Scientism: the Self-Refuting Argument that has Contaminated Abortion Dialogue

Part One

Scientism is the belief that truth, insofar as it exists, is only (or best) discovered by using the scientific method. In other words, scientism says that fields like biology, chemistry, and physics are superior ways (or the only ways) of knowing what is true and that philosophy or theology can only be matters of opinion, rather than ways to discover the reality around us. This belief isn’t often named, but it shows up everywhere. Public media and private conversations about all sorts of topics make use of this worldview by stealth.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.
Nuclear Energy Waste

Science vs. Scientism

Despite “science” being in the name, scientism is actually not a doctrine of science. Rather it is a philosophical position that distorts science by undermining its very foundation.

We want to help you confront this false ideology when it appears in conversations about abortion and other important issues. We’re indebted to Dr. J.P. Moreland’s work on this topic, Scientism and Secularism, and we’ll just use page numbers to reference his book (which you can buy on Amazon) throughout this series of posts. Moreland is a professor at Biola University with a Ph.D. in philosophy, but also majored in chemistry and was awarded a fellowship for Ph.D. study in nuclear chemistry before choosing philosophy instead. In other words, he knows a thing or two about both science and philosophy.

March for Life Signs: The Bad and the Ugly

I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of the March for Life. Still, I’d never been, so I was excited to take the opportunity to go for the first time last year. Now, big gatherings aren’t exactly my thing, and the March is roughly 20 times the size of my hometown by population, so I was a little on edge to start. Still, I live in a very pro-choice part of the country (Boston), so there’s something inspiring about seeing hundreds of thousands of people gathering to proclaim that they oppose the wrongful killing of fetal humans. Do I think the March for Life is helping end abortion as much as some people seem to think it is? No, probably not. Do I think it’s, on the whole, positive? Sure.

Except for the signs.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

Some of the signs weren’t bad. The first signs I saw as we walked towards the pre-March rally were those passed out by particular groups; they may have had branding and some kind of slogan, but they were pretty neutral and “classically pro-life” with your average positive messaging. But I would classify many of the signs that I saw as actively detrimental to the pro-life cause.

Maybe you’ve never seen the signs or really thought about them in detail, or maybe you already sympathize with my frustrations. Either way, you might wonder why it matters for me to talk about all of these signs (and surely they’re not representative of the entire March)? Besides, you might say, the media consistently has neglected the event, so it’s not like anyone actually sees the signs.

What we see influences us. If the major pro-life event of the year is full of low-quality sloganeering that disposes us to be less thoughtful about the pro-life position and less compassionate to pro-choice people, we normalize ineffective and immoral behavior for the rest of the year. This is a self-reinforcing cycle capable of doing lasting damage to the pro-life movement. We are training ourselves in mediocrity.

These signs also send a message to others and ourselves that this is who we are and how we think. Bad signs speak poorly of the movement. If our signage indicates that we don’t understand what pro-choice people think and that we demonize them any chance we get, even if our movement as a whole isn’t really like that, we’re giving people every reason to believe those things about us. When your pro-choice friend sees your pictures on social media, the signs in the background could turn them off from ever having a good-faith conversation with you.

I want to share a few of the worst signs with you to illustrate why certain approaches to public messaging are problematic. Then, I’d like to give you a few ideas to raise our game so we can more effectively advocate for the pro-life position during marches and public demonstrations.

Overpopulation Can’t Justify Abortion

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.

It might surprise you to know that tech giants Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX) and Jack Ma (Alibaba) think the world is heading towards a population collapse. It would certainly surprise Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who gave a speech on her Instagram account earlier this year about how climate change should lead people not to have children. She explicitly states that global warming will make life worse in the future, so it may not be ethical to bring children into such a world. Even more to the point, Bernie Sanders considers abortion a necessary tool for controlling population and avoiding “climate catastrophe.” Implicitly, both of these politicians are drawing on the idea that the world can’t handle more than a certain number of people without devastating consequences (such as widespread poverty, disease, and – yes – climate change). This notion is generally called “overpopulation.”

Overpopulation has been talked about on and off since 1798, when Thomas Malthus (a clergyman!) proposed that the world would essentially be ruined by further population increase. The global population was less than one billion when he wrote that, and the current global population is nearly eight billion, so he was pretty clearly wrong, but his basic idea persisted. It was reawakened in the 1960s by the book The Population Bomb, which projected that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the next decade (that…didn’t happen). The UN now projects that the world population will hit nearly 11 billion in 2100 before tapering off, and many people worry (once again) that most people on the Earth will end up hungry and poor. This kind of thinking is informed by the pessimistic population view, which holds that we won’t have enough resources to keep up with the growing wants of a growing population. The optimistic view, on the other hand, remembers that humans can do things like invent new technologies and/or better allocate resources.

This is all very interesting, you might say, but what does it have to do with abortion? Well, overpopulation holds that having more people is a problem. That means having babies is a problem, and it’s a problem to be solved by the aggressive provision of birth control, sterilization, and abortion. Much of the time, especially when it’s talked about publicly, this leads to support for open access to abortion and birth control for those who want them. It’s usually implied that people who are “properly educated” will choose such interventions over having more than two kids. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has repeatedly said this about Africa, the continent on track to have the greatest population growth in the 21st century.

Abortion and Moral Culpability

One of our best tools in conversations about abortion is Trot out a Toddler (TOAT). It’s really helpful because it communicates how we need to think about unborn humans if we admit that they’re persons. Once you accept the conclusion that the fetal human is a valuable person like us, then it’s just as wrong to harm that child as it would be to harm a toddler. Even if there are difficult circumstances surrounding many abortions, if those circumstances wouldn’t justify killing a toddler, then they wouldn’t justify abortion, either. Often this helps the two people discussing abortion identify that they their disagreement on this issue isn’t due to a disagreement about how awful the circumstances of the world are, whether or not people who are suffering need our help, or anything of the sort. Rather, they disagree about the moral status of the unborn human.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

There are some nice advantages of TOAT: it’s clear, simple, and reasonably effective. However, it also has a couple prominent drawbacks. Sometimes, TOAT causes pro-choice people to believe that we’re claiming that women who get abortions have both the same moral callousness and the same moral culpability as women who kill their toddlers. We’re not making either claim, but since we’re saying thing X is like thing Y in at least one way, unless we clearly say otherwise, it’s understandable for them to assume that we think they’re alike in other ways. People are fallible and often make assumptions (pro-life people no less than pro-choice people), so as the pro-life advocate is it good practice to clarify what you’re saying if you get the feeling that someone is misunderstanding you.

Just because it’s worth saying twice: we at ERI do not believe that women who get abortions are just like women who kill their toddlers. Even though the child who dies in each situation is of the same value, it takes a twisted heart to kill your toddler in cold blood, and that just isn’t true of most women who get abortions right now. Maybe it seems like I’m splitting hairs; if you’re pro-life, you probably consider it obvious that an unborn baby is just as much a person as an older child, and if it were obvious to everyone, then it would make sense for laws to be the same for both. But for a woman who’s been told that she is just getting a clump of cells removed because she can’t afford a baby, it’s not at all obvious to her that they’re the same. Women have been sold a lie about abortion in our culture. The messaging is politically and financially motivated, but it is a convincing message. And if trusted health professionals are offering her a way out of a difficult situation and telling her that no real people get hurt, she has no malice towards her child because she doesn’t think one is there. She probably wouldn’t get an abortion if she knew that it harms and kills a person. This is clearly and totally different from a parent who kills their toddler, whom they’ve raised and whose status as a person is not in doubt.

The Anatomy of a Pro-Life Conversation

I have decided to share with you a transcript of an email exchange I had over the course of a few weeks with a woman from Canada; the emails have been lightly edited for clarity. At different points, I’ll be sharing my thought process about what’s going on in the conversation. The goal is to provide an illustration of how to implement some of the dialogue skills and arguments we talk about on the blog and in the Equipped for Life Course. Sometimes the pro-life advocates we train ask for us to demonstrate how our dialogue tips and arguments fit together in a real-time conversation. With permission from the woman who reached out to me, I am sharing this example so that it may be helpful to others.

Estimated reading time: 18 minutes.

The Anatomy of a Pro-Life Conversation

Hello Andrew,

I am Christian, and pro-life, for myself. Jesus died for my sins, I am ready to die for others. I am not sure if we can impose that kind of requirement on everybody though. I have been thinking over and over about the ethical arguments on abortion since the birth of my son and I was brought to be ambivalent if we can outlaw abortion in all circumstances. And what happens if the foetus has all the same legal rights than the mother, especially during the birth process?

My questioning goes in two levels:

1) An ethical questioning of self-sacrifice versus self-preservation

2) The legal rights of a mother over her own body during childbirth versus the right of the foetus to have their lives protected.

Would you care to give me a bit of your time to help me rest my thinking and solidify my pro-life thinking?



To be honest, my first thought on reading this was, why are you emailing me? This is the first time I’ve ever been contacted by someone whom I don’t know to talk about abortion. Everyone else at ERI has a lot more campus outreach experience than me, and, frankly, I find interpersonal interactions and dialogues a lot more challenging than philosophy. But sometimes you’re the person who needs to give an answer, whether or not you feel completely qualified.

Hello Jane,

Thank you for your message! You’re right in thinking that the moral requirements of Christianity are more than what the state can demand from its citizens. However, it’s reasonable for the government to demand that we don’t kill other people; if we take seriously the idea that the fetus is a human person, then abortion would be an act of killing against an innocent person, and it would make sense to outlaw it.

There is definitely self-sacrifice required in pregnancy, but that sacrifice almost never entails a need to die for the child in the womb. Even in the United States, where we have a higher maternal mortality rate than is typical, that rate is 18 deaths per 100,000 live births. That’s unacceptably high, but it’s also .018 percent of all cases, so while it’s concerning and could be a justification for abortion in those specific cases (a “life of the mother” exception), it wouldn’t be a good justification for abortion in the other 99.982 percent of cases.

So, let’s assume the state can’t reasonably require people to die for their children; what amount of sacrifice can the state demand from parents, and mothers in particular? This is where the question of whether or not the fetus is a person becomes very important. If we believe that fetal humans are persons, then we have a duty not to kill them. Pregnancy is often difficult, and labor is usually extremely painful (my wife’s labor was quite rough); outlawing abortion means women are required to go through a lot of pain and bodily changes, which is a sacrifice. However, I don’t think that the challenges of a relatively normal pregnancy are sufficient to justify killing the child in the womb. Financial challenges, stress, and most health difficulties aren’t good reasons to kill another person. There are certain serious complications which might justify it, but those go back to the “life of the mother” exception.

As far as what happens if the fetal human has all the same legal rights as the mother, I think that this is nothing but beneficial during the birth process. There are at least two patients in the room who need to be treated with care, and I’m not aware of a situation in a developed country which would require care for one party to require death or foregoing treatment for the other. Just as throughout pregnancy, all that would be required is not making treatment decisions that pose unnecessary harm to the child. Even in cases of severe pre-eclampsia requiring very early delivery, the goal of the medical staff should be to ensure the health of both mother and child.

I hope this was helpful. Please let me know if you have any other questions.


Andrew Kaake