category, while only 19 percent believe abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. But if the goal of the pro-life movement is to end abortion completely, which it largely is, that 78 percent is a large deficit to overcome. Even out of the 78 percent who believe in abortion generally speaking, 42 percent believe abortion should be legal “under any circumstances” or “in most circumstances.” Numerically speaking, that means the pro-life movement has not resonated with upwards of 133 million Americans.

The “my body, my choice” argument is also the foundation of the well known, and damaging, violinist analogy: if you wake up one day with the world’s best violinist attached to you for a lifesaving treatment only you can provide, do you have the right to unplug him, and thereby kill him? Pro-choicers say yes, and pro-lifers are caught in a seemingly indefensible position. After all, even we grant that the violinist has the right to life, which he would, how can we deny that we would have the right to unplug him if we don’t consent to treating him? We control our body, and the decisions we make regarding it should be free for us to make. If we don’t want to save the violinist, we shouldn’t have to. Should we? Who’s making us? Who can make us?

Hence the weakness of the right to life argument. It is a powerful argument for a lot of people, but it isn’t powerful enough for enough people. In our society, where “choice” and “consent” are worshipped on the altar of individualism, arguing that another being can deny someone their own choices (especially those “between them and their doctor”) is verboten and countercultural. The issue with the “right to life argument” is that true though it may be, it swims against the current and can be rejected with ease. Beyond that, though, there is a basic philosophical issue with that proposition that can be exploited by pro-choice advocates. Even though a fetus has the right to life, that right does not entail the right to the means to life. Thus, though a fetus has the “right to life,” that right does not automatically preclude abortion. It may preclude the way in which most abortions are performed, but as a concept abortion cannot be ruled out using the right to life argument.

The Solution: Promote a Positive Argument

To put the nail in the abortion coffin, a positive argument against it has to be constructed. The right to life argument is negative in the sense that it prohibits an action (“abortions should not be performed”) and negates it. A positive argument, by contrast, compels an action by establishing an obligation.

Is there something about carrying a fetus that presents an obligation incumbent upon the mother to carry her child to term?

It is exactly this kind of argument that was constructed by Mathew Lu, a professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, in perhaps the greatest contribution to the pro-life cause in years: the brilliant paper, “Defusing the Violinist Analogy.“ The paper confronts the violinist analogy head on and offers compelling counter arguments to every one of its planks. But Lu is at his strongest when he presents the positive argument against abortion. In other words, is there something about carrying a fetus that presents an obligation incumbent upon the mother to carry her child to term?

There is such an obligation, according to Lu. Using the analogy of discovering a child in the wilderness he writes:

Suppose you live in a cabin far out in the wilderness, cut off from civilization by extreme distance and weather for much of the year, say, nine months. You have provisions for yourself, but no large excess of stores. One day you return to the cabin to discover that an infant has been left at the door without explanation. You have done nothing to invite its presence, and certainly you have not given somebody permission to abandon it on your doorstep. Do you have an obligation to care for the infant, who will surely die if you do not take it in?

It is difficult — almost impossible — to answer that question in the negative. Indeed, the obligation to provide for the child comes directly from your position of strength relative to the infant’s. As Lu writes, “The mere fact that I am in a position to rescue the vulnerable generates an obligation that I do so.” Not only does this counterargument completely defuse the violinist analogy (as the paper’s title suggests), it constructs a separate and powerful argument based on obligation, not negation.

The argument derived from obligation is obvious once it’s spelled out. But the pro-life movement has somehow managed to pass over it and has emphasized the negative right to life argument instead. Ultimately, however, if the pro-life movement wants to corner the pro-choice movement it will have to adopt this argument. It is easy enough to understand, yet extremely difficult to counter. Conveying it in a manner that is digestible and appealing to the moderate masses, however, is another matter altogether. While pro-lifers have reached that point with the right to life argument, they still have more work to do promoting the positive idea of a moral obligation. These two philosophical planks together will make considerable inroads for the pro-life cause—strides that have been previously unachievable. It would be very interesting, for example, to hear a pro-choice politician defend abortion on demand when confronted with the argument of moral obligation.

The argument from obligation won’t end abortion. But by incorporating the argument into its platform, the pro-life movement can begin to gain ground where it matters. By combating abortion with two well-founded philosophical arguments, the gains the pro-life movement can make are almost unlimited. What that means for the future is certainly a positive thing — and a negative thing for the abortion industry.