Matt Walsh and Bodily Autonomy Arguments

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.

Screenshot from Matt Walsh YouTube video response to bodily autonomy arguments

Image source: YouTube

Bodily Autonomy Misconceptions

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.

Debate vs. Dialogue: How Do They Differ?

John Ferrer debate

John Ferrer debates David Smalley on the problem of evil for The Bible & Beer Consortium.
Photo by Hillary Morgan Ferrer. Used with permission.

Debate is fun for me, but I’m odd like that. I’m an academic and ethics teacher, so I’ve debated abortion formally and informally, in academic settings and elsewhere. The subject arises most every time I’m in a panel discussion, too. In that time, I’ve come to learn that debating is radically different from casual conversation. It’s miles apart from almost every kind of interaction we can have on campus, around the lunch table, walking to class, or hanging out over coffee.

Even with all that debate experience, I’m still a novice when it comes to casual conversations about abortion. I’m a little weird like that. Thanks to Josh, Tim, and the rest of the ERI team, I’m learning how to not be weird. One advantage of my experience, however, is that I can help explain the pitfalls of debating abortion, especially when the other person just wants a dialogue. I know those pitfalls by experience; I’ve tripped across almost all of them. I’m painfully aware that academic debate is entirely different from the street-level, day-to-day conversations regular people have about an issue.

Debate can be incredibly valuable in formal settings, in classes, or on certain websites that facilitate that sort of structured exchange. Most of the time, however, people aren’t looking for a debate, and so we can overpower and ruin a conversation if we try to force it into that mold. I’d like to offer some counsel on how to distinguish debate from dialogue so you can keep your conversations healthy and persuasive.

What’s Wrong with Saying “Fetus”

Discrimination? Microaggression? Propaganda? These are common labels against pro-lifers. Anyone arguing for the rights of the unborn can expect to be characterized as enemies of women, of liberty, and of human rights. Sometimes we can learn from these accusations and pick better terms or listen with more charity. Other times, these labels just don’t fit. Or worse, they are baseless slander.

I would like to suggest that the abortion debate is riddled with a problematic term: “fetus.” At best, this term is a harmless shorthand way to refer to a “human fetus,” “fetal human,” or the “child-in-utero,” and other non-discriminatory terms. At worst, and it’s often used this way, it’s a misleading rhetorical move designed to instill dehumanizing prejudice against the unborn. Either way, we can do better.

Some may call the term “fetus” a “microaggression,” although I’m not a big fan of that concept.[1] My grievance with this term is that it’s typically a subtle but deliberate spin in verbiage intended to relocate the discussion away from any possible implication of human rights. The net effect of that rhetoric, if left unchecked, is a dehumanizing prejudgment about the status of the unborn, as if this “fetus” isn’t really a human being. This use of terms can even be a kind of discrimination. It isn’t discrimination in the sense of breaking a law or violating someone’s civil rights. But it does qualify as verbal discrimination because it is dehumanizing and prejudicial language.

Nevertheless, despite my complaints, I don’t think this term is a huge deal. I’m not trying to make it out to be more than it is. But I do run into this issue often enough that I have to say something about it.

Four Practical Tips for Responding to the Burning Fertility Clinic

A pro-choice argument in the form of a series of arrogant tweets recently went viral. You would think that with all that bravado, there would have been something new or interesting, but, no, it was just the same argument that has been around for decades. Disappointing as the argument was, I did find it interesting that, the last time I experienced this argument on a college campus, the person making the argument had a similar aggressive tone.

For some reason, pro-choice people tend to think this argument demolishes the pro-life view, so it’s important to be ready to respond to it efficiently (meaning you need to focus on just a couple of disanalogies, not all of them) and persuasively (meaning you need to convince them that you aren’t just weaseling out of a problem with your view).

Timothy Brahm responding to the burning fertility clinic argument.

Tim talks with Ann (mostly obscured) with two pro-life volunteers watching.
Photo credit: Justice For All. Used with permission.

Here’s what I did at a Justice For All outreach at UCLA in May of 2016. (You can find much of what I did in Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen’s book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, which I highly recommend. Robert George also wrote this excellent article recently.)

Ann: So if life begins at conception, what would you do if you were in a burning fertility clinic and you had to choose between saving a born baby and ten frozen embryos?

Tim: That’s a great question and I’m happy to answer it, but it’s a good example of the principle that it’s easier to ask a hard question than it is to answer it. Are you willing to give me a few minutes to answer, or are you just trying to trap me?

Fellow Pro-Lifers: Please Stop Sharing This Straw Man Meme

“My body, my choice” is possibly the most common slogan in defense of abortion right now and an embarrassing number of pro-life people completely misunderstand it. Consider the following popular meme:

meme

Hilarious right? Aren’t pro-choice people stupid? Aren’t they logic-impaired?

No. Please stop.

To what is “my body” referring in the “my body, my choice” slogan? Pro-life people far too often incorrectly assume that it is the body of the unborn. If that was the case, then yes, it would be a dumb thing to say. Let’s call this the Scientifically Ignorant View. That is almost never what pro-choice people mean. They mean the parts of the woman’s body that are affected by pregnancy, such as her uterus, vagina, ovaries, etc. Those are indisputably her body parts and pregnancy affects them.

The pro-life mind is naturally inclined to be focused on the unborn, and understandably so. They are being killed daily by the thousands. Almost nothing justifies killing a human person. But to most pro-choice people, even if the unborn is a human person, women have the right to kill the unborn if they are inside her body. This is the Bodily Rights View. Shouting that the unborn is a human being does nothing to respond to the Bodily Rights View. Absolutely nothing.