Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why Pro-Life People Need to Become Amateur Philosophers [Clinton Wilcox]

This article has appeared, in a slightly altered form, on my personal blog.

I want to be clear about something, first. I don't consider myself a philosopher in the academic sense. I guess you could consider me a philosophy buff, or an armchair philosopher, or philosopher nerd. Oh! Philosophy Connoisseur. At any rate, I study philosophy and logic, and am self-taught in this discipline. I consider myself a philosopher by Alvin Plantinga's definition of the term, someone who thinks deeply about important issues. And it is my contention that any pro-life person who wants to be effective in the field should become an amateur philosopher.

It seems to be taken as axiomatic from pro-life people that we can find no common ground with pro-choice people, and that pro-life people who take exception for rape are not pro-life, they are really "pro-abortion with exceptions" (that's an awful lot of exceptions for someone who is "pro-abortion"). Finding common ground does not mean compromising with pro-choice people. Steve Wagner has written an excellent book about this very topic. We can use common ground as a springboard to keep the conversation going. For example, if someone tells me that they oppose late-term abortion, then I can obviously agree with that. Then I can ask someone in what morally relevant way does an early embryo differ from a late-term fetus that would justify killing one but not the other? And calling a pro-life person who believes in the rape exception "pro-abortion" is just a strawman of their actual views. Just what, exactly, is common ground if we can't find common ground with people who agree with us about approximately 98% of all abortions?

The pro-life movement can't hope to win if we're divided. Jesus himself said as much in Matthew 12:25 when he was accused of casting out demons by Satan's power: "Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand." How can we hope to win if we can't even agree that pro-life people who disagree with us are still welcome in the movement? Even Christians can't all agree on the same doctrines, yet that doesn't put their status as a Christian into question unless it's one of the core doctrines that they reject. The core doctrine of the pro-life movement is that all human life is equally valuable, from fertilization until natural death. Internal disagreements are just that -- disagreements, and they can't detract from our mission of seeing Roe v. Wade overturned.

So what do I mean when I say that pro-life advocates need to become amateur philosophers? Well, there are a few aspects of philosophy that I'd like to point out. I think it would be beneficial for the pro-life movement to adopt these attitudes, especially in their interactions with pro-choice people.

Attitude #1: Philosophers think clearly about issues.

Can you defend the pro-life position? Do you know how to justify the fact that the unborn from fertilization are biological members of our species, and the philosophical position that they are equally deserving of respect as we are? It's not enough to just assert this claim; we have to be able to support it. If you take the time to read some of the best defenders of the pro-life position, like Frank Beckwith, Scott Klusendorf, and Christopher Kaczor, then you'll be able to give a robust defense of the pro-life position that most pro-choice people won't be able to adequately respond to. But pro-life people need more than just bumper sticker slogans to support our position. The science and philosophy is on our side -- don't be afraid to use it!

Attitude #2: Philosophers ask questions.

It's not a bad thing to go into a discussion admitting that you might be wrong about something. Dogmatic is one of the worst things someone can be. It stifles intellectual growth. We need to be open to investigating claims, and being open to being mistaken. So we ask questions to make sure our position is really the best one, and can withstand attacks and rebuttals from the other side.

Not just asking questions of our own position, but asking questions of the person that we're talking to. Greg Koukl wrote a great book about this. Even if they disagree with us, they might have an insight that we haven't previously considered. Keeping a humble attitude and asking questions will keep you from embarrassing yourself if someone asks you something you don't have an answer to. Saying "I don't know" is much better than making something up. Plus, by asking them questions you might be helping them to think through their own views for the first time, and you might be able to help them realize for themselves why their position doesn't hold up, rather than just telling them. It will be more effective that way.

Attitude #3: Philosophers attack ideas, not people.

One thing we really need to start doing is divorcing a person's ideas from the person, themselves. Someone is not automatically a horrible person just because they are pro-choice. A post-abortive woman is not a murderer. There are many different reasons women abort: many were coerced into it by an abusive boyfriend or parents who threatened to disown them, many were lied to by the abortion counselor or practitioner so they had no idea what was inside them was an actual human child, etc. You have no idea why a woman aborted (if she tells you that she did), so stop assuming. A major rule of philosophy is that you give your opponents the benefit of the doubt and treat them with respect. The abortionist, on the other hand, is always morally culpable for an abortion because he/she knows exactly what it is they do during an abortion.

Being hateful toward people will not change their minds. You may think you're being effective by being abrasive because you've won the argument, but it is possible to win the argument and lose the person. "Truth" is not synonymous with "love." You need to speak the truth in love. It is often loving to tell someone the truth, but you tell them in a loving, sensitive way.

My desire is to help pro-life people realize that we need to accept each others' differences if we're going to win the proverbial war for the lives of the unborn. Working side-by-side with people who disagree with us does not mean we have to accept all of their views. It just means that we're working toward the same goal of seeing legal abortion done away with.

So this all-or-nothing approach is not helpful. I am very much pro-life, and I believe that all human beings have equal instrinc worth as human beings. I believe that we should only have an exception open for if the woman's life is genuinely endangered and the child is not yet viable. Sure, there are those who may hold to a rape exception, but the people I've talked to hold to the rape exception due to a logical reason; it's not emotional rhetoric. I strongly disagree with them, and I do have conversations with them about it. But we can at least agree that abortions in the vast majority of cases should be abolished and we are working toward that common goal.

So we have to understand that not everyone shares our convictions. That doesn't mean everyone is right; that would violate a basic philosophical principle, the Law of Non-Contradiction. But it does mean that we can side with people who share the bulk of our convictions, and hash out disagreements amongst ourselves. Let us not be a house divided, but let us unite in our common goal to protect the lives of the innocent unborn.


  1. Great post, Clinton. Thanks for this.

  2. I see you favor the incremental approach to ending abortion. I've often wondered what would have happened if 25 years ago the pro-life movement would have implemented an all-or-nothing approach, and basically said something like this:

    Either abortion will be illegal in every case, or it will be legal in every case. And by legal abortion, we mean completely unrestricted and free. So if Planned Parenthood says partial birth abortion is necessary, then go for it. And if it's legal in every case, there's no reason why abortion shouldn't be funded as simply another medical procedure, so employers and the government should be required to pay for it. See what the average person thinks about abortion and bodily autonomy when they find out their tax dollars are paying for intrauterine cranial decompressions that are done at your local Walmart minute-clinic.

    Instead, we're doing the incrementalism approach, which only works up to a point. A significant percentage of the population opposes late-term abortions, but it's a different story for early-term abortions. I suspect we'll reach an equilibrium between the pro-life and "pro-choice" side where abortion is more-or-less legal, but the most egregious cases are made illegal. Advances will make late-term abortions rarer, and surgical abortions will give way to chemical abortions, where pills are cheap and widely available. Quick, efficient, and clean killing.

    1. It's not necessarily that I favor the incremental approach, it's just what I see as the most likely to end abortion on demand in the United States. All or nothing legislation has consistently failed, and incremental legislation has consistently passed. Incremental legislation saves lives; it causes abortion clinics to close down and abortionists to lose their licenses. So it's one of strategy. Incrementalism has been shown to work and be effective, absolutism has proven the opposite.

  3. I'm not sure how you can call yourself "very much pro life", but not be against all abortion. Even if a child is "not yet viable", they are still very much alive, and we can't directly kill an innocent person to save another person. If we have a two-year-old with a fatal disease and a five-year-old who needs a heart transplant, we can't kill the two-year-old to save the five-year-old just because the two-year-old is going to die soon anyway. Similarly, we can't directly kill an unborn child to save the mother even if the child will die anyway.

    Besides, you're ignoring the fact that doctors have admitted that there are no cases where abortion will save a woman's life. Instead, we treat the medical condition, even if we foresee that the child may die as a result. If a woman has cancer, we give her radiotherapy and surgery, even if it is uterine cancer where the womb has to be removed completely. In an ectopic pregnancy, the blocked fallopian tube can be removed. If the unborn child dies, it is a side-effect of the medical treatment, but we can never directly take an innocent human life.

    1. Pro-life doctors have said that. While I would generally agree with them, I'm not a doctor so I'm not willing to make a dogmatic statement about an area that I'm not an expert in. I can say for sure that science tells us human life begins at fertilization because this is something that both pro-life *and* pro-choice embryologists say. You can call it what you like, but the end result is the same. The unborn child is still killed, even if the death is foreseen but not intended. The end result is the same as an abortion. Your and my position amounts to the same thing, you're just unwilling to refer to it as an abortion (even though it is an abortion to the medical field). It just doesn't matter to me what we call it. Either way, the death of the unborn child is permissible to save the mother's life, if the child can't also be saved, because it boils down to a case of triage -- two patients are in mortal danger and only one can be saved. You save the one with the greatest chance of survival. You can talk about removing the fallopian tube, but it still amounts to the doctor directly killing the child because he is removing the child from the only place in the world he can survive. And if the child is already dead (as often happens in ectopic pregnancies), then there is no moral conundrum.

    2. But you see, it doesn't amount to the same thing, even if the end result is the same. The unborn child is not directly killed, for example, in the hysterectomy. We are treating a medical problem - a cancerous organ - by using ordinary means. If any other organ was cancerous, we would remove it.

      It's just an application of the principle of double effect, which has four conditions.
      1. The act has to be morally good or morally neutral
      2. The bad effect we foresee happening is not the means by which we achieve the good effect.
      3. We are only intending to achieve the good effect, not the bad one.
      4. The good effect has at least be equivalent to the bad effect, or outweigh it.

      A hysterectomy in this case would fulfil all four conditions.
      1. The action of removing a cancerous organ is morally neutral.
      2. The child's death, although foreseen, is not the means by which the woman's life is being saved. Even if the child survived, so would the mother.
      3. We are not intending the death of the child. If it were possible to save both lives, we would.
      4. If we do nothing, both mother and child will die. If we act, only the child will die but the mother's life may be saved. Saving one life is better than saving neither.

      Removing the fallopian tube also falls under this category.
      1. Removing a ruptured or blocked fallopian tube is morally neutral.
      2. The child's death is not the means by which the mother's life is saved. Again, if the child survived, so would the mother.
      3. The intention is to save the mother's life, not to kill the child. If anything can be done to save the child's life, it should be done.
      4. Again, we are trying to save one life instead of neither. If we do nothing, the child will still die.

      These two situations do not involve any direct killing. If in the future, we can incubate a pre-viable child outside the womb, or replant a young embryo in the womb, we would do this.

      You said that killing an unborn child to save the mother was like a triage case. But in triage, even if we decide to save the person with the greatest chance of survival, we don't directly kill the person we can't save. That would be like saying, "This man's life can't be saved, so let's give him a lethal injection to finish him off." There is a huge moral difference between directly killing someone and just not being able to save their life. I'm sure you agree that it's wrong to kill a terminally ill patient even if they have just a few hours or minutes left to live. We still can't directly kill an innocent human being.

    3. Yes, I'm aware of double-effect reasoning. I've even written about it once. But I think saying that you're not directly killing the child in the case of removing a cancerous uterus or a blocked fallopian tube is just splitting hairs. You *are* directly killing the child, but it's morally permissible because you are attempting to save the mother's life. You are taking the child from a place in which it can survive and putting it in a place in which it can't survive -- you are directly responsible for the child's death. But this is a morally permissible act.

      I agree that we would incubate the child we removed if we could do it. But this argument amounts to a similar argument that pro-choice people tend to use, that if we can remove the child safely and incubate her somewhere else, we would do that. Since we can't, abortions are morally permissible because you can't remove the child without killing her. We don't like it when pro-choice people try and redefine words to fit their agenda (e.g. insisting that an unborn child is "not a baby" or "not a child"), I just think that if we don't like it when pro-choice do it, we shouldn't do it, either. Just like it's not always wrong to take a human life (e.g. in self-defense, capital punishment of a convicted murderer, just war, etc.), having an abortion is not *always* impermissible (if it's to save the mother's life, it is a permissible act).

      You and I agree on the same thing, we just disagree on what to call it.

    4. The problem with the heart transplant analogy is that the five-year old is better off because of the two-year old's presence and subsequent death. With a life-threatening pregnancy, the mother does not benefit because her unborn child is there - rather, it poses a threat to her by its very existence.

      More on the mark would be conjoined twins, connected in such a way that only one has a working heart and lungs. If they're not separated, the strain on the heart will cause both to die six months after they're born. But the only way to do this is to cut one of the weaker twin's major arteries, thus directly killing her. Surely intervention would be better than letting both die, even though it means killing someone who is doomed no matter what is done.

  4. @Anonymous

    Clinton is completely right to call the procedure an abortion. You're using doublespeak. You don't want to use the word "abortion" for abortions you find justifiable. You aren't the only person who does this. Our associate pastor once got in a heated argument with a woman in a pro-life group that didn't believe the word "abortion" applied to women who got them because of rape or if they were very young. Her argument was basically that the removal of the baby from the womb was a procedure meant only to protect the girl's emotional health and well-being, and that the death of the baby was an unintended side-effect.

    In every abortion, a woman says, I'm going to get an abortion for the reason (insert reason here). Some more reasons are more heavy than others. A woman who kills her baby because she wanted a boy instead of a girl is certainly under less duress than a woman who kills a baby to save her own life. But the effect is always the same for the unborn baby. So don't play with words.

    On another note, early in the pro-life movement, pro-lifers decided to extend the olive branch to the "pro-choice" side by proposing exceptions for the harder cases (life, rape, incest, fetal deformity, etc). So there would be a compromise. Pro-lifers would back off demanding life for unborn babies in the harder cases, but in return, pro-choicers would back off abortion-on-demand. It was a complete disaster the pro-life side. It allowed the pro-choice side to completely re-frame their argument from "abortion is child-murder" to "abortion is merely a vice that the government will reluctantly allow on a case-by-case basis".

    1. (This is also in reply to Clinton, above, but I don't want to have to double-post)

      Pro-choice individuals can try to justify abortion by likening it to mere removal of the unborn child for a medical reason, as Paul says in his example above about emotional health. This, however, doesn't follow the principle of double-effect. You cannot directly remove a non-viable child from the womb, even to save the mother's life. Even in an imaginary case where a mother's life could be saved by removing the child prematurely from the womb, this could not be done if the child was not viable and therefore removing them from the womb would mean killing them.

      However, this is not what is being proposed in the examples of uterine cancer or a blocked fallopian tube. Imagine parallel situations in which a non-pregnant woman has cancer of the womb, and a non-pregnant woman has a tumour inside a fallopian tube that has caused it to rupture. We can see that the treatment given in these cases is exactly the same - removal of the womb and removal of the blocked fallopian tube. In the example cases where the women are pregnant, the treatment would be no different, because the aim is to treat the medical condition, not remove the non-viable child from the womb. This is only a side-effect, and one which is not intended.

      As for whether or not this can be called an abortion - The Catholic Church would agree with the medical terminology of "indirect abortion", just as the medical term "spontaneous abortion" can be used to refer to a miscarriage. The word "abortion" here means the ending of a pregnancy prematurely. However, we can see that there is a serious moral difference between these types of "abortion" and a "direct abortion", where the premature ending of a pregnancy is intended.

      These terms can be confusing, since the term "abortion" is now synonymous with "direct abortion", whereas as a medical term it is much broader and does not necessarily mean an intentional abortion. During your argument, Clinton, I realise you kept insisting that medical intervention that unintentionally ended a pregnancy was an "abortion." I apologise if I have misunderstood you to have meant "direct abortion" if you were instead calling it abortion more generally. If that was the case, then you are correct in saying that any medical intervention is an "abortion" - the pregnancy is ended prematurely.

      My argument has been specifically that "direct abortion" where the child's death is intended is morally impermissible, and should not be legalised. I am not saying that "indirect abortion" where the child's death is foreseen but not intended is morally impermissible. Part of your argument seems to be that if an intervention results in the child's death that this is a "direct" killing. I am not saying that in the case of uterine cancer, the womb removal does not cause the death of the child - obviously, this is what ends up killing the child. What I am arguing is that it is not "direct" killing in the moral sense. In other words, it is not murder because the killing was not intended.

    2. (continued)

      The same procedure - a hysterectomy in a pregnant woman - would not be justified if the intention was to kill the child. For example, if there was no cancer, and the pregnant woman had a hysterectomy because she did not want a child, the doctor could not claim, "It's not a direct abortion: I was just removing the womb and there happened to be an unborn child inside", because the death of the child WAS intentional: he was not "just" removing the womb.

      However, what about the case of a woman with a medical condition such as severe endometriosis which requires her womb to be removed? Could she have this procedure done whilst pregnant and claim, "It wasn't morally wrong: I was just treating a medical condition and it just happened to result in the death of my unborn child"? Could any pregnant woman who wants an abortion "discover" a medical reason why she had to have a hysterectomy, and claim that this was morally permissible?

      This is why the principle of double-effect exists, and why there are four conditions to be fulfilled. The procedure, to be moral, has to have a good effect which is at least equivalent to the bad effect that is foreseen. Endometriosis is not life-threatening. The mother's life is not in danger, and there is no reason why the surgery could not be performed at a later time after the child was born. This is why the case would not be morally permissible, but a genuinely life-threatening case would.

      My argument is simply that direct abortion should always be illegal, for any reason. In cases where the mother's life is at risk, we should do everything we can to save both lives. If the only way to save the mother's life is by performing a procedure which may result in the death of the child, then as long as the child's death is not directly caused but is as a result of the procedure itself, then it can be permissible, if all four conditions of the principle of double-effect are fulfilled.

    3. I'm pretty sure "abortion is merely a vice that the government will reluctantly allow on a case-by-case basis" is not the way the pro-choice side frames its argument!

      I don't think it follows from the claim that abortion is permissible to save the mother's life that it's justified in other cases. It's acceptable to kill born humans in some cases. Self-defence is one example, and many people would also condone capital punishment or killing in a just war. Yet killing a born person is still considered a serious moral wrong.

      When a pro-choice person gives a reason for having an abortion, the pro-life response is to test whether or not we would allow killing a born human being for the same reasons (ie "trotting out the toddler", as Scott Klusendorf does). This demonstrates that the central question in the abortion debate is the status of the unborn, because the answer is generally no. So, if the unborn are fully-fledged members of the human community, then abortion is not acceptable in the vast majority of cases.

      It doesn't, however, follow from here that there are no cases where abortion can be justified. After all, if we would indeed allow a born person to be killed in a parallel situation, then abortion would not be wrong in that scenario. In the case where the life of the mother is in danger, the relevant details are that there's no serious conflict of interests (the unborn child is going to die no matter what is done) and that the unborn child poses a mortal threat to the mother by its very existence. Neither one of these features hold for healthy pregnancies, so abortion is still prima facie wrong and should still be illegal in almost all cases.

  5. "A post-abortive woman is not a murderer... they had no idea what was inside them was an actual human child, etc... The abortionist, on the other hand, is always morally culpable for an abortion.."

    Is the woman a murderer?

    (Jon Speed) At the March, we asked the participants two important questions. 1) Is abortion murder? 2) Is a woman who has an abortion a murderer? The answers were not what we expected at a pro-life event.

    To question #1, the results were split. Some would say, yes, it is murder and not bat an eye. Others would hem and haw a bit and use just about every euphemism you can imagine to describe what a woman does when she has an abortion. To question #2, the results were much more uniform. I do not believe we had one person respond in the affirmative. In every case, the woman having an abortion was portrayed as a victim.

    , “Is there a theological loophole in the CCC which allows a Roman Catholic the freedom to sidestep the question, “Is a woman who has an abortion a murderer?” It turns out that there is.

    Section 1860 reads, “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders.” It is worth noting that in this section, there are no footnotes. There are no cross references to Biblical passages because the Bible does not teach this.

    The problem is that the Bible teaches the exact opposite. We cannot plead temporary insanity regarding our sin. In Exodus 21:22-25, the situation of two men fighting in a heated emotional argument is given. If in the course of their fight, they hurt a woman who is with child unintentionally and the baby miscarries, the death penalty is given for the man who is guilty, in spite of his emotion. It is eye for eye, tooth for tooth and life for life. In the context, it does not appear that it is their intent to murder the baby in the womb. If they do, intentional or not, they are given the death penalty.

    In short, Roman Catholics who are pro-life who will not call abortion murder or women who abort, murderers are NOT in conflict with their own catechism. They ARE in conflict with the Word of God. By the way, so are evangelicals who adopt this same victim mentality of the woman at the abortion clinic.

    Listen, if we ever have the opportunity to repeal Roe v. Wade and abortion is illegal in this nation, then what will a woman be guilty of if she has an abortion after that point? She will be guilty of murder. I am quite sure that lawyers will plead mental duress or temporary insanity, but the charge will be murder. The law will be right to say so. Marching at the March for Life and stopping in front of the Supreme Court to protest Roe v. Wade while equivocating on abortion being murder is a contradiction in the same act of protest. It doesn’t make any sense logically and even less sense theologically.

    Please go to to see the questions and replies for yourself.

    1. I have seen Babies Are Murdered Here, and I am familiar with Jon Speed.

      Two things to keep in mind: 1) I am not Catholic. So whatever the Catechism does or does not say, I am not obligated to believe it (though there are many points of agreement I have with the Catechism, especially when it comes to core doctrines of Christianity, such as the Trinity).

      2) What other pro-life people say when they are asked questions has no bearing on *my* pro-life position. I cannot speak for others, but I'm puzzled as to why you would bring up what *other* pro-life people have said if you're addressing me, the author of this article.

      People like Jon Speed need to understand that not all pro-life people believe the exact same things. I don't expect every pro-life person to have intensively studied the issue like I have, and I don't expect every pro-life person to answer every question exactly like I would. But we have things in common, like wanting to see abortion made illegal again, that we can focus on and work toward as a common goal.

      I don't agree with Jon's interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25. Remember that Cain killed Abel willfully, in cold blood, yet rather than take his life in revenge, God exiled Cain and gave him a mark as a deterrent for others to take his life. In the passage in Exodus, this is about assessment of risk. They should know better than to fight near a pregnant woman, and they are held responsible if there is any injury to her or her child. This says nothing about whether or not a woman is morally culpable in an abortion situation. For example, if she is coerced into it by a boyfriend, then her boyfriend and the abortionist bear the culpability, not her. Our courts even recognize this (e.g. if a contract is signed under duress, the signer is not held liable for the terms of the contract). All the passage in Exodus shows us is that God may not make a distinction between murder and manslaughter.

  6. "One thing we really need to start doing is divorcing a person's ideas from the person, themselves. Someone is not automatically a horrible person just because they are pro-choice. A post-abortive woman is not a murderer. There are many different reasons women abort: many were coerced into it by an abusive boyfriend or parents who threatened to disown them, many were lied to by the abortion counselor or practitioner so they had no idea what was inside them was an actual human child, etc. You have no idea why a woman aborted (if she tells you that she did), so stop assuming. A major rule of philosophy is that you give your opponents the benefit of the doubt and treat them with respect. The abortionist, on the other hand, is always morally culpable for an abortion because he/she knows exactly what it is they do during an abortion."

    This is something I have been aware of for some time. I don't believe that the general public is actually aware that the fetuses are real living things because they have been lied to for so long. Also, the woman is almost never actually responsible due to the fact that they do not get pregnant by themselves. This means that the father is usually a co-murderer along with the abortionist.

    This is why I cringe when I hear someone ask what the punishment for the mother should be when abortion is made illegal. Until people stop using women as a scapegoat for everything, our efforts at ending abortion will be hindered greatly.


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