How to Turn the Tables on Four Pro-Choice Arguments

Imagine you and a good friend decide to play a game of chess. As you sit down, your friend takes your queen off the board and puts it back in the box with no explanation. You say, “Uh, what are you doing?” Your friend replies, completely unironically, “Only I’m allowed to have a queen. You’re playing white, I’m playing black, so you get to go first. It basically evens out.” Inexplicably, he genuinely believes that giving his side of the board an extremely unfair advantage is actually fair, and he has managed to rationalize to himself that it’s fair.

Turn the Tables

How would you convince him that it gives the black side too much advantage? I’d just rotate the board 180 degrees and tell him, “Okay, if you think it’s really fair to both sides that whoever gets to go first doesn’t get a queen, I’ll just play black now. Your move.”

I think of this as forced empathy. In the analogy, your friend isn’t doing a good job of fairly evaluating the relative advantages of going first and having a queen. By turning the tables, you force him to get into your shoes and respond to his own arguments. You could tell him, “Hey, I know it might seem tough to not have a queen, but you get to go first, you get all the initiative, so just make good use of it and you’ll overcome the problem of not having a queen.”

Forcing someone to argue against their own unfair arguments is the most efficient way to help someone to realize that their arguments are actually unfair.

Many, many pro-choice arguments are actually unfair arguments. They’re cheating. They’re giving the pro-choice person an unfair advantage in the conversation. The problem is that oftentimes they don’t know they’re cheating. These arguments are often driven by unfair rhetoric that the pro-choice person has actually bought into.

People become emotionally attached to rhetoric. They hear a vacuous phrase and it just clicks. It feels so right to them. In order for them to change their minds, they need more than just a counter-argument. They need to understand that their rhetoric is empty. The best way to do this is to rotate the table 180 degrees and make them get into your shoes.

Here are four examples of unfair pro-choice rhetoric, and the ways I turn the tables.

1: “Who are you to judge?”

This phrase is a solid candidate for “most overused phrase of the century.” It wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if I exclusively heard it from moral relativists, but I hear it from people with all kinds of beliefs.

I think every American has some level of libertarian impulse. We don’t want the government to force us to do things. We also know our own situation better than anyone else does, so there’s something naturally intuitive about the idea that other people shouldn’t judge you.

Telling people they don’t have the status to make a judgment about someone else is incredibly appealing and rhetorically effective. The problem is that if this is a fair response to a pro-life advocate, it is a fair response to anyone on any subject.

You can respond directly by saying something like, “I’m a human being with a moral compass that is capable of making moral arguments,” but something about the rhetorical appeal of the pro-choice statement makes that a real uphill climb. I’d much rather turn the tables.

I’ll say, “Suppose I want to kill my wife. I know that might be against your personal values or something, but dude, you don’t know how hard it is to be married to her. You don’t know what I’m going through. Who are you to judge me?” (For the record, my wife is the kindest, most amazing person I know and it isn’t at all hard to be married to her.)

When people respond with the similarly annoying question “Who’s to say?,” I respond in much the same way. “Who’s to say?” is never a good question. Some things are knowable. If something is knowable, anyone can be qualified to say something about it. Just because some pro-choice people aren’t familiar with the basic biology of human reproduction, that doesn’t mean no one has anything relevant to say about, for instance, to what species an embryo in the first week belongs.

I will also take the same approach with statements like “Mind your own business,” “It’s not up to you to decide what someone else should do,” and “I believe in free will.”

  • If abortion is taking an innocent human life, then we should not mind our own business.
  • No one would say “It’s not up to you to decide whether or not someone should abuse their born children.”
  • I believe in free will too and I’m thankful I have it, but no one has the nerve to defend human trafficking by appealing to the value of free will. It’s good that we aren’t robots that are incapable of making choices, and it’s also good that society has laws to discourage evil.

Relativistic statements like these leave no room for making moral claims of any kind. If you are opposing all moral claims simply to avoid having to make a moral claim about abortion, you have a serious problem with your worldview, and a suspicious determination to defend abortion at all costs.

As a side note, “Who are you to judge?” is also a self-defeating argument, because you can simply respond by asking, “Who are you to judge me for judging others?”

2: “I’m pro-choice because I’m compassionate to women. Some women are in really hard circumstances.”

When pro-choice people make arguments for abortion based on difficult circumstances for women, the standard pro-life response is to “trot out a toddler,” a tactic developed by Scott Klusendorf.

Pro-life advocates have variations in the way they use this tactic, but as I explained in a recent post, we have a specific four-step approach that we take at ERI. When someone makes a pro-choice argument that doesn’t address the moral status of the unborn or the importance of bodily autonomy, we often trot out a toddler to graciously help them understand the importance of those issues. Basically, we’re comparing their argument for legal abortion to an argument for legally killing a toddler.

For instance, if they say, “Some women are too poor to care for a child,” the first thing we will do is:

  1. Affirm Her Concern. “You’re right, some women are in terrible poverty and we need to help them as well as we can.”
  2. Brace Her for the Weird Question. “Can I ask you kind of a weird question, could you just go with me for a minute?” Assuming she says yes…
  3. Create a Parallel Situation. “Imagine a woman has a toddler and she is really poor. She just lost her job and she can barely feed herself, much less a child. Should she legally have the right to kill her toddler because she is so poor?” The answer is usually no.
  4. Describe the Logic. “Let me explain why I ask that weird question. I have a view that some people find really weird, but I have really good evidence for it. I think an embryo from fertilization is just as valuable a human person as you or I. Because I am so convinced of that, whenever someone argues for abortion, I have to ask myself, ‘Would this be a good argument for killing a toddler?’ And there just aren’t any good reasons to kill toddlers. So if I’m right about the embryo being a human person, then we can’t kill it because of poverty any more than we’d kill a toddler because of poverty. What do you think?”

Trotting out a toddler essentially turns the tables on many pro-choice arguments. The pro-choice person tries to justify abortion by pointing out that some women are in poverty, the pro-life person asks if women in poverty should have the right to kill their toddlers because they can’t afford them, and then the pro-choice person has to show the difference between the toddler and the unborn.

There’s another way of trotting out a toddler that is more of a direct way to force the pro-choice person to get into your shoes. I first tried it at a university in San Antonio in 2013 with a student who could not get away from using “choice” language if his own life depended on it. Finally I said, “Okay, I’m going to pretend to be someone else. I’m not Tim anymore, now I’m Tom. I believe that infanticide should be legal. The government should let people make their own choices when it comes to whether they kill their infants. How would you argue against my view?”

There was an incredibly long pause as he tried to figure out a way to do it. Finally about thirty seconds later he said, “I see what you’re doing, and that’s really f***ing clever.” Finally I got through to him because he actually had to argue against his own stubborn choice language.

There’s another type of turning the tables you can do when you trot out a toddler by honing in on the word “compassionate.” The fact that pro-choice people so frequently call pro-lifers “uncompassionate” is not a coincidence, it’s a clue to their psychology. Pro-choice people generally think of themselves as really compassionate, and even more importantly, they want to think of themselves as really compassionate.

When the pro-choice person says it should not be legal to kill a toddler if the mother is in a tough circumstance, I’ll sometimes push them by saying (in a non-snarky way), “Really? Why not? Don’t we want to be compassionate to women in hard circumstances?”

I’ll refer to compassion sometimes even if the pro-choice person hasn’t, because I suspect it is part of their view. They have a picture of themselves in their minds as a compassionate person. I want to target that directly because I want them to understand that the desire to be compassionate does not mean you have to be pro-choice.

3: “Why do you want to control women’s bodies?”

To be clear, I think questions like, “What kinds of rights should women have over their bodies, and should it include the right to kill a human person inside of them?” are interesting, reasonable, worthwhile questions. I’m not going to criticize pro-choice people for arguing that the right to bodily autonomy should justify abortion. However, I will criticize the obnoxious rhetoric that often accompanies bodily rights arguments, and I recommend you respond by graciously turning the tables.

As I’ve previously written, bodily rights arguments for abortion are always extremist arguments, at least in the way pro-choice people present them. No bodily rights argument that I have ever seen (or even heard of any pro-choice advocate making) leaves room for exceptions, but most pro-choice people do believe there should be exceptions, such as in the third trimester.

When pro-choice people are pushy with their bodily rights rhetoric, I respond by saying, “That’s a great question. Let me ask you one clarification question before answering. Do you think there should be any restrictions on abortion, such as during the third trimester?” If they say they’re opposed to third-trimester abortions, as they usually do, I’ll very nicely ask, “Please hear me, I’m not trying to make fun of you or anything, but why do you want to control women’s bodies in the third trimester?” This helps them to see that it’s rhetorically unfair to describe someone as wanting to control people simply because they are morally opposed to something.

4: “If you make abortion illegal, then women will die by the thousands in back-alley and coat-hanger abortions!”

This is one of the most rhetorically powerful pro-choice arguments. No one wants women to be hurt in illegal abortions and it’s hard to deny that some likely would if abortion was made illegal (though whether it would be in the thousands, or in back-alleys, or with coat-hangers, is another matter). As much as we don’t want anyone to be hurt in illegal abortions, we never apply this pro-choice logic to anything else. We wouldn’t dream of making bank robbery, rape, or infanticide legal in order to make it safer for one of the perpetrators.

The simplest way to turn the tables is to point out that back-alley abortion arguments are vulnerable to the exact same problem that bodily rights arguments are: they don’t allow for exceptions.

I’ll ask, “Do you think there should be any restrictions on abortion, such as during the third trimester?” If they say they’re opposed to third-trimester abortions, as they usually do, I’ll very nicely ask, “What if a woman wants a third-trimester abortion and says that if you don’t let her have one, she’ll just find a doctor who will perform the abortion in a back alley? Suppose she knows a former abortionist that lost his license because his surgeries frequently result in complications, but she says she’s willing to take the risk because she really doesn’t want to have the baby. Should third-trimester abortions be legal because otherwise she’ll just get an abortion anyway?”

This question forces the pro-choice person to wrestle with the same logic that pro-lifers already have: it’s an awful situation. We don’t want desperate women to hurt themselves, but it is obviously foolish to legalize something evil because of the possibility of someone hurting themselves as a result. We shouldn’t allow the law to be held hostage by a citizen threatening to hurt themselves. We shouldn’t legalize infanticide even if a mother says she’ll burn the house down with her and her child inside if you don’t make it legal. When the pro-choice person thinks the unborn is a person, such as in the third trimester, they come to the same conclusion.

I’ll close with a word of caution. Forcing empathy by turning the tables is a very effective response, but it’s a risky move because it can be incredibly inflammatory. You have to be gracious in the way you do this. Never insert the words, “Oh yeah?!” before you turn the tables. Little phrases like, “I’m not making fun of you, bear with me, but…” are your friend. We don’t just want to win debates, we want them to understand that their rhetoric is cheating. And remember to be patient. Don’t interrupt them if they’re processing after you turn the tables.

Question: Can you think of another example of pro-choice rhetoric you can turn the tables on? Post them in the comments below!

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The post “How to Turn the Tables on Four Pro-Choice Arguments” 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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  • Logoi

    Great article. Definitely very helpfulf points to always keep in mind.
    Thanks!

  • “Can you think of another example of pro-choice rhetoric you can turn the tables on?”

    “I’M PRO-CHOICE BECAUSE I’M COMPASSIONATE TO WOMEN.”

    Over 50% of abortion victims are (unborn) women. Shouldn’t we be compassionate toward abortion victims?

    “Forced pregnancy is slavery.”

    A closer analogy with slavery is treating a certain human group as sub-human, as most pro-choicers do.

    Would you call those two responses “turning the tables”? They turn the tables in a different way, I think, than any of your examples. I think your examples involve turning the tables to advance a reductio ad absurdum type of response. An RAA invalidates the principle behind the person’s original argument (such as the principle “We should never judge.”) While my examples AFFIRM the principle behind the original argument – the principle that the person themselves advanced (such as the principle of compassion) – but point to a different way to apply the principle.

    My least favorite attempt to turn the tables in the affirming way is to try to counter “WHY DO YOU WANT TO CONTROL WOMEN’S BODIES?” with “The unborn also has bodily rights.”

    Because it seems to me that the only philosophically useful sense of the term “bodily rights” is a right to refuse to let one’s body be used by someone else. In an abortion situation, no one is trying to use the unborn’s body (as long as they don’t plan to harvest the unborn’s organs). So though the unborn should have bodily rights, I don’t think THOSE rights apply in an abortion situation. Its right to life applies, but not its bodily rights (in the only useful sense of the term). And of course its bodily rights apply if someone wants to harvest its organs. (As you pointed out discussing Planned Parenthood and Judith Jarvis Thomson.)

    Though I don’t think the unborn’s bodily rights is why abortion is wrong, neither do I think that the woman’s bodily rights are normally strong enough to JUSTIFY abortion. I have thought about these things in a blog post, “Bodily Rights & a Better Idea.”

  • jerrycstanaway

    Why do you refer to a newly conceived individual as “it” rather than ” he or she”?

    • Well, some people would say that it’s neither he nor she till it gets born and its cis-normative parents brainwash it one way or the other.

    • Claire L.

      Saying “he or she” all the time is clunky, awkward English, hence the rise of improperly using the plural pronoun “they” as a neuter singular. “They” tends to be more preferable to “it” because “it” implies lack of humanness. “It” gets used because it’s a neuter, singular pronoun. The popularity of using “he” as both a masculine singular and a neuter singular pronoun has dwindled greatly because many consider it sexist. My personal preference is to use the words “infant”, “baby”, “pre-born”, and “child” and use minimal pronouns. I employ phrases like “the previously mentioned woman and her pre-born child…” Using wording like that can eventually get tiring, though. If you find yourself dialoguing with a pro-choice person, you could ask them to choose the sex of the proverbial pregnant woman’s child as a way of relating to the pro-choice person you’re dialoguing with.

  • Guest
    • I was just thinking about this short the other day. I think it’s still my favorite Pixar short, although the one with the birds on the telephone wire is amazing too. :)

  • mishypic

    What about pro-choicers who are NOT opposed to third trimester abortions? Is there any way to continue on a dialogue with them? They usually claim to be personally opposed to third trimester abortions but would NEVER DREAM of imposing that on another woman. After all, it’s her “choice.” I have yet to figure out how to handle them.