Deceptive or Misleading Politics as Usual vs. Outright Lies

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One reason I read the LTI Blog is because I regularly come across important information there that I've never noticed in any of the abortion discussions in the philosophical literature or in any political blogs not focused on abortion. (This isn't the only reason. It's the only pro-life blog I've ever found focused mostly on abortion that is pretty well-informed philosophically. Several key contributors there are well-read in the philosophical literature and are pretty good at explaining the difference between good and bad arguments.)

In a post mostly about how to argue with those who disagree in a way that doesn't shut down discussion (which would be good for anyone to pay heed to), Jay Watts points to two documents I was unaware of. Both have to do with the common pro-choice argument that if abortion is made illegal again it will lead to lots of deaths from back-alley abortions.

The first document is an excerpt from material written by the Medical Director of Planned Parenthood in 1960, stating quite plainly that 90% of illegal abortions at the time were done by physicians in their offices in a way that was as safe for the mother as it would have been if it were legal. [The Wikipedia entry for "Unsafe Abortion" includes a key quote from this excerpt also, for those who don't want to trust the PDF. So this is out there for those who know what to look for, but I'd never been directed toward it before.]

The second is from NARAL founder Bernard Nathanson, admitting that the pro-choice arguments before Roe v. Wadeabout the numbers of deaths from illegal abortions were simply fabrications on the order of 10-20 times the amount that an accurate assessment could have produced.

I've always thought this argument was pretty ineffective anyway except for someone who is already pro-choice, for reasons Jay mentions at the end of the post. If you're open to the possibility that the fetus has significant moral status, then the fact that killing a fetus illegally might also produce a death of the mother is irrelevant. If you're going to legalize a particular kind of murder (or even something that, for all you know, might turn out to be murder but you're not sure) then legalizing it just because it produces a second death when illegal turns out to justify a lot of acts that are unquestionably murder by anyone's standards.

It's one thing to offer an argument that should only convince those who are already on your side but is a little deceptive because it makes an emotional appeal that isn't really all that rational on pro-life premises. It's quite another to use deliberate deception just the get the political result you want. A lot of misrepresentation happens in politics, and that includes misrepresentations of those who hold contrary views, abortion included. That's politics as usual. I try to resist it, and I hope I'm better than most at stopping it, but it's not the worst kind of dishonesty, since most of the people who do it simply assume the worst of their political opposition or of those who take contrary moral stands, and they at least think what they're saying is true, even if their standard of proof is pretty low in many cases. But simply making up numbers to argue for a policy change is much worse than politics as usual, and that's what these two leaders of the pro-choice movement admitted that the movement had done to get abortion legalized.

Like politics as usual, this happens on both sides of the aisle. But I think we have a much more significant duty to point it out and criticize it when it's this sort of deception, because this is a knowing twisting of the truth merely to get a certain result rather than simply assuming the worst of your opponent. We should avoid both, but it's worth distinguishing between the two and placing an even stronger emphasis on the avoiding the second. I will sometimes point out when I think one side misstates the other's position or ignores how an argument will fail given the assumptions of the other side. It's a lot less common when we can be sure that they're outright lying, though, and it's even more rare to find someone admitting it after the fact. It's kind of sad that this outright lie has become the basis of a fairly common pro-choice argument for retaining the status quo in abortion laws.

[cross-posted at Evangel]


I thought people who felt entitled to lie were called either statisticians or 'non-absolutists'! Anyway, I don’t see the point of arguing over a statement made half a century ago by a PP director: It certainly wasn’t possible to order a couple of pills over the internet and have a DIY abortion at home 50 years ago. I agree that professional interests are relevant, e.g. abortion bans may be seen as the medical profession establishing claims and taking over the business of midwives. So I’m not surprised if doctors are prepared to perform ‘safe’ abortions on women where abortions are illegal. But these doctors can certainly charge any exorbitant amount they please so wealthy women are ripped off by even wealthier doctors who operate ‘under the table’, while it’s the health of women who can’t afford ‘black market fees’ which is put at greater risk.

I suspect we overestimate rationality both in individual reproductive decision-making and in abortion politics: If it’s a fact that having a baby is always more risky for a woman than having a termination then what? A woman will go to great lengths and will shoulder extraordinary costs and risks in fertility treatment if she wants a baby, so as to have one. And so will a pregnant woman to get an abortion, so as not to have one. So perhaps pro-lifers just care about fertilised ova and are no patriarchal/paternalistic misogynists who wish poor women in particular to suffer ill health or worse. But if an abortion ban took effect in the US tomorrow the result would be more harm to their unintended adversaries than good for their intended beneficiaries; and pro-lifers know it.

I think a problem for both pro-choicers and pro-lifers is to dissociate themselves from foreseeable consequences of policies which they claim it is not their intention to bring about. When it becomes technically possible to harvest embryos from women’s bodies without harming the woman or the embryo and implant them in the wombs of pro-life volunteer surrogates, then we’ll be able to assess both how many women will want to turn down the offer of someone else continuing their unwanted pregnancy and how many women will volunteer to carry another woman’s pregnancy to term rather than have the embryo destroyed. This is the sort of crucial experiment that will put everyone’s sincerity to the test. But it's science fiction at the moment, and so seem to me the conditions under which abortion ‘might turn out to be murder’.

My reason for posting this was twofold. First, I wanted to make the distinction between outright lying and mere politics as usual, which involves deception of a lesser sort. This was just such a clear example that it gave me reason to want to post about the distinction. Second, sometimes pro-choice arguments today do include this false information, and I had never seen the corrective to it, so I thought it was worth recognizing the truth of the matter.

One source of resistance I have to your argument is that it strikes me as consequence-based resistance to something that seems to me to be a deontological obligation.

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