I am currently reading the book “True Reason” by Tom Gilson and others (the book’s official website can be found here). This isn’t a traditional apologetics book per se. Rather, it is a collection of essays by authors responding to the new atheists’ cooption of the term “reason” to describe their worldview. The contributors are not so much concerned with making an affirmative case for Christianity as they are illustrating how so many of the techniques used by the new atheists can be described as anything but reasonable.
In surfing Facebook recently, I came across this picture attempting to present an argument in favor of the pro-choice movement. As I read it, I could not help but see some parallels between the issues raised in “True Reason” and the tactics employed by those advocating in favor of abortion.
The text on the picture read as follows:
Pro-choice activists should reframe the abortion debate and seize the pro-life label.
A pregnant woman has a life. She most likely has a family she loves and who loves her, she has friends, she has hopes and dreams and has established her place in society. The fetus she carries has none of that. How can something with no life have any right to dictate the choices of someone who already has one?
Be pro-life. Support the woman’s right to decide what one does and does not belong in hers.
As of this writing, 291 people have “liked” this photo and it has been “shared” 81 times. It is a sad state for the pro-choice camp (as it is for the pro-life camp when its proponents resort to similar tactics) that so many people rally behind such an obviously flawed argument.
There were many things I could have pointed out in response, but I focused on two. One, which did not get a response from anyone, pointed out the logical fallacy committed by the author.
This is an example of a classic logical error called “equivocation,” using the same term (in this case “life”) to mean two different things but acting as if it means the same. In one context (i.e., the morality of abortion) “life” means possessing the quality of being alive such that you have a right to life. The examples this picture provides, however, use “life” in the context of “quality of life” (as in the phrase “get a life”). The term may be the same, but the definitions are not. It is an example of rhetorical sleight of hand that is not logically valid.
While some other pro-lifers pointed out the same error, as of when I am writing this post, nobody has responded to it.
The other response I gave was more of a reflection. I simply reiterated back the substance of this argument, cutting through the rhetorical flourish, to force people to face exactly what it is they are advocating.
So in order to be “alive” you must (1) have a family you love and who loves you, (2) have friends, (3) have hopes and dreams, and (4) have established your place in society (whatever that means). If you do not have these things, you are not “alive.”
When stated this simply, the unstated implications are obvious. If this is really our standard for being “alive,” abandoned newborn infants are not alive and enjoy no right to life. Arguably, adult homeless individuals with no family to speak of also are not “alive.”
I did get a response to this comment, although it did not squarely answer the question I presented. Instead, the author “Judy” changed the subject.
No Ken, to be alive you need to be able to live outside of my body. Until then it’s my choice.
Judy presented me with the classic viability argument. A fetus is not alive until it is viable outside the womb. One of my favorite responses to this argument is from the movie “Come What May.” It illustrates how in order for this argument to succeed it must start out by assuming that the fetus was alive in the womb, the very thing it is trying to refute.
The viability argument states that if the fetus does not survive when removed from the womb, it is not viable and therefore not alive. Essentially, we have to concede that the fetus is in a perfectly good life support system inside the womb. That system is doing its job just fine, keeping the fetus alive. According to this argument, if the fetus fails to survive when we rip the fetus out of this superior life support system and place it into an inferior one of our own making, it was not alive to begin with.
However, the very concept of whether the fetus “survives” assumes that it was alive in the first place. “Survival” means continuing to live. You cannot “continue” to live unless you are alive in the first place. The viability standard itself begins by assuming the fetus is alive inside the womb, the very thing it is trying to refute.
Sometimes that response can go over the heads of those not versed in philosophy, so I decided to try a different approach with Judy. Rather than showing her how her view is self-destructive (something Greg Koukl calls the “suicide tactic), I instead chose to “take the roof off;” i.e., demonstrate the consequences of her belief if carried to its logical conclusion.
Just to be sure I am understanding you correctly, Judy, as medical science has developed, so has the definition of when “life” begins. 50 years ago, we certainly did not have the medical technology to keep a baby alive outside the womb nearly as early in its pre-natal development as we do today. So if I am understanding you correctly, two babies/fetuses could be at the exact same stage of development, one from 50 years ago and one today, and the one 50 years ago was not yet “alive” but the one today is? Or to provide another example, two babies/fetuses today, one is in the United States with a superior medical system, the other in a poorly developed country without the medical services and technologies we enjoy here. Both are at the same stage of development. The one in the U.S. is alive but the one in the poorly developed country is not. Am I understanding your standard correctly?
Unfortunately, Judy did not respond.
These tactics are much more effective in face-to-face discussions when the person being questioned cannot ignore your inquiry. But even in online contexts they can be effective in forcing people to face the full implications of their belief and evaluate whether their worldview is really well reasoned or if they re holding to it for purely emotional reasons.