Thursday, September 3, 2009

Practical Apologetics: Doing Our Best versus Getting the Last Word [Dan]

Dan Hannon has an MA in Christian apologetics from Biola University and is on staff at the Pennsylvania State University Center for Molecular Toxicology and Carcinogenesis. I found his thoughts below helpful after a conversation on abortion went south on me. --SK

I recently had an opportunity to talk with a co-worker and present to him—at least in part—a case for the pro-life position. I say in part because we really couldn’t get past the science part of the discussion and into the philosophical reasons why we shouldn’t unjustly take the life of an unborn child. This was the second time we had discussed abortion.

In a previous conversation, my pro-choice colleague had focused more on the degree of dependency defense, and I had been unable to adequately respond to his challenges. Some time after that, I had heard Scott present the case for life through a series of podcasts, and I felt much better equipped to answer my co-worker’s arguments. And since he is very open to discussions and debate over sensitive issues such as politics, abortion, and euthanasia, I thought I’d have another go at him.

Unfortunately—and for no weakness in the pro-life position itself—the second conversation didn’t go as well as I’d hoped either. But this time, it wasn’t because I was unprepared. It was because we could not agree on the facts in question. This time, the debate had shifted, and his objection was that he didn’t consider the unborn to be human.

“If it’s not human, what is it?” I asked, shifting the burden of proof back to my office mate. He countered that it was not a human being, or at least he didn’t consider it one until the point of implantation. I pressed him on the point that implantation has no greater significance in declaring the unborn human than any other point in the pregnancy. Moreover, I cited that the science of embryology declares the unborn to be human from conception. “So you are willing to reject the established view of embryology on this point?” I asked. “Yes,” he said.

We had further discussion including whether the embryo is “living,” but at this point you can see where the conversation was going—nowhere, since we couldn’t agree on the facts—and what I was up against. I can’t say this turn in the discussion was entirely unexpected, since in previous talks it became evident to me that my counterpart was a relativist. He freely admits that the point where he thinks abortions should be illicit—he actually has one—is arbitrary and is his personal preference. He also related that he cannot decide why he doesn’t have a problem with early-term abortions—whether he thinks the unborn are not human or whether he has no problem with aborting a human being.

Needless to say, I came away almost as disappointed with this conversation as I had the previous one, though it was a valuable learning experience. We can have the case for life down cold—not that I myself have it mastered—but come away from a discussion having made what seems to be no discernible progress with a person. In cases like my co-worker, relativism, apathy, and emotional/personal barriers seem to trump rationality. Though it can be discouraging, sometimes we have to be satisfied with the job we have done even if it appears to be a fruitless effort; we present the most thoroughgoing case that we can, and we must be satisfied knowing we have done our best.



  1. Dan lamented:
    In cases like my co-worker, relativism, apathy, and emotional/personal barriers seem to trump rationality.

    My wife and I were just discussing this issue the other night. You might call it the Oprah-fication of our society. We don't follow logic and reason, but rather we are swayed by emotions, personalities, and subjective experiences.

    We homeschool our kids, so we have a rather obvious explanation. Schools don't teach logic anymore. If you're familiar with the Classical Education model, our schools never leave the Grammar stage. We cram kids' brains with all of the facts we can find, but we never teach them how to connect those facts in a logical way. As a result, our preferred methods of argument usually involve shouting out our "talking points" on one side or the other. Since we never progress out of the Grammar stage, those "talking points" are all we have. Logic never follows.

    Abortions in the case of rape is one example. The almost-landmark abortion ban in South Dakota was killed because it lacked an exception for rape. Why do many pro-lifers think that abortions are OK in the case of rape?

    Let's look at it logically. If the unborn child is a human being, then that human being deserves protection under the laws of our country. Most pro-lifers would agree with that statement; it's the core of the pro-life position. So how does that statement change in the case of rape? It doesn't.

    We all understand that it would be a monumental injustice to execute someone for the crimes of another person. Unlike the ancient Romans, we don't kill entire families because their fathers committed certain crimes. If a man goes on a shooting spree in a public place and guns down fifteen people in cold blood ... would any of us want to execute his daughter?

    As Scott himself has asked: Should we kill toddlers who remind us of tragic events? Even though they've committed no crimes of their own, should we kill them to spare ourselves from pain?

    And yet, many pro-lifers continue to make this exception for rape. Why? Well, rape is horrible. Really, really horrible. A woman who is raped has suffered terribly. So we feel a strong (and reasonable) emotional appeal to give her whatever she wants in order to help her with the pain. The impulse is fair. In fact, we wouldn't be fully-functional people without that sort of empathy.

    Unfortunately, because we are not trained in Logic anymore, our emotional impulses rule our actions. And so we commit grave injustices simply because it "feels right" to do so.

  2. I think the best* way to approach this would be to point out the inconsistencies in his own moral thinking. The examples of questions to pose that come to mind are:
    1) What would you do if you met with a pregnant friend for dinner ... and she ordered an alcoholic drink? Would you stop her, or at least advise against it? Why? Let's say you know that the pregnancy was planned (she's keeping the baby). Does that have any effect on your action? What if you don't know what she's planning to do about the pregnancy; does that change your mind?
    - Essentially, you would stop a woman from hurting her unborn child with alcohol, but wouldn't stop her from walking into an abortion clinic?
    2) Suppose a pregnant woman (noticeably pregnant, let's say in the 6-7th month) is in a car accident, and subsequently is brought to a hospital ER unconscious. Who does the ER staff have an obligation to treat, or try and save? Most would say both the mother and her unborn child. (Since "wantedness" is a standard of value for the pro-choice position, wouldn't you think the staff would be required to assume the child to be wanted by the mother?) Also, consider the most likely possible outcomes of this hypothetical tragic accident, several years down the lines: only the mother has survived; only the child survived, who is now several years old; or, both mother and child are doing well. If the mother was not able to survive the accident, but we have a happy toddler years later, clearly the unborn is not a "blob of tissue" like an appendix. Organs cannot survive on their own.

    *These are just my 2 cents. As someone who "converted" from being a staunch pro-choicer (though thankfully only in ideology with no activism), seeing these and similar inconsistencies in my own moral "logic" brought me to the pro-life position.

  3. About a year ago, I turned from an obnoxious, bumper-sticker shouting pro-choicer to an active pro-lifer. About three months ago, I became a Christian. I would like to add my own words of encouragement, and I think Scott made a similar comment in one of his books. Most of us have our opinions, and we like to think we're right. For me, both in coming to the pro-life position and to Christ, it took several different sources, and a bit of time and my own reflections to change my mind and heart. I think all we can do is plant a kernel of truth in someone's mind, and hopefully it will at least get the gears of logic and compassion working. Maybe Dan's words are just one or two steps on the road to his friend someday becoming pro-life. We have to accept that most of the time, we won't see the fruits of our labor. But I believe the unborn appreciate our efforts, and as long as people are fighting for them, they still maintain some of their dignity and value.


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