What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The question of question-begging in the abortion debate

I was having a discussion with a friend on Facebook the other day concerning rhetoric and the abortion debate. We were specifically discussing the phrase "baby killer" or "baby killers," whether there is ever a sufficient reason for using it, or whether its likely negative rhetorical effects make that always a bad idea. I won't rehearse those arguments right now. The bottom line was that I was arguing that it sometimes does make sense to use the phrase, particularly when talking about abortionists themselves, and that we are cooperating in the desensitization of society to abortion if we decide that we should never use it.

The question then arose whether, in a debate with a pro-choicer, the phrase "baby killer" is question-begging and hence philosophically wrong.

I immediately pointed out that there are many pro-choicers who admit that the unborn child is, in fact, a young human being (aka a baby) but who argue that it is not a person and is therefore legitimately killable. In the context of currently fashionable personhood theory, the question of whether to refer to abortion as baby killing even in a debate with a pro-choicer therefore often reverts to a rhetorical question rather than a logical one, since many pro-choicers aren't attempting to contest that abortion kills a living, young human being.

But suppose that that weren't the case. Would there then be a problem with question-begging?

Let's flesh the example out a bit. Suppose that you were debating the morality of abortion with a pro-abort who genuinely wished to argue that the unborn child is not only a non-person but even a non-human. Your interlocutor's position is that the unborn child should be considered a clump of cells at the earliest stages and an animal at later stages until, say, birth.

Any well-informed pro-lifer knows what arguments he is now going to bring to answer this pro-choicer--arguments from biology, chiefly. He will point out the structure of the unborn child from the earliest stages of development, the fact that the fetus is visibly a baby quite early on, the arbitrariness of the birth line, the irrationality of making the metaphysical nature of an entity depend upon its location, and so forth. Those of us who have been in the pro-life movement for any period of time know how to make these arguments.

The question, then, is what terms one should use to refer to the unborn child in the course of making these arguments. In my experience, pro-lifers who write about these topics in philosophy journals generally use "the fetus," call the unborn child "it," and/or use the phrase "the unborn," treating the adjective "unborn" as a noun. It is possible that these usages are required by editors of scholarly publications, but in my experience pro-life friends in the philosophical community use this terminology even in conversation with fellow pro-lifers, which is rather telling. They have internalized it as a norm.

To be clear, I am not saying that one must not use these terms, though I admit that the strange neologism "the unborn," full-stop, grates on me. It is so obviously invented solely for the purpose of sounding neutral in conversation. I am, however, going to say that one is not obligated to use such terms and to call the unborn child "it" in all such debates, even if they are philosophical debates.

It seems to me that the problem is that there is really no neutral way to refer to the unborn child. The problem becomes clearer if one makes an analogy to a born human being. Suppose that one were debating with a virulent racist whose position was that all black people are sub-human. He therefore objected to your using "people," "human beings," or personal pronouns for any black person. And of course this person would object all the more to your doing so in a debate over the very question. He would insist that it was question-begging for you to say, e.g., "Black people are able to think, reason, and converse," because his contention is that blacks are not "people." In that context, is one obligated to adopt the norms he insists on? Is it truly neutral to refer, in the debate, only to "blacks," to call them (e.g.) "entities" or some such phrase, and to refer to an individual black person as "it"?

Intuitively, it seems that that is not neutral and that to do so actually concedes ground to one's opponent. After all, if the very question is whether this particular "entity" is a "he" or an "it," the use of either could be said to be question-begging or a concession.

The point becomes even more obvious if we personalize the matter and imagine that we are discussing a particular individual. Suppose that your racist interlocutor (I'll call him R) and you are talking about Fred, a black acquaintance, who doesn't happen to be present at the moment. R insists that you use phrases like "the entity known as 'Fred'" or "the post-fetus" or "the humanoid" for Fred. You must also call Fred "it." If you say, "Of course Fred is a person! I just got a text message from him five minutes ago saying how disgusted he is by your views!" R will say that you are question-begging by using the name "Fred" (since this rhetorically attributes personhood to the "entity"), and by using the pronouns "he" and "him." Instead, to be neutral in asserting your position and making your argument, R says that you would have to say something like, "The entity known as 'Fred' is a person, because I just received a string of letters that appears to me to be a text message originating from it."

Now, you could choose to play that game. I'm not going to say that it would be evil to play that game, especially not if you added a sufficiently ironic tone to your use of R's preferred "neutral" phrases. But I do say that it would not be philosophically wrong for you to refuse to play that game. And I do say that, if there came to be an entire philosophical literature that solemnly and without apparent irony acquiesced in calling people like Fred "post-fetuses" and calling them "it," even in the course of arguing for their personhood, that would be troubling. It would be a kind of victory for the vile racists. It would be the kind of complacent scenario of desensitization that deserved and needed to be shaken up a bit, perhaps by someone's coming along, even (gasp) in the course of a debate on the subject, and referring to those who were deliberately killing innocent black people as "baby killers" (if the people in question were babies) or "man killers."

A philosopher finds this situation nearly intolerable, because philosophers generally think that there must always be a neutral wording for any debate. Often that is the case. If we're debating about whether induction is rational or not, it's pretty easy to find a way to frame the discussion of the problem in a way that doesn't sound like it assumes either side.

In ethics, however, things can get much more difficult, and when the question is the fundamental metaphysical status of an entity that one side says is a person and the other side says isn't, the notion of a purely neutral terminology becomes misleading. It becomes even more difficult to find genuinely neutral terminology if one side (like my imaginary pro-choicer above) even objects to species designations like "human being" when the biology on that question is unequivocal.

I fully admit that some problem of neutrality can arise in cases where I am on the other side. When I refer to a dolphin as "it" rather than "he," I am not being neutral, and someone who really thinks a dolphin is a person will understandably balk at referring to the dolphin as "it." One difference with the abortion debate, however, is that in the case of the dolphin we at least have a noun to work with that no one can object to. Both the PETA member and I agree that Flipper is a dolphin, and neither of us thinks that the consistent use of "dolphin" is even rhetorically problematic.

When the denial of personhood is based on age, however, as in the abortion debate, it gets more difficult still, since using the term "fetus" all the time, though not scientifically inaccurate, definitely has a dehumanizing effect. This is all the more true when the usage is insisted upon as the only neutral and professional one and when terms like "baby" and "human being" are ruled out of court. That very insistence comes to be problematic. Compare referring all the time, insistently, to a newborn child as a "neonate" rather than a "baby" in the course of an argument about post-birth infanticide. I would not say that calling Flipper a dolphin, or even a baby dolphin when young, is question-begging, but the pro-choicer will say that calling Junior a baby is.

To clarify, again, I am not saying that it is immoral for a pro-lifer to call the unborn child a fetus. I am, however, saying that we should question the assumption that it is argumentatively wrong (because question-begging) to call the unborn child anything else.

My own practice has generally been to refer to "the unborn child" throughout debates about abortion while occasionally using "baby," "fetus," and/or "young human" or "young human being." This mix of terminology, including the frequent use of "unborn child," stirs the pot, makes it clear that my wording is not going to be dictated by a false concept of neutrality, and also focuses on the biology and tacitly challenges the pro-choicer on that basis. Is the pro-abort really going to claim that the entity in the mother's womb is not a human child, a young member of the species homo sapiens?

In the last year or two, I have gradually become concerned about various ways in which pro-life philosophers may have unintentionally cooperated in desensitizing both themselves and others to the evil of abortion and even of post-birth infanticide. This takes the form, for example, of Robert P. George's misguided paean to academic neutrality and his consequent expressions of respect for Peter Singer, which I discussed here. The interesting question arises to what extent the very form of our academic debates over these subjects has been faux neutral, having the actual effect of tacitly telling people, "Don't be horrified, and for goodness' sake act as if this question is really up for grabs. It's the only way to be professional."

I admit that I don't have a full answer to the problem. As I believe C.S. Lewis said, good philosophy must exist because bad philosophy exists and must be answered. That is true. But when the bad philosophy consists of defending truly monstrous views, rhetorical problems arise--problems concerning what it means socially to give someone a forum at all, what it conveys socially to treat the issue as truly debatable, and what it teaches to use "neutral" terminology that isn't really rhetorically neutral. Those of us who are pro-life philosophers need to ask ourselves if we really believe that it is monstrous to tear an unborn child limb from limb, and hence monstrous to advocate the morality and/or legality of doing so. If we really do believe that, how should it influence our own actions and even our own terminology?

I submit that one way it should do so is this: We should recognize that it is not ipso facto argumentatively wrong to refer to abortion as baby killing and to abortionists as baby killers, even in the course of a discussion with a pro-choicer.

Comments (21)

The phrase always makes sense to me. The person has killed a baby. Language shouldn't be moderated to ensure we don't trigger people. The idea of choice to murder should always horrify us.

I don't use 'fetus' because it is too clinical and has been used as a tool to dehumanize a human being.

For a large section of the pro-life movement, the supreme commandment appears to be, Thou Shalt Not Say Anything That Makes Women Feel Guilty About Abortion. Oftentimes the focus on "healing" and "hope" and what-not becomes a wearying, cloying refrain. This is why you'll never see someone like, say, Kathryn Jean Lopez ever refer to the killing of babies. To read the writing of people like her, one would think that abortion is primarily a women-as-hapless-victims story, with a powerful dollop of exculpatory they-know-not-what-they-do thrown in the mix.

I realize that some people are not cut out for making the philosophical case against abortion, and everybody has a role to play, etc. But the same people who call pro-lifers heartless woman-hating beasts aren't going to do that no matter how much soft-pedaling we engage in, and the situation is different than it was 20 years ago, prior to the most recent advances in prenatal imagine, health care, and so on.

Moreover, even if one wants to say that the woman's involvement might be complicated by mitigating circumstances (though that isn't always the case), to call the _abortionist_ a baby killer should be a simple matter of logic and descriptive accuracy.

The thing is that even in a philosophical discussion, my own impression is that very few philosophers nowadays deny that the unborn child is human. What they attempt rather is obscurantism surrounding the concept of personhood. The word "baby" therefore is not question-begging in any sense at all but merely disfavored rhetorically, because it appears to attribute personhood to the child in addition to humanity. But there is no way around it. I tend to think that in that rhetorical area one's terminology is going to swing one way or another and that there is no strictly neutral ground.

My own concession to Lydia is to use the terminology human fetus but that is the only concession I'm making. In common usage baby implies both personhood and born. Child is somewhat better in that it includes meaning a human fetus but it can also mean an infant, so I'm disinclined to rhetorically obscure my own point of reference.

In common usage baby implies both personhood and born.

As a statement about common usage, this is, as far as I can tell anecdotally, incorrect. Many pregnant women and their families refer to the unborn child as "the baby." Many. Even some women who are contemplating abortion do so, asking questions about whether "the baby" will feel pain and the like. Having had three children I can also attest that Ob-gyn nurses and doctors refer to "the baby" during office visits with such locutions as "would you like to hear the baby's heartbeat" and "This vitamin will provide ____ for the baby." When one is going through labor and childbirth _everybody_ refers to "the baby," believe me, well before the baby comes out. Billboards attempting to induce women not to do drugs and drink during pregnancy refer to the unborn child as "your baby." And so on and so forth. There are countless counterexamples to any generalization that common usage implies "born" by the term "baby."

I think Step2's comment does highlight (though this may not have been the intent) the impossibility of strictly neutral terminology. I don't _expect_ Step2, being well to the left of me on this issue, to refer to "the baby" during a debate about abortion. But by the same token, Step2 shouldn't _expect_ that I will consider myself bound, even in the course of debate, to refer _all the time_ to "the fetus" or any such impersonal term.

I think myself that "unborn human being" is the nearest thing possible to a neutral phrase if the pro-choicer is arguing against personhood but not against humanness (the latter being possibly the more obviously reality-challenged position). Indeed, I've often found it interesting that any pro-choicer would object to the term "human being" as ipso facto implying personhood. After all, if he thinks it _does_ imply personhood, might there be a reason for that--i.e., that the notion of a "living human non-person" is bizarre and nonsensical?

My sense for whether it is or is not acceptable to use terms like "baby killer" for the abortion doctor, or "baby" for the aborted being, is that it rests heavily on the circumstances, as rhetoric usually does. There is no "absolute" rule about it.

In a real philosophy discussion, with someone whose mind is not YET made up, and is actually allowing new facts and real logic to have their appropriate effect, I would be cautious and attempt to use more neutral language than otherwise. In a more wide-open discussion among many, with some people clearly hateful of even the notion of being pro-life, I would use less neutral language in balance with the language they tend to use. These are matters of judgment.

But one thing is really true: Lydia is right about there being no fully neutral language that one could pull out if one just tried hard enough. The closest I can come is "being", which I used above, but even that would get some people (who insist on the language of "tissue") up in arms because "a being" has its OWN integrity, whereas tissue does not.

Given that there is nothing completely neutral, the next best thing you could do (like in my first example above) is to STATE, up front, that for purposes of this conversation I don't intend to use or merely assume that what we are talking about here is a person or is entitled to the rights of personhood, but there is no language adequate to the concept of "a something or someone which, if we have here a person must be a 'he' or a 'she' and has rights implicitly, but if it is not a person then it is an 'it', but we are not yet claiming we have demonstrated which it is." And given the lack of a word that means that, I am going to use various terms like "unborn being" as a substitute but will attempt not to impose or fall into question begging thereby. An honest debater can live with that kind of declaration, and not get his or her shorts in a knot about your using a term that is not fully adequate to impartiality.

After all, if he thinks it _does_ imply personhood, might there be a reason for that--i.e., that the notion of a "living human non-person" is bizarre and nonsensical?

Although the Peter Singers (and his ilk) out there are logically committed to just such a position, few non-philosophers are prepared to live with the implications. (just goes to show you that being a philosopher with bad principles can badly warp your moral judgment as well). But since the scientific evidence is about as good as you could ask for that the fetus is, in fact, a human being, that's pretty much what abortion supporters are really committed to even though they don't want to go there.

There are countless counterexamples to any generalization that common usage implies "born" by the term "baby."

Right, all in the context of pregnancy, which for the two children per average American woman in her lifetime is not the norm. Furthermore every dictionary definition I could find supports my interpretation. Without providing any contextual clues I say "Hey, I've got baby pictures to show you!" Is your first reaction that you are going to be looking at ultrasound pictures? I don't thinks so. Without a specific mention of pregnancy it never means a human fetus and even for that context such a meaning is incorrectly attributed.

Right, all in the context of pregnancy, which for the two children per average American woman in her lifetime is not the norm.

Since there are as yet no artificial wombs, and since IVF embryos are not (technically) fetuses, _every_ fetus exists in the context of pregnancy! So if we're asking what terminology is common for people to use _for_ unborn human beings and wondering whether "baby" would imply a born human being and hence would usually _not_ be used for an unborn human being, we have to ask what people usually call implanted yet unborn human beings, which is _always_ in the context of pregnancy! Moreover, even if people themselves are _never_ pregnant, they talk to lots of other people who _are_ pregnant at one point or another, or talk to them about their children before they were born, and "baby" is commonly used. You just overstated, Step2, when you said that in common usage "baby" implies "born." Obviously, context is important in helping to determine meaning, but your statement was just overly strong.

even for that context such a meaning is incorrectly attributed.

I don't know what you mean by this. IF your statement is that the millions of women, doctors, nurses, fathers, siblings, and friends who refer to an unborn child as a "baby" are committing a literal usage error in the English language, you're going to have a tough row to hoe. I'm actually something of a language prescriptivist rather than a descriptivist myself, but this is one case where I see no reason why usage should not be considered highly relevant to meaning in the language! Besides, it was you who made a statement *about usage*. You can't at this point shift to saying that most people's usage doesn't conform to your generalization but that, for some reason (that when they talk that way they don't agree with your metaphysics, or what?) their usage is _wrong_. That's a blatant position shift.

That "all in the context of pregnancy" qualifier by Step2 is indeed unintentionally hilarious.

My own concession to Lydia is to use the terminology human fetus but that is the only concession I'm making. In common usage baby implies both personhood and born.

That's why we use "unborn baby." Which doesn't seem to be markedly different than someone using "young man" to refer to a 12 year old kid, who obviously isn't a full grown man.

There really isn't any neutral language one can use in the abortion debate but so what? This isn't a fight that will be won through philosophical debate but rather harsh rhetoric and taking back the legal system from activist judges and John Boehner-type Republicans in all levels of government. Prosecute and execute a few abortionists for murder and then you'll see abortions start to dry up.

I'm a long-time reader who has to de-lurk for this:

Step2 now wants to be a prescriptivist and follow formal dictionary definitions in debate. Fine! So, of course that means you can all do the same the next time the subject of marriage comes up, right? :)

It occurs to me that as the consequences of liberalism play themselves out in ever-more radical ways, that our disagreements will come more and more to involve matters of fundamental reality. Our arguments will therefore become increasingly tautological. They therefore will come to be resolved more and more by force rather than suasion.

Sean, thank you for de-lurking. Please feel welcome to do so more, as the occasion merits.

You just overstated, Step2, when you said that in common usage "baby" implies "born."

No, I haven't. You anecdotally say there are countless examples of millions of interactions where it doesn't imply born. If I also pull some numbers out of thin air and say there are fifty different contexts for the word baby which all imply a born human and those other contexts are used in written and spoken communication twenty times more frequently than yours, then your supposedly countless examples are about 1/1000th the total usage of the word. I would think that .1% would not be considered common usage since it is to the right of the decimal point but I don't know what the word common is supposed to mean anymore. On the other hand I am easily willing to grant that since you and probably most of the people you know are very active in the pro-life movement in your experience baby may be more frequently used nomenclature for the human fetus. However in the wider popular culture it isn’t common; it is only rarely used with that meaning.

That's why we use "unborn baby."

Unborn baby killer doesn't have the quite same rhetorical impact, so feel free to use it more consistently.

Step2 now wants to be a prescriptivist and follow formal dictionary definitions in debate.

That isn't my focus, I just thought dictionaries would include the most common meanings if there are multiple meanings. But since you de-lurked and everything, legal definitions are also formal definitions.

On the other hand I am easily willing to grant that since you and probably most of the people you know are very active in the pro-life movement in your experience baby may be more frequently used nomenclature for the human fetus. However in the wider popular culture it isn’t common; it is only rarely used with that meaning.

That is such absolute baloney. In the obstetrical world, it is used _constantly_. This is not about me and my subculture. On the ultrasound it will say "baby" and have an arrow pointing at the image. That isn't typed in by some busy pro-life gnome.

But it's an absolute joke trying to reason with you on this, Step2, if you're going to hold that the context of pregnancy isn't _the relevant context_ and are going to try to claim that, since other _contexts_ are more common for the word "baby" than pregnancy, then "common usage" doesn't support using "baby" _in the context of pregnancy_ even if it is in _very_ common usage _in that context_. Since the abortion debate occurs, by definition, _in the context of pregnancy_, then asking whether "baby" implies "born" in the abortion debate is ipso facto asking whether it implies "born" when having a discussion in the context of pregnancy. This is so obvious that it takes a truly epic degree of density to try to deny it. Yet that's apparently what you are trying to do by citing the greater commonness of other contexts.

It's pretty much impossible to debate the point with you. You can't even see how silly you are making yourself look.

What do you think of the term "conceived human being"?

Since the abortion debate occurs, by definition, _in the context of pregnancy_, then...

Except for the oxymoronic expression "post-birth abortion". Which impels people to call the recipient of such attention not "a baby" but something else. Post birth tissue? Kleenex?

All of which underscores the point here, the mangling of language in order to prevent minds from grasping and grappling with the reality.

For a large section of the pro-life movement, the supreme commandment appears to be, Thou Shalt Not Say Anything That Makes Women Feel Guilty About Abortion.

Which is ironic since women are typically far more vulnerable to shaming tactics than men. Just look at the effectiveness of "slut shaming" compared to shaming promiscuous men. I would say that far from sparing the feelings of women, we should unabashedly call it baby killing. If a woman who is not repentant of her abortion and claims to be religious every judges another sinner, the proper response would be "that's ironic coming from a literal murderer."

Bob Walker, I'm fine with it, and it wd. be especially useful if one were talking about unimplanted IVF or cloned embryos. My one purely rhetorical hesitation is that it might be taken to convey the idea of a very early stage of development where that was not your intention. It's also long. But I have seen a philosopher state in a footnote that calling the unborn child a "human being" is "religious or philosophical," by which he meant (explicitly) not "scientific," by which he meant ideologically not neutral. I've briefly sketched my sense of the irony of that objection to "human being" in an earlier comment.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.