Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why High School Freshmen are Hardly Ever Really Pro-Choice

Every year I’ve been teaching (and that’s four), I have taught a unit on persuasive writing. Ostensibly, the focus is on structuring an argument in a logical and coherent manner, and maintaining a tone that is forceful and persuasive (as opposed to most arguing, which is rooted in belittling the opposing side, e.g. radio show hosts).

The kids are allowed to pick any topic, as long as it is controversial. I don’t limit the topics, and so I invariably am met with a bunch of essays on legalizing marijuana, lowering the drinking age, and stopping animal testing. Of course, I am also met with a bunch of papers on abortion. Bingo. These I like to deal with.

The kids know that I like to argue, and can argue for any side of any argument. One of my mantras is (and I’m sure I didn’t make this up), “You don’t really know your side of the argument until you completely understand the other side.” Toward this end, part of the paper must include a Devil’s Advocate: the strongest, most intelligent argument against their position. Because I emphasize this so much, I can pretty much argue anything I want without people feeling that I am pushing my beliefs; intelligent adolescents, at least in this culture, automatically rebel and defend themselves against “belief pushing.”

The other day, I was meeting with each individual student about their essay proposals, which were basically outlines for their papers. I was discussing with a pro-choice student (let’s call her Abigail) about her argument. Her three arguments were pretty much regurgitations or rewordings of the same idea: the government can’t make choices for women; and so even though I wouldn’t have one, women need to have the choice to have abortions. Abigail’s Devil’s Advocate didn’t even mention the fact that pro-life people claim the fetus is a child.

Very simply, I explained to Abigail that we don’t have the freedom to choose whatever we want; for example, “Abigail, are you free to go over and strangle Ben over there?” Abigail shook her head. Then I connected this to the real pro-life argument, that of the child’s, albeit inchoate, life. “So the pro-life argument says that, just like you don’t have the freedom to strangle Ben, you don’t have the freedom to take the life of a child in the womb, even though it isn’t as tangible.” Abigail is a smart girl, and I could almost physically see the argument sinking into her intellect. She thought for a few moments, and then said back to me: “So how I am supposed to argue against that?”

What I have realized through this experience and others like it is this: Children, at least up to the age of 16 or so, are hardly ever truly pro-choice. If I took a poll in class, I’d bet it would be split 50/50. But if I broke down the argument, fairly mind you, there would hardly be anyone arguing for abortion. You see, to truly argue for abortion, you must make some intellectual concessions that an innocent and natural intellect simply cannot accept. For example, a lot of true pro-choice people accept that the fetus may be a baby at some point in the womb, and that either a) we can somehow draw a line as to where that is, such as the third trimester or something like that, or b) the individual right of the woman and her freedom to choose takes precedence over the life of the unborn baby. But what I find absolutely amazing (perhaps it shouldn’t amaze me) is that innocent Reason, epitomized by extremely intelligent honors 15 year-olds, can’t make either of those concessions. In fact, they seem either ridiculous or cold-blooded to them.

This is not a proof of the invalidity of abortion in the normal sense; but I think it points out something about the potential flaws of purely intellectual and abstract thought. An intelligent person of the 21st century can abstractly and rationally defend the act of abortion, using women’s rights and America’s idea of freedom to back him up. But a youth, who is less used to purely abstract thought, simply cannot grapple with the basic idea that abortion is the killing – or at the very least, the potential killing – of a human being. They can’t get past this point.

Pure intellectual thought, unconnected to physical reality – as in the case of Descartes – can lead to gross error; and perhaps the budding intellects of freshmen in high school can help us avoid these sorts of errors.


  1. This observation of yours reminds me of many of my philosophy classes. From a Dilettante's perspective, one hardly probes the deeper intellctual arguments of an issue. But when one faces a truly difficult counter argument, one is hard pressed to counter cogently, as least on the spot. I find myself relunctantly submitting to my professors' arguments not because I believe them, but becuase I was not equipped with a rebuttal.

    So what more strikes me from your observation is not that your students couldn't argue against what's at the root of the abortion argument, but rather that they haven't even heard that side of the argument yet! Do you really think that your students never heard that a fetus could be a person? This seems very telling about their parenting and what kids these days are (or aren't) exposed to. Or maybe I expect too much from a 15 year old.

  2. My dear Yoda, it is a pleasure to see your name once again in the blogosphere.

    You ask if my student had ever heard the pro-life argument that the fetus may be a child. Of course she had. What she hadn’t thought about was trying to argue against that idea, even though she is pro-choice. As philosophers and logicians, we understand that a strong argument must be able to defeat the strongest Devil’s Advocate the opposing side can provide. However, not all 15 year-olds have considered that.

    In their mind, there’s an argument on one side, and an argument on the other. You decide which you like more, and then choose. What they perhaps don’t see is that if one is correct, it needs to be able to defeat the other. Not understanding this is a consequence of two things: First, the students are freshmen in high school. Second, in a world of subjectivity, people don’t always see arguing as coming to the truth. It’s all about strength of evidence, etc. and not really finding the truth in the matter – truth is subjective anyway, the story goes.