Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stupid Arguments III: Abortion Edition

This post is not about the relative merits of either side in the abortion debate. Instead (and this should be really obvious from the title), I want to discuss why it's a stupid argument. More to the point, I want to look at some of the reasons why it's nearly impossible to have a productive discussion on this topic.

The problem is not just that the public (or at least media) discussion of the issue has been oversimplified to point of absurdity; or that the two sides are so utterly polarized that there's no common ground at all; or even that neither of those positions actually fit the way most people think - though all of that is, to some degree, true. It's the structure of the debate itself, which conflates two very different questions and concerns.

What it breaks down to (in the oversimplified, polarized, make-people-fighting-mad presentation) is this: "Killing babies is bad" vs. "Abortion should be legally available". And then, of course, we have people shouting them at each other, as if they were actually talking about the same thing:
"Killing babies is bad."
"But abortion should be legally available."
"But killing babies is bad!"
"But abortion should be legally available!
...And like that.

Until you start breaking the argument down, there's no way to make progress. And, to be honest, I think a lot of our politicians prefer it this way. The issue generates a lot of righteous anger, and gets people to vote. If it ever went away, they'd have to find some other way to motivate people, and that takes work.


  1. A complicated issue to be sure.

    I am a Pro Life Pro Choicer. :)

    I support abortion until viability. From that point forward I am Pro-life.

    Of course viability is very subjective. Since most abortions occur in the first 13 weeks I don't have a problem with most abortions.

    I abhor third trimester and late term abortions. It is hard not to call it murder.


  2. Indeed. Most of the people I speak to are both pro-life and pro-choice. That is, they acknowledge that abortion does, at least potentially, end a human life, and is therefore a thing to be avoided; but also, trying to prevent abortions by making them flatly illegal is impractical, and possibly counterproductive, and therefore the choice should be available.

    The current state of the laws seems to support your view, though you wouldn't know that to read about the issue.

    Honestly, if someone is really interested in reducing the number of abortions, the best approach is probably to reduce the (primary) root cause: unwanted pregnancies. The best way to do this is with comprehensive sexual education.

  3. To quote Hillary Clinton (of all people): "Abortion should be safe, legal - and rare."

  4. Pardon, I thought it was her husband who said that during a presidential debate.

  5. You may be right. I remember reading somewhere that it had originated with her, but I could be wrong. A quick Google search only reveals that both Clintons have used the phrase extensively (here's a sample from Hillary), and that it was part of the Democratic Party platform for a while. I can't find anything that confirms that memory.


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