Avoid the argument; attack the person

It’s likely everyone who’s been engaged in the abortion debate has seen a meme or tweet with this sentiment or one similar, posted in support of abortion rights. Many of them include some conjugation of the “F word” so it took some time to find an appropriate one for this post. When a topic is controversial the debate can get heated and the language often gets foul. Kind of like potato salad left out in the summer sun. But I digress.

The message of the meme is clear: those who fight to protect the unborn from the moment of conception but do nothing to protect and provide for the lives of the already born are inconsistent at best and hypocrites at worst. This is a classic example of an ad hominem argument, which is the next category of arguments for abortion rights Francis J. Beckwith tackles in his book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1). Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person” and as a debate strategy attacks and criticizes a person’s character or behavior rather than his argument. There is nothing in this meme or the very popular charge it represents that says anything about the morality of abortion…only about the people who oppose it.

This avoidance of the argument itself makes this ad hominem attack and others legitimately dismissible, but if the pro-life “attackee” wants to engage with it, she has a few facts she can use in her defense.

  1. The charge that those who identify as pro-life don’t care about needy born children or their mothers is false on its face. As a group, pro-lifers tend to be religious…primarily Christian…and studies show that religious people volunteer more, give more to charity, and Christians are more than twice as likely to adopt a child than any other group. Conversely then, the non-religious (who primarily identify as pro-choice) are less likely to care about the poor and needy. Add to that the several thousands of pregnancy care centers providing medical care and material provisions to pregnant women and their children and it becomes crystal clear that the charge is dishonest.
  2. Since the implication is that you can’t with integrity support a policy unless you’re willing to contribute time, effort, and/or money to meeting the needs that the policy creates, all those who were for abolishing slavery should have kept their opinions to themselves unless they were willing to take in freed slaves who had nowhere to go. And neither should we support the criminalization of child abuse unless we are willing to be foster parents to those abused kids.
  3. This argument “cuts both ways,” as Beckwith points out. How many pro-choicers care for the needs of poor women who have chosen not to abort even in difficult relational or financial situations? Similarly, we should consider disingenuous any objections to strict immigration policies unless the objectors are willing to take displaced and needy immigrants into their own homes.

Another ad hominem argument charges that pro-lifers are inconsistent if they support capital punishment. Again, this says nothing about the moral status or legitimacy of abortion so can be dismissed as irrelevant. But the charge itself is flawed for at least these reasons:

  1. It negates itself by implicating pro-choicers for inconsistency as well if they object to capital punishment. They are “pro-life” in opposing the death penalty for murderers but “pro-death” for unborn children.
  2. Many pro-life advocates oppose capital punishment as well so can claim “consistency” according to this argument. If consistency matters, their position is stronger than that of the pro-choice/anti-death penalty advocates.
  3. There simply is no inconsistency in opposing the killing of innocent children and supporting the killing of convicted murderers who have forfeited their own right to life by purposely and maliciously taking away another’s. Few pro-life advocates argue that killing is never justified. Self-defense, just war, and capital punishment are arguably situations when it is.

Next up in Beckwith’s thorough treatment of arguments for abortion rights: viability and other decisive moments that supposedly determine personhood and right to life. Close your eyes and pick one. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.


(1) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)