The Case Against Abortion: An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith, author of Defending Life | Carl E. Olson | January 21, 2008 (orig. December 5, 2007)
Editor's note: This week marks the 35th anniversary of "Roe v. Wade", the landmark Supreme Court decison that legalized abortion in the United States. In this interview, originally published on IgnatiusInsight.com on December 5, 2007, Dr. Francis Beckwith talks about that legal decision, the various arguments made for abortion, and the moral case that can and should be made against abortion.
Dr. Francis Beckwith (personal website), Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, made news this past May when he publicly announced that he had returned to the Catholic Church after spending over thirty years in Evangelical Protestantism. But Dr. Beckwith has been receiving attention more recently for his latest book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007), a thorough and impressive work that engages and responds to the many arguments—both popular and scholarly—given by abortion rights advocates.
Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things stated of Defending Life: "By a masterful marshalling of the pertinent arguments and a civil engagement with the counter-arguments, Beckwith makes a convincing case for law and social policy based on reason and natural rights rather than the will to power." And in a November 26, 2007, column in America magazine, noted bioethicist Fr. John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, wrote that Dr. Beckwith "charitably and thoroughly engages those who oppose him. Defending Life is a model of how a pro-life position is effectively mounted. One might hope that defenders of abortion would as thoughtfully engage his arguments. I at least hope that our own bishops will take up this work and, upon reading it, offer it to every parish library in the country. They might also request that lay leaders, especially physicians, lawyers, teachers and business persons, enlist such a book in their efforts not only to form their own consciences, but also to inform and elevate the somewhat cheapened and knee-jerk moral discourse over the issue of abortion."
Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Dr. Beckwith and spoke with him about his book, the state of the pro-life movement, and how those who oppose abortion can better take a stand against the culture of death.
Ignatius Insight: The pro-life movement has been dealing with Roe vs. Wade and legal abortion for nearly 35 years now. Aren't we at an impasse? Why write Defending Life?
Dr. Beckwith: In some ways we are at an impasse, but only in the sense that the legal status of abortion has remained largely unchanged since Roe. Remember that Roe took the abortion debate out of the public square and made it a question of fundamental rights. This had the unfortunate affect of prematurely ending a public conversation on the matter. For this reason, although the abortion debate seems to be going nowhere because people seem unwillingly to listen to each other or to change their minds, I'm not sure that's an entirely accurate account. I speak all over the country on the issue, as well as lecture on it in my classes at Baylor, and my sense is that there is a greater openness to hearing the pro-life position than there was when I was in college in the early 1980s.
The reason why I wrote Defending Life was to make a case for the pro-life position on abortion that dealt with the legal, political and moral aspects of the issue, that engaged not only the popular arguments but also the more sophisticated ones that are presented by philosophers, political theorists, and bioethicists. I wanted to provide the ordinary pro-lifer with an accessible resource while at the same time offering to students and colleagues in philosophy, politics, and law an intelligent and well-reasoned case for the pro-life position that took seriously and critiqued the best arguments for abortion rights.
Ignatius Insight: You take great pains to emphasize that the arguments you put forward are not religious, but based in logic, philosophy, and law. In your experience, is that more effective? Do you think it will it prove to be more effective in the long run?
Dr. Beckwith: I think it is effective insofar as it removes the impediment that the pro-life view is "just religious." On the other hand, I am careful to say in Defending Life that the fact that an argument may be religious does not mean that it is de facto bad. However, there is a sense in which every argument on abortion—whether pro-abortion, pro-life or somewhere in-between—tries to answer a question that is fundamentally religious: who and what are we and can we know it?
My experience has been that in some circles, especially in the secular academy, the pro-life view is dismissed as merely religious, and thus disreputable as a live option in public policy. I can't tell you how many times I have been told by audience members when lecturing at secular institutions that my arguments are "just religious," even though the premises of my case are based on what one would call public reasons. Last year at UCLA Law School when I debated the issue of embryonic stem-cell research, I answered the "religious argument" charge this way: "Wow, I thought you were going to claim my argument was bad." The audience let out a chuckle. That gave me an opportunity to explain to them that terms like "religious" and "secular" are adjectives that do not appropriately modify reasons or conclusions for the purpose of assessing the quality of an argument. The appropriate adjectives we apply to arguments or their parts are terms like "good," "bad," "sound," "unsound," "valid," "invalid," "strong," "weak," "true," "false," and "plausible." Asking if an argument is "religious" is like asking how tall is the number 3. It is a category mistake that, unfortunately, is rarely challenged.
Ignatius Insight: The books opens with an anecdote drawn from your experience in public debates about abortion: Someone yells, "Don't like abortion, don't have one," which is just one of the many meaningless clichés offered by supports of abortion rights How much of this discussion has been shaped by slogans and how do we go about getting past them?
Dr. Beckwith: These slogans, unfortunately, substitute for good reasoning much too often. In fact, most of these slogans beg the question. What I mean by that is that they smuggle in a controversial assumption that the pro-abortion advocate is required to support in order defend his position. In the example you cite, "don't like abortion, don't have one," the pro-choice advocate is assuming that the issue of abortion is not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of taste or preference. But that is precisely the pro-choice position. So, in essence the pro-choicer is arguing: abortion ought to be a choice because it is a matter of preference. That's just saying the same thing twice, like "the Celtics are the best team because no team is better."
Imagine, if I said, "Don't like slavery, then don't own one." If I said that, you would immediately realize that I did not truly grasp why people believe that slavery is wrong. It is not wrong because I don't like it. It's wrong because slaves are intrinsically valuable human beings who are not by nature property. Whether I like slavery or not is not relevant to the question of whether slavery is wrong. Imagine another example, "Don't like spousal abuse, then don't beat your spouse." Again, the wrongness of spousal abuse does not depend on my preferences or tastes. In fact, if someone liked spousal abuse, we would say that that he or she is evil or sick. We would not adjust our view of the matter and I say, "I guess spousal abuse is right for you, but not for me."
Let us apply this to abortion. When a pro-lifer says that abortion is wrong, he or she is not saying that abortion is unattractive, repugnant, or undesirable, though it may be all those things. Rather, he or she is saying that abortion is unjustified homicide, even if one finds it attractive, inoffensive, or desirable. Thus, when the abortion-rights advocate offers this slogan in response to the pro-lifer—"don't like abortion, don't have one"—he or she does not truly grasp what the pro-lifer is claiming. Of course, the pro-lifer has to make a further argument in order to show that the pro-life view is correct or at least plausible. But before the pro-lifer can do that, he or she has to make sure that the other side understands what the pro-lifer is claiming.
Ignatius Insight: Of the three popular arguments for abortion—pity, tolerance, and ad hominem—which is used most often and most effectively?
Dr. Beckwith: It's difficult to say, though I think "tolerance" arguments are the most effective. The reason for this is that nobody wants to be thought of as "intolerant," especially if it interferes with the rights of others. It is also apparently consistent with some people's understanding of liberal democracy as requiring neutrality on moral issues. In the case of abortion, it is claimed that the pro-lifer is trying to force the pro-life view on others who may disagree with that view. And since the state ought to be neutral on these matters, the pro-life view cannot become law. There are, I believe, several problems with such reasoning. First, it assumes that the unborn is not a moral subject, for if the unborn is a moral subject, then to forbid the unjust killing of it cannot violate anyone's "rights." Thus, the tolerance argument begs the question. Second, the current regime—the Roe v. Wade framework—tells us that the unborn is not a member of the human community and that it is wrong for citizens to try to protect the unborn. This is hardly a neutral position, for it commits the state to an understanding of the human person and requires that all of us act in her public relations with the unborn as if that understanding is true.
Ignatius Insight: What do you think is the strongest pro-abortion argument? How do you answer it?
Dr. Beckwith: Although there are several sophisticated arguments for abortion-choice, the best one I've encountered is offered by David Boonin, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has written a sophisticated defense of the pro-choice position, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge University Press, 2002). I respond to several of Professor Boonin's argument in my book. In fact, I incorporate in my book large portions of an article on Boonin's book that I published in 2006 in the Journal of Medicine of Philosophy, which is accessible on my web site, francisbeckwith.com.
In any event, one of Professor Boonin's argument concerns the unborn's personhood. He argues that the fetus becomes a person when it achieves organized cortical brain activity (OCBA), which occurs between 25 and 32 weeks after conception. He picks this criterion because it is at that time that the fetus has the cerebral infrastructure to have desires, and without the ability to have desires the fetus cannot have a desire for a right to life. This argument is highly complex, and I can only hope to offer a modest reply in this venue. So, here is a brief version of one of several replies I offer in the book.
Boonin's argument provides no real moral reason to oppose seemingly immoral experiments on the unborn. Imagine that there is a scientist who is able to alter the unborn's brain development in such a way that the higher brain and its functions are prevented from arising. And thus, when the child is born, it never develops a desire for a right to life. In fact, its organs are harvested and donated to needy patients.
Suppose that this creation of "brainless" children becomes commonplace as a demand for donor organs increases. Yet, this seems deeply immoral, even if these children had not achieved the physical characteristics that Boonin believes are required in order to have a right to life. So, Boonin's view cannot account for the wrong of purposely creating brainless children. Only the pro-life view can do that. For, according to this view, human beings are persons by nature and therefore should not be unjustly deprived of those goods—including their brains—that they are designed to acquire by nature.
We can even imagine another scenario, one in which the unborn is not deprived of higher brain functions, such as self-consciousness, having a self-concept, and possessing a high IQ, but is nevertheless deprived of a desire for a right to life. Imagine that a scientist is able to tinker with the pre-OCBA brain of a fetus in such a way that prior to OCBA arising that the trajectory of its brain development is altered in such a way that it simply can never acquire a desire for a right to life, even while possessing all the other higher-brain functions. So, when the brain is tinkered with, there is no rights-bearing entity since there was no OCBA. Thus, there is no way to account for this wrong on Boonin's view. Again, it seems that only the pro-life view can account for the wrongness of this. For, according to this view, human beings are persons by nature and therefore should not be unjustly deprived of those goods—including their desire for a right to life—that they are designed to acquire by nature.
Ignatius Insight: When ordinary folks (that is, non-specialists) argue about abortion, what should the pro-lifer say or not say? What are some of the mistakes that pro-life people often make in private or even public debate?
Dr. Beckwith: The pro-lifer should remember that the central issue is, "What is the human community and does the unborn belong to it?" As my friend Greg Koukl puts it: if the fetus is a person, none of the popular arguments are relevant; if the fetus is not a person, then none of the popular arguments is necessary. Pro-lifers make a mistake by allowing the discussion to drift away from this central question.
Pro-lifers have to also remember that many who support abortion rights are well-meaning people who believe they are advancing a position consistent with the common good. This is why we should be patient, respectful, and careful when presenting our case. Having said that, we must also not shy away from saying that abortion is a grave evil that ultimately undermines the dignity of all human persons, including those who support abortion rights. After all, if a human being is intrinsically valuable by nature, then he or she may never lose that status as long as one is a human being. So, the reason why we affirm the intrinsic dignity of the unborn is the reason why we also affirm the intrinsic dignity of those who support abortion rights. There is a seamlessness that connects our pro-life position on abortion and the respect we ought to accord our political and moral adversaries.
Ignatius Insight: What do think are the chances that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned in, say, the next generation?
Dr. Beckwith: I think that with one or two more appointments to the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade will be overturned. If Justices Ginsberg, Stevens, Souter, Breyer, and/or Kennedy retire and are replaced by more conservative justices, then Roe will likely fall if the right sort of case hits the Court. This is why the presidential election of 2008 may be the most important one for the pro-life movement since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. This is also why pro-life Catholics and Evangelicals have to respectfully resist being swayed by well-meaning members of their traditions who want to play down the importance of the abortion question in comparison to other issues. I see a disturbing trend among some Evangelical leaders in that regard. We have to remember that the central question behind the abortion issue—Who and what are we and can we know it?—is the question that informs every other moral and social issue on which human life, dignity, and community hang in the balance.
Recently, for example, I watched a video in which Emergent Church leader, Brian McLaren, implied that the pro-life position on abortion is a "single issue" by which Catholics, in particular, are exploited by others as a "one-issue voting bloc." I sat through this video with my mouth hanging open in utter amazement that this pastor would present the profundity of the sanctity of life by disguising it (calling it "one issue") and then dismissing it by characterizing in an uncharitable way fellow Christians who are deeply committed to human life's intrinsic dignity from conception to natural death.
The view that human beings are made in the image of God and ought to be protected by our laws and the wider community is not "one issue." It is the principle that is the point of justice itself: to love our neighbors as ourselves; to exercise charity; to help the vulnerable and the weak.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
What Is "Legal"? On Abortion, Democracy, and Catholic Politicians | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
Excommunication! | An interview with canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci
Personally Opposed--To What? | Dr. James Hitchcock
Mixed Messages | Phil Lawler
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