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

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

Editor’s Note – 5/31/17: The Ben Shapiro video Tim comments on was uploaded to the Shapiro Facebook page on April 10th. Four weeks later we published this piece from Tim, encouraging pro-life advocates to avoid imitating some of the things Shapiro does in their one-on-one dialogues regarding rape. Two weeks after that, we captured the audio from the video so that we could use the relevant clips in the podcast version of this article. However, by the time we captured the audio, the video had been edited by an administrator of the Ben Shapiro Facebook page. As a result of that edit, one of the sentences that appears in the post below is no longer in the video.

So here’s what we’ve done. We’ve made the font of Tim’s paragraph setting up the now-deleted sentence as well as the quotation itself dark red. It was in the original video, but it’s not there now. If it was edited because Shapiro and/or his people were concerned about the tone, we would agree with that concern. Their edit doesn’t substantially affect this piece though, because the first quotation from that section is still there, and is still sufficient to warrant the critique Tim gave.


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.


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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.”

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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.

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  • 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.

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  • “. . . 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.

  • Kate-

    The author is right on about how horrible Ben’s approach is.

    I was anti-abortion , but after hearing Ben (who has taught me many things, and whom I admire in many ways) present the pro-life stance this way, and say raped women should be forced to have babies if they are impregnated, I was so disgusted that I re-evaluated my beliefs on abortion. Now I’m pro-choice.

    So yeah. If you want to make more people pro-choice, argue like Ben does.

    • gladys1071

      yep i agree. I think the idea of forcing any woman to gestate against her will, rape or not, is disgusting PERIOD, to me if we do not have our bodily rights, then we have nothing. We need to stay vigilant of these pro-lifers that want to take our rights away.

      • Kate-

        Yes, it’s completely disgusting. Some of them refuse to believe me when i say I used to be on their side…. they can’t comprehend that advocating for things such as forcing raped women to remain pregnant will alienate people from their cause and open people’s eyes to what this is really all about.

        • gladys1071

          i also used to be pro-life or if you want to call anti-abortion, though not very passionately, i changed my mind a few years ago, after seeing the attacks on contraception. The gall that anyone would tell a pregnant person that they have to remain pregnant against their will is beyond me to comprehend, it infuriates me to no end.

          • Kate-

            I understand being morally opposed to abortion on a personal level – I can’t see myself ever getting one (unless I was raped -that’s a totally different ballgame) and I think it is morally wrong in many if not most cases. But the idea of forcing women, at point of gov’t gun, to endure a pregnancy and then childbirth, especially by restricting access to early term abortion where all that’s involved is an unthinking bundle of cells, seems to be the definition of tyranny.
            Most of the people who would like to do this are conservative and anti big gov’t /pro-individual freedom and rights too, so I just find it crazy that they refuse to even acknowledge how invasive and fascistic it would be to force women to remain pregnant against their will.

            • gladys1071

              yes, i have gone rounds with many pro-lifers on this issue of enforcing pregnancy and childbirth, I don’t really think they have thought it through well and how intrusive the government would have to be to enforce that. They honestly don’t think that the intrusiveness is problem. All they think about is the embryo/fetus, they cannot see beyond it. They keep saying that all they care about is “saving lives”, but they really don’t understand what that entails or they seem kind of blind to it. They sometimes just act like the embryo/fetus is floating around somewhere, they completely forget the woman doing the gestating, she is invisible to them.

              Abortion being morally wrong or not is irrelevent to the concept of individual rights. Forcing gestation by the state is a violation of individual rights, no matter which way you try to paint it is.

              They are simplistic thinkers they think that by saying “they want to save lives” that makes it alright to force gestation and childbirth on someone, it does not. This is not like saving a drowning child or a dog being abused, this is ENFORCING gestation to sustain a life of another for 9 months, and the woman having to endure the trauma of childbirth and any all health changes, it is akin to slavery in my opinion to force someone to do.

            • gladys1071

              Now me personally i have no issue with early term abortions and don’t find them morally problematic as i would 2nd trimester and on, it still does not negate the issue of individual rights though, that a woman has to refuse to be a host. If it were me i would have on as early as possible 4-6 weeks the most.

      • Serpent

        yeah same here, my family is religious so i grew up thinking abortion is wrong. i started having doubts when i first heard the joke that “in this case a blowjob is cannibalism”.
        then as i became a feminist i realized how i’m not better than other women, and that being “smart” or making the right decisions is no guarantee to avoid rape. it sure doesn’t help the prolife movement that a lot of the people are also ready to blame the victim, give the attacker the benefit of doubt, ban contraception (and promote abstinence in ways that makes teens think all contraception is ineffective and they may as well skip it), and overall minimize the effort that goes into sustaining a pregnancy.
        (wrt the recent child vs 1000 embryos debate, i’ve seen one answer that was that “a better analogy is if not saving the embryos takes a deliberate effort” – um no, while an abortion takes effort [mostly because prolifers don’t want you to have it], carrying a pregnancy to term is not easy as pie either, and even if you intend to give up the baby for adoption you’ll still feel pressed to make your best effort, both because it’s your blood and also for the sake of the people who will take care of the baby)

  • gladys1071

    I wonder if anyone here have thought through logically the conclusion if abortion was outlawed with an exception for rape only. How would the law know the difference between a rape conception and a non-rape conception? their is no difference, the development of the embryo is the same. The other problem with rape exception is now you will have women making false rape claims to be able to get an abortion, so how do you differiantiate between a legitimate or false claim?

    The police now going to be tied up investigating false rape claims which will certainly rise due to such change in the law is that what we want now, the police going on wild goose chases and charging people with rape that are innocent, due to false claims?

    I wonder if the pro-life people have thought through the unintended consequences of rape exception. Unfortunately such as human nature, their will be legitimately raped women that will end up being denied an abortion and be forced to stay pregnant because of them fearing of making a claim or unwilling to make a report due to shame and embarrasment. How many men will be falsely accused of rape so that the person they had sex with can get an abortion.

    I think pro-lifers don’t realize that by passing such laws you create a bigger problem now with law enforcement and men being unfairly charged for rape is that worth it?

    I say not, i say leave it the way it is, women can choose to carry to term a rape pregnancy or not and women can choose to have an abortion without having to make false rape reports.

    • Ann Morgan

      **I wonder if the pro-life people have thought through the unintended consequences of rape exception.**

      Gladys, they never think ANYTHING through, beyond their dual desires for a dead woman, and a dancing baby. Case in point, I’ve recently seen pro-lifers sobbing about the State of Colorado, which has reduced abortion by 42%. You would think that pro-lifers would be urging all states to do as Colorado is doing. Except of course, as I could have told you, they are NOT. Naturally. Since Colorado’s strategy is to prevent pregnancies in the first place, it ruins the pro-life desire for a dead woman and a dancing baby. For a long time, they were ever-so quiet about Colorado. Now, however, they’ve managed to find grounds to COMPLAIN about Colorado.

      How? Well it turns out that part of what Colorado is doing is giving out IUD’s. The pro-lifers are making sobbing noises about this, on the grounds that IUD’s prevent a fertilized egg, a ‘real baby for sure’ from implanting. Waaaah!

      Of course, they haven’t thought this particular sob through, beyond their desire for a dead woman and a dancing baby. Because it’s obvious to anyone with a brain larger than a mushroom, that if a woman doesn’t get her free/reduced cost IUD from Colorado and gets pregnant as a result, her line of thinking is NOT going to be:

      “Gee, I got this unwanted pregnancy. This will pretty much ruin my life, but I guess I’ll pop it out anyways so that the pro-lifers can have their 2 minute fetal fantasy.”

      Rather, she’s going to go out and abort it, only now it will be LATER instead of sooner (with the IUD preventing a 2-day old zygote from implanting). Why this is preferable, is beyond me, other than that it will probably provide pro-lifers with more material for sobs.

      • gladys1071

        Can you imagine all of the bogus rape reports that are going to be filed in the case of abortion being outlawed with a rape exception? It would be like during the Prohibition days, so many people applied to become Rabbi’s so they can get an exemption and be able to buy alcohol, since Rabbi’s and clergy got an exemption from the law. I laughed when they said their was an increase of 600% of applications to become Rabbi’s, how ironic, so many people becoming Rabbi’s during that time.

        • Ann Morgan

          Yeah, not to mention that there was a deliberate loophole for the rich in the prohibition laws, in which it was legal to own alcohol ‘as long as it was bottled before prohibition’.

          The pro-lifers keep sobbing that just as soon as we get an abortion law passed, within just a few months, they are really, really sure that legislators will close the ‘quick trip to Mexico or Canada’ loophole for the rich. Never happened before, but the loophole for the rich will be closed right away this time. For sure.

          Oh yeah. And we also won’t go to infanticide, like they did in Romania, either. Because reasons.

          If you believe either of those things, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

      • gladys1071

        IUDs are great for some. Thanks to an IUD my mom was able to avoid getting pregnant for 12 years after she had me. Which was a good thing since my parents were poor and my father was an alcoholic. My mom was greatful for the IU D, it literally made my mom’s difficult life bearable, and not constantly popping out kids.

        • Ann Morgan

          But they are horrible for the fetal fantasizers. They WANT unwanted pregnancies to happen. They are sobbing right now over the ‘precious real baby for sure zygotes that can’t even implant because the mean old state of Colorado is handing out IUD’s. Then, if the IUD’s aren’t handed out, they will switch their sobs to: “Why are women getting abortions so late? Why couldn’t they have used IUD’s?”

      • Sharon Diehl


        It burns my blood when sillya$$ legislators write spurious bills to prevent women from accessing long-term effective reversible birth control. A prime example is John Becker, an evangelist Rethug in Ohio, who wrote an anti-abortion bill to include banning IUDs from health insurance coverage. Becker wailed that IUDs MIGHT prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. This blatantly demonstrates that anti-choicers don’t care about preventing pregnancies–they want women pregnant and popping out the babies for whatever weird reasons of their own.

        “Becker infamously addressed his lack of knowledge about science thusly”: “This is just a personal view. I’m not a medical doctor.”

      • Kate-

        LOL off topic, but are you a writer? This post is fantastic.

        • Ann Morgan

          I write as a hobby. I also have a degree in biology. Nature is not ‘cute’. Just as an example, go out some spring and look at a mother duck with 10 fuzzy baby ducklings following her. On average, 9 will be dead within a year from now (city ducks will sometimes do better, due to fewer predators). We humans have used our intelligence to make a nice cozy living space for ourselves, but we cannot entirely make unpleasant biological necessities go away. For instance, we cannot pop out endless streams of babies. At some point we will get starvation, plague, or something else that puts a stop to it. And even if we keep our population as a species within sustainable levels, we STILL cannot try to frantically ensure the survival of 100% of all embryos/infants at all costs, regardless of the circumstances. Some of them will have to be deliberately chosen to die. There are reasons for that, and the reasons are not going to change that anytime soon. About the best world we can hope for is to increase the use and effectiveness of birth control, and diagnose problems in the embryo as early as possible.

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  • Serpent

    fyi, when i bring up rape, it’s because i know i won’t change all prolifers’ minds, but if i can convince some of them to make an exception for rape, that’s already a huge win. (although on a state level it’s often mitigated by the distrust towards the victims, and by the delays in legal proceedings that can make it impossible to have an abortion before the cutoff date)