On September 18th, Netflix released a documentary about abortion called “Reversing Roe.” I watched it, hoping that it was made in an unbiased way, fairly showing both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, as with most documentaries about abortion, this one was edited in a very slanted way, I think to intentionally manipulate the audience. As someone who studies video editing in his spare time (I know, I’m fun, aren’t I?), I recognized lots of subtle editing tricks the filmmakers were using to make people feel comfortable with pro-choice people and uncomfortable with pro-life people.
I decided that the best way for me to equip pro-life advocates to have productive conversations with their pro-choice friends about this documentary was to make a series of videos showing clips from the film and then provide commentary, both on the biased editing tricks as well as responding to the more substantive pro-choice arguments in the film. I spent the next few weeks doing a careful analysis of the film, shooting about 90 minutes of footage of me responding to the documentary, and then working with a new volunteer on editing them into shorter clips to post on YouTube. I’m modeling a video style that’s become very popular lately, where an expert (like a doctor or lawyer) watches clips from a show or movie and then comments about it. I haven’t seen any other pro-life advocates use this style, and I think these videos came out so great that we might do more in the future.
Click on the embedded playlist below to watch the clips for yourself, but I’ll make a few of my points below to give you a sneak peek.
Editor’s Note: With his permission, today we’re sharing the first in Steve Wagner’s recent series of posts on how to dialogue about bodily rights. Steve Wagner is the Executive Director of Justice For All and serves on ERI’s Advisory Board. It is extremely easy for pro-life advocates in a conversation about abortion to imply, intentionally or not, that they don’t care about bodily rights. This is a huge mistake. Read Steve’s post to learn how to find common ground and empathize with pro-choice people.
Some of JFA’s recent outreach exhibit panel designs feature images like this one in order to communicate concern for women and sympathy for their experiences of pregnancy. See the Stop and Think Exhibit page for exhibit designs and commentary. (Warning: There is one graphic abortion image visible in a few different outreach photos on this page.)
I was in the middle of a conversation with a few young women who had stopped to sign our “Should Abortion Remain Legal?” poll at Colorado State University in April. They were putting their mark on the “Yes” side. I asked a few questions, and each began to explain the limitations she would put on abortion at different times and in different circumstances of pregnancy. Another young woman stopped and interjected, “It should be legal up until birth.” Without much prompting, she gave her reason: “I have a right to do what I want with my body.”
At this moment, I wanted to launch into a precision set of questions and counter-arguments to show this woman and those standing nearby that her right to her body doesn’t entail a right to kill another human by abortion. I have been thinking, writing, and teaching about appeals to bodily rights for more than 15 years. I was ready.
But as I looked at this woman, I hesitated. I stuttered and said something not too tidy, struck afresh by the fact that this topic affects this person very personally. Reflecting on it later, I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t had more to say, but then I realized there was something quite right about the approach into which I had fallen. Rather than saying something intellectual, I think I said something more along the lines of sympathy and concern, a little like this:
I don’t know if I can fully understand what it’s like for matters so personal as your body and your right to do what you want with your body to be brought up on your campus. I don’t know what it feels like to consider the possibility of being pregnant or to think about the government placing restrictions on your ability to control everything about your body. These things are very heavy to think about. Your right to your body is important.
I don’t want the conversation about a woman’s right to her body to end there, but I think it needs to start there. Indeed, my conversation with two of the women who heard this exchange was very productive, I think due in part to the moment in which I chose sympathy over argument. But the conversation can’t end with sympathy for the woman only, because this woman’s view that abortion should be legal until birth also affects an unborn person very personally (and not just one unborn child, but thousands each day). If we focus on the unborn, though, without first seeking to understand the woman’s concern for her body, we not only will make practical success in the conversation much more unlikely, failing to build a bridge when we could, but we’ll also fail to accurately describe what’s true. For what we’re discussing is a person with equal value to the unborn person, and yes, she has a right to her body that we should be the first to champion. I mean “right to her body” not in the controversial sense of abortion but in the uncontroversial sense that she should be protected from harm, terror, assault, and oppression. She should be valued as an equal. In general, individuals and the government should leave her to be free, unless she is causing harm to someone else.
If pro-life advocates want to help pro-choice people change their minds about abortion, then they must understand arguments about bodily autonomy and how to respond to them in a persuasive way. In his recent video, How To Destroy The “Best” Reproductive Rights Argument, Matt Walsh draws attention to these types of arguments, explains that they are critical to the modern pro-choice position, and then lists his five problems with how bodily autonomy arguments attempt to justify abortion.
At Equal Rights Institute our staff has collectively had thousands and thousands of conversations with lay pro-choice people on college campuses in the United States, and these experiences have helped us understand what typical pro-choice people actually mean by when they make easily misunderstood statements. While Walsh is right to respond to bodily rights arguments directly and he makes some good responses, he also gives responses that are based on the same understandable mistakes that most pro-life people make.
Pro-choice arguments from bodily autonomy are extremely confusing for many pro-life advocates because there is a profound cultural gap between pro-life and pro-choice people. We don’t just disagree about premises in our arguments; our whole mindset on the issue is radically different. Pro-life people are naturally inclined to focus the conversation on the baby while pro-choice people focus their attention to the woman. Sometimes this causes pro-life people to misunderstand pro-choice arguments and assume that everything comes down to the personhood of the unborn. Walsh correctly explains that this is a problem because that is not the only piece of the debate. He wants pro-life advocates to understand that there is another way to defend the pro-choice position in the abortion debate, and he wants us to understand how to refute it. He explains that personhood, while critical to understanding the immorality of abortion, is not what is driving many abortion conversations when we talk with pro-choice people. When pro-choice people bring up bodily autonomy, they are not attempting to refute the pro-life personhood argument.
Walsh goes on to describe an argument that personhood begins when the mother decides. In other words, the argument claims that because a woman has bodily autonomy she should be allowed to decide if and when her unborn child should be considered a valuable person. He goes on to explain the metaphysical absurdity of an argument like this because it claims that the mother has some “supernatural ability to grant and resend humanity to or from her child.” This argument is so bizarre and fringe that it does not play a role in ordinary bodily rights conversations. The vast majority of pro-choice people do not actual use arguments like this one. While our staff has seen this type of reasoning on very rare occasions, it is confusing and unhelpful to pro-life people to tell them that it is a major part of the bodily rights debate. I fear it will cause them to expect to find it and wrongfully interpret other, more reasonable pro-choice statements as being indicative of the weird, fringe argument.
Pro-lifers, this is a strawman. Click here to understand why.
In his first of five points, Walsh responds to the pro-choice slogan “My Body, My Choice” by saying, “It’s not your body, your body is not the body at issue here. The issue is the child’s body, not yours.” This incredibly common pro-life response to bodily rights arguments is based on a critical misunderstanding of what most pro-choice people mean when they use that slogan. They are not saying that the child’s body is the same as the woman’s body, nor are they saying that the human fetus is somehow biologically part of the woman’s body. They are saying that the human fetus’ body affects and is inside what is indisputably the woman’s body. By “my body,” they are referring to cells with the mother’s DNA, not cells with the human fetus’ DNA. This misunderstanding often causes well meaning pro-life people to unintentionally strawman pro-choice people. Read this article for a more thorough explanation of this common problem.