In the context of moral philosophy, the dispute over abortion is an ethical issue that should be addressed by argumentation. In the context of politics, the dispute over abortion is a blend of rhetoric, political ideology, religion and ethics. As such, “winning” the abortion debate in philosophy is quite different from winning it in politics. “Winning” in philosophy is, in the ideal, a matter of constructing the logically strongest argument with the most plausible premises. Winning in politics is ultimately a matter of getting the desired laws in place and enforced. This end, as would be suspected, is generally not served by “winning” the philosophical dispute. Rather, it is achieved primarily by using rhetoric, relevant fallacies (such as the straw man) and political tools such as campaign donations.
As most would expect, I am a registered Democrat. I am in a party because my adopted state of Florida has closed primaries and I do not want to be unjustly excluded from a critical part of the political process. I picked the Democrats because they currently hold a decisive moral edge over the Republicans: I think that, in general, more people will be better off if Democrats held most political offices. I do not think they should hold all offices—unopposed parties get down to the Devil’s business. Because of this, I am willing to provide philosophical advice to the Democrats. However, this must be consistent with my ethical views. Fortunately, my ethical view of abortion is consistent with advising Democrats on how to “win” the abortion debate against Republicans.
The Republican Study Committee (RSC) claims that “conservatives believe that every single human life has inestimable dignity and inherent value”, showing that someone probably read Kant. They also claim that they “believe in protecting the sanctity of life and defending those who cannot defend themselves.” Having also read Kant, I agree with the moral view that human life has dignity and intrinsic value. I also believe in defending the defenseless. Given these views, one might suspect that I would hold to the pro-life position. And you would be right: I do favor protecting and preserving life and hence I am pro-life in an honest and accurate usage of the term.
I am also pro-choice: I hold to the Lockean notion that each person “owns” themselves and cannot be deprived of their life, liberty or property except when doing so is properly justified. Compelling a woman to bear a child against her will is a clear violation of bodily and moral autonomy, even when the pregnancy is not the result of rape or incest. At this point, anti-abortion folks will inquire if I believe that a woman has the moral right to get an abortion at any time for any reason. To which I offer the same reply that any sensible person would make if asked if they think that autonomy and liberty allows a person to do any thing at any time: no. For example, I (like nearly everyone on earth) oppose aborting an infant right before viable birth. As another example, I think abortions for sex selection are wrong. As such, I am willing to accept moral limits on reproductive liberty and autonomy, just as I accept moral limits on all forms of liberty and autonomy. For example, I am morally fine with gun ownership, but I (like almost everyone else on the planet) think that people should not be allowed to own any weapon (such as bioweapons) they want or do anything they want with it (such as mass murder).
I could even be cast as being somewhat anti-abortion, in that I would morally prefer a world with less death to a world with more. However, my moral objective is to reduce death in the morally best way possible while acting in accord with the moral principles that motivate this goal. This can provide a strong rhetorical and ideological tool for Democrats.
As noted above, Republicans claim that their motivation for anti-abortion laws is their view of the dignity and intrinsic value of life. Democrats tend to counter this in two main ways. The first is to argue for bodily autonomy—that women have a right to abortion on the grounds of liberty. While this is morally fine, it will tend to prove ineffective in swaying voters who are true pro-lifers.
The second, which is used less, is to point out that Republicans’ professed motivation does not match their actions. As others have noted, anti-abortion states tend to be worse than other states when it comes to treating everyone with the dignity beings with intrinsic value are entitled to and with defending the defenseless. To illustrate, these states have the highest infant and maternal mortality rates, they tend to be states that did not expand Medicaid, they tend to spend less than other states on health care, they often lead in firearm deaths, they often are leaders in executions and the murder of women by men. As such, they are acting in direct violation of their stated pro-life principles and values. In addition to being morally wicked, it provides a political opportunity for Democrats to win over true pro-life voters. They cannot, obviously enough, win over anti-choice anti-abortion voters who are not concerned with the well-being of infants, mothers and people in general. So, how do the Democrats win over true pro-life voters in a moral way?
As noted above, the Republicans profess values and principles they directly and routinely violate with their policies. In contrast, Democrats tend to back pro-life laws and policies that are aimed at reducing death and suffering—such as expanding health care, providing support for infants and mothers, and reducing domestic violence. When debating Republicans on the abortion issue, they should focus on making the Republican hypocrisy clear and sell the pro-life voters on Democratic ideas that are, in fact, supportive of life. There are, of course, some weak points to this strategy. One is that, as noted above, it only works on people who are actually pro-life as opposed to being anti-choice anti-abortion folks. A second weak point is that people often vote based on party rather than on principle—so “pro-life” Republicans will often be fine with voting for a Republican who is most certainly not all about defending the defenseless and valuing life. To be fair, Democrats can also vote for Democrats just because they are Democrats.
The easy and obvious counter to Democrats pushing the “pro-life” line is to point out that they still support abortion rights. While supporting abortion rights is consistent with valuing life, engaging in a nuanced moral argument is not an effective way to win votes. Fortunately, one can still hold to a nuanced position while using rhetoric to “sell it.”
From a moral standpoint, the objective is to reduce the number of abortions with minimal harm. One analogy could be to traffic deaths—in this case, one can see the abortion as being analogous to a traffic fatality. One approach to traffic fatalities is to ban all traffic; the same approach could be applied to abortion. A legal ban, as has been shown historically, tends to be both ineffective and harmful. The well-off would still have abortions as would the less well-off, it would just be far more dangerous for the poor. There would also be the deaths from illegal abortions. In some ways, this is similar to the argument advanced by pro-gun folks about gun control: it will not work and if it did, it would be bad.
If a total ban is out, then it makes sense to press the analogy to reducing traffic deaths. Obvious ways are to improve driver education, road safety and vehicle safety. These are obviously analogous to improving sex-ed and making better and more accessible contraceptives. Those who want fewer abortions should find these arguments appealing, although some people do oppose contraception and sex-ed, but they are presumably unlikely to vote for a Democrat in any case. The traffic fatality analogy does, obviously, fail when pushed too far: traffic fatalities are generally unintentional while abortions are intentional. As such, it makes moral and practical sense to address the matter of motivation. If the motivations for abortion can be addressed, then there would be little or no need for laws to restrict them. It would also be good if addressing the motivations was consistent with respecting the intrinsic value of human life and defending the defenseless.
While women obviously vary in their motivations, those most commonly reported include that having a baby would interfere with work/school/other responsibilities (three quarters), that they could not afford to have a child (two thirds), or that they did not want to be a single parent (half). Teenagers, as would be expected, were more likely than older women to say that they were not mature enough to raise a child. While all these factors cannot be addressed by public policy, the two most common can. If each human life has intrinsic worth, then public policy should reflect this by making it easier for women to continue to work, attend school and meet their responsibilities should they elect to have a child. Public policy should also make it more affordable for women to have children, should they wish. While such policy would not eliminate abortion, it would presumably have a significant impact on the number of abortions—especially if effective sex-education and affordable contraception were readily available. What could be more pro-life than enabling a woman to realistically choose to have the child and to defend the defenseless mothers and infants from the dangers of unemployment, lack of health care and poverty?
It could be objected that funding and acting on such policies would be costly and burdensome. But the anti-abortion anti-choice folks are fine with imposing costs and burdens on women who do not want to bear them, so they can have no moral objection here—unless they want to openly say that the women do not matter.
This approach could, perhaps, win over some true pro-life voters to the Democrats. It would also help shine more light on the hypocrisy and moral inconsistency of the anti-choice anti-abortion Republicans who profess to hold human life to have intrinsic worth and to want to defend the defenseless while acting in direct violation of those professed values. Republicans can, obviously enough, counter the Democrats by adopting true pro-life policies; but that would seem to make them into Democrats.
Some quick rhetorical tricks for Democrats:
- Get the Republican to claim they oppose abortion because they think human life has intrinsic worth/is sacred/etc.
- Push them hard on whether they support public polices that are consistent with the view that human life has intrinsic worth.
- Push them hard on how sex-ed, contraception affordability & access, and good public policy would reduce the number of abortions, decrease infant & maternal mortality, and reduce death and suffering. Don’t they love children and mothers?
- If they try to argue that public policies supporting women would be too costly and burdensome, point out that they have no problem with anti-abortion laws that are costly and burdensome to women. Do women not count? Do they hate women?
- Also point out how inconsistent and hypocritical it is to put money ahead of human life, which they claim is sacred and has intrinsic worth. How can you put a dollar value on priceless human life?
- Push that they apparently do not care about the value and dignity of life, they just want to restrict abortion—regardless of the harms inflicted or costs imposed. Do they really care about life, or do they just hate women?
- Push that you are the real pro-lifer: you favor public policy that would safely and effectively reduce the number of abortions while defending the defenseless against the dangers of unemployment, illness, and poverty. Surely, if they are truly pro-life, they would also endorse such policies. If not, what do they really stand for? Do they even care about life at all?
- Do not get sidetracked by their rhetoric; avoid following their red herrings (such as sex-selection abortion in China), avoid getting tangled in their straw men (that Democrats want abortion any time for any reason), etc.
- Avoid getting tricked into explaining or engaging in nuanced reasoning; if you are explaining or reasoning in a current political debate then you are almost certainly losing. Keep points short, direct and focused. When engaging in philosophical debate, explain and use nuance.
- Do not lie. Leave that to them.