Seven Deadly Fallacies

The Illogic of Pro-Abortion Arguments


We are rational animals. This is not a matter of debate. In fact, it explains why people have developed a long list of invectives for those whose thoughts and actions deviate noticeably from a rational standard: airhead, blockhead, knucklehead, lunkhead, dimwit, moron, idiot, lamebrain, dumbbell, dolt, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and so on, ad infinitum.

Nonetheless, when seemingly responsible people argue for abortion—repeatedly, passionately, and under sophisticated auspices—the degree of irrationality in these arguments is often overlooked and ignored. That’s because human beings are also highly distractible and therefore easily taken in.

Logic is the tool that exposes the rationality or the irrationality of an argument. Following are seven popular irrational argumentations (logical fallacies) that are used to justify abortion.

1) Mistaking the Qualified for the Absolute

While it is true that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, this is never an absolute statement. Water boils at this temperature at sea level—not so at other altitudes. "Exercise is good," is an unqualified statement. If one is recovering from triple bypass surgery, certain forms of exercise are not good.

Similarly, choice—the most effective ploy in the pro-abortionists arsenal—is a notion that is taken as absolute but needs qualification. Even pro-choicers are not pro-choice about domestic violence, slavery, racism, or driving under the influence. Mothers Against Drunk Driving are a case in point. They do not advise, "Don’t drink," but "Don’t drink and drive."

In a New York Times editorial, Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood, stated, "The right to abortion . . . shouldn’t be a political football that candidates can kick around at will." But choice, she seems to forget, is an act of the will. If women can choose abortion, why can’t politicians (and voters) choose to make it an election issue? Ms. Wattleton tries to qualify choice when it comes to politics, but not when it comes to abortion. In the final analysis, what does being "pro-choice" really mean?

2) Double Standard

Howard Fast (d. 2003), author of some 42 novels, argued that pro-lifers are insincere because their concern for life does not continue beyond birth: "I have never heard a right-to-life voice raised in protest against 60,000 innocents murdered by the death squads of El Salvador." Responding to this charge, William F. Buckley, Jr. had this to say:

The lifers are, by Mr. Fast and others who think as he does, encumbered by the responsibility for everything that happens to the fetus after it materializes into a human being in the eyes of the law. And if you aren’t around to see to it that at age 14 the kid is receiving the right education, ingesting the right food, leading a happy, prosperous life, why, you had no business bringing him into this world. You are a hypocrite to the extent that you support life for everyone who suffers in life. It is only left for Mr. Fast to close the logic of his own argument, which would involve him in a syllogistic attempt along the lines of: Everyone suffers. No one not living suffers. Therefore, no one should live. (Column, National Review, February 24, 1989)

In other words, according to Mr. Fast, pro-lifers are responsible for everything while pro-abortionists are responsible for nothing.

Another aspect of the double standard is to acknowledge a right to life for most people who have passed the infancy stage but withhold that right not only from the unborn, but from infants up to some arbitrarily established age. For philosopher Mary Ann Warren, the age is nine months after birth; for Peter Singer, it is 28 days post partum. Michael Tooley and others offer different cutoff ages.

The reasoning behind this double standard is that the unborn and neonates are alleged to be merely potential human beings or beings who lack a sufficient degree of consciousness to be identified as human persons. Such reasoning, however, is without merit. The unborn and neonates are not "potential" human beings, but human beings with a great deal of potential (a feature that characterizes all human beings). In addition, consciousness does not characterize the essence of the human being. This erroneous notion goes back to Descartes’ Cogito ("I think; therefore I am").

3) Hasty Generalization

We commonly hear the assertion that abortion is a complex issue that women never treat lightly. In fact, pro-choice proponents allege that women "agonize" over their decision to abort. "It’s never simple," says novelist John Irving. To the contrary, syndicated columnist George Will correctly points out that most Americans "are uneasy about the promiscuous creation and destruction of life, often for frivolous reasons of negligence and convenience" (Suddenly:  The American Idea Abroad and At Home 1986-1990, 316).

It is well documented that many women who have had an abortion admit that they never gave abortion a second thought. These women testify that since abortion is their "right," their decision was made simple by that very fact. In the words of author Suzanne Gordon: "I am a very liberated woman. My decision to have an abortion was made without the slightest trace of emotional conflict. I had no qualms that what I was about to do would make me feel any less a woman" ("Abortion: Thoughts on a Not-So-Simple Operation," The Human Life Review, 11-12).

It is illogical to assume that because some women agonize over their decision to abort, that all women do. Many women who had abortions without giving the matter proper thought have come to regret their decision and are now active members of groups such as Women Exploited, Women Exploited By Abortion, Victims of Choice, Silent No More, etc.

4) Begging the Question

In the fallacy of begging the question, the conclusion is already assumed and not proven. It is a form of circular thinking. Consider the following example: "I know that God exists because it says so in the Bible. Furthermore, I know that the Bible is trustworthy because it is inspired by God." Here, the assumption that God exists is used to prove itself.

Although women have a legal right (in the United States, for example) to have an abortion, this does not mean that their legal right implies a moral right. Historically, many immoral laws were changed (the Dred Scott decision, for example). To regard abortion as responsible also begs the question. All too commonly it is assumed—but not demonstrated—that a woman has a moral right to an abortion and that when she exercises this "right" she behaves "responsibly." But in committing this fallacy, one avoids the discussion of whether, indeed, abortion is a moral right and an instance of responsible behavior, while simply assuming that it is.

5) Hypothesis Contrary to Fact

An example of this fallacy is when a baseball fan, disconsolate after his team loses, says, "The manager brought in pitcher B who promptly gave up two runs and blew the game. Had he brought in pitcher A, we would have won." But a person is never in a position to know what would have happened if a different set of factors were brought into play.

Gloria Steinem famously proclaimed that "If men could get pregnant, then abortion would be a sacrament." Apart from being an instance of hyperbole, the statement is completely unverifiable. The statement is also unintelligible because if men could get pregnant, they would cease to be men. Apparently, Ms. Steinem is arguing that the male disposition is such that he would not only welcome abortion, but would glorify it. Nonetheless, she is hypothesizing about a situation that is both contradictory and impossible.

At the same time, Ginette Paris, a psychologist and therapist, has produced The Sacrament of Abortion, in which she argues that from a purely pagan perspective, women should regard abortion as a sacrament.

Another common argument asserts that if a pro-life woman were in the same situation as an aborting woman, she, too, would choose abortion. This hypothetical fallacy has the additional vice of denying pro-life women their freedom to choose differently.

6) Stereotyping

Stereotyping occurs when a particular group of people is typed or classified in such as way that it represents an injustice to many of the individuals who compose that group. Stereotypic thinking usually coincides with prejudice.

People who stand up for life and oppose abortion are routinely classified as right wing, judgmental, religious fanatics, being anti-choice, lacking in compassion, fetus freaks, fascistic, totalitarian, misogynistic, and so on.

Comedian George Carlin once closed a television program by remarking that pro-life women are all so unattractive that no one would want to get them pregnant in the first place. Stereotypic thinking can be cruel as well as unjust. T. S. Eliot illustrated this in a poem: His character J. Alfred Prufrock is the victim of "the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase" and is left "formulated, sprawling on a pin." Stereotypic thinking can be an instance of psychic violence. About the only thing one can say about all pro-life people is that they are pro-life.

7) Accident

The fallacy of accident confuses some accidental feature with that which is essential. People have been known to bet on a horse because they liked its name or the colors of the jockey’s attire. These are hardly logical reasons for waging a bet since they are wholly unrelated to the factors that will determine the outcome of the race.

The fallacy of accident abounds in pro-abortion rhetoric. The unborn are judged inferior to the born because of such accidental features as: 1) place of residence; 2) stage of development; 3) whether or not they happen to be wanted by their mother.

At the same time, defenders of the unborn are discredited because they are: 1) men; 2) Christian (especially Catholic); 3) not poor.

This fallacy is a form of ignoring the issue in which the essential elements are set aside, and the argument focuses exclusively on peripheral aspects that are not germane to the issue at hand.

No Wisdom, No Dialogue

"I had a lover’s quarrel with the world" is the epitaph that Robert Frost chose for his gravestone. G. K. Chesterton advised that "one should never let a quarrel get in the way of a good argument." Quarrelling has its roots in the ego. The ego, which has such a powerful avidity for itself, is nothing more than a fountainhead of pride which, to cite Chesterton once more, is "the falsification of fact by the introduction of self." Defending the lives of others, while exposing oneself to contempt, vituperation, slander, and illogic seems to be rather selfless. Right-to-life people have never tired of constructing clear-headed logical arguments in defense of life. In this regard, they are apostles of good will. But their critics show signs of ill will.

The ego is in love with the self and the self alone. From its narrow perspective, the right to an unencumbered life for the self trumps the right to life for the unborn. Bearing and rearing a child is thus seen as an intolerable inconvenience and the supreme encumbrance.

Little logical debate goes on between pro-life and "pro-choice" sides. When argument is met by quarrelling, there can be no logical resolution of the conflict. The difference between pro- and anti-abortion proponents runs far below the surface of a logical debate both for the individuals involved as well as for all others who make up the human family. The abortion stakes are high and its implications are far-reaching. Egocentrism is the great enemy of civilization.

What kind of society do we want? Do we want one that consists of quarrelling individuals who bear ill will toward their adversaries? Or do we want a civilization of civil people who understand and practice their communal obligations to others and value their individuality precisely in terms of that service to others?

Socrates stood courageously against the Sophists. He wanted to engage in a productive dialogue. As a realist philosopher, he understood that there is a common measure or source of meaning (logos) across which (dia-) we can all speak. But they could not meet on that common ground, the very ground that makes dialogue possible. The Sophists were content merely to seem to be wise. Socrates wanted wisdom and would not retreat from that ideal. Yet he found himself in the predicament of a good physician being prosecuted by a pleasing cook before a jury of ignorant children.

There is no wisdom in abortion or in its defense. Because the Sophists and pro-abortionists both reject wisdom, they also reject that which provides substance for logical argumentation. This is a crucial rejection, especially on a subject as fraught with moral import as abortion. In the absence of wisdom, there can be no fruitful discussion. Choice without wisdom has no touchstone to give it justification. A skilled surgeon in the possession of the most highly refined surgical instruments and an expertly trained staff cannot perform surgery without a patient. Logic needs something to sink its teeth in. Logic itself will not unearth truth, but it cannot operate in its absence. It has been said that there can be no real dialogue unless three are present: two who are engaged in dialogue and the silence that encompasses them both to quiet their egos and point to a wisdom beyond themselves. Pure choice is a metaphysical orphan, deprived of underlying wisdom, bereft of logical defense.


Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and at Mater Ecclesiae College.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 2.