Begging questions and trotting out toddlers


By Ben Williamson

It is absolutely critical that the issue dividing the pro-lifers and abortion advocates be clarified and not muddled by irrelevancies. As author Scott Klusendorf points out in The Case for Life: “If you think a particular argument for elective abortion begs the question regarding the status of the unborn, here’s how to clarify things: Ask if this particular justification for abortion also works as a justification for killing toddlers. If not, the argument assumes that the unborn are not fully human.” (The Case for Life, p. 25, para. 1). Since hardly anybody appeals to bodily rights, economic conveniences, or rights to privacy to justify killing infants and toddlers, to appeal to those circumstances in the case of abortion is to assume the unborn are not human persons.

Let me give an illustration that can help clarify this. Bob and Debbie are hanging out over coffee and the topic of abortion comes up in the conversation. Debbie says, “I think the woman should be allowed to have an abortion because what if she can’t raise the child due to her economic situation?” Bob doesn’t think that reason is good enough. “But it’s wrong to have an abortion because you are killing a child. Don’t you think that’s something the woman should consider?” Debbie, however, wasn’t very impressed with Bob’s question. She kept insisting that the woman should not be prevented from having an abortion because it was her body and her rights.

Now, what was Debbie’s underlying assumption when she said that women should be permitted to have an abortion due to financial issues? She was assuming that the unborn was not a human being without giving any argument for it. This is called begging the question. In logic, when one begs the question, he or she is assuming the very thing they are trying to prove or frontloading a hidden assumption without defending it. In philosophical issues, every assumption is open for questioning and no one is exempt.

Here is how that assumption can be exposed. Debbie tells Bob, “It’s not your place to tell women what they can or cannot do with their bodies. It’s a fundamental right to being a woman to have an abortion.” Now suppose Bob were to turn around and say, “All right. Let’s imagine that I have a two-year-old girl who has terrible health issues and has cost us great financial distress. We are considering killing her in the privacy of our home. It’s nobody’s place to tell us what we can do with our two year old.” Debbie will have to say that she is opposed to that because she generally believes, along with most people, that the toddler is a human being. But what was Bob’s point here? He was exposing her hidden assumption that she was not defending: that the unborn is a not a human being. Since Debbie would not use the same reasons, she gave for abortion, for killing an infant, newborn, or toddler, it follows that the real issue is not the mother’s poverty but what the unborn is.

Or sometimes you might hear someone say to a pro-lifer, “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one.” The reduction of the issue of abortion to choosing between different preferences has become too common in our culture. People quite readily make the abortion debate a debate over one’s own personal and private preferences. What exactly is wrong with the above line? There are at least three problems with it.

First, it does not take into account what the pro-life advocate is actually claiming. Pro-life advocates are not saying that they merely dislike abortion. They are saying that abortion unjustifiably kills an innocent and defenseless human being. So reducing the topic of abortion to a matter of taste is to fail to understand what exactly is being claimed here.

Second, the person saying that also fails to understand the difference between preference and moral claims. Preference claims are simply descriptions of a person’s state of what they like or dislike. It has little or nothing to do with what they ought or ought not do. Statements like “I like chocolate ice cream,” “Gummy bears taste better than teddy grahams,” or “Apple pie is better than lemon pie” are all preference claims. There isn’t any demand or obligation that you could infer from any of those statements. Most of us would probably think it would be odd if I were to say “You’re wrong for liking chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla ice cream” because we all intuitively realize that the contents in that claim are purely preference-based.

Third, the statement – if meant to be an argument for abortion choice – is a bad argument because it begs the question. The statement is true only if the unborn are not human beings. But that is precisely the topic of the debate! And if the unborn are not human beings, you don’t need the argument.

So in conclusion, the central issue in the abortion debate is whether the unborn is a human being or a person. This is supported by the fact that most – if not all – reasons given to support abortion are question begging and do not address the real issue. The purpose of using a toddler as an example is to force the real issue to the forefront.

Editor’s note. This appeared at