Why abortion really seriously isn’t murder, and you shouldn’t get too excited about identifying logical fallacies

Yvain–a writer who I mostly really like (see his blog)–has a post on LessWrong about what he’s decided to call “the noncentral fallacy,” which nominates as a candidate for “the worst argument in the world. I think the post is about 15% brilliant and 85% disastrously wrong.

Yvain begins by correctly noting that Martin Luther King Jr. was technically a criminal, but this is not a good reason not to erect a statue in his honor. This is a very good point, and I hereby resolve to avoid using “criminal” as a criticism in the future. In particular, I resolve to refrain from calling George W. Bush a criminal, because it both understates the case against George W. Bush and is grossly unfair to small time thieves and drug dealers.

But Yvain then goes on to identify more supposed examples of this fallacy: “Abortion is murder,” “genetic engineering is eugenics,” “evolutionary psychology is sexist,” “capital punishment is murder,” “taxation is theft,” and “affirmative action is racist.” He suggests that in each case, the claim is true but doesn’t settle the debate which it’s commonly invoked to settle.

Red flags should be going up already. The post doesn’t present much in the way of argument that these six claims are actually true. The closest it comes is two footnotes which call the denial of one claim a “creative a solution” and the denial of another a “bizarre piece of mental gymnastics.”

And these cases are, to put it mildly, not all as clear cut as the “criminal” case. I’ll highlight the abortion one, just because it’s something I’ve written a fair amount about. I think it’s pretty clear that abortion isn’t murder, especially for first trimester abortions, which constitute the vast majority of abortions performed in the US (among other countries).

In particular, it’s pretty implausible to consider an embryo a person, given that they have little to no nervous system. The fact that an embryo has human DNA does not prove it is a person, because human tissue samples have human DNA and human tissue samples are not people. And abortion also isn’t murder for the reasons that unplugging the famous violinist isn’t murder.

Furthermore, Yvain’s analysis of what’s wrong with the “abortion is murder” argument against abortion is beyond unconvincing. He says:

The archetypal murder is Charles Manson breaking into your house and shooting you. This sort of murder is bad for a number of reasons: you prefer not to die, you have various thoughts and hopes and dreams that would be snuffed out, your family and friends would be heartbroken, and the rest of society has to live in fear until Manson gets caught. If you define murder as “killing another human being”, then abortion is technically murder. But it has none of the downsides of murder Charles Manson style. Although you can criticize abortion for many reasons, insofar as “abortion is murder” is an invitation to apply one’s feelings in the Manson case directly to the abortion case, it ignores the latter’s lack of the features that generated those intuitions in the first place.

As long as we’re nominating worst arguments, I nominate this for worst response to an anti-abortion argument. The problem is that murder is illegal in a far greater range of cases than just “murders like the Charles Manson case.” In particular, infanticide is illegal, as most people think it should be, and while infanticide isn’t that much like the Manson murders, anti-abortion advocates would have us believe abortion is pretty much the same thing. They’re wrong about that, but the “Charles Manson” reply doesn’t get us any closer to understanding why they’re wrong.

The fact that Yvain’s post was well-received on LessWrong tells us a lot. LessWrong is a community with a mix of political views, and something of a taboo against discussing politics. Normally, if someone came in announcing that taxation is theft and affirmative action is racism, and their main arguments for these claims were to suggest that the alternative view is “a clever solution” or “a bizarre piece of mental gymnastics,” they would be (rightly) downvoted into oblivion.

Yvain made a conscious effort to include both “right-wing” and “left-wing” examples in his post, but controversial political claims don’t become any less controversial because they’re paired with claims from typically considered to be on the other end of the political spectrum. The most important reason the post was accepted was because it was purporting to announce a newly-discovered logical fallacy, and the word “fallacy” can bypass some people’s critical faculties.

I don’t mean to pick on LessWrong specifically here. It’s a problem that can be found throughout the rationalist community, indeed throughout the “people who like to argue” community. This problem has been commented on many times before, often under the heading “the fallacy fallacy.”

The problem is that compiling lists of fallacies, without any actual skill at evaluating arguments, will leave you with little chance of seeing the problems with the claim “abortion is murder”–or the difference between “here’s a study that shows the percentage of scientists with relevant expertise who accept this claim is in the high 90s” and William Lane Craig’s arguments. Unfortunately, teaching real skill at evaluating arguments is a lot harder than teaching people to recite lists of fallacies.

  • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

    “I’ll highlight the abortion one, just because it’s something I’ve written a fair amount about. I think it’s pretty clear that abortion isn’t murder, especially for first trimester abortions …”

    Pretty clear? Especially?

    I don’t know where to begin …

    So I won’t.

    • Marty

      Think this one is a pretty easy one if you think about it – an embryo / foetus is not an independent life form – it cannot live without receiving all of its energy and waste removal from its mother. Therefore an abortion is more similar to not giving a blood transfusion or dialysis to someone who will die without it.

      Where the “especially in the 1st trimester” comes into it from my point of view (can’t speak for Chris, this is just my logic, but its pretty prevalent in pro-choice circles) is that a 1st trimester foetus is incapable of surviving, as compared to say a 32 week foetus. At the point of viability (a very hazy line indeed) an argument can certainly be made that induction is warranted over abortion, and that to abort at this stage is murder.

      • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

        No. A blood transfusion and dialysis are not analogous to abortion of a non-viable fetus. I see how you could think so — because in both cases a human being is connected to something life-saving. In the case of someone who requires a blood transfusion or dialysis to live, they are terminal without the life-saving medical intervention. In the case of abortion, the fetus is connected to an umbilical cord and without that connection the fetus dies. In all these cases, removal of the connection results in death. That’s your analogy.

        But that’s as far as your analogy goes. What’s missing are the elements of violence and intent in abortion. Gestation is a natural state; we all went through it. Abortion is akin to forcibly removing an unconscious or semi-conscious person from a dialysis machine and forcibly removing them from the dialysis room, then shoving a pair of scissors in their head or burning them to death with a saline solution and tossing the body in the dumpster. Abortion is also deciding for the patient, regardless of the person’s wishes, to do this — the person has no human rights except that which you grant them.

        Even then, though, my changing of the analogy doesn’t quite match up. As I said, abortion is a natural state — gestation is not a terminal disease. For the analogy to get closer to reality, it would involve a child who needs only nine months of well-known medical treatment, while unconscious, with a very high survival rate, before that person can live a full and independent life again. And you intentionally and purposefully not only deny that treatment, but you forcibly disconnect the child from the treatment and inject fatal poison into the child. Or gouge out its brain with scissors. You make the call whether that’s murder or not.

        Even then the analogy has problems, but that’s enough for now. I find it’s better to go straight at the issue — it involves intent, it involves force, it involves denying the humanity of another and declaring them property with no rights. Maybe I’m just sentimental, but I feel pretty uncomfortable saying any part of the human race is property and can be forcibly removed from natural growth processes, intentionally killed with poison, scissors or neglect, and discarded as trash.

        • ACN

          Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with saying any part of the human race is property and can be forced to give birth because descriptions of surgery make you feel icky.

          • http://industrialblog.powerblogs.com IB Bill

            I found this reply extremely discouraging. It’s a complete twisting of reason.

          • ACN


            I find your lack of interest in the bodily autonomy of women, and your general argument of “but look how gross surgical procesures are” to be anathema.

        • Brad

          “Abortion is akin to forcibly removing an unconscious or semi-conscious person from a dialysis machine and forcibly removing them from the dialysis room, then shoving a pair of scissors in their head or burning them to death with a saline solution and tossing the body in the dumpster. ”

          Not even close. It could be considered analogous to removing someone from the dalysis machine and killing them via lethal injection, providing you insist that the foetus is a person, which is a position I don’t agree with. Even if you do take that stance, all the rubbish about scissors and dumpsters is nothing more than emotive hyperbole.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I generally agree that naming fallacies is too often a substitute for doing the work to evaluate a claim. I think fallacies make critical thinking more interesting to get into, and they give rationalist geeks something to geek out over, but they’re only really the beginning.

    If I were to analyze “abortion is murder” in fallacy terms, I would call equivocation. There are two kinds of murder, murder-1 (killing another human knowingly), and murder-2 (a particular subset of murder-1 which is immoral by definition). If someone says, “abortion is murder-1″, that’s appeal to emotion. If someone says, “abortion is murder-1 and therefore murder-2″, that’s equivocation. If someone says, “abortion is murder-2″, that’s not so much a fallacy as it is an unsupported assertion. Presumably it’s only unsupported because we chose to excerpt a single phrase from pro-lifers, and omitted the rest of their argument.

    • Yvain

      That’s actually a probably much better way of framing what I was trying to say in the post above that Chris objected to. Thank you!

    • Pseudonym

      I think fallacies make critical thinking more interesting to get into, and they give rationalist geeks something to geek out over, but they’re only really the beginning.

      In fact, they’re not even the beginning. If anything, they’re an optional extra.

      The best analogy I can think of is with topology. Topology, of all the sciences, has one of the highest gaps between expectation and reality. Most students walk into their first topology class thinking they’re going to be talking about toruses and Klein bottles. They sit down, and discover that pretty much the whole semester is going to be about open and closed sets.

      It’s the same with an undergraduate critical thinking course. You sit down, and the first thing they talk about is the Principal of Charity. (How often do you see that mentioned on the blogosphere? Occasionally on Less Wrong, but that’s about it.) Most of the course, in fact, is taken up with how to understand what the other person is probably trying to say. Any discussion of logical fallacies is usually about ten minutes worth of “don’t bother trying to memorise them; it’s a waste of your time”.

      This makes sense when you step back and think about it, because about 80% of the challenge in evaluating something critically is actually understanding it. Especially in the theist-atheist blogosphere, this 80% of the hard work is invariably skimmed over, and the resulting low quality of discussion is evident.

    • Chris Hallquist

      It’s more complicated than that. Is a human embryo a human? (A human tissue sample isn’t.) Is refusing to stay plugged in to the famous violinist killing? etc.

  • Yvain

    Chris, we might have a more fundamental disagreement here than you think. In particular, I’m curious whether you are a deontologist (ie you believe things are wrong not because of their consequences, but because they fit into predetermined Categories of Wrong Things) and whether you have read Eliezer’s writings about the way words are used in philosophy (for example http://lesswrong.com/lw/nr/the_argument_from_common_usage/)

    In particular I am very worried about your sentence “Red flags should be going up already. The post doesn’t present much in the way of argument that these six claims are actually true.”

    I did not present arguments that these definitional claims were true, because I thought everyone was already on board with the idea that definitions are human constructs that are not objectively correct or incorrect in and of themselves.

    If someone says that Mitt Romney is a giraffe, because giraffe means “person above the age of forty”, she is being weird and can’t communicate with other human beings. In this case, we should politely tell her that she might have better success using English if she applies “giraffe” to a type of African animal.

    Beyond that level of correcting miscommunication, however, it’s bizarre to think there should be one correct definition for an English word, or that it should remotely matter what that definition is.

    Let me give an example. You imply something is a “person” if it has a well-developed nervous system. A pro-lifer might define a “person” as any entity with the fully self-contained potential to grow into a person. A partial birth abortion advocate might say something is only a person if it is acting independently as a person *right now*. A vegetarian might say a cow is a person because it has a nervous system even more complex than that of an infant. Peter Singer might say an infant is not a person, because it hasn’t yet developed abstract reasoning.

    (if you read Singer, you’ll see that your infanticide claim isn’t as much of a reductio as you seem to think; I personally am weakly against infanticide on the basis of Schelling fences but admit that what you think is a reductio is indeed a strong argument)

    But getting back on track – this multitude of potential definitions is literally a meaningless problem. You can argue with the pro-lifer who believes in the “anything whose natural course is to develop into a person” definition all you want, and you will never get anywhere, because there is no conceivable fact of the matter as to whether or not something is “person” or not – as Less Wrong lore says, no XML tag reading “person” on some entities but not on others (or to put it in the language of the latest sequence, no node on a causal graph representing linguistic “personhood” as distinct from various personhood criteria. That’s why Less Wrongers like Rationalist Taboo: “Okay, let’s taboo the meaningless word “person” and continue the discussion while focusing on reality.”

    Once you taboo the word “person”, the problem goes away. Does killing a clump of cells with no nervous system decrease anyone’s utility? No. So abortion is okay. We don’t have to check the dictionary to see the word “murder”. Our instinctive negative reaction to that particular collection of syllables is the *effect* of something in the real-world that makes murder bad, not the *cause* of it. If we can actually check whether an action has the real-world features that made us invent that particular word, then we don’t have to haul out our dictionaries to figure out if that word applies.

    So that was my argument. It didn’t include a proof that taxation was *objectively* theft because that’s not the same error as “Mitt Romney is a giraffe” where you’re just totally confusing words, and therefore it reaches the point where definitions are no longer meaningful and trying to prove them would be the exact opposite of what I was saying is the non-meaningless way of resolving these claims.

    So instead of arguing over the definition of the word, you check the world, do a quick confirmation that you like taxes even though theft is bad, and conclude that taxation is noncentral to whatever negative feelings you have around the word “theft”.

    If you’re a deontologist, of course, you don’t have this option. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

    Regarding the blanket condemnation of Less Wrong, it may interest you to know that the original post did not include the word “fallacy”, that when it was getting its current number of upvotes it did not include the word “fallacy”, and that I only added that word very recently after the original title was deemed too inflammatory. So using the argument “the word ‘fallacy’ can bypass some people’s critical faculties” to explain the post’s support on Less Wrong is inconsistent with the evidence.

    I think it’s more likely that the argument makes sense, but only in the context of other ideas most Less Wrongers already accept, like utilitarianism and the idea of words as concept-handles rather than as objectively correct portals to truth. I agree that if you don’t have those on board it might look kind of weird.

    I also think that, in general, “this site full of people approximately as smart as I am is completely bamboozled, but *I* saw through the trick right away” should start with a very low prior. There are people who commit the fallacy fallacy, but I think Less Wrongers are smarter than that :)

    • Yvain

      PS: I like your blog too, as you can probably guess by me posting here so quickly :)

      • Chris Hallquist


  • jose

    Why do everybody like lesswrong so much.

    • Darren

      ”Why do everybody like lesswrong so much.”

      I have only begun reading through the blog itself; as a relative newcomer, I can attest that Less Wrong can be difficult to get rolling. Try starting with some of the fiction: The Baby-Eating Aliens.


  • Zme

    I really don’t care if there’s a tiny Itzhak Perlman playing his minuscule Amati in a womb…the pregnant woman’s bodily autonomy trumps all. If she wants to get rid of the freeloading vandal within her then there should be no impediment to her wishes.

    All this blather of “murder”, “human”, “person” &c. is a distraction from the only issue that matters.

    • Ik

      … I think there is a problem with this. For one thing, there is a set of beliefs about the nature of embryos in which you have an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

      Second, while bodily autonomy is very important and valuable, neither it, nor ANYthing can ever serve as a completely one-sided unboundedly large value.

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  • Niemand

    If you define murder as “killing another human being”,

    Then you are, for a start, very much out of the mainstream definition of what killing another human being is. Killing another human being can be a lot of things: It can be murder. It can be manslaughter. It can be an accident. It can be malpractice. It can be justifiable homicide.
    IANAL, but it’s my understanding that “murder” only refers to deliberate killing with malice aforethought. And if the argument is already this sloppy with its definitions at its start, I have little hopes for it going anywhere useful or coherent.

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  • Grace

    Ahhhh, nice to here some fresh truth out there,

  • Robert

    “The problem is that murder is illegal in a far greater range of cases than just “murders like the Charles Manson case.”

    So your response to Yvain’s noncentral fallacy example about murder is to argue against it by using the noncentral fallacy. Interesting.

  • joseph

    Is abortion murder? Should it be legal?

    is not murder and it should be legal

    Abortion are done on embryos and
    fetuses, not babies, and they cannot live outside the body or have a life of
    their own so yes I’m for a woman’s choice. In my opinion I am for life,
    pro-life, because many women are saved when abortion is legal. We can be for
    the choice so women who want to can do what they wish with their bodies.

    VERY few women use abortion as birth control! That is far from the norm and
    that’s like saying “one egg spoil the basket”.You get the point. Abortion today
    is safe. Early abortion is even safer then childbirth so yes, you can get
    pregnant afterwards. Abortion is not worse for the body then childbirth. You
    are also NOT inclined to get cancer more than others. One of the reasons breast
    cancer has increased is because we are fatter today. No link to abortions.

  • Holden

    Why does not having a nervous system (yet) constitute not being a human? Who makes that call? The fact is that when you are pregnant, you have a growing baby inside of you, and to kill that baby is murder. You have to do some serious gymnastics to say otherwise. You certainly aren’t walking a straight line of logic.

    • Jerry Reyes

      so i’m guessing you never wash your hands because bacteria is alive and you would be considered a murderer. A fetus is not anthropomorphic and is essentially just acting as a parasite that is feeding off of your body. It doesn’t become anthropomorphic until at about 5-9 months old.

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