The Pro-Choice Straw Man

This post is a response to an encounter my friend and I had while discussing abortion in a bookstore. We were arguing whether the potential of being born means a fetus should be treated as already born, at which point a passerby criticized us for being too theoretical. She then pulled out the all too common argument: it’s the woman’s choice. I’ve heard this argument many times from the pro-choice side, and it always bothered me.

To clarify, I am not criticizing abortion itself, but just this one justification; there are numerous other more defensible arguments. The “woman’s choice” argument is troubling because it sets up a straw man. That is, it assumes the pro-life side’s reason for opposing abortion includes a paternalistic motive that aims to suppress women. However, abortion is not a feminist issue, at least not inherently. It is a life issue that is accessible to debate by men as well – saying only women should talk about it is like saying only murderers should debate murder-related legislation. In simplest terms, to conservatives, saying “abortion is a woman’s issue” is equivalent to saying “killing a 5 year old child is a parent’s issue.” Thankfully, morals are not determined based on choice, but on what is right and wrong. The common retort is that pregnancy affects a woman’s livelihood, and so she has a greater precedence. Well, raising a 5 year old child also affects the mother’s livelihood, but we still block her “right” to kill her child. In other words, it is plausible that the negative utility a woman incurs from continuing to raise a born child is comparable to the negative utility a woman incurs from being pregnant and dealing with pregnant-related complications. As such, if the “woman’s choice” argument rests on the costs the woman incurs, then the same argument must be applicable to a mother of a 5 year old.

I’m assuming however, that most pro-choice and pro-life supporters would not endorse killing a 5 year old child when that child places a high burden on her mother. Why then do pro-choice apologists argue “woman’s choice?” It rests on the fundamental difference between both sides of the debate: the point that life begin. I’m sure if I examined the debate with anyone, they would reasonably draw this same conclusion, yet for some reason the pro-choice side ignores it when they argue. Instead, they set up a straw man such as “woman’s choice” to defend their position.

Abortion supporters should recognize that only two things can convince the other side (though this claim is simplistic): demonstrating that it is ok to kill innocent humans in certain circumstances or showing that a fetus is not a human. The former would have to be utilitarian, so that it can argue that killing some people (e.g. a fetus that will place strain on society when born) would benefit humanity, thus making it moral. The later would show that since fetuses are not human, there is no moral problem in killing them, thus the decision can be relegated to a “woman’s choice.” Without addressing one of these two difficult fundamental issues, pro-choice arguments become irrelevant to their target audience. It is important to resist arguing irrelevant points, for when public discourse becomes people uselessly talking at each other, rather than with each other, social progress comes to a halt.

Edit: I was recently presented with a counterargument called the “right of body.” In this case, in the same way you can deny your organs to someone who needs it, thus indirectly killing them, you are also allowed to deny your body to a fetus. This would then  make the “killing the 5 year old” argument not comparable.

However, I think it is still comparable since I would say “right of livelihood” is equal to “right of body.” But if I were to assume they are not, we could still say that the things the mother must do to sustain the child is a de factor “right of body” violation since it entails her body. Or more defensibly, we can alter the 5 year old scenario to a breastfeeding scenario, in which aborting due to “women’s choice” is equivalent to withholding breastfeeding from a child in a hypothetical situation where there is no other alternative other than the mother’s breast milk. Assuming you are against one of these (killing a 5 year old or not breastfeeding when it is needed for survival), you must abandon “right of body.”