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.”

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3 thoughts on “The Pro-Choice Straw Man

  1. Assuming life begins at conception there is also the argument that pro lifers are contradictory in their argument. “taking an innocent life is immoral” ignores the other issues of woman rights. For example a women has a right to what happens with her own body, who touches it, uses it, etc. It’s the reason you cant rape some one, steal their DNA, force them to give blood. In the case of abortion it is the fetus who is using the woman’s body. So it would be the right of the woman to decide if this other person is allowed to use her body. The part where it would be contradictory is that most people, pro lifers included, believe you should not be forced to give organs, blood, etc, even if it means saving someones life. So why should a woman be forced to give organs and blood to save another persons life.

    • I am not talking about the “life at conception argument.” That argument may be contradictory, but I am not writing about that now. I am only talking about how “woman’s right” is not relevant to pro-lifers.

      Concerning the “right to body” argument, with that same argument it would be moral for a mother to bring home child, then just decide not to feed it or tell people. After all, imposing a person to do something (feed child, tell someone she doesn’t want the child) is de facto imposing them to do something with their body that they do not want to do, since they need to physically do something. This argument rests on the assumption that actively being immoral is the same as passively being immoral (e.g. killing someone and not saving someone who you can easily save are both equally bad).

      I also don’t think the organ thing is comparable since to pro-lifers, they value sanctity of life. Therefore, to them, though under normal circumstances you can have “right to body,” human life is so sacred that it’s preservation outweighs all other moral calculations.

      • The reason I bring up the argument is to give an example of an argument where time of life, or humaness, or person hood is not a sticking point. Meaning a pro choicer could agree life begins at conception and still give a prolife argument.

        Woman rights is relevant because we are talking about women’s rights. That is rights involving child bearing are unique to women, there for women’s rights.

        The right to body argument does not apply, or there is a distinction between those examples. The right to body is to stop bodily harm or physical contact with the body. Paying taxes is forcing someone to do something that involves of course moving your fingers, but there is no harm or contact, similar to how its ok to verbally criticize someone but not physically harm them. The sound waves are still affecting their ears and the content is still causing neurons to fire to achieve understanding.

        I brought up the organ thing to show how pro lifers value their right to body over the sanctity of life. Maybe there are are lost of pro lifers who would give kidneys or blood to save someones life, but there are plenty who do not under the beliefs they have a right not to be forced to give blood, and those are who would be contradictory.

        About passive vs active. A better example, If a man kidnapped a woman tied her to a extreme torture device in such a way that disconnecting the device would kill the man. To stay consistent you must support leaving the women to be tortured to preserve life.

        Also I dont think abortion is an active killing. It is currently because they simply dismember the baby, this is to kill it quickly. They could simply remove the fetus and let it die on its own outside the mother. The active part would be removing the child from the mother body, not killing it.

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