Pro-Life, Pro-Choice and “Freedom of Speech”

The pro-life community, in its efforts to protect the lives of the unborn, attempt to give a case—both intellectually and visually—for the immorality of abortion. I have come across, though, an interesting article critiquing Western University students’ pro-life endeavors to save the lives of the unborn through “post carding.” I think that many things can be learned from this article; however, I think the article is (i) not correct in many of its premises and (ii) at any rate begs the question in favor of a pro-choice stance. Thus, in this small post, I will re-print the entire article (it is relatively small) [1], and share why I think it is, philosophically, mistaken. My method, then, will be taking each paragraph and critiquing its crucial premises and showing why they fail under thorough scrutiny.

“Freedom of speech. It’s a fundamental freedom as per section two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But in a case where one person’s free speech impacts another person’s right to security in their own homes, where does a distinction get made? In a world where there are currently about 40-50 million abortions a year, it’s easy to see why pro-life supporters — those who are opposed to abortion and believes in a right for an unborn fetus to be carried to term — feel so passionate about changing that number.”

So far so good. Freedom of speech is a great good (whether or not the “law” says it is) and the pro-life attempt to end abortion, if justified, is obviously a warranted pursuit (it is stopping, literally, a genocide).

“Let’s get this straight: it is okay to have an opinion. It is okay to also voice that opinion, especially on a topic that has been subject to heavily controversial debates and discussions.

What is not okay, however, is hanging signs with graphic illustrations of aborted fetuses on student’s doors.”

Here I think that there is confusion. Consider the following: Suppose that in Nazi Germany during World War 2, the Germans in your neighborhood did not realize the injustice of the extermination and horrendous treatment of Jewish persons. Suppose that in all your efforts, nothing came of it and the hearts of the Nazi’s remained patriotic and stern in their pursuit to create a full-blown German race. Is it appropriate to show the Germans, visually, what their lack of care and moral judgement causes? I think so. Thus, if the pro-life message is true, the two cases are one and the same (asides minor, peculiar differences). It might be not to your liking (and the pro-lifer is certainly disgusted with the graphic images too), but it is a method by which the truth can be revealed about the immorality of abortion.

“The signs, which state, “Consider, though: will abortion make a poor woman rich? Will it unrape a rape victim? Will it turn a woman’s frog of a boyfriend into a prince?,” do not help facilitate a productive and healthy discussion about the benefits of pro-life. They instead turn the conversation, and in their attempts to create a new and ‘creative’ argument to the pro-life side, end up being flat out offensive.”

There are four comments to make. First, just because it does not “facilitate a productive and healthy discussion about the benefits of pro-life”, does not falsify the pro-life claim, any more than a healthy conversation about dieting will make you better off (even though through the content of the situation you might be able to make a change). The function of the post carding is to get people to think, and not live in ignorance of, the mass murder of the unborn. Second, post carding is not an argument (that is incoherent)—it is a method. If a Jehovah’s Witness advocate left a letter in my mail, I would not respond “wow, what a well-thought out argument” or “I disagree with your argument.” Clearly, the Jehovah’s Witness just wants me to remember that they were there (to inspire thought, perhaps). Thirdly, just because something is “flat out offensive”, does not falsify the pro-life message. Consider the following example. Suppose you had cancer, and in refusing to receive treatment, the doctor tells you that you are terminally ill and must, of necessity, get treatment. Of course this might be unlikable, perhaps even the doctor was rude in his or her way of expressing it, but that does not do anything to suggest that “therefore, you do not have cancer.” (As you can see, this is an invalid inference). Forth, consider something also interesting and peculiar about this paragraph–there is no argument, at all, against what was written on the pamphlet (which, to my mind, is alarming for the pro-choice perspective).

“They emphasize the helplessness of a woman as to why she should just submit to her circumstances, thereby taking away the idea that she should even have the right to choose.”

The pro-life argument is not “a woman is helpless, therefore she should not have an abortion.” (If that was the argument, no wonder one thinks the pro-life case to be intellectually inferior!). Rather, the correct interpretation is that once we realize the humanity, personhood and independent nature of the unborn in the womb, the circumstances surrounding pregnancy do not change the situation, horrendous and wrongful they may be—slaughtering the unborn in the womb is immoral.

“The issue here isn’t the cause. Many pro-lifers manage to make their point without being condescending. What these pamphlets seem to do is discredit a woman’s ability to make choices for herself. They fail to recognize that choosing to get an abortion can be one of the hardest decisions a woman can make. It’s a decision that comes with heavy thought and consideration, and to simplify this choice into a few simple and belittling sentences suggests that this group of pro-lifers come from a place of ignorance.”

This is staunchly begging the question in favor of a pro-choice standpoint. Consider it this way. If pro-lifers are right, there is a genocide occurring in Canada. If the pro-choice side is correct, Canada facilitates what is helpful to women who do not want their children. Now, realize this paragraph’s understanding of the issue: The pro-life message is “condescending”, “simpli[stic]”, “[using] belittling sentences” and “ignoran[t]”; even if these were all true—and I reject this—how does that falsify what is going on in Canada? If the pro-lifers are right, a genocide is occurring and while it may be hard to think about and difficult to come to agreement upon—the facts don’t change. One more comment though. Notice the following sentence carefully: “What these pamphlets seem to do is discredit a woman’s ability to make choices for herself.”  A parallel argument is the following: “What these pamphlets, of, say, drunk driving, seem to do is discredit a drunk driver’s ability to drink and drive.” You might be in favor of autonomy, but autonomy does not involve being able to absolutely anything you want (unless you are willing to say that for the sake of autonomy, rape is not immoral (which is absurd)). I see no good argument here at all.

“The recent campaign in the student neighbourhoods also fails to recognize that oftentimes women suffer trauma and are in need of support and counselling after making this decision. For women who have made this choice, seeing pamphlets like these can cause them to think retrospectively in a way that can trigger the same trauma — especially those who may have had abortions due to sexual assault, since it’s one of the key points that they attack.”

Consider the following example: If these post cards were pictures of drunk drivers and a horrendous vision of a daughter, looking at a destroyed car with her mother and father inside of it ripped to pieces, all because of a drunk driver, how would many people have responded? They might suggest it is graphic, but worth it posting; they might agree with it completely because of how severe the consequences are and how important it is to stop the issue, et cetera. Flip to the post cards that the pro-lifers gave. This response is begging the question in favor of pro-choice; if the unborn is not a human being, then it follows that the post carding is plainly wrong (since a woman should have the choice); however, if he pro-lifers are correct, then they are doing exactly what the hypothetical drunk driving post carder is doing—raising awareness and provoking action.

“Perhaps the worst thing to me in all of this is that they had the audacity to trespass into people’s safe spaces, their homes, and leave these pamphlets behind. These pamphlets are not for getting your lawn mowed or garbage picked up. This is a pamphlet with extremely graphic imagery and an extremely controversial viewpoint.”

Two comments. First, to save millions of unborn children, I do not see why leaving the post cards is wrongful. This presupposes that many values are not hierarchical (when this is false). Let me put it this way: What is more important, having no one (including the mailman) on your property at all times, or protecting the lives of unborn children? I would assume the latter, and it is only when she makes the shift to “extremely graphic imagery and an extremely controversial viewpoint” that I think she is fully mistaken. One cannot falsify a message because of its effects; even if controversial, this does nothing to prevent justified efforts to help the unborn in their need.

“At the end of the day, free speech should not invade the safe spaces of others. Free speech does not give the right for hate speech. And although we cannot help that some views are more ignorant than others, freedom of speech becomes an issue when it begins to harm the safety and mental health of other individuals.”

Since I have responded to the first part, let me continue to the next. The message of pro-lifers is not hate speech. Pro-lifers are loving the unborn, and in doing so they devote their time, effort and money to do so. If one interprets saving the lives of millions through provoking thought i.e., leaving graphic images to display the reality and immorality of abortion, the pro-life message is one of concern and love. Concern, for those who turn away from the matter and have cold hearts towards the unborn children; love, because the unborn in the womb is a human person, intrinsically valuable and deserving of basic human rights. Even if the “mental health of other individuals” is compromised (and there are no facts or statistics cited here), it does nothing to show that the pro-life endeavor to save the lives of the unborn is without justification. As William Wilberforce puts it, “Let it not be said that I was silent when they needed me.” In sum, I think the pro-life message is on its way nicely; if the goal of the post cards was provoking thought at this fundamentally important issue, it is surely working.

[1] Jenny Jay, “Free speech is not a valid excuse for targeted, graphic pamphlets” Accessed September 23rd, 2016.


What is the Counterpart of Bioethical Ignorance?

Many know about contemporary debates concerning euthanasia (or at least one side of the debate, as is most often what happens). While on this blog I try to make my posts as philosophically analytic as possible, I think there is a peculiar moral intuition that is often captured not merely by arguments, but by real world events which “hit the heart”, so to speak, of human beings on a deep, phenomenological and existential level. Today I received an email from my former philosophy teacher Paul Coates entitled “Another Euthanasia First”; the contents, however, were much to my surprise and distress. It is to this end that I want to display the email contents in full and make a few comments on what exactly is being said.

Here is the post by Michael Cook in full from BioEdge:

“Today is a landmark, of sorts. It marks the first time that a child has been euthanised under contemporary euthanasia laws. Of course, euthanising infants is relatively common, but not children who are old enough to be asked if they really want to die. The death occurred last week in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, although it was announced today by Belgium’s euthanasia supremo, Wim Distelmans. His words were very sober and solemn, as befits the occasion, but I suspect that he and his colleagues are quietly happy to see the boundaries of euthanasia spread even further.

Ultimately this is a triumph for out-and-out nihilism, not just Belgium’s inventive euthanasia lobby. Nihilism is a philosophical fad which seems to catching on. Below we feature a report on three American bioethicists who argue the case for population control to fight climate change and a defense of infanticide by a Finnish bioethicist. I’ve also just discovered a new book by South African philosopher David Benatar. In it he argues that procreation is morally wrong because life’s a bitch and then you die (I am over-simplifying, of course.) He concludes his book with these cheerful thoughts:

Every birth is a future death. Between the birth and the death there is bound to be plenty of unpleasantness … Inflicting serious harm—or even the risk of it—on one person, without his or her consent, in order to benefit others, is presumptively wrong.

If I’m right, euthanising a child is not an terminus for Belgian euthanasia, but just a bus stop en route to pure nihilism. What its supporters are trying to eliminate is not just pain, but life itself. What do you think?”[1]

There is a lot to be unpacked here. So, let me make three entry ways as follows:

(1) The relationship between bioethical conceptualization and action

(2) Socio-phenomenological apathy

(3) Nihilism, Moral Nihilism and Bioethical Nihilism

I think that (1)-(3) are ways in which we might approach this post. Indeed, I suspect that these are the most appropriate entry points if the real content of the post is to be interacted with and fully understood. So, let me begin with (1).

The relationship between bioethical conceptualization and action is manifestly easy to detect. If one thought that life is ultimately valueless, one might make no prescriptive moral judgements on oneself or others, and conclude that any action—no matter what socio-political laws might be in place—is inherently amoral, that is, without any moral quality whatsoever. This person might conclude with Dostoevsky with the death of God results in everything being permissible, with Sartre that without God there is absurdity and facticity, with Camus that life is absurd, with Beckkett that “life as meaningful” might be no more than a good joke, with Freud that aggression is the preferable state of human beings for happiness, with Nietzsche that without God the foundation of all goodness and wrongness is thrown into the abyss.[2] One can see that moral prescriptions like “love thy neighbor” on this view is not even wrong—but inherently meaningless. On the other hand, if one sees persons as ends-in-themselves, enriched and infused with intrinsic moral worth, then the way we treat them is valuable as it might—as Christians, for instance—think that moral actions are necessary reflections of God’s holy and loving nature. Clearly, on the former view anything goes. It is here that we bring to mind central passages of the post: “In it [David Benatar’s book] he argues that procreation is morally wrong because life’s a bitch and then you die (I am over-simplifying, of course.)”. It is rather interesting that the following argument is made:

(1) Life is hard.

(2) Therefore, having children is bad. (1).

At first glance, this isn’t even an argument (or at any rate it is just a really bad argument). It simply doesn’t follow that just because life is hard, bringing children into this world is wrong. As my pro-life friends like to point out, when asked “who is your favorite role model?”, a pro-choicer will most often say someone who has struggled and conquered their obstacles and trials. It makes that person a good, hard-working, stoic and archetypal person. Analogously, just because pain is hard to go through, does not mean it is always bad (sometimes we have great lessons to learn from painful experiences). A rather disturbing literary example of this exact point is to be found in the wonderful novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Clearly this argument does not work.

Consider a sub-point: “euthanising infants is relatively common, but not children who are old enough to be asked if they really want to die.” There might be a host of questions to this: What is a non-arbitrary minimum age requirement for a person to consent to their death by lethal injection which is constructed in a framework capturing our moral intuitions? Why is euthanasia so widely accepted, based on obvious, more productive and moral alternatives i.e., palliative care? Why should we think that a child (or even fully grown adult) has the moral ability to choose when they want to die? Does this not presuppose subjectivism, a self-referentially incoherent standpoint? These questions, I think, are not even half-addressed in policy making concerning these issues. Obviously policy makers are not bioethicists, but a good Platonic question is manifest to come out here—should they be?

I have always defined “socio-phenomenological apathy” as an orientation in the world which is apathetic to valuable and meaningful questions i.e., God’s existence. It is rather unsurprising then that this should come up in the context of bioethics because unlike in philosophy of religion, even if one’s arguments are bad, socio-phenomenological apathy is so pertinent to Western culture’s “autonomous” lifestyle, that bioethical questions are of second-order importance and ultimately without conclusive answers. While I regard this is mistaken, many do not agree and think that “science has shown that the unborn aren’t people” or that “life does not have meaning”. While both these claims are false (and the latter metaphysically impossible), it is important to see here the consequences of apathy generally. Apathy requires one to give up their presuppositions and regard any presupposition or proposition as without value. It is not valuable, says the apathetic, to go on in the world worrying about trivial questions i.e., bioethical questions. While this is, of course, problematic (morally and existentially), the consequences are felt when death is the result. Instead of inquiring into the meaning of life, one says “who cares”, and policy makers make policies which allow children to die. Not merely to suffer, but to cease to exist on earth. There is no way to put this philosophically—one must have, genuinely, a cold heart to turn their eyes away from this injustice. But this apathy has a deeper root, namely, nihilism.

Nihilism, moral nihilism and bioethical nihilism all need defining. Nihilism is view that life has no objective and subjective meaning, moral nihilism the view that there are no moral truths and bioethical nihilism is the conjunction of nihilism and moral nihilism (life and morality being worthless). Obviously nihilism is part in parcel of atheistic and naturalistic worldviews—or from their propositions, not always proponents. Since we life in a secular culture, it is no surprise that this is the dominant philosophy of the West. In one form or another, the void of meaning people experience is a reflection of their inner inability to come to terms with reality, that is, the objective reality of value, meaning, morality and so on. Take the following passage, for instance: “What its supporters are trying to eliminate is not just pain, but life itself.” This is an admission of the fact that on atheistic and naturalistic worldviews, since there are no values, pleasure is the best method of achieving a well-lived life (one can see Benthamian and Millian roots here); and, therefore, once pain is all there is left, life is meaningless. This is, I suggest, a reason why bioethical questions have been disregarded, and consequently dying by choice is now legally permissible. It is because our inability to conceptualize deeply into the nature of human persons, their intrinsic value and so on, that we have turned our attention away to those who will now pay the price of our ignorance.

If, like me, one is disturbed by the story given, it is not enough to write and conceptualize—one must put their conceptualizations into action; it is not merely intellectually rewarding, but life saving.

[1] Accessed September 17th, 2016:

[2] All references (in full) can be provided upon request. But to be brief: Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Nietzsche, The Gay Science; Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism; Beckett, Endgame; Freud, Civilization and its Discontents; Camus, Myth of Sisyphus.