At Camp American we teach classes designed to build skills in recognizing the use of informal fallacy in media, textbooks, articles, etc. In a recent article, Gary Wills does us the favor of supplying a classic teaching example of creative use of fallacy. Wills is an author and a historian. As a man educated in history he should be familiar with the use of logical fallacy and the reasons it is employed. Since the reason it is employed is nearly always an attempt to deceive the masses for some particular political and/or social goal, we have to ask if Gary Wills is engaging in logical fallacy purposefully or inadvertently. That, you have to decide for yourselves.
Wills’ article, “Abortion isn’t a religious issue,” ran recently in several newspapers nationally. The subtitle is: “Evangelicals are adamant, but religion really has nothing to say about the issue.” In it Wills’ tries to make the case that abortion isn’t murder, and Christians should keep quiet (get to the back of the bus and shut up, if you will) because the Bible doesn’t speak to the issue. To perform this journalistic sleight-of-hand he uses common fallacies like begging the question, equivocation and appeals to unqualified authority.
Wills begins his fallacy tour de force with a circular argument;
But is abortion murder? Most people think not.
Well, then. That settles the question, doesn’t it? The majority have spoken. What makes this a circular argument is that it assumes the point it presumes to prove. That is, Wills’ underlying presupposition is that the definition of murder is not ultimately dependent upon the unchanging decree of God, but upon the ebb and flow of the will of “the people.”
Wills develops and expands his argument by throwing in a blatant and clumsy equivocation
Evangelicals may argue that most people in Germany thought it was all right to kill Jews. But the parallel is not valid. Killing Jews was killing persons. It is not demonstrable that killing fetuses is killing persons.
Fetuses are not demonstrably persons. This is a particularly stunning argument insofar as Wills later admits to the humanity of the fetus
The question is not whether the fetus is human life but whether it is a human person, and when it becomes one.
We can see more circular argumentation with a return to the basic presupposition that the definition of “personhood” and therefore murder is in the hands of “the people.” But Wills realizes that there is a basic definition of humanity and it includes a common biological characteristic that provides an unmovable foundation for definition of humanity- DNA. Twenty-three pairs of chromosomes (with a few well-documented and studied variations), one set from a male and one from a female of the human species makes a human being. This being the undeniable case, the pro-abortionist must therefore strive to find some other characteristic that will allow him to reject the unborn as unworthy of the protection of rights and privileges we are entitled to as humans. The current trend in pro-abortion circles is to rely on arguments that tout the necessity of considering the nebulously and arbitrarily defined characteristic of “personhood.”
Wills treads very dangerous ground in admitting that he believes that “humanity” does not necessarily mean “personhood.” This is a shockingly similar argument to that posited by eugenecists, i.e. that some categories of humans are “more human” than others. Thus, the definition of full humanity, or in Wills’ words, “human personhood,” is solely based on an arbitrarily defined set of demonstrable characteristics. What are these characteristics? Wills recognizes the power of pro-lifer’s arguments comparing Nazis (who employed a strikingly similar argument to Wills’ own) murder of those whom they had defined as sub-human with abortionists murder of the unborn. Wills knows well the historical implications of previous attempts at redefinition of humans as non-persons. Hence, the ham-handed attempt to blunt pro-life arguments comparing abortionists with Nazis. He therefore makes a multi-pronged argument attempting to show why Jews, Slavs and other ethnic groups were wrongly re-defined as non-persons but the unborn (before a certain age, mind you, lest he be thought of as a barbarian) do not qualify for the same consideration.
The first prong of the argument is a further demonstration of the the circularity described before. The will of “the people” defines “personhood” and therefore murder. Wills points out that evangelicals are inconsistent in their attitudes about the murder of “persons” and fetuses.
Not even evangelicals act as if it were [murder]. If so, a woman seeking an abortion would be the most culpable person. She is killing her own child. But the evangelical community does not call for her execution.
This is a fair criticism of the evangelical community and its thinking, but it has nothing to do with whether or not fetuses are persons. Thus, this is a red herring argument.
He tries to build on his previous point with another legitimate criticism of evangelicals
About 10% of evangelicals, according to polls, allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest. But the circumstances of conception should not change the nature of the thing conceived. If it is a human person, killing it is punishing it for something it had nothing to do with. We do not kill people because they had a criminal parent.
This is true. Evangelicals do not believe in the death penalty for the victims of a crime. At least 90% of them don’t. We would posit that the 10% who would have not really seriously thought about the issue at all, or if they have, it has been through an emotional or pragmatic lens, not a biblical one.
Wills uses this deficit in biblical reasoning to make another series of arguments in favor of his position. He argues
Nor did the Catholic Church treat abortion as murder in the past. If it had, late-term abortions and miscarriages would have called for treatment of the well-formed fetus as a person, which would require baptism and a Christian burial. That was never the practice.
It is difficult to imagine that a Roman Catholic, even an apostate one like Wills, would make such a specious argument. Baptism for the dead was forbidden at the Synod of Hippo and the ban was confirmed at the Third Council of Carthage in the 4th century. Additionally, children born dead or spontaneously aborted are often given a Christian burial, just as if they had survived to term. This is easy to understand for those who acknowledge God’s sovereignty over human life. Interestingly, some are prevented from doing this by state laws which do not provide for the issue of death certificates, undoubtedly to protect abortionists from charges of murder.
What is difficult to understand why someone who had deliberately murdered their unborn infant through abortion would admit that it was anything but an “unviable tissue mass” unless they were either sociopathic or psychopathic. This argument begs the question. Why would someone who denied the humanity, let alone the “personhood,” of a fetus request a Christian burial for it?
Wills makes a desperate attempt to remove the Church from the argument by claiming that the Bible does not speak to the abortion issue
The subject of abortion is not scriptural. For those who make it so central to religion, this seems an odd omission. Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments — or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount — or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils.
More question begging. Several passages can be cited in support of the argument that the Bible speaks to the issue of abortion. Among these Exodus 21:22-25
If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
The focus of this passage is not so much the cause of the death of child or mother, i.e. the fighting men, but that the child or the mother is killed. No distinction between mother and child is made in the passage. That fact is borne out in the penalties. If mother and child survive, restitution is the penalty. If the mother and/or child die, the penalty for the men is death. It can only be argued that the Ten Commandments do not speak to abortion if you first prove that the fetus is not a human being worth of the protection of life by law. There’s nothing even remotely suggesting that “personhood” should be considered by the civil magistrate in assigning penalty.
Again this part of the circular nature of Wills’ argument. He has admitted that the fetus is human but claims that it is not a “person.” He has also failed to define that critical distinction or the fact that the distinction makes a difference biblically. The sixth Commandment is clear; “You shall not murder.”
In an entry on his blog, Dr. Al Mohler addresses the section of Wills’ article in question.
Abortion is not “treated in the early ecumenical councils” because abortion was not an issue in those debates. Neither was homosexuality . . . or any number of other issues. How exactly does Wills interpret “Thou shall not murder?” If abortion is not included here, what else is left out? Abortion is a theological issue because it deals with the questions of human life, personhood, the image of God, and the sanctity of the gift of life. There is no way that is can be anything less than theological at its core, which is why so many Christians take the issue with such seriousness…
Wills is certainly right that abortion is not specifically mentioned in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the early Christian creeds. He fails to mention, however, that it is specifically mentioned in the Didache — a compendium of early Christian teaching that claims an origin tied to the twelve disciples. The Didache states that a Christian “shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”
Wills “argument from silence” (also known as a proof by lack of evidence) cannot stand up to the volume emitted by the contrary evidence. The Bible and supporting documents speak to abortion- loudly and clearly. He further attempts to argue about the definition of “personhood” from a uniquely Roman Catholic perspective. Wills builds on the previously refuted “argument from silence” by quoting from the flawed syncretistic theories of carefully chosen “church fathers”
Lacking scriptural guidance, St. Thomas Aquinas worked from Aristotle’s view of the different kinds of animation — the nutritive (vegetable) soul, the sensing (animal) soul and the intellectual soul. Some people used Aristotle to say that humans therefore have three souls. Others said that the intellectual soul is created by human semen.
Aquinas denied both positions. He said that a material cause (semen) cannot cause a spiritual product. The intellectual soul (personhood) is directly created by God “at the end of human generation.” This intellectual soul supplants what had preceded it (nutritive and sensory animation). So Aquinas denied that personhood arose at fertilization by the semen. God directly infuses the soul at the completion of human formation.
Here we see Wills’ first real attempt at the definition of “personhood”. And he rests this attempt on the shoulders of a pagan Greek philosopher as refined by a 13th century Dominican priest, St. Thomas Aquinas, who was doing the best he could considering that the first true understanding of human biology and physiology was centuries into the future. Wills attempts to justify this by appealing to unnamed popes
[Abortion] is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for defending or condemning abortion. Even popes have said that the question of abortion is a matter of natural law, to be decided by natural reason. Well, the pope is not the arbiter of natural law. Natural reason is.
John Henry Newman, a 19th century Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, once wrote that “the pope, who comes of revelation, has no jurisdiction over nature.” The matter must be decided by individual conscience, not by religious fiat. As Newman said: “I shall drink to the pope, if you please — still, to conscience first, and to the pope afterward.”
Again we see a reliance on circular argumentation. Several problems here. We agree with Wills that the Pope, representing theological authority (to Roman Catholics, anyway), is not qualified to define “personhood,” nor, for that matter does he “have jurisdiction over nature.” Most theological authorities don’t want nor do any of them need to have that jurisdiction. Since God is in control and has already spoken authoritatively on these matters, Christian theologians need only point to the places in the Word where all human life regardless of artificially defined category is a gracious gift from God worthy of protection. They might start with
For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. [Psalm 139:13-16 NASV]
We cannot agree that Aristotle, Aquinas or “natural reason” (really, an appeal to an intellectual elite, whose arguments can be used to sway the “individual consciences” of the people”) are somehow better equipped to define the “real beginning” of human life or, as near as we can decipher, “personhood” than the inspired Word of God. In that light, these kinds of arguments are appeals to unqualified authority.
Wills is certain that he has made his case in each facet of his argument, so far. He believes that he has refuted evangelical comparisons of abortionists to genocides and removed the theological barriers to abortion by appealing to a will o’ the wisp in the form of “personhood.” In order to issue what he believes will be the coup de grace, he delves into a dangerous minefield that proves the complete undoing of all of the prior attempts at argument. It is a series of arguments based mostly on biological science. This is by far the weakest prong in his attack. Wills simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
If we are to decide the matter of abortion by natural law, that means we must turn to reason and science, the realm of Enlightened religion.
Of course, he has not actually proven that only natural law can decide the abortion question but he does open a window into his presuppositions; reason and science are the realm of “Enlightened religion (notice the capitalized “E”).” This is rational humanism, pure and simple. It is a religion in which man’s reason is paramount to God’s will and law. Under this philosophy God becomes either a powerless cosmic janitor following behind us, cleaning up our messes or is simply a benign observer who has been banished to His room with a view, locked in by man’s all-powerful reason and will. Sorry, but we don’t buy this.
Who are the relevant experts here? They are philosophers, neurobiologists, embryologists. Evangelicals want to exclude them because most give answers they do not want to hear. The experts have only secular expertise, not religious conviction. They, admittedly, do not give one answer — they differ among themselves, they are tentative, they qualify. They do not have the certitude that the religious right accepts as the sign of truth.
Wills builds a straw man here. No one wants to exclude the opinions of scientists or philosophers from the public arena or from the abortion debate. However, pro-lifers refuse to cede final word on the question especially when science has been, by the admission of Gary Wills, unable to arrive at, let alone approach, consensus on the question of the “true” beginning of life. Many scientists profess to not know when life “truly” begins because so much of the developmental process is still shrouded in mystery and many simply admit that life begins at conception, when human sperm penetrates human egg. Thus, many scientists, even those who reject biblical authority on the matter, agree with evangelicals that life begins at conception. Some of them reject the “personhood” argument for what it is; a convenient excuse for justifying the ending of an inconvenient or embarrassing pregnancy.
Wills tries to counter the fertilization argument
Defenders of the fetus say that life begins only after the semen fertilizes the egg, producing an embryo. But, in fact, two-thirds of the embryos produced this way fail to live on because they do not embed in the womb wall. Nature is like fertilization clinics — it produces more embryos than are actually used. Are all the millions of embryos that fail to be embedded human persons?
This is simply a non-sequitur. Why is humanity not synonymous with “personhood” and how is the fact that the majority of embryos do not implant change their status as human life? This is a red herring.
Having already built a straw man, Wills builds another, more gaudily dressed one
If one claimed, in the manner of Albert Schweitzer, that all life deserved moral respect, then plants have rights, and it might turn out that we would have little if anything to eat. And if one were consistently pro-life, one would have to show moral respect for paramecia, insects, tissue excised during a medical operation, cancer cells, asparagus and so on. Harvesting carrots, on a consistent pro-life hypothesis, would constitute something of a massacre.
Pro-human life Gary. You might find a few militant vegetarian evangelists who would hold to the arguments you posit, but even they would admit that as obligate aerobic organisms, people need to kill to eat. Albert Schweitzer, an apostate, did not hold to this absurd position either. He was essentially a theological liberal who revered human life and claimed to respect all life. We don’t know for sure what Schweitzer meant by the latter point but we understand his former one. We are not aware that Schweitzer ever stopped eating for any sustained period with the probable exception of his post-mortem period, which insofar as we are aware continues to the present.
Wills demonstrates another presupposition that has become pandemic, even among Christians, who should know better. Where and from whom do rights come from? It is clear that Wills believes in the modern idea that rights are born out of philosophical debate. Man is the final arbiter of what is and what is not a right. The Christian who thinks biblically must admit that only God can confer rights. He reveals what our rights and responsibilities are through His Law-Word, the Bible. Plants and animals do not and cannot have rights. They are under man’s dominion and man is under God’s decrees and laws regarding the treatment of them.
Wills realizes the objections his argument will raise and tries unsuccessfully to blunt it
Opponents of abortion will say that they are defending only human life. It is certainly true that the fetus is human life. But so is the semen before it fertilizes; so is the ovum before it is fertilized. They are both human products, and both are living things. But not even evangelicals say that the destruction of one or the other would be murder.
Wills is completely off the rails here. He demonstrates that he either does not understand the difference between a living human cell and a living human organism or that he is a master equivicator. The healthy living human organism produces living cells and those cells make up the living organism. Organisms can continue without individual cells. Individual cells cannot survive for more than a short time apart from the organism. Sperm and egg are specialized individual cells with only one-half the normal number of human chromosomes and one purpose- the production of a new genetically and biologically distinct organism. Neither is a distinct human life on its own. Both are merely cellular constituents of the separate organisms from which they emanate. That is, until sperm penetrates egg and recombination of DNA begins. The two halves have now joined to form a new distinct human organism.
He insists on digging this hole even deeper with this nearly incoherent rant
The universal mandate to preserve “human life” makes no sense. My hair is human life — it is not canine hair, and it is living. It grows. When it grows too long, I have it cut. Is that aborting human life? The same with my growing human fingernails. An evangelical might respond that my hair does not have the potential to become a person. True. But semen has the potential to become a person, and we do not preserve every bit of semen that is ejaculated but never fertilizes an egg.
This is sheer pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. Hair is not in any sense alive. It is a highly specialized protein strand. It is built by living hair follicles, specialized organs within living organisms. It grows because these organs continue to produce protein strands according to their embedded genetic code, something hair itself does not have. Human and canine hair are different because the hair follicles are from different species, not because hair is human or dog life. The same goes for fingernails which are specialized proteins that grow from the specialized cells in the nail beds. Furthermore, neither semen (a specially produced fluid that contains sperm), nor egg have the individual potential to produce a person. The argument about preserving semen is pure sophistry.
Wills now begins to act like a badly beaten fighter, both eyes swollen shut and swinging wildly away with powerless punches which fail to connect.
The question is not whether the fetus is human life but whether it is a human person, and when it becomes one. Is it when it is capable of thought, of speech, of recognizing itself as a person, or of assuming the responsibilities of a person? Is it when it has a functioning brain? Aquinas said that the fetus did not become a person until God infused the intellectual soul. A functioning brain is not present in the fetus until the end of the sixth month at the earliest.
Not surprisingly, that is the earliest point of viability, the time when a fetus can successfully survive outside the womb.
Frankly, we doubt that Aquinas said exactly what is attributed to him here. But if he did then so what? Who left Aristotle or Aquinas or Gary Wills or anyone else in charge of defining “personhood” and who says that this arbitrarily defined characteristic is above humanity in qualifying someone for protection of his life? And what exactly is the “intellectual soul,” anyway? Wills claims that the fetus doesn’t have a functioning brain until the end of the 6th month. First, this is demonstrably false. Second, so what if it wasn’t? Infants are now surviving premature birth at 23 weeks (end of 5th-beginning of 6th month). By Wills’ math the infants brain does not work until about the 27th week. Are we to believe that infants survive without an operating brain for 4 weeks? What makes the infant move around in the womb, causes it’s heart to beat and causes it to react to stimuli if it has no brain activity?
More wild swings follow
Opponents of abortion like to show sonograms of the fetus reacting to stimuli. But all living cells have electric and automatic reactions. These are like the reactions of Terri Schiavo when she was in a permanent vegetative state. Aquinas, following Aristotle, called the early stage of fetal development vegetative life. The fetus has a face long before it has a brain. It has animation before it has a command center to be aware of its movements or to experience any reaction as pain.
Whether through serendipity or through some sort of causal connection, it now seems that the onset of a functioning central nervous system with a functioning cerebral cortex and the onset of viability occur around the same time — the end of the second trimester, a time by which 99% of all abortions have already occurred.
What controls reaction to stimuli, animation, heart beats, “electrical” and “automatic” reactions? It is of course, a brain. A completely developed one? No, not necessarily, but a functioning one? Certainly. This reveals the ugly underbelly of the argument. It’s not just about the unborn, it’s also about the brain-injured and intellectually impaired, though Wills doesn’t state it directly. He doesn’t have to. The reference to Terri Schiavo, the woman executed by starvation and dehydration by the state of Florida for the crime of being brain damaged says it all. Wills is making the case for retroactive abortion for those who do not meet certain minimum and arbitrarily defined (by “qualified experts” mind you) criteria for “brain function.”
Of course, the entire argument posited in these paragraph begs the question, again. Why is a fetus not necessarily a person? Why is the presence of a fully functioning cerebral cortex necessary for “personhood” and who says so (besides Wills, Aquinas and Aristotle)? Why does it matter that 99% (or whatever percentage the real number is) of abortions have already occurred by an arbitrarily set developmental milestone?
Wills closes with a monumental equivocation and proves the argument we made earlier, i.e., that the final decision on where life “truly” begins is in the hands of “the people,” giving women the ultimate power to decide if it is a fetal non-person or a child.
These are difficult matters, on which qualified people differ. It is not enough to say that whatever the woman wants should go. She has a responsibility to consider whether and when she may have a child inside her, not just a fetus. Certainly by the late stages of her pregnancy, a child is ready to respond with miraculous celerity to all the personal interchanges with the mother that show a brain in great working order.
Wills again begs the question by equivocating the meaning of the word fetus. The definition is an unborn child. Interestingly enough, he is arguing here against late-term abortions, except, of course, in the case of some form of mental deformity which qualifies the child to be counted among the non-persons unworthy of the protection of the civil magistrate. An unfair accusation? Wills throws this defense under the bus by citing the Schiavo case and makes his intent perfectly clear. Those that are brain injured, the mentally disabled, and those not yet possessing a fully developed brain are non-persons (note the reference to a “…brain in great working order…”). They have no right to protection under the law and certainly cannot rely on the tender mercies of a mother who is encouraged to view the complete helplessness of her unborn child as carte blanche to abort it, if she wishes.
In a world where the qualifications for life are set by people like Gary Wills the only hope for the unborn to escape from death is the unlikely demonstration of a “miraculous celerity” in avoiding the abortionists instruments.