Everyone is talking about abortion, but these rhetorical ploys miss the mark

By Paul Stark

As the Supreme Court reconsiders Roe v. Wade, it’s hard to remember a time when the debate over the ethics of abortion so dominated public conversation.

Much of that conversation is superficial, confused, and misinformed. Some of these mistakes even cropped up in the Court’s recent oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. When you engage others and make the pro-life case, here are a few common rhetorical ploys to watch out for.

The health ploy

“Abortion is health care.” That’s a standard abortion industry talking point. It adds a veneer of respectability to abortion because everyone agrees that health care is good and important.

Health care, as the dictionary defines it, is “the maintaining and restoration of health by the treatment and prevention of disease.” How does elective abortion maintain or restore health? It doesn’t—because pregnancy isn’t a disease. It’s a sign that the body is functioning properly. 

Far from restoring proper function, abortion undermines such function. In fact, abortion intentionally attacks the health and ends the life of a distinct and growing individual. It literally dismembers, starves, or poisons to death. 

Whether this killing is right or wrong, it can’t be health care. It’s the opposite of that. 

The freedom ploy

In the Dobbs hearing, the lawyer representing the abortion industry called pro-life laws a “fundamental deprivation of … liberty” and a violation of “a woman’s right to make this decision.”

There’s a big problem with such appeals: freedom per se isn’t at issue in the abortion debate. Everyone, on both sides, thinks freedom is important, and everyone also thinks that people shouldn’t use freedom to infringe on the rights of others. 

We have the right to decide whether or not to go to college, or to take a certain job, or to have children. But we don’t have the right to get rid of our annoying roommates, or our unfair bosses, or our expensive and life-changing toddlers. We don’t have the right to do things that are unjust or that harm innocent people. If abortion is that sort of action, then we don’t have a right to abortion. If unborn humans have human rights—like roommates and bosses and toddlers—then those rights deserve respect. The issue, then, isn’t freedom at all, but whether unborn children matter like the rest of us do. 

Abortion defenders often appeal to a specific form of freedom—bodily autonomy. Pregnant women, they say, have a right to do what they want with what’s inside their bodies. But here, too, freedom isn’t really the issue. In the Dobbs arguments, Justice Clarence Thomas pointed to a case involving a pregnant woman who ingested drugs that caused harm to her unborn child. Does a woman’s right to bodily autonomy justify this harm, Thomas asked the lawyer?

Of course not. Bodily autonomy is important, but it must respect the bodies and rights of others. If unborn humans really count, then our autonomy can’t come at the expense of their lives.  

The religion ploy

“That’s a religious view, isn’t it?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor during the Dobbs hearing. She was referring to the pro-life view. The implication was probably that, because it’s religious, this view shouldn’t be reflected in our laws. 

Yet the pro-life position is about justice, not faith or dogma. Opposition to killing unborn humans is no more inherently “religious” than opposition to killing teenagers. Such opposition is supported by empirical science, which shows that embryos and fetuses are living members of our species, and by the principle that all human beings have human rights. 

“Are there secular philosophers and bioethicists who take the position that the rights of personhood begin at conception?” asked Justice Samuel Alito, jumping in to correct Sotomayor’s suggestion. Yes, there are. The group Secular Pro-Life estimates, based on polling data, that some 13 million Americans who oppose abortion have no religious affiliation.

Many pro-lifers are religious, of course, and many are influenced and motivated by their religious convictions. But that fact no more excludes their views from consideration than it excludes the views of those motivated by faith to fight poverty or human trafficking. 

The pro-life position can’t be so easily dismissed. 

The gender ploy

Media outlets and abortion defenders often frame support for abortion as the position of “women.” One could be forgiven for concluding that pro-life advocates are on one side and women are on the other.

That’s an outrageously false narrative. Women lead most of the major pro-life organizations. And polls have typically shown no real difference between the abortion views of men and women. If you ask when and under what circumstances abortion should be legal, a majority of American women will disagree with the no-limits abortion policy supported by Planned Parenthood, the Democratic Party platform, and the Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions. 

Gallup’s 2020 poll, for example, found that 51 percent of women think abortion should be legal in “only a few” circumstances or in no circumstances. Gallup has also found that just 26 percent of women (compared to 31 percent of men) think abortion should be generally legal in the second trimester of pregnancy, and only 12 percent want it to be legal in the third.

Abortion isn’t a gendered debate. The truth about abortion—that it’s unjust and harmful and that’s there’s a more humane and compassionate way—doesn’t depend on anyone’s gender. Tens of millions of women, including women with various experiences of pregnancy and abortion, recognize that truth. One slogan puts it well: “Stop erasing pro-life women.”

What we should be talking about

Many defenders of abortion want to present it as an important health care service and an essential freedom. They want to portray pro-life efforts as inherently religious and oppressive toward women. 

These rhetorical maneuvers call for gracious correction. The abortion debate isn’t about those things at all. It’s really a debate about the basis and scope of human rights—a debate between the inclusive view that all humans count and the exclusive view that says some are expendable.

Human equality is real. Both unborn children and their mothers deserve love, support, and protection. That’s what we need to be talking about.