Ben Shapiro’s Response to Abortion in the Case of Rape

A Case Study in the Differences between a Debate and a Dialogue

Ben Shapiro speaking in Pasadena.

Picture by Gage Skidmore and use is allowed through a Creative Commons license.

A few weeks ago, Ben Shapiro released a video of himself after a campus speech in which he responded to a question about abortion in the case of rape. It was undeniably effective and many pro-life people shared it.

I can’t imagine any reasonable person suggesting that the pro-choice student got the better of him in their exchange. But I am concerned that pro-life students may take the wrong message from the video.

Shapiro is an incredibly skilled debater, and a Q&A after a speech is clearly a setting for debate, not dialogue. A speaker’s primary responsibility in that setting is to convince the audience, not the person with whom he is arguing. My purpose in this article is not to criticize Shapiro for debating the way he does, it is to explain why it would be a huge mistake to emulate Shapiro’s debate strategy in a one-on-one conversation (and, to be fair, I have no idea how Shapiro handles a one-on-one conversation without an audience).

Here are the three ways pro-life students should dialogue differently than Shapiro debates:

#1: Don’t Mock the Thought-Experiment or Imply That It Is Implausible.

Shapiro’s first comment is:

First of all, I do appreciate that you’ve created the saddest possible scenario for a woman to be. Is she also disabled? Let’s really go whole hog and she has breast cancer as well, as long as we’re creating imaginary victims.

He scores a laugh with this opening, and then later doubles down on it after the student follows up by essentially asking, what if she doesn’t have the money for proper health care and would have to drop out of college? Shapiro responds:

Okay, so now you’re adding more variables to the situation, so let’s take each of those variables at a time, but I’m going to have to cut off the continuing hypothetical after this before she ends up in penury at the end of Les Mis[erables].

Pro-choice people are heavily driven by compassion for women. Most pro-choice people are incapable of taking seriously someone who seems to have no compassion for women. [Tweet that!]

Every year thousands of women are raped and impregnated. It is incredibly difficult to get accurate statistics on exactly how many, but nobody disputes that it is in the thousands. Extrapolating numbers from a survey of 4,008 rape survivors combined with DOJ statistics on reported and unreported rape, there were roughly 6,600 rape survivors who had abortions between 2005 and 2010. These women are not imaginary victims.

#2: Don’t Just Express Anger. Express Sadness.

As Steve Wagner has said, often when people bring up abortion in the case of rape, they aren’t wondering if the unborn is human, they’re wondering if you are human.

I am completely against faking compassion for the sake of winning an argument. If you don’t feel sad at the thought of someone being raped, you have a heart problem, and you should really attend to that before you dialogue about abortion. Assuming that you do feel sad at the thought of someone being raped, you have to express that. (More here on how we at ERI respond to abortion in the case of rape.)

Shapiro says:

Obviously what happened to this person is an awful, awful, horrible thing, and, as I said earlier, the person who raped her should be tracked down, captured, [and] killed or castrated, so that’s number one.

The first problem is that such a response has no hope of coming across as sincere if you start by mocking the situation as imaginary or implausible. But even if you don’t make that mistake, there’s another problem:

Anger against the rapist is not the same thing as sadness for the victim.

Shapiro seems to understand that you have to respond with some level of sympathy in response to rape, but his primary way of showing sympathy is saying the rapist should be castrated or killed. This is a very efficient way to communicate some level of compassion, and I understand that in a Q&A you need to be efficient, but please go beyond this in a one-on-one dialogue.

It’s easier to say, “Boy, I’d like to punch that rapist in the face,” than it is to really sympathize with someone. In some ways at least, anger is easier than grief. But pro-choice people are not in favor of legal abortion in the case of rape because they want rapists to be punished. That would make no sense. They are in favor of legal abortion in the case of rape because they feel compassionate towards the women who have been raped. You need to show that supporting abortion is not the only option for compassionate people.

#3: Don’t Suggest That Their Question Is Irrelevant or Underhanded If They Support All Abortion.

“What if she was raped?” is a completely reasonable question, even from someone who is 100% pro-choice.

In the last part of the video, Shapiro says:

It’s really not good to take the marginal case and then use that to argue broad. So what people tend to do is that they say, ‘Well, what about the girl who is raped, what about her abortion case?’ So now let me ask you, if the girl weren’t raped, and she just got pregnant, would you think that she should still have access to an abortion?

She responds, “I do, because I think it’s her body and I think it’s her health care.”

Shapiro continues:

Right, so you’re giving me an exceptional case, in order to prove a rule that you don’t actually want to defend. If you just come up and ask me, do I think a woman should have an abortion, then we could actually have an argument or discussion about in what cases an abortion is appropriate, but this is what people on the pro-choice side, the anti-life side, actually do. What they actually do is they take the marginal case, they take the raped woman who has a severe disability and they say, ‘this is all abortions.’ That’s not all abortions.

Significantly less than one percent of all abortions are performed on women who have been raped. If you want to talk about the epidemic of abortion in the country, over a million abortions performed a year in the United States, let’s talk about the other ninety-nine percent of cases. When you are willing to agree with me that the other ninety-nine percent of cases are not cases where abortion should be necessary, then I’m willing to have a discussion with you about compromise. But I don’t think that’s what you want. I think that you’re just using the exceptional case in order to try and guilt me into supporting a broad-based abortion platform.

There are three ways to interpret what is happening when a completely pro-choice person asks about abortion in the case of rape: the pessimistic interpretation, the optimistic interpretation, and the neutral interpretation.

The pessimistic interpretation, the one that Shapiro takes, is one where the pro-choice person is intentionally being misleading. They’re hoping that maybe no one will notice that they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum. They think they’ll come across as moderate and reasonable by suggesting, “Come on, can’t we just have this one hard case?” They hope that because abortion will be generally supported in the case of rape, they’ll get to keep all abortions legal because somehow no one will notice their not-so-sneaky sleight of hand. By showing that one abortion should be allowed, they think they can prove that abortion for any reason should be allowed.

If that’s what you think is actually behind the pro-choice question, it’s understandable to say, “I refuse to play your game. I will only discuss this extreme case after you agree with me on the other cases.” My public debate experience is very limited, so I won’t comment on whether one should take this interpretation in a debate setting. But I will say that it is dreadfully foolish to assume this interpretation in most one-on-one conversations (I’ll reserve some room for exceptions for the most nasty and aggressive pro-choice people).

The optimistic interpretation is that the pro-choice person isn’t making any particular argument, they’re genuinely curious about your view and trying to figure out what they should think.

The neutral interpretation is that the pro-choice person is attempting to refute the entire pro-life case by showing that it logically necessitates something horrible: forcing raped women to stay pregnant. They aren’t stupid. They know that you can make laws that allow for rape exceptions. They’re taking it as obvious that abortion should be legal in the case of rape, and they know that if you think the unborn is a human person, it’s pretty much inevitable that you have to oppose abortion even in the case of rape. It’s a reductio ad absurdum argument.

This is the approach I personally witnessed in an Oxford Biomedical Ethics seminar in 2008 when I studied abroad. The professors had already explained that, in order to have a valid ethical syllogism, you need a factual premise and a moral premise. In order to get to a conclusion like, “Abortion is wrong,” you need a factual premise like, “Abortion kills human beings,” and a moral premise like, “It is wrong to kill human beings.”

They didn’t focus on most cases of abortion, they focused on abortion in the case of rape and asked, “What moral premise could justify a moderate pro-life position that opposes most abortion but allows for it in the case of rape?” The class struggled for a while and the professors shot down every attempt, leaving a clear impression that if you have a heart for women who have been raped, you should be all the way pro-choice. I had to admit, it was very clever.

Most pro-choice students aren’t as clear and articulate as Oxford professors, but, having discussed abortion at length with thousands of pro-choice students all over the United States, I know that many of them are (imperfectly) attempting to make the same argument.

Inspired by these pro-choice professors, I make the same type of argument against abortion all the time. Here’s how.

Most pro-choice people try to take the moderate position that abortion should be legal in the first trimester but not the third trimester, and they try to justify that view by appealing to bodily rights. “My body, my choice, the woman has a right to do what she wants with what’s in her body.” One of the most persuasive refutations of that view of bodily autonomy is to point out that it has to justify all abortions, not just first trimester abortions. This forces the pro-choice person to either abandon their bodily rights argument, or accept a very uncomfortable extremist conclusion on third trimester abortions. Showing the logical implications of an argument is an incredibly effective (and completely legitimate) way to respond to the argument.

If Shapiro is correct in his critique of pro-choice people for bringing up abortion in the case of rape when they support all abortion, then it is illegitimate for me to respond to bodily rights arguments by pointing out that they justify third trimester abortions. Obviously, I’m not only opposed to third trimester abortions. I don’t bring up third trimester abortions to try to trick anyone into thinking those are the only abortions I’m against. I bring up third trimester abortions as one of my responses to bodily rights arguments because supporting them is logically necessitated by the bodily rights argument. It is perfectly reasonable to criticize a view because it requires uncomfortable implications, even if you oppose the whole view and not merely the uncomfortable implications.

If we want to persuade pro-choice people to become pro-life, we need to balance logic with compassion, and, in most cases, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re asking a reasonable question. If your general strategy in a conversation about abortion is to just assume the worst of everyone, you won’t have productive dialogues, and you will miss out on opportunities to persuade people. In a one-on-one conversation, you should always start by giving the other person the benefit of the doubt that she is a decent person, and then respond accordingly if she proves you wrong.


Please tweet this article!

  • Tweet: Ben Shapiro’s Response to Abortion in the Case of Rape
  • Tweet: A Case Study in the Differences between a Debate and a Dialogue
  • Tweet: Most pro-choice people are incapable of taking seriously someone who seems to have no compassion for women.
  • Tweet: If we want to persuade pro-choice people to become pro-life, we need to balance logic with compassion.
  • Tweet: In a one-on-one conversation, you should always start by giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.

The post “Ben Shapiro’s Response to Abortion in the Case of Rape: A Case Study in the Differences between a Debate and a Dialogue” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

The preceding post is the property of Timothy Brahm (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public,) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of Josh Brahm unless the post was written by a co-blogger or guest, and the content is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (Timothy Brahm) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show only the first three paragraphs on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Director of Training

Timothy Brahm is the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • I had seen that video and had gone along with Shapiro’s implication that “the pessimistic interpretation” of the rape question was necessarily correct. Thanks for pointing out the other possible interpretations.

    “’What moral premise could justify a moderate pro-life position that opposes most abortion but allows for it in the case of rape?’ . . . very clever.”

    Apart from your main point about “not trying to trick,” do you mean that the difficulty of providing such a moral premise shows the untenability of such a with-exceptions pro-life position in as convincing a way as your third-trimester argument shows the untenability of a with-exceptions bodily-rights position? (I don’t think that it is very difficult to provide the required moral premise.)

    • No, that’s not my point. In 2008 neither I nor any of the other students could think of a good solution, and I think it’s an effective argument to use against people that don’t understand bodily rights arguments well.

      I think holding a rape exception can be coherent (though inadvisable) if your position is that the only good response to the violinist is what we call the responsibility objection. If you believe that all of the other objections fail, then what you’re left with is a principled reason to oppose all abortions except those that come from rape. While it is coherent, I think it is an unwise position to take, because there are other glaring, gigantic, clearly morally relevant problems with the violinist.

      • Thanks. I don’t think that the violinist is the strongest way to frame the bodily-rights argument (even Thomson seems to have offered it only in order to open her essay with a demonstration that the right to life that personhood may entail doesn’t necessarily include a right to be kept alive by another person’s body – and not as a complete argument for abortion rights), but anyway you have answered my question about the point of your story about the professors, thanks.

        Regarding “morally relevant problems” with even the best bodily-rights arguments: such bodily-rights arguments always depend on analogies, and the problems that I have always seen identified have been the disanalogies between those analogies and actual pregnancy. I have never seen any other kind of problem identified. But I think it is also possible, if not to demolish those bodily-rights arguments, then at least to put a big dent in them, simply by analyzing the concept of bodily rights, then applying that analysis to pregnancy without reference to any other situation, real or imaginary, said to be analogous with pregnancy.

  • Pingback: Weekly Links (5/12/2017) | LBC Beacon()

  • “. . . debate, not dialogue. A speaker’s primary responsibility in that setting is to convince the audience, not the person with whom he is arguing.”

    This is a distinction with potentially big ramifications that I haven’t heard made before by you or your brother. Isn’t it often hard to draw the line? Once a dialogue has one bystander, might you not decide that debate rules should apply?

    • We’ve definitely talked about it before, but probably on the Equipped for Life podcast more than anywhere else.

      In an outreach context where a group of people are around, there are certainly two things going on, convincing the person, and convincing the group. (And to a lesser extent this is true when there are just one or two bystanders.) This is still pretty different than a public debate though, because in the outreach context you described you still have people observing a dialogue, so I think we should continue to generally act the way we do in a one-on-one dialogue. I wouldn’t use the moves Shapiro used in an outreach setting even if there were bystanders. It’s still too different. It would understandably look like this is the way we act in a one-on-one conversation.

      A case where bystanders does have an effect is the case where we’re dealing with the person who is biting every bullet. For example, the hardcore moral relativist who won’t concede that rape is objectively wrong. There’s an example on our blog where I used the fact that there was another person there in an attempt to make it more likely that the person would concede this important point:

      • You’ve thought of all the angles! Thanks.