Good Debates, Part 1

By Grace Hemmeke, Right to Life of Michigan Events & Outreach Coordinator

“Everyone should have the right to control their own body.”

Prolife advocates everywhere know this is a bad argument, yet it can be a difficult one. This is not because it is a tough left hook of an argument, but because many prolife debaters engage with it incorrectly.

Why is this argument bad? It’s mainstream, sloganized for Supreme Court rallies and marches across the country. This argument is bad because it subtly redefines the premises of the entire abortion debate.

When debating casually, it is always wise to try and identify the unspoken premise or any part of the argument which may have been left out on the assumption that the other person will understand it even if it goes unspoken. In this case, the unspoken beginning of the sentence is, “I believe abortion is a good thing because…” or “I believe abortion should be legal because…”

Both complement each other (the legalization of abortion implies its morality, and the morality of a thing ought to be reflected in the law) and both can be refuted simply.

The prolife advocate claims: “Abortion is bad because it kills a person!”

To which the proabortion advocate rebuts, “Abortion is good because everyone should have the right to control their own body!” (Or the slogan: “My body, my choice!”)

And the prolife advocate will follow right along with something like, “But we’re talking about two bodies, a mother and a baby!”

What just happened? The proabortion advocate changed the definition of morality. When the prolife debater was speaking, the intended death of a child determined the morality of an abortion. When the proabortion advocate was speaking, the agency of being allowed to choose an abortion determined the morality of an abortion. An entirely new definition was introduced by the proabortion advocate, who simultaneously rejected the definition of the prolife advocate, and then proceeded to engage in terms of their own definition.

Tip for prolife advocates: You already know so much about how wrong abortion is, why it’s wrong, and what’s wrong about it. Sometimes you skip over your own arguments and state only your conclusion. When you do this, you give your opponents a chance to swap out one of your arguments or definitions for one of theirs, dramatically altering the conclusion. And sometimes, you might not notice that they even did this, leaving you arguing in circles because you are not arguing about the foundational disagreement.

When the “my body, my choice,” argument is brought into the conversation, remember that the ability to choose an action does not mean that that action is good or bad. Abortion may be a legal choice open to pregnant women, but it is an immoral choice. Keep in mind however that the black and white nature of abortion’s morality must be approached with great compassion for the women who have been misled to believe that it is their only option, or even that it is a good option.

So instead of simply reacting to the arguments of others, here’s some options to keep the conversation on track. Questions to draw out the other person are a good strategy, as it makes them give answers rather than slogans and think about what they are affirming or denying. Engage them further on your own definitions, assuming that abortion is bad because of the death of the child, yet also explicitly rejecting their definition. Try:

“I don’t think it’s good to choose actions that end lives, do you?” This directly confronts their definition of morality as seen in the “my body, my choice” argument, while also asserting that there is a higher good than being able to choose whatever one wants for oneself.

“Do you think abortion is good because you’re allowed to choose it, or that you ought to be allowed to choose it because it is good?” This does the exact same thing as before, though more explicitly. It also has the benefit of closing a favorite proabortion escape route – “Keep government bans off my body”.

“When you choose abortion, whatever your intent, a baby dies, and that’s what makes abortion bad.” This argument solidifies your definition of morality and reframes the whole discussion back to where it was at the beginning. Now you’re talking about the evil of killing a child, not the evil of denying someone agency.

“It’s not a good thing to choose bad things, even if you’re legally allowed to.” Blunt, to the point, and something you want to be careful of using, especially if you don’t know the person you’re speaking with. You never know what they might have gone through and being judgmental won’t help your argument. But this is a good way to point out that sometimes the law allows us to choose wrong things, though morality does not.

“Do you think that anything you’re legally allowed to do is a good thing to do?” This makes the same point as the previous argument, in a much softer way. Not all legal actions are good, and not all good actions are codified in the law.

All of these questions and counterarguments will help move the conversation along. The least desirable outcome of an argument is for both parties to repeat their beliefs (like “abortion is bad/good”) without examining the foundational beliefs or presuppositions that the other person holds (like “killing innocent children is bad”).

More analyses of arguments will follow, but for now, thank you so much to all those who have spoken about abortion, life, and pregnancy options with your community!


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