Deceptive or Misleading Politics as Usual vs. Outright Lies
by Jeremy Pierce
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 blog I’ve ever found focused entirely 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.]
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.