Despite the media’s despicably skewed coverage of the past weekend’s events, hundreds of thousands of pro-life Americans were able to enjoy a day of solidarity at the March for Life, peacefully demonstrating for the rights of the most vulnerable among us. The day’s highlights included an excellent speech and live podcast by Ben Shapiro, who reviewed the pro-life case with a compelling photographic presentation of the unfolding unborn life. While outlining and dismantling various pro-choice arguments, he graphically described the carnage of the abortion procedure and cited statistics on abortion regret for women. But had Ben Shapiro followed the advice of Dr. Francis Beckwith, his presentation might have looked somewhat different.
Dr. Beckwith is a conservative Catholic philosopher and pro-life ethicist. In a recent article for The Public Discourse, he highlights three “bad pro-life arguments” that, in his estimation, should be retired: “The Argument From Killing Beethoven,” “The Argument From Gruesome Abortion Procedures,” and “The Argument From Abortion Regret and Emotional Pain.”
Most readers will probably recognize the argumentum ad Ludwig: Pro-lifers build up the story of an 18th-century pregnant woman in crisis, only to lift the curtain and reveal that the mystery baby is Ludwig van Beethoven. Would you have advised the woman to abort? Congratulations! You just deprived the world of the “Moonlight Sonata!”
As a story, it does what good stories do. It stirs emotions and tugs at heartstrings. The short film Crescendo dramatizes it in cinematic form, to compelling effect. And in fairness to the makers of that film, they do not pitch it as an argument: Beethoven was going to be Beethoven, therefore it was wrong to kill him. However, were it presented in such a premise-conclusion form, it would indeed not be up to snuff. If we imply that it is wrong to kill the unborn child because of the bright future it might have, how do we argue against its consequentialist flip side: that killing is justified when a bleak and hopeless future is assured? Here, Beckwith and Shapiro converge on their response to the “baby Hitler conundrum,” for which Shapiro was ridiculously censured last weekend: It is always and everywhere wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human being, yes, even baby Hitler. Writes Beckwith:
Fetus-Ludwig and Fetus-Adolf are equally human and equally innocent, just as an anonymous homeless person, an asylum-seeking immigrant, and Jeff Bezos each possess the same inviolable right to life. The dignity of each member of the human family is not affected by what we may think he or she is capable of contributing, whether to the country’s gross domestic product or to the world’s cultural riches.
This is Dr. Beckwith’s first good point. Unfortunately, it is also his last.
Moving on to his second target, Beckwith takes issue with the use of graphic post-abortion pictures as an implicit argument, if not as a general intuition pump. Certainly, he agrees they are gruesome, but many sights are gruesome. Autopsies are gruesome. Even life-saving surgeries can look gruesome. So what work is the gruesomeness qua gruesomeness doing in our case, exactly? (Personally, I would say that Dr. Beckwith can speak for himself, but I’d as soon not meet the man who actually believes that an abortion is no more “gruesome-looking” than open-heart surgery.)
But Beckwith goes on: Let us consider, conversely, a “clean” method of abortion, where the victim is simply vaporized without a trace. No mess, no fuss, no tiny bits of limb and bone to jigsaw puzzle-piece back together when the deed is done. Would we argue this is not wrong, since not gruesome? Better yet, let’s back up the reel all the way to the point when it doesn’t even look like a baby. No mess… no wrong?
Readers might be sensing there’s something not quite apt about this question without exactly being able to place why. That phrase on the tip of your brain is “affirming the consequent.” Beckwith has more than amply made his case against this argument: “If it’s a human life, it looks like a baby.” But recall, the argument actually on the table is “If it looks like a baby, it’s a human life.” These are not equivalent.
Anyway, Dr. Beckwith goes on to say the argument is still bad, because it’s not enough that gruesome pictures demonstrate the destruction of a human life. As he informs those of us who still need to be informed, “sophisticated” pro-choice apologists like Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, or Ronald Dworkin will remain unmoved by this conclusion. They’re one step ahead and waiting on the other side to trot out their Serious Academic Articles on how babies are not persons, even though they might be humans. But then, as Beckwith and others have replied at equal academic length, this inexorably leads to the complete abandonment of human equality. “Nevertheless,” Beckwith insists, “one has to make the argument. Gruesome pictures by themselves won’t do.”The thought experiment writes itself: Suppose that we were having an open, lively rolling conversation about whether it was permissible to kill Jews. Suppose that Nazi apologists occupied distinguished chairs at Important Universities, wrote articles in Important Journals, and were frequently invited to round-table discussions about bioethics. Suppose, in response, some pro-Jewish life apologists used pictures of Holocaust victims in their literature.
Enter Parallel Universe Dr. Beckwith: “Yes, I realize you’re arguing that Jews are human and therefore have a right to life, case closed. But the sophisticated and eminent Herr Doktor Schweitzelschnuffle, distinguished chair of bioethics at Princeton University, has argued very influentially that Jews are not actually persons even if they are humans. So you see, you have to make the argument. Gruesome pictures by themselves won’t do.”
“Won’t do” for what, we wonder? For awakening long-buried but irrepressible moral knowledge? For pricking seared consciences? For opening blinded eyes? Pictures of mangled, minced-up babies seem to do reasonably well for all of the above, at least for people not named Peter Singer or Michael Tooley. As for Peter Singer and Michael Tooley, one can only explain why two plus two equals four to a bio-ethicist so many times before backing slowly away and moving on.
Dr. Beckwith encourages precision, so let us be precise: There is no actual philosophical need to take the scenic route here. A philosophical need has been manufactured. This is not the same thing. Absent the artificial and meaningless smokescreen of “personhood theory,” the argument from gruesome abortion procedures is a perfectly good inductive line of reasoning:
- For all X such that X looks like a human baby, X is a human baby.
- For all X such that X is a human baby, it is wrong to kill X.
- Gruesome post-abortion pictures look like human babies.
- The unborn are human babies.
- Abortion is wrong.
If Peter Singer wants to contest any part of this argument, he is welcome to join Dr. Schweitzelschnuffle’s table. In a perfect world, they would have dinner conversation all to their lonesome selves.
Alas, this is not a perfect world. This is a world where we must take it as a great honor to be invited to the table with Herr Doktor Schweitzelschnuffle. If we want to play, we must understand the rules of the game. And the first rule of the game is that no idea is so blindingly heinous as to not be worth pages upon pages of Serious Academic Debate.
Beckwith’s attempt to usher the Argument From Abortion Regret into retirement fares similarly well, which is to say, dismally. “Some women regret their abortions,” we say. But so what? Other women shout their abortions. Some women are haunted for the rest of their life by guilt and suicidal thoughts. But other women go merrily on their way with barely a twinge. So this line really “won’t do” either.
Once again, Dr. Beckwith’s ears of flesh seem to have been replaced with ears of tin. Yes, some women shout their abortions, whereupon everyone else with any flicker of a conscience left feels a collective turning of the stomach. Meanwhile, of course many women regret their abortions, because this is how a normal woman feels when she kills her own child. This is nature’s way of trying to tell us something. For the deaf, she shouts. For the very nearly blind, she draws large pictures.
I wonder, has Dr. Beckwith ever seen Bhaskara’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorem? It consisted of nothing but a diamond inscribed in a square, with the word “BEHOLD!” written underneath it. To understand it, the reader need only remember how to expand a binomial, how to find the area of a square, and how to find the area of a triangle—a child’s tools. Once you see it, you wonder how you could have missed it. You had everything you needed. All Bhaskara had to do was draw the picture.
But perhaps Dr. Beckwith is sociologically right, if not philosophically right. Perhaps these arguments won’t “do,” if by “do” we mean “won’t pass peer review in a bio-ethics journal.” Perhaps the creation of a detached, arm’s length distance between ourselves and life-or-death truths is the price of admission to the public forum.
If that is so, then I suggest the reader consider well before paying it.