Roe v Wade is being overturned.
Anyone who cares about the legality of abortion has been aware of this possibility ever since the Trump-era court appointments pushed the bench ever further into solid conservatism. It was a specter haunting the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. We’ve known Roe’s potential overturning was—or at least might be—coming for a while now, but that hasn’t made it any less surprising and horrifying now that a recently leaked draft opinion has confirmed that, unless at least one justice changes their mind, Roe is on the chopping block in the immediate future.
It’s a scary time (as a cis woman in the midst of her most fertile years, I know the fear well) and it’s tempting to take this time to complain. Which, to be clear, we all have every right to do—I’ve certainly been commiserating with friends in my same position, lamenting the state of the country’s political climate and the liberty we’re so close to losing—but it’s important to be careful that we don’t mistake complaints for persuasive arguments. Those affected by the loss of Roe have no obligation or duty to convince their opponents that they should change their minds—just living with the new reality is enough—but for those who do choose to take up this mantle, it simply isn’t enough to rely on those same arguments you put to friends who already agree with you.
The fact of it is, pro-lifers have reasons for their beliefs. No matter how weak, intrusive, or misogynistic you find these reasons (I certainly find them lacking in a number of ways), they do exist. As a pro-choicer, you presumably see the reasoning of pro-life arguments as utterly unconvincing, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are convincing to the opponents of abortion rights that you may be trying to sway. In short, making pro-choice arguments that don’t address the fundamental reasons for pro-life beliefs is no more effective than not making any at all.
Fundamentally, the linchpin of the pro-life movement is the belief that a fetus is, in fact, a human being, as alive as you or I. Though there are those whose anti-abortion arguments may exclude this assertion and instead concern themselves more with a paternalistic and invariably misogynistic sense of knowing what’s best for women who seek to terminate pregnancies, the vast majority of those voting in favor of politicians who promise to restrict abortion rights do so because they believe each abortion to be the termination of a human life. To them, an abortion is morally equivalent to the ending of a life and is indistinguishable from the killing of a pink-faced baby, already born. You don’t have to agree with that—I certainly don’t—but you do have to contend with it.
Think about it. There are plenty of arguments that, though compelling to those who believe in abortion rights, entirely fall apart in the context of convincing others to agree with your viewpoint. The common refrain that “men shouldn’t have any say in the policing of women’s bodies,” though a perfectly serviceable expression of reasonable exasperation at power structures seemingly designed at every level to disadvantage women, does a far worse job as an argument to keep male lawmakers from restricting abortion rights. Setting aside the baked-in and false assumption that “male” and “female” accurately delineate those who cannot and can get pregnant, respectively, this argument also reads to a pro-lifer the same way something like “male lawmakers have no right to prevent women from committing premeditated murder” would to you or me. The fact that one gender plays a large role in making laws that restrict another gender’s actions can hardly be called a problem if one believes, as pro-lifers do, that the action in question is equivalent to murder. To them, it’s not a question of gender, it’s a question of preserving human life.
Similarly, the argument that abortion ought to be legal because banning it would only cause more back-alley abortions would having the same persuasiveness as the argument that murder ought to be legal because that way it wouldn’t have to be done as secretly, and the murderers are less likely to themselves be harmed in the process. Surely it isn’t contentious to argue that, though back-alley murder may be harder to regulate than murders performed openly and legally and that they are more likely to cause harm to their perpetrators, legalizing murder is far from the answer. So it should make perfect sense that this argument would never have a chance of swaying a committed pro-lifer.
For someone who believes that abortions are morally acceptable, but is perhaps unconvinced that the loss of abortion rights is that big a deal, these arguments, and others like them, can be effective. Demonstrating to someone like that that criminalizing abortions is yet another law that disproportionately harms women at the hands of largely male lawmakers, or that it will not prevent abortion so much as make abortion vastly less safe, may well be enough to rouse them to action. But to those who already disagree with the moral permissability of abortion, they can have little use.
To convince committed pro-lifers that abortion ought to be legal, it is not enough to decry misogyny or repeat talking points about bodily autonomy—you must either demonstrate to them that a fetus is, in fact, morally different from a full human life, or provide a compelling reason why, though they are morally equivalent, ending that life is still justified.
If this seems like a tall order, it is. It’s easy to see why so many inadequate arguments are common; it’s not hard to make crowd-pleasing statements that ring true only with those who already agree with you. The same is true of any issue; the bad-faith, simple arguments are tempting, and it’s easy to believe that they’re useful if you’ve never truly stopped to examine the views of the other side. Certainly, if your goals are to commiserate with those who already agree with you, or rally pro-choicers into greater action than they would otherwise take, then these arguments are effective. Those are both entirely reasonable goals to have, but not the only goals possible; if yours is instead to make a difference in the minds of those who aren’t already on your side, you’ll have to do better.
And doing better is, admittedly, difficult. It’s no wonder so many pro-choice talking points fail to address the idea that fetuses are people; it’s harder to justify abortion if that’s the case. But it’s not impossible, and there are advocates who are able to hold themselves to high standards of debate and still produce pro-choice arguments. There’s plenty of room to make the argument that even if a fetus is a person, that fact still doesn’t trump a woman’s bodily autonomy (famously made in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”). Failing that, you can try to demonstrate that there is such a difference between persons and fetuses that abortion and murder are different things entirely. But what you can’t do is make a case that rests upon the idea that the life of a fetus is lesser than that of any person without actually providing support for that claim. It doesn’t matter that you or I believe it already; the people at whom you’re aiming your arguments don’t.
Accepting the responsibility to make rigorous arguments that address pro-life concerns is not resigning yourself to making no arguments at all. Acknowledging pro-lifers’ belief in a fetus’s personhood is not concluding that they can’t be convinced so it isn’t worth trying. It may be harder to make arguments that actually address the other side’s points, but the merits of reasoned debate aren’t based on how difficult it is. Philosophy and policymaking aren’t meant to be easy; they’re meant to be rational, to arrive at the correct conclusion. By parroting the lackluster arguments others use, you’re not helping the cause or taking a stand for women, you’re just giving pro-lifers something to poke holes in so they feel vindicated in supporting the policies that motivated you to speak out in the first place.
Making sure your argument really addresses pro-life concerns isn’t just worthwhile for reasons of ideological fairness, which can seem trivial when real-world issues are at stake. It’s also a vital part of making change, convincing those who disagree with you, and supporting the pro-choice movement – the very reasons you’re making an argument at all.