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Great Beethoven fallacy

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The Great Beethoven fallacy is a rhetorical argument sometimes used by pro-life proponents. It essentially judges that terminating a pregnancy would have prevented the existence of an extraordinary human.

The argument[edit]

This anti-abortion argument was created by Maurice Baring, a prominent Roman Catholic. It was taken up by British MP Norman St. John Stevas and critiqued by Peter Medawar (who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1960) and Jean Medawar.

Imagine two doctors in a hypothetical discussion:

Doctor 1: "I want your opinion about terminating a pregnancy. The father was syphilitic, the mother had tuberculosis. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth also had tuberculosis. What would you have done?"
Doctor 2: "I would have terminated the pregnancy."
Doctor 1: "Then you would have murdered Beethoven."


This argument is fractally wrong. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins notes that 'robbing' a human embryo of its potential life through abortion is "a rhetorical argument whose extreme stupidity is its only defence against a charge of serious dishonesty." He goes on to state that the question, and the legend behind the tale, are entirely false, noting that Beethoven was the oldest surviving child of his parents (being second only to one who died in infancy — which was common at the time), was not disabled as a child (though deaf with old age), and neither parent had syphilis nor tuberculosis at the time of his birth.

If we suppose for a moment that Beethoven truly was born in the described configuration of parents, siblings, and medical conditions, the argument is merely an elaborate non sequitur and an appeal to pity. The Medawars point out the following:

The reasoning behind this odious little argument is breathtakingly fallacious, for unless it is being suggested that there is some causal connection between having a tubercular mother and a syphilitic father and giving birth to a musical genius the world is no more likely to be deprived of a Beethoven by abortion than by chaste abstinence from intercourse.

Furthermore, it is equally ridiculous to suggest that the decision to terminate a pregnancy, regardless of the outcome, has any bearing on the potential for the future.


Pro-choicer: "I want your opinion about terminating a pregnancy. The mother's had three children already. The first two died of diphtheria, and her third child also died within a year. She is pregnant, and the father is either her first cousin or half-uncle. Would you recommend she have an abortion?"
Pro-lifer: "No."
Pro-choicer: "So, would you like to know what the life you saved did?"
Pro-lifer: "Of course!" (The pro-lifer then goes into a fantasy about somebody growing up and curing cancer or AIDS.)
Pro-choicer: Let's see, he killed six million Jews, some five million other people he didn't like, all for reasons out of their control, dragged the Earth into a long bloody war unlike any that preceded it.
Pro-lifer: Oh my god, you are totally right! Let's kill every baby before they are born, because potentially they could be another Hitler!

This isn't actually an argument for having an abortion, only a demonstration of the fact that an aborted fetus could as easily have turned out to be a monster as the next Beethoven. Since this is impossible to predict, there's no use taking it into consideration.

An argument somewhat akin to this underlies Roald Dahl's short story Genesis and Catastrophe, concerning the birth of Adolf Hitler, and is similar to the plot of Stephen Fry's novel Making History in which a time machine sends back pills that make Adolf Hitler's father sterile, preventing his birth (although this backfires when a worse dictator comes to power instead of him).

See also[edit]