An Act of Loving Violence: Content and Tactics in Abortion Conversations

I've been commenting a fair amount lately on the abortion issue, partly because I've been talking and thinking about it a fair amount and partly because the people I've spent a bit of time talking to lately [who I know read the blog] are engaged in this conversation.

I want to talk fairly briefly about a very recent episode of a pro-life podcast put together by a person I consider a friend and another person who I likely will come to consider a friend. The former is Gabi Vehrs, who is one the show, and the latter is John Brahm, who I've chatted a bit with on facebook. I like these two people considerably more Trent Horn, the last person who led me to raise the issue, for any number of reasons that I will tangentially engage later in the post.

The content of the commentary is directed at a recent episode of the Life Report that I think deserves some criticism. I should say that, just as Josh is not an unconditional defender of pro-life advocacy groups, I'm not an unconditional defender of pro-choice groups. But I think that this is a case where the "other side" needs a bit of a defense.

The preface is a concern about a document that was leaked from Planned Parenthood about how to handle the discussion of abortion, a topic that Josh and Gabi are often very interested in, and I hope that they will soon have an opportunity to pick my brain about. We'll get to some of my thoughts, perhaps a primer for them, as we continue. Anyway, Josh notes that this is basically a strategy memo for PP in dealing with the issue, and that's basically right.

Then they delve into the contents; I just want to highlight a few bits that I find problematic.

The first comment that they make is about a clause up front in the document that basically sense that we ought to emphasize personal decision making in asserting a pro-choice position.

Gabi: That annoys me because it immediately puts it in the realm of relativism.
Josh: That's what I wrote! I wrote, "Relativism!"
Gabi: Yes, and that never leads to a productive conversation... Because then its just you're talking about your personal feelings about the issue and that's not helpful.

Of course, when they say that this locates the conversation in relativism, they're actually just wrong. There's really no mild way of putting it; they're just wrong.

It is not relativistic to say that a person ought to have the ability to make their own decisions. That's libertarian, but its not relativistic. It would be relativistic to say that the decision has no moral value; but that's not what the document says, and they know that, because they just quoted it.

Just because I think someone is making a decision that is morally wrong does not mean that I'm obligated to, by force of law, restrict their ability to make that decision. I believe that many people who have children and choose to drink copious amounts of alcohol are making a morally reprehensible decision. But I don't believe that they should be legally precluded from that practice. I am still passing a moral judgment, but I am not instantiating a legal sanction. Those are two obviously different things.

The PP document says that pro-choice advocates ought to emphasize personal decision making because "Most people show empathy for a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy, and even if they don't agree with her decision, they believe it is her decision to make." They can believe her decision is morally repugnant, but that does not mean that the decision ought to be usurped. This is a position that exists among people who identify both as pro-life and pro-choice, and leads to some confusion.

Now, Gabi and Josh believe that she should have her power to make that decision taken away; that's fine; but certainly they don't believe that every morally errant decision anyone makes ever should be subject to legal sanction. Maybe they do, but I doubt it.

This strawman explodes into the show, and it is positively painful to watch, as they continue discussing the issue of ambivalence they perpetuate the same mistake. I know that Josh and Gabi take philosophy and the use of philosophical terms seriously; confusing Michel Foucault with Ayn Rand is a fairly troubling philosophical error, and one worth more than a wrist slap.

This portion of the discussion continues through at least the twelfth minute of the show, at which point it has taken up about a third of the total run-time. I'm going to move off of this point in a moment, but I do want to say that I have seen this particular mistake, substituting relativism for libertarianism, come up in an upper division ethics class taught by Karen Bell. Those who know the marvelous Dr. Bell know that she is willing to intellectually kick a student in the teeth for an error like this; I hope I've hammered the point sufficiently, but lovingly. Its an easy substitution to make, but its also an important error to own up to.

That error is the primary failure of the video, it persists throughout the video, even after taking up the entire first third of the show. But I led with that; I want to move on.

When Josh complains about the use of the term "we" as an enticing phrase, as a way to "play" the listener [that is my word, intentionally place in the standard philosophical scare quotes] into changing views, I should point out that I've seen organizations, including JFA leaders, use this tactic. I can't speak to whether its taught in their program, but it definitely gets pulled out. Frankly, I couldn't care less about the tactic, but I think that a lesson in "judge not" is appropriate here; and the principle of charitable interpretation takes a serious flogging here. Use it.

The conversation of "consent based parenting" is interesting, and that discussion is worthwhile, though I think that this is a subject where they don't quite do justice to the other side, but whatever.

At around 20, they jump back into relativism again, but Josh does something that both he and I and Gabi know that he probably shouldn't do: He invokes slavery. One of the things that he and I both agree on is that it is incredibly stupid, unproductive, and offensive for pro-life groups to invoke the holocaust. I think he ought to take the same line on slavery.

Josh then talks about his pursuit of genuine conversations with people; I think that's great. That's one of the reasons that I look forward to continuing conversations with him, and one of the reasons why Gabi and I have had many good and productive conversations. He knows that this is not a pursuit shared by the entirety of the pro-life community; I know that it is not a pursuit shared by the entirety pro-choice community. Of course, the parity is obvious; he ignores it for the purpose of the video, but he is well aware of it. It's part of his ongoing project.

They allude to, at the end, something that I think should be more explicitly stated. I take Kant's kingdom of ends very seriously, and I think that is truly what these folks want in a conversation about a morally difficult issue (and I do think that abortion is a morally difficult issue; I'm unapologetically pro-choice, but there are interesting and powerful arguments there). Conversations are, generally speaking, a good goal, and something worth taking seriously for non-pedagogical, non-ideological reasons.

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