Who’s Afraid of an Argument? The Insecurities of the Abortion Rights Movement

“Don’t waste time talking to anti-choice people.” That is the straightforward instruction provided by NARAL Pro-Choice America in its “Campus Kit for Pro-Choice Organizers.” The director of the Pro-Choice Action Network answered a question about why his group does not engage in conversation with pro-life advocates with this statement: “Along with most other pro-choice groups, we do not engage in debates with the anti-choice.” In other words, they are scared to death of a genuine argument.

This point is made abundantly clear in a recent article by Jon A. Shields of the Center on Religion and Democracy at the University of Virginia. Shields’ article, “Bioethical Politics,” is published in the March/April 2006 issue of Society, one of the nation’s most influential social science journals.

“If the conventional wisdom is correct, the religious right is once again corrupting American democracy by pushing religious dogma over and against science and reason,” Shields asserts. Nevertheless, he goes on to prove that the “conventional wisdom” is anything but wise.

“These critics . . . have got it almost nearly backwards,” he argues. “Ironically, it is actually the secular left that has undermined a national discussion on vital bioethical questions–such as when a human organism deserves state protection–by depicting them as fundamentally religious and therefore beyond legitimate public debate.” Another of Shields’ assertions is likely to catch considerable attention: “Even more surprising, the religious right increasingly embraces sophisticated philosophical arguments in its effort to convince Americans from across the political spectrum that embryonic stem cell research and abortion are not religious issues.” Or, that they are not merely religious issues.

Shields is a keen observer of the contemporary scene, both in terms of the cultural debate and of the moral significance of the arguments offered by both sides in the abortion controversy. As pro-lifers attempt to assert arguments on behalf of the sanctity of human life in the public square, abortion rights advocates stalwartly refuse to debate or discuss the issue. One technique used by the pro-abortion movement is to label all opposition to abortion or stem cell research as “religious,” and therefore beyond legitimate debate or state interest.

“Proponents of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research correctly recognize that if the moral status of embryos and fetuses is solely a religious question, it is properly quarantined to the private realm of faith. It cannot be a matter of public political debate. Any effort to restrict abortion or stem cell research, therefore, is an unjustified assertion of sectarian metaphysics,” he explains. Thus, the pro-abortion movement must, in order to maintain their public argument, assert that any concern about the moral status of an embryo or an unborn human child is simply “a religious question.”

Shields demonstrates how this technique plays out in the realm of politics and national debate. The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry argued that his own personal pro-life view would have no impact on public policy because it was merely an “article of faith.” Of course, describing Kerry’s personal position as “pro-life” stretches the term more than is useful, but the candidate did argue that he was personally opposed to abortion (at least in some vague sense) but believed that it should be fully legal as a matter of public policy. Why? Because his “personal” beliefs about abortion were merely matters of “faith.”

Similarly, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have argued that all decisions related to abortion are inherently religious. As they have famously argued, the abortion decision should be left to a “woman, her doctor, and her God.”

Shields also documents the influence of groups such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, “which concludes that abortion decisions are properly left to individuals because ‘of the wide range of religious beliefs on this sensitive issue.'”

The argument that opposition to abortion–or the very question of when human life deserves protection–is inherently religious even made its way into the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade. Justice Harry Blackmun argued that philosophy and science were fundamentally unhelpful in determining the morality of abortion, and that the court therefore should not go so far as to “speculate as to the answer.”

Meanwhile, in terms of public debate, “the left routinely promotes a pro-choice resolution to bioethical conflicts by framing them as religious in nature,” Shields explains. In doing so, the left accuses the right of pushing theologically based arguments. Nevertheless, Shields asserts that the left “actually struggles to find evidence for this claim.”

The largest part of Shields’ article concerns the intellectual maturation of the pro-life movement and its engagement with philosophers and scientists on the key questions of human life and its protection. In particular, he considers the influence of groups like Stand to Reason, a Christian organization dedicated to promoting credible arguments against abortion in the public square, along with other apologetic interests. Stand to Reason works with the “Justice for All” program that takes pro-life volunteers onto college and university campuses in order to foster philosophical discussions about abortion. Shields provides a fascinating view into the work of Stand to Reason and Justice for All, featuring the arguments offered by Steve Wagner in his “Pro-Life 101” seminar. Wagner shows his students how to argue the case for a pro-life position, demonstrating the inherent weaknesses in the pro-abortion argument.

Wagner, for example, argues that newborn babies are more developed than fetuses. “But then, Wagner added, the adolescent is also far more developed than the newborn and yet society values both lives equally. The burden for pro-choice advocates, therefore, is to demonstrate that the change a human undergoes as she develops from a fetus to a newborn [is] so different from all future developments that it alters her ontological status entirely. They must also show that the value of a human being depends on the characteristics that he or she acquires rather than on the kind of thing that it is,” Shields reports.

Significantly, the approach promoted by these organizations points to the importance of raising the right questions. Is it possible that America has allowed the intentional destruction of over forty million human beings since Roe v. Wade in 1973? “Framed this way,” Shields explains, “pro-life advocates want to place the philosophical burden of proof on the other side even as they offer their own evidence for the value of fetal life.”

The article describes what happened when JFA staff and volunteers showed up on the Auraria campus in downtown Denver–home to the University of Colorado, the Metropolitan State College, and the Community College of Denver. The program set up its characteristically large displays that featured pictures of aborted fetuses throughout the process of gestation.

As expected, many of the students walking by the exhibit, especially women, responded with initial disdain and little interest in conversation. Nevertheless, the JFA volunteers and staff were eventually able to engage many of these students in conversation about abortion and the meaning of human life.

The pro-life advocates “labored to focus their conversation on ontological questions,” Shields recalled. This is important, for it indicates the centrality of questions of being to the controversy over abortion, stem cell research, and other urgent biomedical questions. Is this embryo a human life or not? Is the fetus something other than human until at some point it magically becomes a human being? “For most Auraria students,” Shields reports, “it appeared that this intellectual exercise was altogether new and that most had never thought about the ontology of the fetus before.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Shields’ article is his demonstration of the fact that pro-abortion advocates are generally unwilling even to enter a serious debate on the question. As he explains, “pro-choice student groups refuse to debate their opponents despite the persistent efforts of pro-life students.” Most of the pro-choice activists “seem either unwilling or unprepared to confront the growing philosophical sophistication of pro-life advocates.”

All this points to a most interesting contemporary dilemma. Conservatives are pressing for a revolution on behalf of human life and its sanctity while the left is determined to hold fast to abortion rights and knows that any serious questioning of its positions will put it into big trouble.

Beyond this, Shields demonstrates that pro-abortion activists have alienated themselves from any sustained bioethical debate. “Such unwillingness to engage in public deliberation, moreover, will likely be perpetuated by yet another political irony,” he explains. “Whereas many religious conservatives have comfortably embraced distinguished allies in the academy, the left cannot easily do so. First, entering this bioethical debate makes it difficult to argue simultaneously that science and philosophy cannot shed light on human ontology, which has been the principal pillar that undergirds a woman’s right to choose and stem cell research. Second, the left actually has a serious intellectual problem.”

As Shields explains, that “serious intellectual problem” is, as articulated by Rosamund Rhodes, the pro-choice director of bioethics at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, the abortion rights movement must explain “how or why the fetus is transformed into a franchised ‘person’ by moving from inside the womb to outside or by reaching a certain level of development.” This important article by John A. Shields deserves careful attention. If nothing else, he reminds the pro-life movement of our responsibility to offer serious arguments and engage in serious debate. The very fact that the other side is increasingly resistant to debate indicates that we are winning–at least in terms of putting the abortion rights movement into a defensive posture. Intellectual defensiveness is a sign of the inherent weakness of the pro-choice movement.

So, the next time you hear a media report on the abortion “debate” in America, remember that the abortion rights movement is increasingly resistant to any debate. They are literally afraid to debate, and for good reason. They are fast running out of arguments.