Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

A Defense of the Neglected Rhetorical Strategy (NRS)

Academic journal article Ethics & Medicine

A Defense of the Neglected Rhetorical Strategy (NRS)

Article excerpt

Philosophical criticism serves a valuable end when it helps to clarify the truth. But clarity requires precision. Precision is especially necessary when one presents the arguments of those holding the view which is the focus of one's criticisms. Where there is lack of precision, ambiguity and confusion may arise, which in turn obscure the truth. For this reason I was deeply disturbed by the inaccurate portrayal of my work and arguments (and the parallel arguments of Frederica Mathewes-Green and Paul Swope) in a recently published article by Francis Beckwith.1

Beckwith begins with a description of the traditional pro-life strategy, for which he has been an advocate,2 that is centered on the moral argument against the unjust killing of innocent humans beings. Beckwith's argument is simple: since abortion destroys an innocent human life, abortion should be prohibited.

I do not contest it. Beckwith, on the other hand, does object to the reasoning and arguments of Mathewes-Green, Swope, and myself, who also seek to identify women as victims of abortion, an approach he has labeled the "new rhetorical strategy (NRS)." The novel acronym NRS is less descriptive than the pro-woman/pro-life label I prefer, but for the purpose of responding to Beckwith's criticisms I will employ it in this rejoinder.

A False Dichotomy and a Narrow Vision

The stated purpose of Beckwith's paper is to demonstrate that NRS is based on poor reasoning, relies on weak findings of social science, and inadvertently advances moral relativism. His goal is to expose the failure of NRS to provide "an adequate ground on which to base the pro-life cause" and thereby to protect the primacy of the traditional pro-life argument from being undermined by this pretender. To this end, Beckwith declares the scope of his paper to be a critique of "the veracity of premises, the validity of inferences as well as the coherence of conceptional claims of proponents of NRS."

Unfortunately, Beckwith misstates our premises right out of the gate, claiming:

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 . . . [therefore] 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 . . . My concern in this essay is with those activists who suggest that such works replace, rather than merely supplement, moral argument and ethical justification.

This summary of our views is incorrect on several counts, but the most egregious flaw is the claim that any NRS advocate is suggesting that our approach should "replace, rather than merely supplement" the moral argument against abortion as the unjust killing of a human life. I know of no one who supports NRS who has ever suggested that an emphasis on the harm abortion does to women should in any way replace the moral argument against abortion. We have simply argued that the emphasis on the objective morality of abortion should not eclipse discussion of the real tragedy abortion inflicts on women, men, and their families. Our position is that there is more than one valid argument against abortion, and anti-abortion efforts will be less effective or even ineffective if they focus only on building the case for the moral argument, which appears to be Beckwith's preference.

What we are calling for is the real and rhetorical practice of advocating for both the woman and her unborn child. I've argued at length elsewhere, and indeed in the very book Beckwith criticizes, that it is a false dichotomy to suggest that society must choose between either the woman or her child.3 When pro-lifers, such as Beckwith, argue solely from the principle of objective morality, they give the impression that arguments on behalf of the unborn child's right to life trump all concerns for the woman-end of discussion. …

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