Reason and the Abortion Debate

There have been a couple of stories pinging around the internet for the last few days, both of them have been seized by the pro-life movement. The first is the video testimony of Alisa LaPolt Snow, a planned parenthood lobbyist, who cannot bring herself to acknowledge (while giving testimony in Florida) that the babies who survive abortions should be given care to save their lives. The video of her testimony has become ubiquitous, and the interpretations and commentary on it seem to take it in as many directions as possible.

The second story is much more disturbing. Kermit Gosnell is currently on trial for running an illegal abortion clinic that took patients after they had passed the legal limit for abortions. The articles emphasize the unsanitary conditions of the clinic, the age of the aborted babies, and the testimony of witnesses who describe snipping the spines of the viable fetuses.

Both stories can be disturbing. I follow a blog that linked to pictures that were taken during the investigation and arrest of Gosnell. I was disturbed for several days. Disturbed isn’t strong enough a word for it. The Snow testimony is more uncomfortable than immediately distressing.

I don’t know if I can bring myself to write an anti-choice argument: it’s the perennial painful essay that my students choose to write (a lot of writing teachers ban the topic).

Instead, let’s take this opportunity to illustrate the nature of human reasoning.


Deductive and Inductive Reasoning!

(The key with headings in a blog is to make them exciting and intriguing—hence the exclamation point).

Human reasoning works in two ways. Your brain, specifically, works in these two ways (in addition to others—there’s more thinking than reasoning). So it’s useful stuff to know.

The first type of reasoning is top-down. It’s called deductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning, the reasoner takes an established premise: “All men die”; combines it with another established premise: “Socrates is a man”; and reaches some new, interesting conclusion: “Socrates will die.”

Deductive reasoning must have some premises to work with, usually, one is more of a general statement and the other is more specific. This is called a syllogism. Syllogisms get complicated, can go incredibly wrong, often are nearly subconscious, and are the foundation for a lot of important human thinking.

The second kind of reasoning is just as important. It’s called inductive reasoning; if deductive reasoning is top-down, inductive reasoning is ground-up. In inductive reasoning, the reasoner observes a phenomena, notices a pattern, and makes a conclusion. If I drink coffee late at night I have trouble sleeping. I notice that coffee keeps me awake because it has done so at least a dozen times or so. I know the sun will rise tomorrow because it has every day of my life so far. There are other reasons too, but that’s one of them.

Snow was being Reasonable!

When Alisa Snow gave her testimony in Florida, she essentially said that women and their doctors should be allowed to ensure the demise of a fetus that survived the attempted abortion—pretty much what was going on in the Gosnell case, except the abortions would be legal in these cases. But Snow, and I’m sure other abortion advocates, would maintain that this is reasonable. Because it’s top-down reasoning. The first premise is “women should have reproductive freedom and decide if and when they have sex and have children—no matter what.” Nothing wrong with that. The second premise is “a failed abortion is an unfair violation of that right.” The conclusion is that failed abortions should be legally allowed to be . . . is completed the right word?

Now, I’m not agreeing with her; don’t get up in arms. But I do think she’s being reasonable, according to one perspective—a valid perspective and valid reasoning.

The Other Side of Reason

The pro-life (or anti-choice, I’m comfortable with either label) side of the debate is practicing the other type of reasoning. Ground-up, inductive reasoning that notices a pattern in events. “Look at these awful examples of how the right to abortion is being abused in one case and extended in another. These are instances of abortion gone wrong.” They illustrate that abortions can go wrong, that they can come uncomfortably close to the line that distinguishes human life from human non-life. “Abortion can cross that line. Abortion advocates want to cross that line!” Look around the web and you’ll find examples of what I mean.

Now, my point with all of this is to say that it’s really hard to make a case against abortion based upon these two, admittedly disturbing, stories. Inductive reasoning is weak, unless there is a preponderance of evidence. Two instances of abortion gone wrong, of it producing skewed morality in one case and absolute monstrosity in another, are not enough to undermine the entire institution. There are too many counter-examples of it succeeding by it’s own standards (even most abortionists would admit that the two examples are instances of failure).

For the argument to be convincing, there has to be corresponding deductive reasoning to lend strength to the examples. The philosophy has to be defeated. It would be too easy, as an abortionist, to defend either of these two instances. Both are cases of abortions gone wrong. Gosnell is a criminal, performing late-term abortions under heinous settings, and Snow is trying make her ideology fit into a nearly impossible situation that is also realistically unlikely.

The reason that the pro-life movement has failed so far (though it seems to be on a comeback) is because it failed to articulate deductive reasoning in opposition to abortion. The anti-abortion argument has almost always been couched in terms of Christianity and Bible verses. Look at the stories of the politicians who feed media frenzies about it; remember Richard Mourdock? (Funny how that received so much coverage and the two stories I’ve mentioned are only roaming around the internet, hmm?). Pro-lifers could not engage women’s rights advocates on their own ground; they could only default to “before I formed you in the womb I new you,” which can be convincing to a Christian, but is an entirely different kind of thinking than deductive reasoning, with less convincing power.

Conservative Christians have been notoriously bad at deductive reasoning that does not start with the premise “whatever the Bible says is true.” If we are going to engage the culture and the politics of our nation, we have to be able to articulate the complex thinking behind our views. We have to be reasonable.

I feel like I need to keep going, but I try to cap it at 1000 words. I’ll have to come back in another post.


About Derrick

Derrick lives and works in South Carolina where he teaches English at a technical college and raises his two small children with his wife, Danielle.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Ideology, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reason and the Abortion Debate

  1. First off, I applaud you for the 1000-word limit. If a post is too long, I never bother. I have a life.
    This was interesting to read and think about, and I think your arguments about constructing a more convincing argument are timely. I never heard of the Snow piece. After Googling, it turns out it was only shown on right-wing news outlets, nothing mainstream. Hardly ubiquitous.

    But to re-focus on the Gosnell case, besides the inductive-deductive issues, there are other problems with using it as if it bolsters the argument against legal abortion. The crime is medical negligence. It’s not just that they “focused on” unsanitary (septic) conditions etc. That’s the actionable offense! Unlicensed, incompetent staff were performing surgical procedures (some past legal term limits, but certainly not all) under unsafe conditions. Medical negligence causes horrible complications. It happens in the cosmetic surgery specialty too. Unethical doctors exploiting patients for profit and causing them harm.

    • Derrick says:

      Good point about the real crime in the Gosnell case. My own prejudice on the issue conflated the legal crime with what I consider to be the moral crime, and the distinction needed to be made. To be fair, I wasn’t the only one combining the issue!

  2. Logan says:

    Abortion debates. Oh boy. Polarizing. Speaking of this debate’s reasoning toward arguments and conclusions, Arkansas recently was on the national headlines about its abortion policy. Arkansas has past a law forbidding abortion after 12 weeks. Most headlines deem it the most restrictive abortion law in the country. I disagree. It is not the most restrictive, but it is best labeled as the most defined. For example, Roe v Wade ruled that the stage subsequent to the approximate end of the first trimester (somewhat subjective, but most medical professionals have it around 12 weeks), the State may regulate abortion in ways reasonably (See that! “Reasonably” is elastic terminology) related to maternal health based upon the State’s interest in promoting the health of the mother. (I assume you could fit in mental health in this broad and unspecified term “health”) Given the context of Roe v Wade, Arkansas’s law is not unconstitutional or anymore restrictive. Choice is still present. Arkansas however moved from the position of ambiguous time frames to a more specific one. Liberal groups need to tread lightly, I find this to be a moderate piece of legislation that takes away the ambiguous language toward abortions. I also believe that it enhances personal responsibility and action by clearly highlighting the time-frame of a very polarizing and heart wrenching practice.

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