19 May 2024

To argue well about abortion, we must avoid simplistic ‘debate’

The abortion ‘debate’ has more sides than yes or no. Picture: iStock

By Denise Cooper-Clarke 

28 August 2022

“The plumbline doesn’t judge disagreement. But it does hold me and each of us to account for how we disagree” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in his presidential address to General Synod, 2015. 

After the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (1973) in June 2022 and ruled that the US Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, there was a flood of commentary on mainstream and social media, including here in Australia. Dobbs was a legal judgement about the US Constitution, not a statement about the morality of abortion, yet most of the commentary was directed at the moral, not the constitutional question. And much of it was extremely polarised. 

This article does not address the morality of abortion as such, but the way the arguments about it are conducted in public discourse. 

In thinking through my unease with much of the social media commentary, I was interested to explore what kind of arguments would be persuasive. That is, the arguments that might actually shift someone’s thinking a little, or even change their minds. A friend recommended I read Good Arguments by Bo Seo.  

Because abortion is controversial, discussion about it is commonly referred to as the “abortion debate”. But for a number of reasons debate might not be the right framework. First, debate dichotomises views. Debaters must adopt either a “Yes” or “No” position in relation to the given topic, and a there is a winner and a loser. But in relation to abortion, most people’s views do not fit neatly into “Yes” and “No” categories. They might be “Maybe” or “It depends”. For example, one might take the view that while abortion is generally immoral, it should not generally be illegal. Or one may consider that abortion is more or less morally justified depending on the circumstances, including how far the pregnancy is advanced.  

Second, debate is adversarial. We use the language of attacking and defending. We conceive those with whom we disagree as opponents, or even enemies. If our aim is victory at all costs, we risk dehumanising “the other side” and may be tempted to use unscrupulous rhetorical techniques such as misrepresenting their position.  

An inquisitorial model would be more helpful in framing a nuanced discussion of abortion, or any other complex and sensitive issue. Suitable questions might include “Under what circumstances might a Christian doctor be justified in performing a termination of pregnancy?” and “What factors should a Christian couple take into account when faced with a decision to terminate a pregnancy after a diagnosis of foetal abnormality?” 

Read more: ‘Danger’ in misrepresenting Roe v. Wade outcome implications

On the other hand, according to Seo the principles of formal debate can teach us a great deal about how to have good arguments. What he means by a good argument is implicit in the subtitle of his book: How Debate Teaches us to Listen and Be Heard.  

 In formal debate, the topic is agreed on by both sides. This avoids people talking at rather than to each other. The topic must be clear and specific: “abortion” is too general. More specific topics would be “That the Bible teaches that the life of a foetus is inviolable from the moment of conception”, “That there should be no legal barriers to women accessing abortion in the first trimester”, “That danger to the mother’s life or cases of rape and incest are the only valid moral reasons for abortion”, or “That unrestricted access to abortion is necessary for the equality of women”.  

It is important to listen carefully to those with whom we disagree to identify exactly where the disagreement lies and where we have common ground. For example, the disagreement may be about the interpretation of specific texts such as Exodus 21: 22-25 or Psalm 139. Or there may be agreement that these texts are ambiguous, but disagreement about the implications of other biblical teaching for abortion. Or we might agree that both the moral status of the foetus and women’s welfare and autonomy are important moral considerations, but disagree about how we balance these in particular situations.  

If we genuinely wish to persuade those with whom we disagree we will show respect for their moral convictions even when we disagree with them, rather than “playing to the gallery” or “preaching to the choir”. We will acknowledge qualifications and uncertainties. And we will not impugn their motives or resort to insults or derision.  

It is difficult for people to change their minds on significant moral issues. As well as using logical arguments, if we are to be persuasive we need to demonstrate that we can be trusted to take the other person’s views seriously, and that we are open ourselves to being persuaded. 

Denise Cooper-Clarke is a medical ethicist and member of the Social Responsibilities Committee of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.  

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