Essay:Rhetorical analysis of abortion essays
“Abortion is murder!” you hear a protester scream. Perhaps he is holding a sign that reads the same thing, in an obnoxious, all-capitals font. Across the street, you may see another demonstrator, supporting another argument: “Women, not fetuses”, or some such declaration. The issue they are arguing is, of course, abortion. But the sentiments they express—what do they mean, underneath the simple polemics of “pro-life” and “pro-choice”? What arguments do they subscribe to that led them to hold those positions?
Abortion is without a doubt important. If the “pro-life” movement is right, then it means that, since the Supreme Court affirmed the right to an abortion in 1973 (the year the Supreme Court ruled the right to an abortion constitutionally protected in the precedent-establishing case Roe v. Wade), 40 million innocent human beings have been murdered. If the “pro-choice” movement is right, then abortion is part of a larger issue: the fundamental human right to control one’s own body. Either presents undeniable human rights issues. The issue is also a personal interest—I find polemics fascinating.
Finding structured, well-thought-out arguments regarding abortion proves rather difficult. Anti-abortion papers in particular often consist of the refrain “Abortion is murder!” repeated in slightly different ways. (One cannot help but see irony in pro-lifers complaints that pro-choicers caricature and polemicize them, when the quality of many of their essays suggests they are caricatures and polemicists.) A disturbing percentage of these anti-abortion essays have been written by Christian-private-school-educated girls, who are only capable of parroting whatever anti-abortion propaganda was fed to them. Conversely, pro-choice arguments often assume abortion is a woman’s right, and then proceed from there. It can make for some very frustrating reading.
Nonetheless, structured, well-thought-out arguments concerning abortion can be found. One such writing is the pro-life essay “Arguments Against Abortion”, by Kerby Anderson. Another essay, cumbersomely entitled “Abortion: Is it Possible to be both “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice”? or The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”, by Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan, seeks a middle ground between the extremes of pro-life and pro-choice.
A detrimental effect occurs whenever people discuss issues as controversial and polemicized as abortion, in that arguments often end up “preaching to the choir”. People who are pro-life generally only expose themselves to arguments that reinforce their existing opinion, and vice versa. The audience is restricted on both sides. Druyan and Sagan’s essay strives to break this ideological constraint, and strives to address both sides equally, in an attempt to reach an agreeable solution for both sides. This unique approach widens its potential audience to include all but the most diehard polemics from either side. This contrasts with Anderson’s approach, who, in the arrogance so often held by writers with strict religious constraints, assumes the opposing side is actually interested in hearing his arguments. (They won’t be, as I’ve stated earlier.) Anderson further restricts his audience by citing biblical arguments against abortion, alienating any non-Christians less than a paragraph in. In case any non-Christians stayed through the remainder of the text, he disregards them again in the essay’s final line: “The Bible and logic are on the side of the Christian who wants to stand for the sanctity of human life.” The likely audience for “Arguments Against Abortion” is biblical literalist Christians who already firmly lean towards the pro-life side, and desire to better educate themselves about pro-life arguments.
Anderson begins his essay with a cringe-worthy "this essay will be about"-style introduction, proudly demonstrating his awesome sixth-grade-level essay skills. The claims he makes in “Arguments Against Abortion” are all claims of value. "Arguments Against" uses biblical, medical, legal, and philosophical arguments to convince us that abortion is immoral and unethical. His first subclaim is that the Bible supports a pro-life ideology, an argument from authority. Unfortunately, this argument fails entirely. The entire basis for the Bible as a source of authority is the tautology “The Bible is true because God says so; he says so in the Bible.” This does not hold up rhetorically, and completely disregards biblical criticism, an entire branch of scholarship predicated on the fact that the Bible is the work of humans (and hence not divine or particularly useful as a moral guide). Anderson may think he is using logos, but he is actually using pathos, because for Christians the Bible elicits an immediate and powerful emotional and spiritual response. This is a classic mistake committed by the religious. Furthermore, by citing the Bible, Anderson damages his ethos by suggesting his arguments from authority are less than authoritative. Citing the Bible as an authority also reveals Anderson’s most significant constraint: his religion.
Anderson’s second claim is that medical science supports a pro-life position. In his essay, he argues that because an embryo is genetically distinct from the mother at the moment of conception, it is an individual, and morally cannot be terminated by the mother. He then uses the medical definitions for death to define life, in order to demonstrate that an embryo is indeed alive. Most significantly, he cites the onset of brainwave functions (at about 40 days into gestation) as proof that a fetus is fully human. “Arguments Against” then addresses the issue of whether a fetus can feel pain (it does). Anderson’s last medical arguments are pure pathos. “[Using a sonogram, we] can discern eyes ears, fingers, a nose, and a mouth. Our visual senses tell us this is a baby growing and maturing. This is not a piece of protoplasm; this is a baby inside the womb” (Anderson). He effectively tugs at our heartstrings with this imagery. He concludes his medical arguments by affirming his belief that medical science requires acknowledgment of a zygote as full human being at the moment of conception.
Anderson’s medical arguments are effective, but they prove to be specious, as I will address later.
The next set of arguments in “Arguments Against” is legal. Anderson claims that the 1973 landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which effectively struck down laws banning abortion, violates “standard legal reasoning”. Anderson rejects the ruling, which declined to define when life begins in the womb yet still overturned abortion laws in fifty states. He reasons that if the Supreme Court refused to define when life begins, then they should have erred on the humane side, and struck down abortion. He emotionally proclaims that they allowed “over 30 million abortions (roughly the size of Canada) in the United States” (Anderson) to happen.
While his logical reasoning is sound, Anderson also damages his ethos with his misunderstanding of Roe v. Wade. The primary basis of the ruling was that abortion laws violated Due Process, which holds that laws must be apply to everyone and be enforced equally. Restrictions on abortion were historically only enforced against poor or minority women—wealthy white women were generally given a free pass. This bias violated the principle of Due Process, as stated in the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution. Additionally, Anderson gets one of his facts wrong: Roe v. Wade only overturned abortion laws in forty-six states, not all fifty.
“Arguments Against” concludes its line of arguments with philosophical arguments against abortion. In essence, Anderson argues that any other definition of human beings would condone infanticide, which is a rather broad statement to make. Surely, there must be some alternative way of defining humanity?
Finding an unconventional yet philosophically sound definition of humanity is exactly what Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s essay “The Question of Abortion” attempts to do. Unlike many others on the subject, the two of them make a claim of policy, rather than value. Druyan and Sagan begin by acknowledging the controversy surrounding abortion, the complexity of the issue, and observing the strength of arguments used by both sides. This introduction marks their essay as unique among abortion essays. Most abortion essays do not acknowledge the other side’s arguments as legitimate. The essay methodically goes through and addresses each sides concerns and hang-ups, relying predominantly on logical reasoning.
Druyan and Sagan begin by addressing the most common pro-life arguments. “A newborn baby is surely the same being it was just before birth”, so it cannot be moral to kill a fetus close to birth. (Druyan & Sagan). The authors build ethos when they proceed to acknowledge the pro-choice counter-arguments. They note the extreme rarity of partial-birth abortions, and discuss pro-choicers worries of a slippery slope towards total state control of women’s reproductive rights.
“The Question of Abortion” continues in this manner, methodically considering each side’s arguments and counter-arguments. In doing so, Druyan and Sagan not only utilize logos in the analysis but they build a sense of credibility, a powerful ethos.
The authors’ most powerful argument regards how to define a human being—one who receives the rights inherent to human beings. A human being cannot be defined as “potential”, or we would be compelled to protect every sperm and ovum, an absurd impracticality. Nor can it begin at conception, because most zygotes (fertilized egg) naturally fail to implant in the uterus. Humanity in a fetus cannot be defined by whether it has developed a heart, or lungs, or toenails, or fingerprints, or a recognizably human face, because such things are superficial and are not what make us human. The only standard left is the brain. Druyan and Sagan deal with this last in scientific and philosophical terms. They point out that it is only the higher brain functions that differentiate us from other animals. However, scans conducted of infant brains show that most babies do not develop such functions until thirty days after birth. Using that as an absolute standard would condone infanticide, but the authors sidestep the issue by erring on the safe side. The earliest a fetus has ever been known to show higher brain functions (as determined by scans of fetal brain activity) is at six months of age. Until the fetus is six months old, Druyan and Sagan conclude in “The Question of Abortion”, abortion should be allowed and protected.
Anderson, Kerby. "Arguments Against Abortion." Probe Ministries. 05 Aug 2003. Probe Ministries. 31 Feb 2008 <http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/arg-abor.html>.
Sagan, Carl. Billions and Billions. 1st. New York City: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1997.