When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage of the Tim Tebow Super Bowl commercial described the groups advocating for or against the ad, it described them as anti-abortion and pro-choice, respectively. Now, I have no problem being described as anti-abortion, but the skew here is obvious. I have long believed that the discussion around abortion would be aided by clearer labels. (I think “pro-legal abortion,” and “anti-legal abortion” are about as close to objective labels as we can find, though someone is bound to complain that being “anti-legal abortion” implies being for illegal ones.) Each group chooses its own title for itself and for the opposition. “We are pro-life, they are pro-abortion (or even pro-death).” “We are pro-choice, they are anti-choice.”
These are quite unworkable. As the pro-legal abortion folks point out, no one (or almost no one) is actually pro-abortion. Even the majority of those who think abortions should be legal admit they are a tragedy. And, as fewer people point out, everyone is anti-choice on issues of morality. Hell, I don’t even support someone’s choice to drink and drive, let alone take a life directly.
As useful as the standard labels are for identity politics, they do nothing for the actual public discussion. In fact, since words actually mean things, they cripple that discussion by leading to ad hominem attacks and fuzzy thinking. I recently came across an extremely blurry case. On its homepage, WordPress featured a piece about the Tebow situation from a blog called “Fixed Air.”
Now, Vox Nova, has gotten in trouble with some in the pro-life crowd in the past for calling out hypocrisy in the pro-life movement. Our basic concern is that the pro-life movement has no credibility when it is coupled with advocating things like preemptive wars or the death penalty.
Heather at “Fixed Air” sees pro-life hypocrisy not in the fact that some pro-lifers advocate anti-life positions on issues other than abortion, but in the fact that they think that the choice to abort is wrong.
Let’s look at her own words. Shewrites: “Let’s review: a doctor advised Mrs. Tebow of the risk associated with her pregnancy, Mrs. Tebow weighed her options, and chose to remain pregnant. Mrs. Tebow was given a choice. This is the key to a woman’s right to choose for herself what she will do to her body. However, Tim and his mother are taking a stance against the very choice that Pam Tebow had. This is hypocrisy at its most salient.”
Now, my first reaction to this was that it needed no response. Often enough we here at Vox Nova do not engage the pro-legal abortion folks, not because we agree with them, but because stuff like this refutes itself. It just does not read like an intellectually serious argument. On the other hand, WordPress’s selection of the piece as a feature, and the supportive feedback in the com-boxes indicates that some people take it as such.
Now, when two intelligent and serious people can both look at the same argument and see it as alternately ludicrous and devastating, there is a very good chance that the roots of their disagreement lie deeper than what is being stated openly. When this is the case, it is all too easy to conclude that those with whom one disagrees are either stupid, ill-intentioned, or both.
I don’t know Heather well enough to judge her intelligence or intention. I suspect she, like the vast majority of people I meet, is neither stupid, nor ill-intentioned. (Incidentally, I meet more stupid people than ill-intentioned ones, but both are relatively rare.) But I think she has made a very poor argument. Her responses in the com-boxes to the reader who pointed out her surface error, demonstrate that her mistake lies deep in a faulty presupposition.Heather has let the (quite artificial) labels given in the abortion debate frame the question for her in an unworkable way. “Choice,” as such, has become such a positive good that the actual content of a real, existential choice has become unnecessary for judging the morality of the resulting action. It is only possible to say that “Tim and his mother are taking a stance against the very choice that Pam Tebow had,” when one assumes, a priori, that a given choice has no moral import.
Furthermore, Pam Tebow simply cannot be a hypocrite in any meaningful sense of the word if she did not believe that she had a choice. Mrs. Tebow did not “weigh her options” and choose “ to remain pregnant” any more than I weigh my options and choose not to beat my wife. Certainly the possibilities of terminating a pregnancy or beating my wife exist in the concrete, but when one is convinced that something is gravely evil, it is ruled out from the start. Pam Tebow always knew she would keep her baby in the same way that most of us know that we will not kill our children when we get home from work today. Pam Tebow is not denying a choice to anyone that she did not deny to herself. You can think she’s in the wrong, but it makes no sense to call her a hypocrite.
Because of the way ‘choice’ language is used in the abortion debate, Heather has confused existential possibility with moral neutrality. Without this confusion she could not have suggested that, because Pam Tebow had the existential possibility of an abortion, she is a hypocrite for claiming that abortion is morally wrong.
It is unfortunate that I must digress here to assure my readers here that I sympathize with women caught in tough situations. In comparing beating my wife and abortion, I do not wish to imply that every woman who has an abortion is deliberately committing a conscious evil. In fact, I believe, as most pro-lifers I know believe, that women receiving abortions are more victims than criminals in a culture that does whatever it can to limit the consequences of sex for men, including foisting all of those consequences on women. It is unfortunate that I must digress because all of that should go without saying.
Nevertheless, abortion is objectively at least as grave as the examples I use above. It is the direct taking of an innocent life. The “pro-choice” label has allowed people like Heather to form her conscience on this issue with no reference to the actual content of the act of terminating a pregnancy. Even the Planned Parenthood counter-ad spent a lot of time talking about choice, and no time at all talking about what the choice is for.
Choice is never an independent value. It depends precisely on what is chosen. And everybody already knows this. We don’t talk about being pro-choice on state executions, or unjust wars, or sex between adults and minors, or paying taxes. Some don’t even think that parents should be allowed the choice to spank or not. (For the record, my wife and I don’t spank.)
Questions of preference and questions of morality both require choice, but they are not the same kind of question for all that. In questions of morality the choice is between right and wrong, just and unjust, harmful or beneficial. It is hard to imagine a philosophical justification for including the choice to abort one’s child in the same genus of choices as that between chocolate and vanilla. But with or without justification, that is how Fixed Air is treating the issue of abortion.
The label “pro-choice” does not simply serve to make those who oppose legal abortion appear anti-women’s rights (though it certainly does that as well). Its more subtle function is to short-circuit the question of abortion by emptying the act of any moral content before the debate even begins.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.