Don't Get Emotionally Attached to Your Own Opinion: Part II
by Tina Blue
December 20, 2000
In a long and thoughtful comment on my original article entitled "Don't Get Emotionally Attached to Your Own Opinion," a reader pointed out that such dispassionate argumentation as I advocate (and teach in my freshman composition course at KU) is unlikely on such "hot button" issues as abortion. He's right, of course, but that is precisely the point. The reason we cannot approach a rational solution to these truly important and divisive issues is that people on either side get overwrought--and they demonize their opponents.
Let me tell you a true story about the abortion debate, and you'll see what I mean.
In 1998, a pro-life organization arrived on the KU campus with a traveling display of huge posters showing blown-up images of dismembered aborted fetuses in various stages of development. The display also featured blown-up photographs from the Holocaust and similarly enlarged photographs of African-Americans being lynched in the American South during the twentieth century.
Most KU students were outraged over the display. African-American students were upset that the suffering of lynched African-Americans was being "trivialized" by comparison to the abortion of fetuses. Most Jewish students felt the same way about the "trivialization" of the Holocaust. Even pro-life students were offended, because the images of aborted fetuses were so graphic--and so very large.
Now, if you approached and spoke to the members of the pro-life group that had set up the display, they were invariably polite, soft-spoken, and reasonable in the way they presented their arguments against abortion. They never raised their voices, never got over-excited. Meanwhile, the pro-choice advocates made utter asses of themselves, screaming in rage, flipping off the pro-life group, and generally behaving like perfect yahoos. One pro-choice fanatic, in an attempt to knock down the display with his truck, actually hit one of the pro-life advocates instead, knocking him to the ground! Fortunately he was not seriously hurt--but he easily could have been, because his opponent became overwrought and resorted to extreme methods to "win" the argument.
Hearing me tell this story, can you guess where I stand on the issue of abortion? Well, I am actually "modified pro-choice"--as are 60% of the American people. Most Americans would like for abortion to remain a legal option, but most would also like to see "reasonable" restrictions imposed. What restrictions would be "reasonable"? Well, that would be a matter for rational debate--the rational debate we are so far not having on the subject of abortion. I am quite sure that the restrictions I would like to see are nowhere near as strict as those some other modified pro-choice advocates would prefer. Similarly, even pro-lifers often differ on whether or not abortion should be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or a clear threat to the mother's life or physical health.
The point is, neither side is monolithic. Most people are somewhere on the continuum between what I would call extreme pro-life and extreme pro-choice. But when do we ever hear from those who do not advocate the most extreme position on one end or the other of the continuum? We don't--because the "reasonable center" has opted out of the argument. They don't want to get hit by trucks driven by rabid pro-choicers--or by bombs thrown into women's health clinics by pro-life fanatics. And with only the fanatics arguing on either side, the heat just keeps getting turned up higher and higher, without providing any light at all.
But not all people on the extreme ends of the argument are unreasonable fanatics, either.
What the pro-life group with the huge posters did was to try to change the terms of the exchange from unreasonable fanaticism to reasoned argument. They were not compromising their principles. In fact, the ones I talked to were at the far right-end of the continuum, not even willing to consider abortion in the case of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother's life.
Wait up a minute, though. If you understand their premises, you will understand that, given those premises, their conclusions are the only ones possible.
First of all, their arguments are based on the absolute conviction that the human fetus, at all stages of its development, is as fully a human being and as fully deserving of legal protection as any already born human being. I happen not to agree with that premise, but it is not an unreasonable position to start from, any more than is my own position, which is that the fetus does not gain full human legal status until it is independently viable. We could argue these premises, but I doubt that either side would change its mind, because their premise is based on religious faith and mine is not. Since I do not share their faith, it cannot convince me. But since it is a matter of faith, their premise cannot be changed unless they abandon their religious beliefs.
Now, before you pro-choicers and you non-Christians get all worked up about this religious faith issue, let me remind you that it was the religious convictions of the abolitionists that made them believe that African-American slaves were as fully human as their owners and that they deserved the same freedom and rights as whites. Their faith would not allow them to accept any argument based on the premise that the slaves were somehow less human and less deserving of freedom than whites were. And because they refused to budge on that principle, they fought indefatiguably for the abolition of slavery. Are we not very, very glad that they had the courage of their convictions, even if those convictions were faith-based?
That is why faith-based pro-lifers can't accept any compromise that allows for the killing of what is to them an unborn child, not merely a fetus.
Think about it: If you were raped and gave birth to a child from that rape, would it be okay to strangle that child on the first anniversary of the rape, because the child's very existence tormented you with memories of the rape? Of course not!
Would it be okay to kill the child if the person who raped you was your father or uncle, so that the child was a product not only of rape, but of incest? No, not at all.
How about if you have a small child, but you are in very poor health, and the effort to care for your child is pushing you to the point where you are likely to die from your infirmities? In other words, suppose that child's very life is a threat to yours. Nope--you can't kill the child then, either.
Therefore, if, as a faith-based pro-life advocate believes, a fetus is as much a child as an already born child, then no such compromise on abortion is possible, just as no compromise on slavery (or lynching, for that matter) was possible to the abolitionists.
Now, if you were in Germany during the time of the Holocaust, and you knew that someone was about to be murdered because he was a Jew, wouldn't you think it your moral duty to protest that murder and to try to prevent it, even if you had to resort to unpleasant behavior to accomplish that end? Of course you would. And in fact, many of us would even consider resorting to violence against the murderers if that were the only way to stop the killing of innocent victims! Those of us on the pro-choice side of this issue absolutely must try to understand the pro-life advocates' deeply held conviction that the fetus is in every way a child. These people aren't demons; many of them are practically heroes! I disagree with them, and I think their tactics are often inappropriate and even offensive, not to mention sometimes violent and illegal, but they are trying to save what they see as innocent children from being murdered. Would you not risk a great deal to save a child from being killed?
Having said this, I must also say that I do believe that not everyone on the pro-life side is primarily concerned with saving children. I believe that there are some who are mainly offended that women have sex and and get away with it. To such people, the idea that a woman can engage in "recreational" sex and then not have to "suffer the consequences" is deeply offensive. They are less concerned with saving the child than with hanging it around the woman's neck as punishment. You can tell who these people are by the tenor of their arguments. They tend to say things like, "Well, you had your fun, but now you don't want to deal with the consequences!" I don't consider their arguments to be worth replying to. They aren't operating from reasonable premises, but from rage at female sexuality.
As for the pro-choice side of the argument: Most pro-choicers are also arguing from reasonable premises, but as those are my own premises, I will deal with them some day in another essay. In this essay, I my purpose is to consider the consequences of changing the terms of this debate from rage to reason.
Throughout the two weeks that the anti-abortion display was on our campus, many classes--including my own--discussed the issue deeply and at length. Even in classes concerning subjects where arguing about such issues would not normally be part of the coursework, the discussions took place.
After the initial outrage, discussion got quieter and more reasonable, and a number of interesting things happened. Most people did not change their position on the issue, but quite a few did modify theirs, though usually not drastically.
For example, when I pointed out that those of us who advocate legal abortion really should be able to face the consequences of what we advocate, some of the pro-choice students in my class actually began to acknowledge that they were not in fact 100% comfortable with the idea of abortion. In other words, they weren't actually "in favor" of abortion. Who is? Rather, they saw it as the less intolerable of two genuinely undesirable choices.
As the saying goes, abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. If we really thought it was no more significant or problematical than any other operation, would we be concerned about whether it is rare or common? No one says, "Wisdom-tooth extraction should be safe, legal, and rare," because no one thinks there is anything wrong with having your wisdom teeth extracted.
But most of us really would prefer abortion to be as rare as possible, wouldn't we? We want it available when it is needed, but we would much rather it not be needed at all. In a society where insurance agencies pay for Viagra but not for birth control, there are many unnecessary, unwanted pregnancies. Most pro-choicers would rather that those pregnancies be prevented than that they be terminated.
One political science professor told his class that before seeing the pro-life poster display, he had been an extreme pro-choice advocate, the sort that did not want to hear of any
restrictions on abortion. But after seeing the display and talking to those very polite and reasonable pro-life advocates, he found himself thinking that maybe unrestricted abortion on demand was not quite the right policy after all. That sort of modification took place in many people's opinions on both sides of the issue. But no one on either side could even have heard the arguments on the other side if they had continued to shout past each other (or run each other down with trucks).
Furthermore, after some reasoned discussions in a number of classes on campus, many people on both sides of the issue began to think of their opponents not as evil creeps but as thoughtful, well-meaning people who were trying to find a way to believe and behave that would not violate their deepest principles of conscience.
Toward the end of the two-week period, one of my students (a strong pro-choicer) said, "But I still don't think they had to put up such an offensive, disgusting display."
I then pointed out that the pro-life group had gotten a two-week-long discussion going in virtually all classes and living groups on campus, they had caused many people to modify their position on the issue, and they had persuaded most pro-choice advocates to see their position not as fanaticism but as being reasonably based on viable moral principles--and to recognize pro-life advocates as decent, intelligent people themselves. "How could they possibly have achieved a more favorable outcome?" I asked.
It is amazing how much progress we can make in a discussion when we calm down and actually think rationally rather than emotionally about the issue at hand.
Note: to read the "first part" of this article, click here.