Politics & Policy

How Not to Argue about Abortion

A dissection of Adam Gopnik

Most of Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker article “Arguing Abortion” is uninteresting invective against pro-lifers, but there is a two-paragraph passage in which he mounts an argument. Part of that argument has a distinguished pedigree, having been advanced by the late liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin in his book Life’s Dominion.

Gopnik writes:

The moral intuition that abortion is in any way like murder is one that can be tested in the only way we can test such things, by looking at the actual evidence and by observing the actual conduct of the people who claim to hold it. . . . No person actually imagines that a zygote is a person. If they did, they would actually equate murder and abortion, and their conduct — only the tiniest fringe is willing to advertise comparable penalties for both — shows that they know perfectly well that they aren’t the same. They are really talking about potentials, not persons. And that pseudo-scientific argument — that an embryo is a person because it contains the DNA of a potential person — is true of any human cell, and certainly true of the countless fertilized eggs that, in the natural course of reproduction, are destroyed before they can develop. A fertilized egg or embryo is not some freeze-dried essence of human but a complex set of potentials that need many, many conditions to develop into a human being. It’s true that the stages of that development are difficult to define precisely. This is not a weakness in the case for making these distinctions but, rather, a condition of their existence. The problem with slippery-slope arguments (“Allow abortion in the first trimester, and it will end in infanticide!”) is not that they are inadmissible but that they are always true. All of biological life exists on a slippery slope, where we walk with ice picks called rules and moral decisions. We may allow abortion without restriction in the first and in the third trimester, and still not permit infanticide. The distinctions, as always, are our own.

Everything in this passage is mistaken, starting with the claim that the observation that abortion has something in common with murder is an “intuition.” Like murder, abortion causes a living human organism of the human species to stop being one. That is a simple fact, and one that Dworkin acknowledged in the very first sentence of his book.

It is either dishonest or ignorant to claim that the pro-life argument is “that an embryo is a person because it contains the DNA of a potential person,” and then to refute this straw man by noting that every human cell contains DNA. Every pro-lifer who has ever given any thought to the matter or expressed a view on it acknowledges, indeed proclaims, the difference between a human organism and a human cell that is not a human organism. And the fact that what Gopnik calls “fertilized eggs” often die naturally does not have any logical bearing on whether it is morally permissible to act with the intention of bringing about their deaths, any more than the fact that many 90-year-olds die naturally implies that it is all right to kill them.

Gopnik’s claim that the way (“the only way”!) to assess the validity of a belief is “by observing the conduct of the people who claim to hold it” is frankly bizarre (even if it is a dumbed-down version of Dworkin’s argument). Many abolitionists in the U.S. in the 1850s, to say nothing of the broader antislavery movement, did not follow their view that black people had inherent dignity, worth, and rights and were made in the image of God to its logical conclusion. They did not, for example, back interracial marriage. This fact reveals nothing about the soundness of either their premise or the conclusion they did draw.

If pro-lifers refuse to “advertise comparable penalties” for abortion and the murder of 25-year-olds — strange wording aside, you can see what he’s getting at — it could have a number of causes. Some pro-lifers do not view abortion as identical to murder even if it is comparable to it: They think it typically lacks the element of malice that “murder” connotes, and think that penalties should take account of this pattern. (This is my view.) This view may or may not be correct, but if incorrect it would merely show that these pro-lifers have failed to think the matter through perfectly. It would not show that their (our) main premise and conclusion are wrong. Other pro-lifers may not have thought through the matter at all, or may think that the penalties should be comparable but that it’s impolitic to say so — and again, in neither case would their conduct have any bearing on the validity of their premises.

By the end of the paragraph, Gopnik has decided that while the pro-life position should be held to a rigorous test of logical consistency, the pro-choice one need not go through any such scrutiny. Perhaps sensing a weakness, he elaborates on his point that the “distinctions” between abortion and infanticide are ones we make ourselves.

This does not make them arbitrary. We have always before us the Enlightenment choice between empty authority and rational argument — between divine rules made by an authority we know for certain to be nonexistent and rational ethical argument we know in advance will be ongoing and inconclusive. This uncertainty causes an enormous strain, huge social anxiety — what Karl Popper rightly called the strain of civilization. But that some people can’t bear the strain is no reason for the rest of us not to go on trying to make sane rules. Accepting moral complexity is a sign of moral maturity.

Note that with all this verbiage we still have not actually come across a distinction between abortion and infanticide, other than that we want to allow the former and forbid the latter. (I’m charitably assuming that Gopnik opposes infanticide, although he doesn’t ever actually say that this distinction is the one we should make rather than one we could hypothetically make.) Anyway, this passage too is hopeless. Gopnik wants to suggest that the desire for a clear line between the permissible and impermissible, or the view that there is a clear line between them on some issues, is somehow associated with hostility to “rational argument” and support for “empty authority.” But this is obviously absurd. It rules out, for no reason and mistakenly, the possibility that rational argument can ever yield such a line: that it can ever, that is, produce a distinction that actually amounts to a distinction in principle.

Gopnik celebrates his own confusion by calling it complexity. (Perhaps he’s under strain.) Honestly grappling with opposing arguments is a sign of moral maturity, and Gopnik doesn’t have it.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. 

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its original posting.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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