How are we to conduct public discourse?
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From Luke’s Journal 2022 | Termination of Pregnancy | Vol.27 No.3
The plumbline doesn’t judge disagreement. But it does hold me and each of us to account for how we disagree.
– Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in his presidential Address to General Synod, 2015
On June 24, 2022, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization the US Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. This ruling overturned Roe v. Wade (1973), giving individual states full power to regulate abortion. Roe v. Wade itself did not grant an absolute right to abortion. Rather the Justices sought to balance pregnant women’s privacy rights with the right of the state to protect human life and ruled that the balance shifted as pregnancy advanced. Dobbs leaves the question of the legality of abortion and its regulation to individual US States. Some States have moved to restrict even first trimester abortions to varying extents once Dobbs permitted this.
Responses to Dobbs ranged from celebration to grief, including among Christians. Some saw it as an answer to prayer, that would save many (foetal) lives. Others saw it as a disaster that would cost many (maternal) lives. A flood of commentary was generated on mainstream and social media, including here in Australia. Dobbs was a legal judgement about the US Constitution, not a statement about the morality of abortion, yet most articles were not directed at the Constitutional question, but at the moral question, and much of the commentary was extremely polarised.
This article does not address the morality of abortion as such, but the way the arguments about it are conducted in public discourse.
Reading the reactions to Dobbs on social media made me feel uneasy. I was interested to explore what kind of arguments would be persuasive – that is, that might actually shift someone’s thinking a little, or even change their minds. A friend recommended two books that might be helpful: How to Think by Alan Jacobs1 and Good Arguments by Bo Seo.2 Here I apply some of what I learnt from these books to an examination of two articles posted on social media by Christians in response to Dobbs.
The first post was:
The second was a response:
There are two reasons why we might think that debate is not the right framework for the discussion of abortion.
First, debate dichotomises views. As Seo (p270) acknowledges, debate is a “winner-take-all kind of game”.2 The debaters must adopt either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ position and argue either for or against a given proposition. The adjudicator and audience must declare a winner and a loser. And yet, as Seo (p267) observed, “Many people left the debate room feeling that the issue was complicated, that the other side had some good arguments; that ambivalence could be a considered position”. 2
In relation to abortion, most people’s views do not fit neatly into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ categories. They might be ‘maybe’ or ‘it depends’. A wide variety of views exist in relation to both the morality of abortion and to whether and under what circumstances abortion should be legal. These issues are related but distinct. For example, it is possible to take the view that while abortion is generally immoral, it should not generally be illegal. We may consider that abortion is more or less morally justified depending on the circumstances, including how far the pregnancy is advanced. Few people would take an extreme view that on the one hand, abortion is never justified, or, on the other, that there should be no restrictions at all on abortion, even up to and including during labour. It is not as simple as choosing between being absolutely ‘pro-life’ and absolutely ‘pro-choice’.
Secondly, debate might not be the appropriate way to frame abortion discourse is that debate is adversarial. Jacobs (p96) observes that “One of the most deeply embedded metaphors in our common discourse (is) the one that identifies argument as a form of warfare”. In debate, we use the language of attacking and defending, demolishing an argument, or being shot down. We conceive those with whom we disagree as adversaries, opponents or even enemies:
There are many situations in which we lose something of our humanity by militarizing discussion and debate; and we lose something of our humanity by dehumanising our interlocutors. When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.1 (p98).
Seo (182) agrees that there is “a style of argument aimed not at the discovery of truth but at victory over an opponent by any means”.2
An inquisitorial model would be more helpful than an adversarial one in framing nuanced discussion of a complex and sensitive topic such as abortion. Examples of suitable questions would include “Under what circumstances might a Christian doctor be justified in performing a termination of pregnancy?” and “What factors should a Christian couple take into account when faced with a decision to terminate a pregnancy or not after a diagnosis of foetal abnormality?”
Despite the problems with the debate model, Seo believes that the principles of formal debate can teach us a great deal about how to have good arguments. What he means by a good argument is implicit in the subtitle of his book: How Debate Teaches us to Listen and Be Heard. According to Seo, an argument begins with a conclusion – a fact, a judgement or prescription (something that should be) that the debater wants the listener to accept. This conclusion is the topic of the debate. It must be clear and specific. ‘Abortion’ is too general a topic. More specific topics could be:
- “That the life of a foetus is inviolable from the moment of conception”;
- “That there should be no legal barriers to women accessing abortion in the first trimester”;
- “That danger to the mother’s life or cases of rape and incest are the only valid moral reasons for abortion” or
- “That unrestricted access to abortion is necessary for the equality of women”.
In formal debate, the conclusion must then be backed up by a main claim and a set of supporting reasons and evidence, where the main claim must link plausibly back to the conclusion. Therefore, there are two burdens of proof – the claim must be factually correct or believable and it must plausibly link to the conclusion, that is, it must be demonstrated to be relevant to the conclusion.
Let’s then look at the argument between Winter and Campbell using these criteria.
Both posts are grounded in the assumption that the decisive factor in determining the morality of abortion is the determination of the moral status of the foetus. As I have previously observed, “It is as if the foetus exists in isolation from a woman’s body” 5 (p210). The experience, interests and welfare of women are touched upon briefly by both authors but are not central in the debate.
The topic that Winter debates is his conclusion: That “Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political stance,” or, as the headline has it, “being anti-choice is a cultural and political decision, not a biblical one”.
Winter’s main claim (the reason for his conclusion) is that “The Bible is silent on abortion”. More specifically, he claims that the Bible says nothing directly about (induced) abortion, and that “the indirect evidence relating to biblical perspectives on the sanctity of life is deeply conflicted”. He gives reasons for these claims based on biblical texts, and then as supporting evidence he cites a section of the Mishnah to demonstrate that “one of the two major religious traditions (Judaism) that looks to the Bible as an authoritative text clearly affirms the moral necessity of abortion in certain cases”. Anticipating the objection that early Christian texts outside the New Testament did prohibit abortion, he attributes this prohibition to “cultural accommodation to the Greek/Platonic idea that the foetus is a living being”, “predicated on assumptions the foetus is a person”.
Winter says that Jesus’ attitude would have been the Jewish rather than the Greek one: “the principle of the priority of saving life”. Hence, he argues that Christian opposition to the legalisation of abortion “has nothing to do with the Bible” and concludes that “Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion is a cultural and political decision”.
Many points could be made in response to Winter’s argument. One could argue that it is not merely a Platonic/Greek idea but self-evident that a human foetus is a living human being; whether he or she is a ‘person’ entitled to the same protection as you or me is what is in dispute. Citing the Mishnah does not really advance Winter’s argument, as the quoted passage deals with the most extreme case of a conflict between the life of the mother and the foetus. Few opponents of abortion do not allow this exception.
“But to get to the heart of the matter, to rebut an argument one only needs to show that the main claim is untrue or that it does not lead to the conclusion.”
But to get to the heart of the matter, to rebut an argument one only needs to show that the main claim is untrue or that it does not lead to the conclusion. One can do the latter by questioning the logic or relevance of the link between the main claim and the conclusion.2 (p89-90). In the case of Winter’s argument, his conclusion does not follow logically from his main claim. Many Christian ethicists concede that the Bible does not directly address the question of induced abortion, and that the texts often cited in support of the human foetus having the same moral status as a born human are ambiguous. Yet they do not conclude that opposition to abortion is “a cultural and political decision”.
Winter gives no reasons for drawing his conclusion that are related logically to his main claim. There seem to be some missing steps that he would need to make explicit and justify for the silence of the Bible on the morality of induced abortion and the moral status of the foetus to necessarily entail:
1) that the Bible is irrelevant in making an argument against abortion and
2) even more importantly to his argument that the only alternative to opposition to abortion being biblical is that it is cultural and political.
First, it is simply not the case that the Bible is irrelevant to the issue of abortion. Many Christian ethicists argue from the Bible that abortion is generally immoral (often allowing for limited but important exceptions) without relying on the ‘proof texts’ Winter discusses. For example, Australian ethicist Michael Hill says (p446) that “The biblical writers do not explicitly address the issue of abortion…. But silence is no argument. We will have to consider the overall perspective of the Scriptures and draw out any legitimate implications for this topic”. 6 (p207). Richard Hays argues that while “The Bible contains no texts about abortion”,7the New Testament’s “portrayal of God as the author and giver of life creates a general presumption against the termination of life”7 (p455-456). The principle of love for neighbour and care for the most vulnerable can be applied to foetuses as well as to women, as can “the principle of the priority of saving life”. One can argue that while the Bible leaves room for doubt as to the moral status of the foetus, one should where possible give the foetus the benefit of the doubt. Andrew Sloane (p182) writes that “(T)he wrongness in general of abortion doesn’t depend on saying that an embryo counts as a full-fledged human being from conception”. 8 One particularly interesting approach is that of pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan (p623), who argues that “women can never achieve the fulfilment of feminist goals in a society permissive toward abortion”.9
Second, a cultural and political basis for opposition to abortion is not the only alternative to a biblical basis. There is another obvious alternative – that it is moral. There are moral arguments against abortion that do not depend in any way on the Bible.10 Indeed, both opponents and supporters of abortion are agreed that abortion is a moral issue. Whether one argues that it is wrong to kill a foetus or that it is wrong to deny women access to abortion, the arguments used are moral ones. Certainly, Winter is right to remind us that political and cultural factors influence people’s views, perhaps very significantly in some cases. But this is true of both support for as well as opposition to abortion. His conclusion that being ‘anti-choice’ is simply a cultural and political decision ignores the reality that thoughtful opposition to abortion is based on moral reasoning, whether biblically or philosophically based or a combination of the two. Winter may not agree with that moral reasoning, but he does not say so and he does not engage with it.
I turn now to Campbell’s response to Winter’s post. His position seems to be the exact opposite of Winter’s, and this is explicit in the title of Campbell’s post: “No…you are Wrong…’” Where Winter asserts that the Bible has ‘nothing to do’ with Christian support for legislation prohibiting abortion, Campbell asserts that ‘the Bible is clear’ about abortion. Where Winter asserts that the view that the foetus is a person derives from Greek/Platonic thought, Campbell asserts that this view is clear in the Bible.
Campbell chooses not to address the relevance of Winter’s main claim to his conclusion but rather attempts to demonstrate that the main claim is untrue, and that the Bible is not silent on abortion. However, what he actually demonstrates is that there are rival interpretations of texts such as Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5. This is also true of Exodus 21: 22-25, that Winter cites as supporting the view that the foetus has a lower moral status than the pregnant woman. As Verhey observes of this text, “The passage has been quoted on all sides of the abortion debate… Such inferences are seldom made over-against the position on abortion with which the interpreter starts”.11 Individual biblical texts can be and have been used to argue for a ‘pro-life’ or a ‘pro-choice’ view, and it is ‘bad faith’ to suggest that they unambiguously support one view or the other. 12
“Both Winter and Campbell assume without giving reasons that a living human being is a ‘person’. This is an example of begging the question, because that assumption is precisely what is contentious in the philosophical discussion of abortion”.
Both Winter and Campbell assume without giving reasons that a living human being is a ‘person’. This is an example of begging the question, because that assumption is precisely what is contentious in the philosophical discussion of abortion. One does not need to deny that the foetus is a living human being (that, I believe is the ‘biological fact’) to deny that s/he is a ‘person’, that is, someone to whom the proscription of murder applies. Further, there is an argument that even if the foetus is a person, this does not imply that abortion is always wrong.13 On the other hand, philosopher Donald Marquis makes an argument that even if the foetus is not a person, that does not mean that abortion is not generally immoral.10
Campbell counters Winter’s use of a passage from the Mishnah with a first century Jewish text that says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn in her belly”. This, together with the Mishnah quote, demonstrates that Jewish thought soon after the New Testament period had a more nuanced view of abortion and the moral status of the foetus than is captured in the dichotomy between ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’.
Are Winter’s and Campbell’s posts good arguments?
Seo (p176-177) formulates several rules for good debates on controversial issues: “a debate must not question the equal moral standing of persons (involved in the debate)” and must give “due and equal consideration” to the opposing arguments”, based on the assumption that “there are two reasonable sides to the issue”. 2 Neither Winter nor Campbell appear to do this.
Is either post likely to be persuasive? A study of Reddit: Change My View showed that “The more persuasive posts tended to acknowledge uncertainties and qualifications”.2(p290). Neither Winter nor Campbell do that. Each might have acknowledged that Christians may legitimately differ over the morality of abortion and under what conditions, if any, it should be legal; and that Christians do not fall neatly in to extreme ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’ positions.
But are these posts actually intended to persuade? Or are they rather illustrations of Seo’s observation (p292) that “(o)ne of the worst elements of online disagreement was that participants seemed less interested in changing one another’s minds, or even in discussing the question in hand, than in signalling to the crowd their virtues and affinities”.2
Both Winter and Campbell might have been more persuasive by showing more respect for their ‘opponents’. Winter seems to dismiss those Christians who believe there should be legal prohibition of at least some abortions as having no serious moral reasons for their position. He identifies them with the ‘Christian Right’ and supporters of former-president Trump. Campbell is much more overtly derisive: “colander approach to the Bible”; “false as the yeti and the bunyip”; and “he falls shorter than teeing off a 5 par hole with a breadstick”. Seo (p103) observed that “when we chose to mock an opponent’s missteps or attack their character, we exempted ourselves from the much harder task of wrestling with the actual disagreement at hand”.2
“Much of the so-called debate about abortion is counterproductive in that it further polarises rather than facilitating respectful listening and understanding of different views”.
Much of the so-called debate about abortion is counterproductive in that it further polarises rather than facilitating respectful listening and understanding of different views. The intended audience is not the one with whom one disagrees; but rather one’s own tribe who already tend to agree with the writer. It might be categorised as ‘playing to the gallery’.
Christians will be more persuasive when they demonstrate grace, kindness, gentleness, patience and humility when writing or speaking on controversial topics. We might not think this is the best way to ‘win’ an argument, yet according to biblical wisdom, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1) It is difficult for people to change their minds on significant moral issues. As well as using logical arguments, if we are to be persuasive, we need to demonstrate that we can be trusted to take the other person and their views seriously, and that we are open ourselves to being persuaded.
Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke is a graduate of medicine and theology with a PhD in medical ethics. She is a voluntary researcher and writer with Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society.
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- Jacobs A. How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Profile Books; 2018.
- Seo B. Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard. New York: Penguin; 2022.
- Winter S. The Bible says nothing about abortion. So being anti-choiceis a cultural and political decision, not a biblical one. 2022 Jun 27. Available from: https://theconversation.com/the-bible-says-nothing-about-abortion-so-being-anti-choice-is-a-cultural-and-political-decision-not-a-biblical-one-185858
- Campbell M. No Sean Winter, you are wrong about the Bible and abortion. 2022 Jun 27. Available from: https://murraycampbell.net/2022/06/27/no-sean-winter-you-are-wrong-about-the-bible-and-abortion/
- Cooper-Clarke D. Grounding our Discussion of Abortion. In: Firth J, Cooper-Clarke D, editors. Grounded in the Body, in Time and Place, in Scripture. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock; 2021. 210 p.
- Hill M. The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics.Kingsford: Matthias Media; 2002. 207p.
- Hays RB. The Moral Vision of the New Testament. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco; 1996.
- Sloane A. At Home in a Strange Land. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson; 2008.182 p.
- Callahan S. Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism. Commonweal.1986 April 25; 123: 232-238.
- Marquis D. Why Abortion is Immoral. J Philos. 1989; 86 (4): 183-202.
- Verhey A. Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2003. 200p.
- Farley M. Liberation, Abortion, and Responsibility. Reflection.1974 May; 71: 9-13.
- Thomson JJ. A Defense of Abortion. Philos Public Aff. 1971.1(1): 47-66.