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.