A common pro-life straw man

In a previous post, I outlined the concept of a straw man, and argued that we should steer clear of them in conversations. In this post, I would like to address a few straw men that pro-life people can throw out, often without even realising they’re straw men. I’ll be following up with another post with common pro-choice straw men.

“If we find out that a man has raped someone, we don’t say it’s ok to kill his toddler. So why would we punish his unborn child for a crime he committed?”

This argument, or a form of it, is often used by pro-life people. It can sound very compelling: of course we shouldn’t punish a child because their parent committed a crime. However, it’s a straw man: those who argue for abortion in the case of rape aren’t saying that abortion should be available in order to punish the rapist’s child for their father’s heinous crime. They’re usually arguing for abortion because of the great suffering that a pregnancy resulting from rape would cause and/or because the woman’s bodily autonomy outweighs the child’s right to life (pregnancy as a result of rape is far closer to The Violinist argument than pregnancy that results from consensual sex). The idea of supporting abortion in the case of rape in order to punish a baby for the fact that their father is a rapist is completely abhorrent to many pro-choice people. So please, let’s stop using the “punish the child” line.

“Why do you think we should kill children with Downs Syndrome just because they’re not born yet?”

The reason this is a straw man is not because of the substance of the argument, but because of how the argument  is phrased. Specifically, most (not all) pro-choice people balk at the idea that we should kill any child, born or unborn. In fact, most pro-choice people are driven very much by the idea that it is never up to anyone other than the woman in question, in conjunction with her doctor, to decide if she should have an abortion. I hear pro-lifers using the phrasing of “Why do you think we should kill [a particular unborn baby]” or “Why is it ok to say we should just kill them?” and pro-choice people often vehemently protest, because as far as they are concerned, they don’t think anyone should kill anyone. They do, however, think abortion should be a choice available to most or all pregnant women.

This straw man is very easy to avoid: just change your phrasing slightly. Insert the word “option” or “choice”: “Why do you think we should make it an option to kill [a particular unborn baby]” or even “Why do you think we should make abortion available [in a particular situation]”. This phrasing stops the pro-choice person going off on a tangent and keeps the discussion on-topic.

“Check out my ultrasound picture! Watch my baby move! I can’t believe so many people deny that this is a human/think this is just a clump of cells!”

Guys, please. Pro-choice people feel so straw manned when you do this. Anyone with a head on their shoulders knows an unborn baby is human, and most are happy to use the word baby in at least some circumstances. They just don’t believe it has full human personhood that outweighs a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Or, to put it in a more general way, they don’t believe the right to life should be defended at any cost. I get the desire to take the piss out of the idea that unborn babies are just “clumps of cells” when you’re surrounded by pro-life friends, and have done so myself. It’s also the case that some pro-choicers do use ‘clump of cells’ language or are badly misinformed about foetal development. But be careful here. Always remind yourself of what pro-choice people do and don’t think (and if you’re not sure, ask them!).

It’s not your body, your choice: there’s another person’s body inside you.

This straw man seems subtle for most pro-life people as “My body, my choice” feels so obviously wrong from a pro-life perspective. Our friends at the Equal Rights Institute have done a really good job of explaining why it’s a straw man and their post is worth reading in full. Here’s an abridged version of the argument: very few pro-choice people think that the baby is part of the woman’s body. When they say “My body, my choice” they’re not saying “The foetus is part of my body and therefore it’s my choice what happens to my body”. For the most part, they’re saying “I get to choose whether my body is used to support another human life”. In other words, they subscribe to the right to refuse viewpoint (a small number of people may subscribe to the sovereign zone argument. Seriously, read ERI’s blog).

When you hear someone say “My body, my choice”, you should always, immediately ask a follow up clarificatory question. You should establish whether the person you’re talking to thinks women have a right to do anything at all they want with their bodies, or whether they think women have a more limited right to refuse to have their bodies used to support another person against their will. You should not state, or imply, that the person you’re talking to is unaware of the fact that a foetus is not part of a pregnant woman’s body.

Why do pro-choice people pretend to care when someone has a miscarriage? It’s so disingenuous of you.

This is difficult for me to blog about because I’ve had a miscarriage, and I completely understand and share this reaction when pro-choice people express sorrow on my behalf when I tell them about it. I see the cognitive dissonance. I see the glaring contradiction in the exact same people merrily voting away any and all recognition of the baby I miscarried. However, I always remind myself of the fact that they’re not being disingenuous. They really are sorry I miscarried. They’re not lying or pretending or trying to manipulate me, and accusing them of doing so is in no way helpful.

I’ve come up with a bad thought experiment for what’s going on here (if anyone has a better one, I’d love to hear it!). Imagine if human pregnancy worked differently to how it does. Imagine if sperm had a way longer life than at present, and that if someone had unprotected sex pregnancy was virtually guaranteed that menstrual cycle. Imagine also that pregnancy tests worked differently: instead of getting a positive pregnancy test once the embryo has implanted and begun to produce HCG, you instead get a positive pregnancy test once sperm are present in the fallopian tube, even if they’re still waiting for an egg to be released yet. Imagine also if people generally told others that they were having a baby once it was confirmed by a positive test that the sperm were there, ready and waiting to fertilise the egg whenever that happened. But imagine that in some proportion of cases, the sperm mysteriously died before the egg was released. In these cases, the woman would have thought she was definitely going to become pregnant, but instead something unexpected happened, and she found out that, in fact, this wasn’t going to happen. In a sense, she’d lost her baby, even though that baby hadn’t actually existed yet.

Would you feel sad if this happened to you, or someone you knew? I would. The disappointment and sadness would be very real, even if it’s not the case that a human life had been lost. I think that this is probably similar to what a pro-choice person feels when they or someone they know has a miscarriage. They don’t think they lost a baby exactly, but they do think there was a real loss, a real sadness and a disappointment. They saw the loss of a potential baby, a potential pregnancy, and all that would have gone with it, even if they don’t see the loss of a human person in the same way a pro-life person would. This analogy is far from perfect, but it helps me a bit.

Can you think of other straw men you’ve seen pro-life people throw around the place? Let us know!