Taking Abortion Seriously: A Philosophical Critique of the New Anti-Abortion Rhetorical Shift

By Beckwith, Francis J. | Ethics & Medicine, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Taking Abortion Seriously: A Philosophical Critique of the New Anti-Abortion Rhetorical Shift


Beckwith, Francis J., Ethics & Medicine


Since its genesis in the mid-1960s, the movement against abortion rights (or the "pro-life" movement) has made its case in the public square as well as the courts by emphasizing the humanity of the fetus.1 Its leaders, both popular and academic,2 have maintained that if the fetus3 is a member of the human community, then all the moral obligations and rights that apply to other members of the human community apply to the fetus as well. In order to establish the first half of this conditional premise, pro-lifers have made a case for the fetus's humanity, arguing that the insights of science combined with philosophical reflection lead inexorably to the conclusion that the fetus is a human person.4 Pro-lifers then argue that our legal framework ought to reflect that conclusion by protecting the fetus from unjust harm, which would include, among other things, a prohibition of almost all abortions.5

Recently, however, some pro-life leaders have questioned this strategy.6 They maintain that the humanity of the fetus and the immorality of abortion are not really in dispute among a vast majority of the American populace, whether one's self-description is pro-life, pro-choice, or somewhere in-between.7 Given that, they suggest that the pro-life movement change its rhetorical strategy: instead of merely calling for society to fulfill its moral obligation to protect prenatal persons, the pro-life movement should stress the alleged harm abortion does to women, and for that reason, offer to meet the material and spiritual needs of the pregnant woman who sees abortion as an evil, though necessary, alternative. This shift, proponents believe, will result not only in making abortion rare, but also in making American culture more pro-life.8

I will argue that this new rhetorical strategy (NRS) is flawed in at least three ways: (1) its supporters hastily interpret the public's "moral" condemnation of abortion as consistent with objective morality9 and a pro-life view of the fetus; (2) it may nurture and sustain the moral presuppositions that pro-lifers typically have argued allow for abortion; and (3) it rests on an interpretation of social science data that can be challenged.

None of my comments, however, should be interpreted as a discouragement or criticism of works of mercy performed by those intending to ease the burden of women with unplanned pregnancies. These works should be commended and encouraged. My concern in this essay is with those activists who suggest that such works replace, rather than merely supplement, moral argument and ethical justification.

Because this critique of NRS is philosophical, it will focus on the veracity of premises, the validity of inferences as well as the coherence of conceptual claims of proponents of NRS. In addition, this critique should be seen as largely intramural. That is, since its focus is on a rhetorical strategy whose proponents believe will best change the minds and hearts of their fellow citizens to think more pro-life, my comments and criticisms presuppose the correctness of this goal for the sake of argument. Although the moral and legal question of abortion is an appropriate topic for scholarly debate, it is not the purpose of this paper to take a moral or legal position on abortion qua abortion.

Polling data have consistently shown that a vast majority of people see abortion as wrong, even morally wrong, and they often describe it that way, using words and phrases like "tragic," "a difficult dilemma," "something I would never do," and "a horrible choice." David Reardon, an NRS proponent, points out:

[N]early 80 percent of the public will now admit that abortion involves the destruction of a human life, even though many in this group still believe abortion should be legal. In fact, studies show that at least 70 percent of aborting women believe what they are doing is morally wrong, or at least deviant behavior.10

Nevertheless, both in practice and public discourse many relegate abortion to a question of personal preference, something they do not do when it comes to behaviors they consider serious moral wrongs, such as spousal and child abuse, torture, and human slavery. …

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