I continue my response to a listener who asks: “Why are we trying to be so careful to accurately describe other people’s positions? They do just fine describing it for themselves.”
This is my second post in a series that responds to follow-up questions about a recent discussion I led on Life Report on what terms to use in abortion dialogues. We focused most of the debate on labels “pro-abortion” vs. “pro-choice.”
I was joined by Steve Wagner from Justice For All and Gabi Vehrs from the Fresno City College Students for Life club. We all agreed that pro-life advocates should generally use the term “pro-choice” when beginning a dialogue, even though many pro-life people see that as an inaccurate “weasel word.”
If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage you to watch the entire discussion below or download the audio version here.
Here is one of the responses we got to the discussion, from someone named Dallas:
I just want to say that this whole discussion is pretty wimpy. Why are we trying to be so careful to accurately describe other people’s positions? They do just fine describing it for themselves. I am pro-life and not ashamed to be called anti-choice. If the choice is murder, yes, I believe a woman should not have the choice to kill for convenience. Why make a science out of something so simple?
In my last post, I gave principled and pragmatic reasons why we should attempt to accurately describe other people’s positions. I now want to address the point Dallas raises in her third sentence.
I disagree with Dallas when she says that pro-choice people do a fine job of describing their own position themselves. In my experiences on college campuses, I’ve found that many pro-choice people haven’t spent very much time thinking about the issue and really struggle to communicate some of their arguments in a clear and accurate way. Please don’t take the last sentence as an insult to pro-choice people. There are lots of issues that I haven’t thought a lot about as well. The observation is worth bringing up because if we assume that every pro-choice person we speak to has very carefully refined their arguments, our dialogues will be hurt because that assumption is demonstrably false. Pro-choice slogans do not always give the full side or even the strongest side of any given pro-choice advocate’s position.
For example, pro-choice people often use this slogan: “My body, my choice.” But Timothy Brahm and Steve Wagner from Justice For All have noticed that that could be referring to at least four pro-choice arguments:
- Most pro-life advocates assume they mean that the baby is literally a part of her body, like an organ, so we respond by arguing that the fetus has its own body, separate from the mother. I don’t think most pro-choice people mean this when they say “My body, my choice.” Frankly, most pro-choice people are intelligent enough to see the weakness of this view, and so they mean something different.
- They could mean that the unborn is a parasite, and that by nature of it being dependent on the mother’s blood supply, she has the right to do with it as she pleases. This may sound like #1 to you, but it’s not. This argument admits that the unborn is a separate body, and gives a reason for giving the mother the right to abort.
- It could be the bodily rights argument that Trent Horn calls the “Sovereign Zone” argument. The pro-choice advocate admits that the unborn is an actual person, yet she has the right to abort anyway because the child lives inside her body. Read Timothy Brahm’s article that devastates this argument here: “Autumn in the Sovereign Zone: Why “It’s My Body, I Can Do What I Want” Won’t Do.”
- It could be the bodily rights argument that Trent Horn calls the “Right to Refuse” argument. The pro-choice advocate admits that the unborn is a person, but that a women should have the right to refuse to have her body used as a life support machine, just like you should have the right to unplug from Thomson’s violinist. Read several responses to this argument starting on page 8 of this paper: “De Facto Guardian and Abortion: A Response to the Strongest Violinist,” or listen to me explain the arguments in this speech.
I have responses to all of these arguments, but I can’t adequately respond as soon as I hear “My body, my choice,” because I don’t have enough information yet. I need to ask some questions to deduce where the pro-choice advocate is coming from.
Here’s another example: Some pro-choice advocates think that the unborn is not a person because it isn’t self-aware yet. Do you feel ready to respond to that challenge as soon as you hear it? Not so fast. Tim, Steve and I have noticed in our conversations lately that we need a lot more information.
What do they mean by “self-aware”? Do they mean an entity being rationally aware of herself existing over time? Do they mean being aware of their own desires? Do they merely mean minimal awareness of the outside world?
How do they think the property of self-awareness interacts with a human being’s value? Do they think that an entity becomes more valuable as they become more and more self-aware? Do they think an entity must be presently self-aware to have value? In that case, do they have a way to preserve the personhood of people in temporary comas? Or do they think an entity must have crossed the threshold of becoming minimally self-aware and as soon as they do, they have an equal right to life with all the other self-aware entities?
You may believe I’m overthinking this, but I have found that I can’t have very good dialogues with people if I have no idea where they’re coming from. If I don’t ask a lot of questions at the front end of the conversation, I’m likely to put the pro-choice advocate in a preconceived box and assume she is just like the last person I talked to who said similar things. I’ll probably “straw man” the poor person, leaving her frustrated that I didn’t care enough about her to learn what she actually believed before responding with pre-memorized pro-life talking points.