Five secular pro-life arguments to avoid

[Today’s guest post by Kris Skul is part of our paid blogging program.]

We already know that religious arguments
against abortion are ineffective at reaching a general audience—that’s why
Secular Pro-Life exists. But not every secular defense is airtight, either. Many
common pro-life arguments are readily refuted by abortion supporters, even if
they make no reference to God. Below I list five to avoid.
1. “If
your mom had chosen abortion, you wouldn’t be here.”
pro-choice response: “Then I wouldn’t be here to care.”
Your opponent knows everybody starts out in the
womb. If they are intellectually honest, they will recognize that their
position means they believe their own
mother should have been able to end their life during that stage.
That may
seem unfathomable to someone who understands identity as inseparable from physical
existence, but pro-choice people just don’t think that way. In the words of abortion-rights
advocate Frances Kissling, “the ‘I’ who stands before [pro-life challengers] is
not the ‘I’ that was once a fetus.”
Similarly, Slate’s Jessica
Winter writes:
In different circumstances, with different
women, perhaps neither my husband nor I would be here. And that’s fine, or
rather, we wouldn’t be around to declare it fine or not-fine . . . To me, the
pro-lifer position is I love my mother,
and I’m so grateful she had me.
The pro-choice position is I love my mother, and I’m so grateful she
had the right to choose what was best for her and her family.
positions are honorable in their way. But only one of them imagines my mother
as more than my mother—as a person autonomous of me, and certainly autonomous
of the blastocyst that turned into me.
When you say “If your mom had chosen abortion,
you wouldn’t be here,” what you’re really doing is asking “Aren’t you glad she didn’t?” This approach hinges on the assumption
that the answer is always “yes.” But is it?
If faced with death, I’d imagine most people
would prefer to live. I know I would. The issue here, however, is not a choice
between existing and ceasing to exist but rather between existing and never having been born—that is, between existing and ceasing to exist
before one is aware one exists.
That’s a far more complicated question, and
it’s one I’m not sure I can answer.
Death means a lot of different things to
different people, but we can probably all agree that premature death, at the
very least, means I can no longer fulfill
my ambitions or do the things I enjoy.
I’d rather keep living than die
because I have some idea of what death means—enough to conclude that life is
the better option, anyway. But what about never having been born? By virtue of
my existence, I can’t possibly comprehend non-existence. And I can’t make a judgment, one way or another, about something I
can never know.

2. “Think of the siblings or friends you
could have had if it wasn’t for abortion.”
pro-choice response: “I can’t miss someone I’ve never met.”

Let’s say you went to college in New York, and that’s where you met the
majority of your friends. Now suppose you’d chosen a school in California instead.
Would you still have made friends? Probably. But they wouldn’t have been the
same ones.

Now imagine somebody told you that going to college
in New York was a mistake—because by going to college in New York, you missed
out on the friends you would have made in California. That doesn’t make a whole
lot of sense! Yet that’s effectively what you’re saying if you insist abortion
is wrong because it robs the living of relationships that could have been.
Closely related is the “What if Einstein had
been aborted?” argument. The problem with this one—besides the obvious rejoinder
of “What if Hitler had been aborted?”—is that
it suggests that the right to life is earned
. But a
future criminal has no less of a right to live than a future philanthropist.
The human fetus does not have value because of what it may one day accomplish;
it has value because it is human.
3. “Life
is a beautiful thing. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to experience
everything life has to offer!”
pro-choice response: “I’m glad you like your life, but life isn’t beautiful for
Unfortunately, not every life is beautiful. Some
people struggle with poverty or abusive families. Some, by the happenstance of
where they were born, live in oppressive societies that offer them little
mobility. For those of us who enjoy a comfortable standard of living, it can be
easy to forget that not everyone has the same luxury.
Regardless, if we affirm life as the most basic
human right, then to kill a developing human because (s)he is likely to
struggle later on is morally unjustifiable. What we should really be saying is
not that every life is wonderful (and certainly not that every life is
wonderful at every point in a lifetime), but that every person deserves a
chance to make a good life for themselves, as they define that good. To decide
that an individual’s life will not be worth living before that individual has
even been born is the height of arrogance.
4. “How
can you call yourself a feminist if you advocate for the killing of unborn
pro-choice response: “A fetus with two X chromosomes is not a woman.”

The primary purpose of feminism is to affirm
the rights of women and girls as
relevant to the power dynamic between the sexes. Feminism aims to address practical
situations in which men and women are given unequal opportunity, as in education,
employment, or politics. It also combats cultural perceptions of women that
suggest they have comparatively lesser worth.
But here’s the kicker: Modern pro-choice
feminists are concerned with the rights of born
or, more specifically, born
persons whose autonomy is at stake
. It is not their goal to defend every
human female in every situation.
It’s not inconsistent for a self-proclaimed
feminist to support abortion access if (s)he views it as integral to a woman’s
ability to maintain control over her life. To the pro-choice feminist, the only
party worthy of consideration is the pregnant woman: the independent moral agent whose freedom is threatened by the prospect
of carrying to term.
Under this view the fetus is an aggressor, and so its sex
is irrelevant
Consider an analogy: if I’m attacked by a
female assailant and defend myself using physical force, do I lose the right to
call myself a feminist? Obviously, that’s an exaggeration—and I personally
don’t think unplanned pregnancy and criminal assault are even remotely
comparable. But I do believe the “unborn women” appeal is a gross
misrepresentation of feminism. Both questions are likely to elicit the same
incredulity from someone who is a feminist and pro-choice.
Historically, feminism has been opposed to all
forms of discrimination and violence. It’s fair to point out how abortion
contradicts those values. But that argument does not rely on the sex of the
abortion victim.
5. “A
woman who gets an abortion will regret it.”
pro-choice response: “Not always.”
While some women do suffer emotionally after
their abortions, many do
. Precise numbers are hard to establish because
existing studies are at odds
, but I can say one thing
with confidence: it is impossible to know
how any given woman will react without knowing her circumstances.
that she will regret her decision just because some women do is patronizing and
unlikely to be well-received.
The “women regret abortion” argument generally
assumes that women possess an innate desire to be mothers, and that therefore
no woman could willingly choose abortion. Granted, many women who abort are
driven by external pressures, like financial hardship or coercion from partners
or relatives. Pro-lifers are absolutely right to concern themselves with these
pressures. Yet others decide to abort because they just don’t want kids. Amanda Marcotte
addressed this point in a
widely-circulated piece
from March 2014:
I like my life how it is,
with my ability to do what I want when I want without having to arrange for a
babysitter. I like being able to watch True
right now and not wait until baby is in bed. I like sex in any
room of the house I please. I don’t want a baby. I’ve heard your pro-baby
arguments. Glad those work for you, but they are unconvincing to me. Nothing
will make me want a baby.
We need to be honest with ourselves: carrying
an unwanted pregnancy to term is almost always an inconvenience for the woman. Even if she chooses adoption, she must
still endure the physical and emotional effects of pregnancy for several months.
That’s no small task, especially if she has reasons for wanting to hide her
pregnancy from others—I’m thinking of a teenager from a strict family or a
woman who conceived during an affair, to name two examples. I can certainly understand
why abortion might be a tempting option in these cases.
But I still
don’t think it should be legal.
To explain, it is necessary to compare the
degree of harm suffered by the woman (should she carry to term) with the degree
of harm suffered by the fetus (should she choose to abort). In the absence of
medical complications, the consequence of continuing a pregnancy—though it may
vary with regard to its severity—boils down to inconvenience: a disturbance in one’s
way of life. The consequence of abortion is nothing less than death; that is, the complete elimination of life. This
is not a matter of valuing the rights of the fetus over the rights of the
woman, as critics have charged. Rather, it is a matter of valuing the right to life over the right to comfort—if indeed such a right

I am thankful, of course, for campaigns like Project Rachel, Silent No More, and You Are Not Alone, which offer
support to post-abortive women who regret their decision. I likewise appreciate
resources such as Aid for
in Chicago, which provide assistance up to and
including housing for mothers in need. And I have absolutely no problem with cautioning
women considering abortion that some have reported negative psychological
consequences following the procedure. But that isn’t a guarantee—and to use it
as the foundation for your pro-life advocacy is ethically and intellectually problematic.
Remember that while some or all of the above arguments
may bolster your own resolve in fighting abortion (like religion does for many
people), they are not necessarily convincing to others. Because they rely
heavily on emotional appeals, they are only useful when conversing with someone
who feels the same way as you. In that sense, appealing to emotion is just
about as effective as appealing to religion.
More importantly, each of these, though
undoubtedly well-intentioned, takes away from the crux of the issue—namely,
that abortion is the legal killing of a member
of the human species.
Any approach that fails to emphasize this, even if it
resonates with you personally, is limited in its utility.
If we accept that it’s wrong to kill a human
with no say in the matter, then we cannot accept elective abortion. That
doesn’t change, even if our hypothetical opponent supports their own mother’s ability
to have chosen it. Not even if the fetus will be born into less-than-ideal
circumstances. Not even if every woman were to approach the topic in the manner
of Amanda Marcotte. 

It’s simple, really. I’m not against abortion
because it’s deprived me of a friendship I may or may not have had. I’m not
against abortion because “life is beautiful,” whatever that means. I’m not
against abortion because it’s “anti-feminist,” or even because some women
deeply regret choosing it. I’m against abortion because it ends a human life. And that’s all the reason I’ve ever

28 thoughts on “Five secular pro-life arguments to avoid”

  1. Disappointing.
    Many pro-choicers are pro-choice for reasons that have nothing to with
    the moral status of the child. Many don't even address that question,
    and simply focus on the free choice and flourishing of women. As you no
    doubt have experienced,
    arguments about the child get no where with them. Too bad you
    caricatured the pro-life feminist arguments–done rightly, they are
    excellent ways to speak to a huge number of pro-choice people,
    especially activists.

  2. I don't see "I can't miss someone I've never met" as a refutation of the statement "think about friends or siblings you could have had." There's a very real grief experience that comes from loss and abortion is a loss. I don't think you can go around telling everyone to imagine an abortion of a sibling or friend that didn't actually happen, but your response in #2 minimizes the grief of those who do mourn abortions of siblings just as much as it minimizes the grief of a parent/sibling of a miscarried child. An actually aborted child is not the same as a child that didn't exist and wasn't aborted, and your argument here seems to confuse these two. Please clarify.

  3. Regarding (1) and (2): I'd also mention "If my mom had chosen not to have sex, I wouldn't be here" and "think of all the friends and siblings you could have had if women had more unprotected sex" as possible responses. That is, people have an absolute right not to have sex, and any anti-abortion argument that works just as well as an argument that fertile people are obligated to have sex must have something wrong with it.

  4. Sara, did you read the entire post?

    "Remember that while some or all of the above arguments may bolster your own resolve in fighting abortion (like religion does for many people), they are not necessarily convincing to others. Because they rely heavily on emotional appeals, they are only useful when conversing with someone who feels the same way as you. In that sense, appealing to emotion is just about as effective as appealing to religion."

  5. Actually most, if not all, pro-choicers deny that that a fetus is a being with the moral status accorded a human being, if it has moral status at all (and they probably wouldn't refer to it as a child).

    Appeals to emotion like the ones above (though the last two are better characterized as 4. Personal attack, and 5. A bit of finger-wagging threat) may be effective on some audiences, but only if those individuals share the same ground assumptions about when something becomes a child with moral status. It's the same reason why many animal rights arguments fail to be persuasive, even though they have the same complaints of harm.

  6. My quibble with this argument is that it seems to argue that the only arguments that matter in the abortion debate are strictly logical arguments that directly address whether abortion should be legal or not. For example, "how can you call yourself a feminist when you support abortion of unborn women" is more often framed as "the fact that groups such as NARAL do not meaningfully support eliminating the gross sexism that exists in the institution of abortion suggests that their motives are not as pro-woman as they would have you believe." Which is not a direct logical argument that abortion should be outlawed. But it's still important in many contexts.

    On the other hand, I do think many of these arguments are deeply entangled in problematic sentiments, and should be avoided. For example, the first two arguments, in my opinion, stray uncomfortably close to the idea that women have an obligation to reproduce. Personally, from what I've observed, I think pro-choicers believe that being preborn is something akin to nonexistence. After all, our entire culture reinforces the ridiculous idea that life begins at birth. I think people who support birth discrimination think of the time between conception and birth as some sort of 'pre-life', if not intellectually, than at least emotionally. We shouldn't reinforce that idea by using arguments that could apply equally well to anything that would have prevented someone from being conceived.

  7. I'm not saying it's a good argument, per se, I'm saying the rationale that the author gives for not using the argument confuses the point. Abortion is about killing, is it not? Why equate a killed friend/sibling, even if it's a rhetorical killing, to people who live elsewhere but simply haven't been met?

    "A person won't miss someone they never met, bc what's there to miss?"

    This can be true for someone who doesn't understand the grief of losing someone they've "never met" and that's why this argument probably shouldn't be used with everyone. However, the pro-lifer asking someone to "think about" a lost relationship may have legitimate experience with that kind of grief.

    Can you grieve over someone you haven't met? Over "relationships that could have been"? Absolutely. Ask mothers who have regretted their abortions. Ask mothers who have lost children to miscarriage. Ask siblings who have lost siblings to abortion or miscarriage or even adoption.

    Can you even grieve over someone who never existed? Yep. Ask couples struggling with fertility. Ask a mother facing a total hysterectomy who wanted more children.

    Invalidating other people's experiences by saying "what's there to miss?" is not the right approach to pointing out why the pro-life argument in #2 is inappropriate in many situations.

  8. Yes, and doesn't it depend on the conversation at hand? I've never seen a pro-lifer admonish pro-choicers "think about the friends and siblings you don't have because of abortion!" as their most compelling argument against abortion. Yet, if the pro-choicer they are talking with has admitted that they had a sibling aborted or whatever, and a pro-lifer asks "doesn't that grieve you?" or "consider the relationship you might have had with that sibling" it's not totally out of line. The pro-choicer might be making the point that they don't care. That's their personal experience, not an argument. So why does the pro-lifer have to abstain from opinions, experiences and emotions in that kind of conversation? Then the pro-lifer is not really in a discussion but just a sterile, logical battle with an objective to win. Not every conversation is a logical debate.

  9. I agree. This post kind of assumes that pro-choicers always have the logical upper-hand and pro-lifers need to catch up.

    There are logical debates, and there are general discussions. Discussions don't demand a non-emotional involvement. Some of these "pro-life arguments" are more likely to come up in a discussion than a debate. And the "pro-choice response" given for some are not exactly logical refutations, but opinions or personal statements.

  10. That first link. Wow.

    >If we are going to imagine, as some do, fetuses as part of the human community, we are going to have to accept that if they could make decisions, they might be as willing to sacrifice for others as we demand that women and only women be.

    You could make the same argument for infanticide. You can't kill people because you think they MIGHT choose to sacrifice their lives.

  11. This post is certainly not of the quality I'd expect from a whopping $25. At least the author realizes the first 5 arguments suck, but then the actual argument he/she thinks will win the day? "Because it ends a human life". Um, does this person realize that most pro-choicers don't practically consider the fetus to be a "human" at all? Why should I consider a clump of cells that fears nothing, feels nothing, knows nothing "a human"? The fetus gives 2 sh*ts if its aborted. So sorry, lame reason, please try again.

  12. "if we accept that it’s wrong to kill a human with no say in the matter, then we cannot accept elective abortion." I don't accept that, actually. I and the fetus that eventually became me are equally human, yet significant differences exist between the two of us. I have a mind, for instance. I place value on myself. My brain contains memories and experiences. I have a brain. I can feel pain. I have people in my life who value me, and whose valuation I value in turn. To say that I and that being have equal moral weight simply because we both happen to possess a certain set of genes and alleles labeled human seems utterly nonsensical to me.

  13. Are you saying that the "five arguments to avoid" are caricatures? I spend a lot of time (probably too much) on pro-life websites, and they're things I hear various pro-lifers say a lot.

  14. #2 is interesting to me, because I'm an only child and when I was a kid, other kids would say things to me like, "I would really miss my brothers and sisters if I didn't have them," not realizing that you don't miss people who never existed. Aborted people are different in that they did actually exist, but I suspect that for pro-choice people, any aborted siblings are one step (if that) above hypothetical and aborted potential friends are probably really hypothetical-sounding.

    With #5, I really hate it when people base arguments on how they assume someone will eventually feel. One, it presumes the person making the argument is somehow a better predictor of another person's feelings than that person him/herself, and two, it ignores every example of a person in a similar situation who didn't end up feeling the way the person making the argument assumes the other person is going to feel.

    I do think it might be worth pointing out that people's feelings are unpredictable, and women getting abortions can't always anticipate how they're going to feel afterwards. I remember one story in the book "Forbidden Grief" about a woman who had an abortion and felt it was a pretty good experience given the circumstances – the people in the abortion clinic were all very supportive, she was just glad the whole thing was over, et cetera. Then about ten years later, she went to a family reunion and it struck her that her aborted child could have been running around and playing with all the other kids if she hadn't had the abortion. I don't think she ever anticipated that feelings about an abortion she had a decade ago were suddenly going to surface – and be different than her previous feelings – at a family get-together. You can't pick how you're going to feel about something before it happens, and I think that's something women seeking abortions should be aware of.

  15. What are your views on the value of human infants? After all, as far as I know, they don't have memories yet, and their current mental abilities are no greater than and perhaps even less than the mental abilities of some non-human animals.

  16. ''A better response to #1 is to note that there is a distinction between you-the-person and your body. You-the-person is a MIND, and that mind does most of its major development after birth. When I communicate with you over the Internet, am I communicating with a BODY, or with a MIND? The body supports a mind's existence, but the body is also just a tool used by the mind, to accomplish things. Consider the phrase "a like-minded individual" –it means that others are out there who are mentally similar to you (usually on just one topic, but sometimes similar on many topics). Early training can cause lots of humans to become like-minded individuals!''

    How would you define the mind then? Am a still a person while sleeping and while in a coma? Can the mind then be destroyed through brain damaging?

    ''During pregnancy, "you" basically don't exist, even though your body exists.''

    Is the mind then basically self concepts? self-concept embodies the answer to "Who am I?" and or ''What is my purpose in life.?'' Is that the mind Ignorance?

  17. ''yond the biology of the situation, there is also a social factor. The denigrations and insults and other denouncements by abortion opponents, directed toward women who obtain abortions, are certainly factors that can affect the mental state of those no-longer-pregnant women. Women ARE more socially involved than men, after all.''

    Yes I've noticed this especially on youtube.Some say ''real women care for there young and would never kill their child.'' Or ''women who get third trimester abortions are monsters!'' Or when women abort a down syndrome unborn human some would say ''it's still your child so don't be a pussy and abort it.''
    Not all pro lifers do this but notably the ones over on youtube and some here on this site do as well. Most only state the species the unborn belong to and slap a dictionary definition of the word person in your eyes and think that's it. Sadly it's not.

    ''(So, one possible fix: put duct tape over the mouths of all abortion opponents, since they don't know what they are talking about!)''
    Some do that for themselves and put duct type over there mouths stating ''life.''

  18. The simplistic answer is to think of the brain as hardware, like a computer, and the mind as a software program. However, since the brain can do "parallel processing", it is more like the mind is a whole bunch of software programs running simultaneously; the mind is one of those "gestalt" things where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

    Yes, damaged hardware can affect the mind. No, personhood is not affected by sleep or coma. It is a Hypocrisy of abortion opponents to think that way, when they DON'T think any such thing regarding other situations. Does a professional plumber cease to be that when taking a lunch break? A doctor is still a doctor, even if taking a vacation.

    The abilities that can distinguish a person-class mind from a mere animal organism don't have to always/constantly be manifested; they only need to exist enough to be noticed that they do indeed exist. After a person is identified as such, personhood continues until death or extreme brain damage destroys the relevant abilities.

    Like I said, though, abortion opponents exhibit Stupid Hypocrisy on this issue, FALSELY claiming that membership in the class of "a person" requires constantly-observable characteristics, while for no other class do they make any similar claim.

  19. Thank you for recognizing these arguments as irrational and illogical.

    Now I would like to hear a rational argument against abortion…

  20. Most abortion opponents are not only Hypocrites, they are also Prejudiced.

    Don't be too sure that the line of legal abortions will move closer to birth. The State has a compelling interest in getting more future taxpayers born, after all.

  21. Hello Ignorance. I just started to enter the abortion debate and want to know what your take is on the matter. I have debated quite a bit on extraterrestrial life before so I am not welling to take species membership to draw the line. Not sure if pro lifers decree species membership should be used to make that person/non person distinction.

  22. Interesting information you have ignorance. It is nice to finally see someone who is looking at the bigger picture and see a future with ET and AI's in it while pro life future is just full of humans and nothing else. Personally, I am not too big into artificial intelligence but if we can get them up to the point where they have free will, then I have no problem with them being persons. They don't even need to be from this world anyway as I am fully aware of alien artificial intelligence. A good and popular example are the Transformers.

    We as a society should not be taking a view that only humans can be persons where there are more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe most likely containing life as advanced as the rest of us. This is why this debate exists and so the pro lifers intensive focus on species membership can be completely ignored as the person/non person distinction will eventually have to be made so it's best to make it now until of the attitude that ''it has not happen yet'' that I see some pro lifers doing from reading some of the responses here. The reason why as I seen from your responses to them that they want to cling to species membership and not debate personhood on a more advanced level into ET and AI's is because they are probably afraid unborn humans would still be kept in the non person category.
    Would you agree?

  23. Some abortion opponents are willing to a different basis than membership in the human species to determine personhood. They use such words as "capacity" to delude themselves that they aren't actually talking about "potential". Basically, they clam that any entity with the capacity to exhibit person-class characteristics should be considered a person –such as possible intelligent extraterrestrials– and they claim that unborn humans have that capacity.

    They are wrong, because "capacity" is actually about something that exists right now, how much of something can be contained, like, say, the mental processing power associated with the ability to exhibit the characteristics of personhood, which mere animals can't match. Unborn humans are mere animal organisms because they have a much smaller capacity for brain-power than post-natal humans; and of course the unborn also have the potential to increase their capacity significantly.

    To equate "potential capacity" with "actual capacity" is Bad Logic. Using that exact same logic. it should be possible to equate an abortion opponent, a potential corpse (just wait enough centuries, and see!) with an actual corpse –which obviously needs to be buried or cremated sooner rather than later.

    So, even when abortion opponents DO accept non-humans as persons, they still have no valid argument!

  24. Thanks for the nice response. It feels nice to talk to someone who agrees with me we should not be making that person/non person distinction off of species membership. Pro lifers are wrong in mistaking that the whole public still uses person and human as one in the same and then some like Clinton here who said in another article ''pro choicers make the distinction between the two words to make abortion justified''. I know someone who is not part of the abortion debate and happens to be a computer programmer like you who takes the AI's into the person section as well.

  25. The proper reply to Clinton is, "Abortion opponents fail to make a distinction between persons and mere animal organisms, to try to justify their opposition to abortion."

  26. A much more rational post than "Back-Alley" Argument Disrespects Women's Intelligence,"
    for example. It's important that everyone learns to think critically, despite their political, moral, ethical, or religious beliefs. It would be even better if you used less patronizing language like this: "understands identity as inseparable from physical
    existence." "Believes" would be much better here. (Also, it seems to me that many religious pro-lifers don't believe this at all anyway, even if you do). I teach a lot of students who come from pro-life perspectives and don't know how to use neutral language appropriate for academic writing or debates. It's important to understand the other side's perspective as more valid than crazy or evil ramblings.

    I think both sides of this argument need to have a more honest debate, and thinking this way is very helpful to that end.

    I personally believe abortion does prevent a human life from existing. But I am pro-choice because I believe every individual has the right to decide what can live in their body and what can not.


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