Line by Line

Bad Abortion Arguments


Tags: morals and ethics, social justice

There are three arguments for or against abortion that make any sense to me:

I find that last one morally repugnant, but it's at least not blatantly fallacious.

Most of the things pro-lifers and pro-choicers scream at each other, however, not so much.

So here's a non-exhaustive list of bad arguments for or against abortion. I tried to balance pro-life and pro-choice arguments, but the latter ended up outnumbering the former. This isn't because I think pro-life arguments are generally better than pro-choice ones, but because, in my personal experience, pro-choicers use a wider variety of bad arguments.

Don't like abortion? Don't have one.

I think this is something pro-choice people just say to each other, not to convince anyone who disagrees. It presupposes that abortion doesn't affect anyone other than the pregnant woman.

To someone who doesn't share that assumption, this is effectively saying that nobody should oppose anything more strongly than by simply not doing it themselves. You might as well be saying, “Don't like rape? Don't rape anyone,” or “Don't like slavery? Don't own slaves.”

Admittedly, “Don't rape anyone” is a tall order for some people, including some who vocally identify as pro-life, but that's beside the point.

You could be aborting someone who would grow up to cure cancer.

You could also be aborting someone who would grow up to commit genocide.

Human rights are not dependent on a person's (actual or potential) accomplishments.

You wouldn't forcibly take someone's blood for a life-saving transfusion, so you shouldn't force someone to be pregnant to save the fetus's life.

Not intervening to save someone's life is different from intervening to kill someone. There are other disanalogies, but that's the most important one.

Abortion is bloody and and gross. Here, look at these extremely graphic pictures.

This is a non-sequitur. Being bloody and gross says little to nothing about whether something is morally licit.

You know what else is bloody and gross? The normal, healthy functioning of the female reproductive system.

Besides, shocking and disgusting people with graphic imagery is at least as likely to inspire a visceral negative reaction against the people doing it and their positions as against the thing the images depict. Just ask all the people (like me) who start craving cheeseburgers whenever they hear a PETA ad.

If life begins at conception, then child support, benefits, etc. should also start at conception.


I'd call this an appeal to negative consequences, but I don't see how pregnant women being supported through their entire pregnancy is a bad thing. In any event, this has no bearing on whether or not abortion is licit.

If you don't want a baby, you shouldn't be having sex in the first place.

First of all, I know you didn't forget about rape because pro-choicers bring it up constantly. Second, this does nothing to address people who did want a baby but turned to abortion when they realized they couldn't support a baby.

Ultimately, this argument is irrelevant. Abortion is presented as a solution for when someone is already pregnant, so talking about how to avoid becoming pregnant is completely beside the point.

Life/personhood can't begin at conception because embryos routinely fail to implant and are ejected from the body.

“Dies without anyone noticing” is completely orthogonal to “is a person.”

Abortion increases your chances of getting breast cancer.

No it doesn't.

Even if it did, so what? Lots of completely legitimate medical procedures (such as cancer treatments) carry serious risk of side effects. That doesn't automatically make them morally problematic.

Your religious freedom doesn't give you the right to stop anyone else from having an abortion.

I can't deny that some people will cry religious persecution any time they don't get their way, but most pro-lifers who bring up religious freedom aren't saying, “I have religious freedom, therefore you have no right to abortion.”

There is a valid religious freedom argument when it comes to people being required to violate their religious beliefs by providing abortions or referrals for abortions. I'm not sure of the extent to which this actually happens, but I frequently see pro-choice people advocate for it. They tend to do so indirectly, by asserting that a refusal of a physician or hospital to perform an abortion is itself a violation of the right to choose.

In that context, this is just flat-out mischaracterization: It's one thing to say my freedom of religion entitles me to stop you from doing something, and quite another to say that my religion prohibits me from doing something and forcing me to do it violates my freedom of religion.

Outside of that context, this is just “Don't like abortion? Don't have one” again.

Besides, when it comes to the moral liceity of abortion, even religious pro-lifers tend to prefer arguments not based on their religion, for exactly this reason.

I have religious freedom, so you have no right to abortion.

All that said, there is that bunch that cry religious persecution when they don't get their way. When you strip away the angry rhetoric, all you're left with is a non-sequitur that is every bit as inane as it sounds.

The Catholic Church doesn't really believe life begins at conception because they won't baptize full-term stillborn babies.

A stillborn baby is dead. This does not mean they were never alive, and in fact implies the opposite. The Church does not baptize the dead. Even among the Last Rites (Communion as Viaticum, the Commendation of the Dying, and the Prayers for the Dead), two out of three are for the not-yet-dead.

I've also heard the claim that stillborn babies are denied funerals. The Church actually does (or is supposed to) provide funerals for miscarried babies. Guidance from the Archdiocese of Boston (hat tip: Mark Shea) admits that requests for funerals are “not always understood or honored by priests and other pastoral ministers,” but points out that “As a general principle, the Church encourages funeral rites for unbaptized infants and stillborn babies.” Furthermore, the fact that the children died before they could receive baptism can't be an obstacle because the funeral rites for children specifically include versions for unbaptized children.

There's also a page from the USCCB that says, “Burying those who have died at any age is seen by the Church as a corporal work of mercy. Therefore, the Church encourages a funeral rite for children whose baptism was intended by their parents, but who died before being baptized.”

If the babies are being denied funerals in spite of this principle, that's a valid criticism of the Church's actions. However, there are a lot of valid criticisms of the Church's actions, including actions that contradict its own teachings.

More to the point, this argument ultimately boils down to the frankly bizarre assertion that the truthfulness of a proposition is determined by whether the Catholic Church sincerely believes it and isn't hypocritical about it.

You can't tell the difference between a human fetus and an animal fetus.

This is a gotcha. Show someone a picture of a fetus, ask if they really think it's a person, and when they say yes, reveal that it's an elephant or a dog or whatever.

So what? Lots of people can't tell the difference between a coral snake and a kingsnake. That doesn't mean there isn't one. (Incidentally, Wikipedia tells me that the common “Red on yellow kills a fellow” mnemonic is rarely wrong in the US, but doesn't hold true for snakes native to other parts of the world. Maybe just keep a healthy distance from snakes in general.)

More broadly, the argument boils down to the bald assertion that if something doesn't look like a person, it isn't one, which is troubling. There are any number of reasons that a person might not look like someone else's idea of what a person should look like, or perhaps might look more like an animal than a person.

If you had to rescue either a newborn or a canister containing [number > 1] of frozen embryos, you'd obviously choose the newborn. This is because you recognize that the newborn is a person and the embryos aren't.

Trivially, this is just the same “You don't really believe that” argument as before, and fails for the same reason: That someone's professed beliefs differ from their actual beliefs doesn't tell us anything about which, if either, is correct.

Aside from that, the argument goes one of two ways. Either you save the newborn for any of several valid reasons (such the low odds of any of those embryos actually surviving after you “save” them from the fire) or the hypothetical is modified with additional stipulations to eliminate those reasons. Such stipulations border on the absurd. For instance, suppose the newborn had a disease that required them to be connected to a person for nine months, even though the newborn is for some reason in a burning fertility clinic and not already connected to a person.

But the real problem is that, once all those stipulations are piled on and accepted, people who claim (truthfully or otherwise) to believe that embryos are people will say that they'd save the embryos, which only tells you that they believe (or are claiming to believe) that embryos are people, which you already knew.

If you're willing to ignore that problem, check out Secular Pro Life's piece for even more problems with this argument.