Arguing Abortion in Good Faith

I love Spider-Man 3. I think it is one of Sam Raimi’s crowning masterpieces and the perfect conclusion the the trilogy he forged, which is both impressive superhero epic as well as the affecting and personal story of three young people and their complicated relationship as they tried to live with who they had become. I thought it was funny, romantic, and powerful. I enjoyed the parts others hated or rolled their eyes out, like black suit Peter. I had seen the bigger picture, the saga as a whole, and I love it.

The problem is, not everyone agrees.
Oh, I don’t mean it’s a problem that not everyone likes Spider-Man 3. That’s fine. Plenty of people disliked Tobey Maguire’s last outing and they’re entitled to their opinion. I respect that. The problem is that some people don’t even agree that I like the movie. They refuse, absolutely refuse to accept that I sincerely hold the opinion I’ve cogently articulated many, many times. They insist I must just be being contrarian, or ironic, or otherwise joking. There was one instance in film school when the movie came up and I expressed my position. One guy shook his head and sneered. A bit harsh, but okay. But one woman grinned as if she was in on the “joke” and explained to the others I wasn’t being serious. I have a friend who still won’t accept that my opinion is real, that I’m not lying or putting on an act. He says it’s “weird” that I “still” haven’t conformed to the mass consensus on Raimi’s third Spider-Man film, as if the past 12 years have changed anything, as if the less-than-amazing mess of the Webb-Garfield films or the Happy Meal banality of Tom Holland should have somehow made me see the light.

I can argue about the merits of a movie, but if you are unable to accept that I truly do like it, the discussion is not only frustrating, but futile. What could be a civil discourse about the strengths and weaknesses of the film in question is reduced to a simplistic repetition of “Come on!” and “You don’t really mean…” We get nowhere.

Arguing in good faith means, at the very least, that you accept that your opponent truly means what they are saying, that they sincerely hold the views they are explicitly espousing, that they are not lying or being somehow ironic. More than this, it means addressing them on their terms, engaging their stated position without ascribing a more malicious motivation.

I have a friend who was conceived in rape. She is very pro-life, vocally so, even for people like herself. For this, she’s been accused of being pro-rape. A rape victim herself, she finds this appalling. It is, and it’s ineffective as well. Of course she doesn’t oppose abortion because she wants women to be raped like she and her mother were. She is genuine when she says she considers God, not the rapist, to be her true father. Calling her pro-rape helps nothing, certainly not a civil discourse.

The pro-life position is balled on a simple syllogism:
A. The fetus is a human being.
B. It’s wrong to kill human beings.
C. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

It’s quite basic, and while obviously a pro-choicer would disagree with C, the most productive way to go about that would be to debate A and/or B, not to ascribe a more sinister motivation. It’s easy to say, “Pro-lifers just want to control women’s bodies”, but this ignores the premise of their position, that the unborn is its own human life and terminating her is wrong. You may disagree with that premise, but it’s in bad faith to say they don’t hold it themselves.

And given that pro-choicers either disagree with A. or a argue a moral exception to B. (self-defense, an expansion of bodily autonomy, etc.), the most logical, intuitive way to debate is to engage those arguments. Coming at us with “You only want to control women’s body” and dressing up like a handmaid is as fruitless as a pro-lifer saying you want to kill babies. It is then that we are talking over each other, not to each other. When you not only disagree with our position but presume to tells us why we hold our position, a reason we emphatically deny, then a discussion can’t be held. If the response to “I don’t want to control a woman’s body or tell people when they can have sex. I believe that’s a person in there with a right to live,” is “Yes you do. Theocracy”, then nothing I say can matter, because you’ve already stated a rejection of not only my position, but my stated reason for having it.

Because there are plenty of pro-life women, this leads, unfortunately, to absurd accusations of “internalized misogyny” and the like. Isn’t it paranoid and even anti-feminist though, to assume that all these women, who are politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, former Planned Parenthood employees, and Norma “Jane Roe” McCorvey herself, are only arguing for the rights of the unborn, appealing to conscience, Constitution, religion, medicine, and science, because they hate themselves? Is the only reason abortion survivor Gianna Jessen opposes the operation that nearly killed her because she opposes her own rights?

Likewise, it does no good to accuse the pro-choice side of being knowingly baby murder, of supporting legal abortion on demand because they want to kill babies. Who could be so deranged? Let us instead accept that they hold their articulated views about bodily autonomy and their perception of women’s rights, and engage them on those grounds. Point to the indisputable scientific facts of embryology and debate where one’s rights end and the other’s begin or vice versa.

The Violinist Scenario is surprisingly one of the better pro-choice arguments, based though it is on a hypothetical ludicrosity. In this argument, for argument’s sake, the pro-choice side would concede that the fetus is a living human being, just as we all accept the talented but sick violinist is. The question of whether the kidnapped victim should be morally obligated to remain attached to the violinist or be free to remove themselves even if it kills said musician is analogous to the abortion question, whether a mother has the right to terminate her pregnancy even at the expense of another’s life. It’s absurd of course, and telling that they must contrive such a ridiculous fantasy more akin to a Jigsaw trap than any medical reality. It also ignores the moral difference between a sin of commission and a sin of omission. BUT it is a good faith argument, because it addresses honestly the premise of the opposing side and offers a question stemming from it.

It’d be much easier and intellectually lazy to assume that our opponents accept our premises and are therefore are as bad as we want them to be. It’s simpler to fight monsters than talk to people. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that people aren’t pro-choice because they want to kill babies, and people aren’t pro-life because they want to enslave women. As Penn Jillette said “We’re all pro-life and pro-choice. It’s abortion we disagree about.” The sooner we accept that, the sooner progress can be made.

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