In previous blog posts, I explained the concept of a straw man, and followed up with some examples of straw men that pro-lifers should stop using. In this blog post, I’d like to address some straw man arguments argument commonly used by pro-choice people.
“If I had a baby in one hand and a fertilised embryo in the other and said you have to choose which one to throw off a cliff, there’s no way you’d tell me to throw the baby off the cliff. So stop pretending you think embryos and babies have equal rights”.
This argument is a straw man because it assumes that pro-life people’s belief that unborn babies are the moral equals of other human beings means we therefore think we should prioritise their lives over anyone else’s life. However, that’s not true. If, for example, you asked me to choose between having my husband or my daughter thrown off a cliff, I would save my daughter. Can we therefore say that I think my daughter and my husband don’t have equal rights? Of course not. All we can say is that hypothetical questions about whom to throw off cliffs don’t tell us much about who does and doesn’t have the right to life.
I go into more detail on a similar thought experiment in this blog post.
“It’s so stupid to insist that abortion is the same as killing a baby. If it was, every time a man ejaculated he’d be committing genocide.”
I have to hand it to you guys, this is a great straw man. It’s funny, it’s attention-grabbing, and it’s actually surprisingly complicated to explain why it’s a straw man!
The meme above only makes sense if we pro-lifers (or anyone) believe that sperm have equal moral status to human persons. In that case, millions of dead sperm is the moral equivalent of millions of dead people. However, this is categorically not what pro-life people believe. In fact, this straw man begs the question. Begging the question doesn’t just mean “raising a question”. Rather, it means that you set out to answer a question, and then use the answer to the question to…answer the question.
Here, the question is whether or not the unborn have the moral status of a human person. The pro-choice argument says “If the unborn have moral status, then so do sperm, and so abortion is genocide. This is clearly ridiculous, and so the unborn do not have the moral status of a human person”. But in saying “then so do sperm”, the pro-choicer is claiming that sperm and the unborn have equal moral status. However, that’s precisely the question we’re trying to answer: do the unborn have the moral status of a human person? Or do they have the moral status of, let’s say, a spermatozoa? In other words, this meme assumes that pro-lifers know that the unborn do not in fact have the moral status of a human person, but want to stop others from killing the unborn anyway.
I accept that many pro-choice people just can’t see the difference between an unborn baby, especially an embryo, and something like a spermatozoa or an ovum. But that doesn’t mean that pro-life people see no difference; we do! An embryo has its own unique DNA; sperm and ova don’t. An embryo, if left undisturbed, will spontaneously grow and develop just like a baby that has been born, in at least some cases. A sperm or ovum can never do that. Maybe you don’t think those differences mean anything. Fair enough, but can we at least discuss it? That would be more productive than silly memes (even if they are funny).
“Stop bringing religion into this/You don’t have a right to impose your beliefs on the rest of us”
When used in some contexts, this might not be a straw man argument, because sometimes some pro-life people do explicitly use religious arguments against abortion (for the record: the Minimise Project is a secular organisation and we use and promote secular pro-life arguments only). However, pro-life people are constantly accused of using religious arguments, or seeking to impose their beliefs on others, when they have done no such thing. In fact, the vast majority of times I have seen religion mentioned in an abortion debate, it was raised by the pro-choice person.
The reason this is (usually) a straw man is because of the nature of the disagreement between pro-life and pro-choice people. If abortion is permissable, then someone who advocates against abortion, and in particular someone who advocates for legal bans or restrictions on abortion, is indeed “imposing” their beliefs on others. However, if abortion is not permissable, such bans and restrictions are completely legitimate. If they weren’t, you could just as easily claim that laws against rape, or murder, or any other number of crimes, are the result of people “imposing their beliefs” on others.
The vast majority of pro-life people, whether or not they are religious, do not oppose abortion for (exclusively) religious reasons. They believe abortion is not permissable, no matter what your religion is (just as they believe rape or murder are not permissable, no matter what your religion is). So please stop straw manning us by asserting that our pro-life advocacy is grounded in personal preference or beliefs. Instead, try to explain why you see laws against abortion as belonging in a different category to laws against murder or rape, and try to listen while we explain why we think differently. One of us might learn something! If you manage to convince a pro-lifer that laws against abortion are actually no different than laws against, for example, tattoos or piercings, you’ll find that they stop “imposing their beliefs” on you pretty fast. On the other hand, if they manage to convince you that laws against abortion are no different that laws against rape or murder, you’ll see why such laws are no imposition of someone’s “beliefs” on everyone else, but are in fact necessary for justice.
Pro-life people are total hypocrites because you don’t campaign for better sex education/contraception/social services/healthcare/education/housing
This is such an annoying argument for multiple reasons. First of all, many jurisdictions legally restrict or prohibit pro-life organisations from providing things like antenatal support, family planning services and counseling, because they require any such providers to give women “all their options” – in other words, to provide or refer for abortion, which pro-life people cannot in good conscience do. (For example, forcing pro-life advocates to inform women about abortion services gave rise to the NIFLA v Becerra US Supreme Court case). It’s immensely frustrating when pro-choice people criticise us for failing to provide services that they have prohibited us from providing.
Secondly, many pro-life people do advocate for many of the things listed above. No, not all pro-life people advocate for all the above all the time, but no one advocates for every good thing all the time. We all pick our battles; that doesn’t mean we think other battles are not worth fighting.
However, neither of these points above mean the argument is a straw man. The reason this argument is a straw man is because of the accusation of hypocrisy. When you accuse us of being hypocrites for opposing abortion without campaigning for all this other stuff, you assume that we actually think that advocating for the right to life of the unborn is actually not a battle worth picking if we care about saving human lives. In other words, the argument says that if pro-life people really cared about life, they’d campaign for, eg, better healthcare – but that assumes that opposing abortion does nothing for life! It assumes that pro-life people think, and know, and don’t care, that reducing abortion doesn’t save any lives, or at least doesn’t save as many lives as better access to healthcare would. In other words, it once again begs the question. It assumes that pro-choice people are right, that saving an unborn baby’s life doesn’t actually save a human person’s life.
Of course, if pro-choice people are right on the moral status of the unborn, then yes, they are right in their argument above: stopping abortion doesn’t save the lives of human people. However, that’s our disagreement. Our disagreement is not about what else constitutes a “good cause”. Plenty of pro-life people I know aren’t particularly engaged in pro-life advocacy. They direct their advocacy elsewhere. Some are involved in opposing direct provision, others are active in environmental causes, still others advocate for disability rights. Guess what – I think that’s great! I don’t think that just because someone is pro-life they must only ever oppose abortion. There are lots of great causes to devote time and energy to. It would be wonderful if our pro-choice friends could similarly recognise that a pro-life person who devotes time and energy to reducing abortion doesn’t automatically think any other cause is unworthy. By all means, encourage us to pick a different battle if you want, but please don’t accuse us of hypocrisy for choosing to battle abortion in the first place. This achieves the same end without the straw man.
Can you think of other straw men you’ve seen pro-choice people throw around the place? Let us know!