A Response to John Irving on Abortion
used with permission
Recently I had a discussion with a friend of mine (a priest of the Hamilton diocese), and we discussed various theological definitions of the Church, the Mass, and the Eucharist that have become quite prevalent in theological circles. During the conversation I was struck by my friend's ability to critically evaluate bad theological definitions, many of which have made their way into the liturgy and Catholic theological literature. Immediately I knew that long ago, as part of his seminary training, my friend had studied intentional logic (Aristotelian). Defining, evaluating definitions, and learning the rules of definition are, among other things, an essential part of the study of logic.
This impressed me because I have been teaching philosophy for a number of years now, and it was just this year that I decided to take my students more deeply into the science of logic than I had done in previous years. Again I found myself lamenting the fact that logic is not a required course at the secondary level. The one subject young people desperately need today is intentional logic. It is frightening to behold how profoundly unable people are to reason logically and deductively. The entire nation was a witness to this inability to define and reason soundly as the news media recently introduced the new "contraceptive" (really an abortifacient, possibly even RU-486 under a different name) that is now available in Canada. We were assured that since pregnancy is defined as a condition that begins at implantation, this pill only prevents pregnancy and is therefore merely a contraceptive.
I assumed most people would pick up the diversion immediately. But to my surprise, the brightest students of my class needed a good five or six minutes with plenty of prodding and theatrics on my part before they were able to even guess at what was wrong with the proposed definition and conclusion that followed. The rest of the class simply stared with open eyes, barely revealing a semblance of conscious existence. I then realized that the rest of the country was probably just as fooled.
It seems the world has no logic (or at least very little), but as long as the Church has it, there is some hope for the planet. I do often wonder what the future is going to be like when this generation of young people, the majority of whom have not spent more than ten minutes systematically studying logic or ethics, become our leaders. I do appreciate our young people today, and in some ways I believe they are much wiser than the present generation of leaders governing the countries of the west, but the neglect of the systematic study of morality and the neglect, at the university level, of the systematic study of intentional logic can only have anything but positive consequences.
But this future that I wonder about is in many ways already upon us. Flipping through a book at Chapters the other day, I stumbled upon some interesting words by novelist John Irving. In his new book My Movie Business, Irving writes:
Meanwhile, a self-described Right-to Lifer approached me in a bookstore where I was signing copies of my ninth novel, A Widow for One Year. She didn't want my autograph. She'd come to the bookstore with her own agenda - namely, to tell me that I misunderstood the Right-to-Life movement. "We just want people to be responsible for their children," she told me, giving my hand a little pat.
I patted her hand right back. I said to her what Dr. Larch says in The Cider House Rules: "If you expect people to be responsible for their children, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have children."
I could see in her eyes that her resolute belief was undiminished. She swept out of the bookstore, not pausing to look at another human face - or at a book.
The young man who stood next in line told me that she'd cut in front of him; doubtless her zeal to impart her message was incompatible with the very idea of waiting in line. In my opinion, it's not that the decision to have a child or have an abortion is ever not complicated; rather, it is as morally complex (and often conflicted) a decision as any. It's never simple. But people who want to legislate that decision--in effect, to make that decision for someone else--are simply wrong. (My Movie Business. A Memoir. Knopf: Canada, 1999, pp. 40-41)
I felt as stunned as the woman who had "swept out of the bookstore" without pausing to gaze at a face or one of the thousands of books therein. I wrote down the words right then and there and decided to use the above as an example, for my students, of specious logic.
There is an argument in his words (not necessarily a good one, but an argument nonetheless), and the argument is the following: "If you expect people to be responsible for their children, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have children." Completing this argument (which is known in logic as a hypothetical syllogism), we have the following:
- If you expect people to be responsible for their children, then you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have children.
- We expect people to be responsible for their children.
- Therefore, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have children.
But what would happen if we were to translate the concluding clause (the consequent) from its euphemistic posture to its real posture? In this case, our consequent becomes: "you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion." Irving's argument suddenly begins to show itself for what it really is.
- If you expect people to be responsible for their children, then you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
- We expect people to be responsible for their children.
- Therefore, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
But it is not at all clear why it is the case that if we expect people to be responsible for their children, we have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. The requirement of giving them the right to choose whether or not to have children (or at least attempt to have children; for no one really has the ability to choose to have children or not to have children) is practically unambiguous. Only a free being can be held responsible for their choices, and only a free being can have responsibilities. But why we have to allow others to choose to kill their offspring if we expect them to be responsible for their children is not at all apparent.
Moreover, choosing whether or not to have a baby is not the same as choosing to have an abortion. Choosing not to have a baby is a choice not to do something. But choosing to have an abortion is a choice to do something. The one is a non-procreative choice that results in a certain state of affairs, the other is an anti-life choice that results in a similar state of affairs (at least from one angle). And yet abortion is a direct attack on a developing human life, whereas choosing not to have a baby is not at all a direct attack on a developing human life. Behind the euphemism lurks the argument that because both choices intend the same end (motive) and have the same results (at least from a limited point of view), they are both morally equivalent. This argument can be formulated as follows:
- All choices not to have a baby are for the sake of avoiding the responsibility of rearing new life.
- All choices to have an abortion are for the sake of avoiding the responsibility of rearing new life.
- Therefore, choosing to have an abortion is choosing not to have a baby.
This is bad logic. For we have a syllogism with an undistributed middle term. The argument is identical in kind to the following: "All chickens are born from eggs. All turkeys are born from eggs. Therefore, all turkeys are chickens." No matter what middle term we may substitute with the above middle term ("for the sake of avoiding the responsibility of rearing new life"), the argument will always be invalid. It simply cannot be logically defended that choosing to have an abortion is equivalent to choosing not to have a baby.
What if we were to consider Irving's original argument and proceed to deny the consequent (which is a valid procedure)? We end up with the following:
- If you expect people to be responsible for their children, then you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
- We do not give them the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
- Therefore, you do not expect people to be responsible for their children.
But this is evidently false. Prior to Roe v. Wade or 1988 (in Canada), we did not give people the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, but we certainly expected people to be responsible for their children. The woman who approached Mr. Irving in the bookstore clearly expects people to be responsible for their children. At the same time, though, she does not hold that one must allow these others the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
It is a fundamental principle in logic that if the premises are true and the reasoning is sound, the conclusion is true. What we have here are false premises, and a concluding clause that is the result of faulty logic, and most importantly the very common logical fallacy of begging the question. Irving will have to establish the truth of the major premise, namely that "If you expect people to be responsible for their children, then you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Irving proves nothing. He only assumes what he ought to prove. This leads to a vicious circle.
It isn't any wonder that the woman "swept out of the bookstore, not pausing to look at another human face--or at a book." If I were to come face to face with one of the most gifted storytellers in North America, engage in a brief conversation about the Pro-Life movement only to be assaulted by such a logically fallacious remark, with which I am hit only too often by my grade nine students, but which I would hardly expect to proceed from the mouth of an internationally renowned writer, I too would surely make my way out of the bookstore without pausing to look at another human face or book. It is difficult indeed to concern oneself with books and faces after being very subtly reduced to a mild state of shock. It is also reasonable to expect that such brilliant sophistry employed by Irving would take some time even for the trained logician to undo. Only a few could be expected to immediately point out the error hidden behind such beautiful sophistry--an instance of sophistry, I might add, that would make Gorgias proud indeed.
But the fact is a pregnant woman already has children, or at least one child. It is at this point that responsibility has already begun to emerge. Responsibility has reference to intelligible human goods. A responsibility is a moral principle, and a right is nothing other than another person's responsibility. The "other's" right to live is really nothing other than my responsibility not to kill him or her. I have a responsibility to "not be moved by a stronger desire for one instance of an intelligible human good to act for it by choosing to destroy, damage, or impede some other instance of an intelligible human good" (Grisez/Boyle). In other words, I have a responsibility not to do evil to achieve good.
Any reasonable person expects others to be responsible for their children because children are instances of human goods. The pregnant woman knows she is carrying human life, which is precisely why she considers abortion. Her pregnant body is now orientated towards the newly conceived life within her. Her body is responding to the new life, that is, acting "responsibly" so to speak. The body of the pregnant woman is responding to the new life because responsibility has reference to human goods. So even on the biological level, we see "responsibility", that is, the "ability to respond" and the realization of that ability.
The pregnant woman has at that moment a responsibility. That responsibility is towards that newly conceived life, that is, a responsibility to "tend to" that new life. She has a responsibility to revere that life; for her own body is already in the act of "revering" that life, so to speak. Her decision to abort the baby will only lead, among other things, to a division of the self, an alienation from the self, or a disintegration of the self. Her decision lacks integration with her own body, for she decides contrary to the very movement of her body.
The decision to abort is nothing other than a decision not to respond to the developing human life. It is a failure of responsibility. An inability to respond (ir-respons-ibility) implies moral immaturity. Children are morally immature. They cannot handle certain responsibilities, that is, they cannot respond to or tend to certain situations which involve human goods. An immoral person is one who refuses to respond to the demands of the natural moral law, one mode of which is the responsibility not to do evil that good may come of it, or in this case, attack a basic intelligible human good (the developing human life) for the sake of some other good.
People already have the right to choose to have children or not. It would certainly be contrary to the dignity of the human person to force others to have children or to require them not to have children (at least under ordinary circumstances). But this is very different than the requirement that others not kill their offspring. We can expect an ether addict like Dr. Wilbur Larch of St. Cloud's to be confused about such distinctions, but a gifted writer and internationally renowned storyteller?
Furthermore, expecting people to be responsible for their children and giving them the right to choose to have a baby are really far too incongruent (at least proximately) to be of any real value in drawing a meaningful conclusion --which is why Irving's argument is not, strictly speaking, a conditional argument, but only apparently so. We expect people to be responsible for their children. And it is true that people should not be forced to have children or forced not to. But this does not have anything to do with abortion until we conclude, through faulty logic, that choosing not to have children is morally equivalent to choosing to have an abortion.
Moreover, with similar incongruent terms, we could justify just about anything. Consider:
"If you expect people to be responsible for their fellow citizens, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to pay income tax."
"If you expect people to be responsible for themselves, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to read pornography."
"If you expect teachers to be responsible for their students, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have those very students."
"If you expect teachers to be responsible for their students, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to hit them."
"If you expect people to be responsible for other drivers, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to drive."
Now we would all agree with the statements: "If you expect people to be responsible for other drivers, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to drive" as separate propositions, without the conditional form. But no argument can be constructed from the two (which have no proximate relation to one another). We expect people to be responsible towards other drivers by driving safely, but it simply does not follow that we have to give them the right to choose whether or not to drive. Imagine a person with a suspended license employing such an argument to a court judge.
"If you expect me to be responsible for the safety of other drivers, Your Honor, then you have to give me the right to choose whether or not to drive."
In sum, Irving's argument can accurately be translated thus: "If we expect people to be responsible for their children, we have to give them the right to choose whether or not to act responsibly." What he fails to grasp is that what any reasonable person expects in expecting people to act responsibly is that people use their freedom responsibly. Essentially, Irving is proposing that if you expect people to act responsibly, you can only really do so if you make no moral demands on them whatsoever. People must be allowed to do whatever they want if we expect them to act responsibly. And yet an expectation is a moral demand. So if we truly expect people to act responsibly, we have to drop our expectations. Hence:
If you expect people to be responsible for their children, then you should drop all your expectations that they act responsibly.
Finally, Irving calls attention to the woman's zeal and consequent injustice of "butting in line". Now impatience is unreasonable, and perhaps the woman committed an injustice by butting in front of the man. But note the irony here. John Irving was so sensitive to the injustice committed by this rather impatient woman, who had a very important message to deliver, that he did not fail to note it and make it public in his book. Yet he is oblivious to the monumental and almost infinitely graver injustices that he has helped perpetuate in the above-mentioned books, the injustice involved in the deliberate destruction of unborn human life.
In my opinion, it's not that the decision to have a child or have an abortion is ever not complicated; rather, it is as morally complex (and often conflicted) a decision as any. It's never simple. But people who want to legislate that decision--in effect, to make that decision for someone else--are simply wrong."
But Irving does not prove his point here. We still do not know why it is wrong to protect the unborn. Moreover, abortion is, from a moral point of view, the simplest of the life issues. But if it were a morally complex decision (which for many pro-abortion women, is anything but complex), it would in no way entail that such decisions have no social bearing requiring legislation. Moreover, he equates legislation protecting the unborn with "making the decision for someone else". But this is silly and nonsensical. Legislation forbidding me to drive 130 kilometers an hour, or forbidding me to hit my students, or forbidding me to drive on the shoulder during a traffic jam in order to get to where I want to go more quickly, is hardly an instance of "making the decision for me". The decision is not made for me by the State. I may still choose to exceed the speed limit, hit my students, or drive on the shoulder and "bud in" on everyone else. The law simply acknowledges the rights of others in these regards, and in acknowledging the rights of my students not to be hit by their teacher, or the rights of others to drive in relatively safe conditions, the law simply outlines my responsibility not to hit my students, my responsibility not to create unsafe driving conditions on the highway, and my responsibility to "wait in line" so to speak. For there are no rights without responsibilities.
During that period of time before the abortion law was struck down in Canada, it could not be said that a decision was already made for women; for some women still had abortions. But it can be said that we were living in a country that acknowledged the fundamental rights of the unborn child. Any society that honors the rights of all within the society is more civilized than one that does not, or one that honors the rights of less than all within. For justice, as Aristotle knew, is not a virtue of moderation, for if one is a little less than just, one is simply unjust. Justice, on the other hand, is the measure of all the virtues of moderation. "Oh, justice is what you're threatened with," said Cromwell to St. Thomas More, shortly before his execution; "Then I'm not threatened," replied the saint. And no society is threatened by justice, but only by the lack thereof. And justice is clearly threatened today, and the virus that threatens democracy and the integrity of the justice system in this country has successfully attacked the immune system of sound reasoning and has prevented a clear perception of the basic requirements of practical reasonableness upon which all just law is ultimately founded.
To read more of Doug McManaman's material and visit his OAC Philosophy web page, click here.