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The Case Against Abortion: An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith, author of Defending Life | Carl E. Olson | January 21, 2008 (orig.
December 5, 2007)
Editor's note: This week marks the 35th anniversary of
"Roe v. Wade", the landmark Supreme Court decison that legalized abortion in the United States. In this interview, originally published
on IgnatiusInsight.com on December 5, 2007, Dr. Francis Beckwith talks about that legal decision, the various arguments made for abortion,
and the moral case that can and should be made against abortion.
Dr. Francis Beckwith (personal website), Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, made
news this past May when he publicly announced that he had returned to the
Catholic Church after spending over thirty years in
But Dr. Beckwith has been receiving attention more recently for his latest
Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007), a thorough and
impressive work that engages and responds to the many arguments—both
popular and scholarly—given by abortion rights advocates.
Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things stated of Defending Life:
"By a masterful marshalling of the pertinent arguments and a civil engagement
with the counter-arguments, Beckwith makes a convincing case for law and social
policy based on reason and natural rights rather than the will to power." And
in a November 26, 2007, column in America magazine, noted bioethicist Fr. John F. Kavanaugh, S.J.,
professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, wrote that Dr. Beckwith "charitably and
thoroughly engages those who oppose him. Defending Life is a model of how a pro-life position is effectively
mounted. One might hope that defenders of abortion would as thoughtfully engage
his arguments. I at least hope that our own bishops will take up this work and,
upon reading it, offer it to every parish library in the country. They might
also request that lay leaders, especially physicians, lawyers, teachers and
business persons, enlist such a book in their efforts not only to form their
own consciences, but also to inform and elevate the somewhat cheapened and
knee-jerk moral discourse over the issue of abortion."
Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Dr. Beckwith
and spoke with him about his book, the state of the pro-life movement, and how
those who oppose abortion can better take a stand against the culture of death.
Ignatius Insight: The pro-life movement has been dealing with Roe vs. Wade and
legal abortion for nearly 35 years now. Aren't we at an impasse? Why write Defending
Beckwith: In some ways we are at an
impasse, but only in the sense that the legal status of abortion has remained
largely unchanged since Roe. Remember that Roe took the abortion debate out of
the public square and made it a question of fundamental rights. This had the
unfortunate affect of prematurely ending a public conversation on the matter.
For this reason, although the abortion debate seems to be going nowhere because
people seem unwillingly to listen to each other or to change their minds, I'm
not sure that's an entirely accurate account. I speak all over the country on
the issue, as well as lecture on it in my classes at Baylor, and my sense is
that there is a greater openness to hearing the pro-life position than there
was when I was in college in the early 1980s.
reason why I wrote Defending Life
was to make a case for the pro-life position on abortion that dealt with the
legal, political and moral aspects of the issue, that engaged not only the
popular arguments but also the more sophisticated ones that are presented by
philosophers, political theorists, and bioethicists. I wanted to provide the
ordinary pro-lifer with an accessible resource while at the same time offering
to students and colleagues in philosophy, politics, and law an intelligent and
well-reasoned case for the pro-life position that took seriously and critiqued
the best arguments for abortion rights.
Insight: You take great pains to emphasize that the arguments you put forward
are not religious, but based in logic, philosophy, and law. In your experience,
is that more effective? Do you think it will it prove to be more effective in
the long run?
Beckwith: I think it is effective
insofar as it removes the impediment that the pro-life view is "just
religious." On the other hand, I am careful to say in Defending Life that the fact that an argument may be religious does
not mean that it is de facto bad. However, there is a sense in which every
argument on abortion—whether pro-abortion, pro-life or somewhere
in-between—tries to answer a question that is fundamentally religious:
who and what are we and can we know it?
experience has been that in some circles, especially in the secular academy,
the pro-life view is dismissed as merely religious, and thus disreputable as a
live option in public policy. I can't tell you how many times I have been told
by audience members when lecturing at secular institutions that my arguments
are "just religious," even though the premises of my case are based on what one
would call public reasons. Last year at UCLA Law School when I debated the
issue of embryonic stem-cell research, I answered the "religious argument"
charge this way: "Wow, I thought you were going to claim my argument was bad."
The audience let out a chuckle. That gave me an opportunity to explain to them
that terms like "religious" and "secular" are adjectives that do not
appropriately modify reasons or conclusions for the purpose of assessing the
quality of an argument. The appropriate adjectives we apply to arguments or
their parts are terms like "good," "bad," "sound," "unsound," "valid,"
"invalid," "strong," "weak," "true," "false," and "plausible." Asking if an
argument is "religious" is like asking how tall is the number 3. It is a
category mistake that, unfortunately, is rarely challenged.
Insight: The books opens with an anecdote drawn from your experience in public
debates about abortion: Someone yells, "Don't like abortion, don't have
one," which is just one of the many meaningless clichés offered by
supports of abortion rights How much of this discussion has been shaped by
slogans and how do we go about getting past them?
Beckwith: These slogans,
unfortunately, substitute for good reasoning much too often. In fact, most of
these slogans beg the question. What I mean by that is that they smuggle in a
controversial assumption that the pro-abortion advocate is required to support
in order defend his position. In the example you cite, "don't like abortion,
don't have one," the pro-choice advocate is assuming that the issue of abortion
is not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of taste or preference. But
that is precisely the pro-choice position. So, in essence the pro-choicer is
arguing: abortion ought to be a choice because it is a matter of preference.
That's just saying the same thing twice, like "the Celtics are the best team
because no team is better."
if I said, "Don't like slavery, then don't own one." If I said that, you would
immediately realize that I did not truly grasp why people believe that slavery
is wrong. It is not wrong because I don't like it. It's wrong because slaves
are intrinsically valuable human beings who are not by nature property. Whether
I like slavery or not is not relevant to the question of whether slavery is
wrong. Imagine another example, "Don't like spousal abuse, then don't beat your
spouse." Again, the wrongness of spousal abuse does not depend on my
preferences or tastes. In fact, if someone liked spousal abuse, we would say
that that he or she is evil or sick. We would not adjust our view of the matter
and I say, "I guess spousal abuse is right for you, but not for me."
us apply this to abortion. When a pro-lifer says that abortion is wrong, he or
she is not saying that abortion is unattractive, repugnant, or undesirable,
though it may be all those things. Rather, he or she is saying that abortion is
unjustified homicide, even if one finds it attractive, inoffensive, or
desirable. Thus, when the abortion-rights advocate offers this slogan in
response to the pro-lifer—"don't like abortion, don't have one"—he
or she does not truly grasp what the pro-lifer is claiming. Of course, the pro-lifer
has to make a further argument in order to show that the pro-life view is
correct or at least plausible. But before the pro-lifer can do that, he or she
has to make sure that the other side understands what the pro-lifer is
Ignatius Insight: Of the three popular arguments for abortion—pity, tolerance, and
ad hominem—which is
used most often and most effectively?
Beckwith: It's difficult to say,
though I think "tolerance" arguments are the most effective. The reason for
this is that nobody wants to be thought of as "intolerant," especially if it
interferes with the rights of others. It is also apparently consistent with
some people's understanding of liberal democracy as requiring neutrality on
moral issues. In the case of abortion, it is claimed that the pro-lifer is
trying to force the pro-life view on others who may disagree with that view.
And since the state ought to be neutral on these matters, the pro-life view
cannot become law. There are, I believe, several problems with such reasoning.
First, it assumes that the unborn is not a moral subject, for if the unborn is
a moral subject, then to forbid the unjust killing of it cannot violate
anyone's "rights." Thus, the tolerance argument begs the question. Second, the
current regime—the Roe v. Wade framework—tells us that the unborn
is not a member of the human community and that it is wrong for citizens to try
to protect the unborn. This is hardly a neutral position, for it commits the
state to an understanding of the human person and requires that all of us act
in her public relations with the unborn as if that understanding is true.
Insight: What do you think is the strongest pro-abortion argument? How do you
Beckwith: Although there are several
sophisticated arguments for abortion-choice, the best one I've encountered is
offered by David Boonin, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado,
Boulder. He has written a sophisticated defense of the pro-choice position, A
Defense of Abortion (Cambridge
University Press, 2002). I respond to several of Professor Boonin's argument
in my book. In fact, I incorporate in my book large portions of an article on
Boonin's book that I published in 2006 in the Journal of Medicine of
Philosophy, which is accessible on
my web site, francisbeckwith.com.
any event, one of Professor Boonin's argument concerns the unborn's personhood.
He argues that the fetus becomes a person when it achieves organized cortical
brain activity (OCBA), which occurs between 25 and 32 weeks after conception.
He picks this criterion because it is at that time that the fetus has the
cerebral infrastructure to have desires, and without the ability to have
desires the fetus cannot have a desire for a right to life. This argument is
highly complex, and I can only hope to offer a modest reply in this venue. So,
here is a brief version of one of several replies I offer in the book.
argument provides no real moral reason to oppose seemingly immoral experiments
on the unborn. Imagine that there is a scientist who is able to alter the
unborn's brain development in such a way that the higher brain and its
functions are prevented from arising. And thus, when the child is born, it
never develops a desire for a right to life. In fact, its organs are harvested
and donated to needy patients.
Suppose that this creation of "brainless" children
becomes commonplace as a demand for donor organs increases. Yet, this seems
deeply immoral, even if these children had not achieved the physical
characteristics that Boonin believes are required in order to have a right to
life. So, Boonin's view cannot account for the wrong of purposely creating
brainless children. Only the pro-life view can do that. For, according to this
view, human beings are persons by nature and therefore should not be unjustly
deprived of those goods—including their brains—that they are
designed to acquire by nature.
We can even imagine another scenario, one in which the unborn is
not deprived of higher brain functions, such as self-consciousness, having a
self-concept, and possessing a high IQ, but is nevertheless deprived of a
desire for a right to life. Imagine that a scientist is able to tinker with the
pre-OCBA brain of a fetus in such a way that prior to OCBA arising that the
trajectory of its brain development is altered in such a way that it simply can
never acquire a desire for a right to life, even while possessing all the other
higher-brain functions. So, when the brain is tinkered with, there is no
rights-bearing entity since there was no OCBA. Thus, there is no way to account
for this wrong on Boonin's view. Again, it seems that only the pro-life view
cannot account for the wrongness of this. For, according to this view, human
beings are persons by nature and therefore should not be unjustly deprived of
those goods—including their desire for a right to life—that they
are designed to acquire by nature.
Insight: When ordinary folks (that is, non-specialists) argue about abortion,
what should the pro-lifer say or not say? What are some of the mistakes that pro-life
people often make in private or even public debate?
Beckwith: The pro-lifer should
remember that the central issue is, "What is the human community and does the
unborn belong to it?" As my friend Greg Koukl puts it: if the fetus is a
person, none of the popular arguments are relevant; if the fetus is not a
person, then none of the popular arguments is necessary. Pro-lifers make a
mistake by allowing the discussion to drift away from this central question.
have to also remember that many who support abortion rights are well-meaning
people who believe they are advancing a position consistent with the common
good. This is why we should be patient, respectful, and careful when presenting
our case. Having said that, we must also not shy away from saying that
abortion is a grave evil that ultimately undermines the dignity of all human
persons, including those who support abortion rights. After all, if a human
being is intrinsically valuable by nature, then he or she may never lose that
status as long as one is a human being. So, the reason why we affirm the
intrinsic dignity of the unborn is the reason why we also affirm the intrinsic
dignity of those who support abortion rights. There is a seamlessness that
connects our pro-life position on abortion and the respect we ought to accord
our political and moral adversaries.
Insight: What do think are the chances that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned in,
say, the next generation?
Beckwith: I think that with one or
two more appointments to the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade will be overturned. If
Justices Ginsberg, Stevens, Souter, Breyer, and/or Kennedy retire and are
replaced by more conservative justices, then Roe will likely fall if the right
sort of case hits the Court. This is why the presidential election of 2008 may
be the most important one for the pro-life movement since the election of
Ronald Reagan in 1980. This is also why pro-life Catholics and Evangelicals have
to respectfully resist being swayed by well-meaning members of their traditions
who want to play down the importance of the abortion question in comparison to
other issues. I see a disturbing trend among some Evangelical leaders in that
regard. We have to remember that the central question behind the abortion
issue—Who and what are we and can we know it?—is the question that
informs every other moral and social issue on which human life, dignity, and
community hang in the balance.
Recently, for example, I watched a video in which Emergent Church leader, Brian McLaren, implied that the pro-life
position on abortion is a "single issue" by which Catholics, in particular, are
exploited by others as a "one-issue voting bloc." I sat through this video with
my mouth hanging open in utter amazement that this pastor would present the
profundity of the sanctity of life by disguising it (calling it "one
issue") and then dismissing it by characterizing in an uncharitable way
fellow Christians who are deeply committed to human life's intrinsic dignity
from conception to natural death.
The view that human beings are made in the image of God and ought
to be protected by our laws and the wider community is not "one issue." It
is the principle that is the point of justice itself: to love our neighbors as
ourselves; to exercise charity; to help the vulnerable and the weak.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
What Is "Legal"? On Abortion, Democracy, and Catholic
Politicians | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Illusion of Freedom Separated from Moral Virtue | Raymond L. Dennehy
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Introduction to Three Approaches to Abortion | Peter Kreeft
Excommunication! | An interview with canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others | Mary Beth Bonacci
Personally Opposed--To What? | Dr. James Hitchcock
Mixed Messages | Phil Lawler
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