Who's Counting: Abortion Through the Looking Glass

ByJohn Allen Paulos

Nov. 6, 2005 — -- Although abortion battles are in the news with the nominations of new Surpreme Court justices in recent months, the arguments we hear about the issue are all rather familiar and stale. In an effort to introduce a new, albeit somewhat fanciful, argument, let me begin with a classic story that is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

Seated at a posh dinner party, Shaw asks the woman sitting next to him if she'd sleep with him for $1 million. She laughs and says she would, after which he asks her if she'd do so for $10. Outraged, she says, "What do you think I am?" He replies, "That has just been established. Now we're just haggling about the price."

Such hyperbolic extrapolations and exaggerations are useful when questioning the absoluteness of people's beliefs and so might be helpful with an issue like abortion, in which people often adopt an inflexible and dogmatic pro-life position.

Anti-abortion groups sometimes employ this technique in their skirmishes with pro-choice groups: If an abortion at two months is OK, they ask, why not one at six months? And if one at six months is acceptable, why not kill infants, or toddlers, or the very old?

A more recent example occurred during William Bennett's radio show last month. The former Reagan administration secretary of education got himself in trouble when a caller to his show prompted Bennett to refer to an intriguing and quite plausible argument made by the economist Steven Levitt. Levitt, the author of "Freakonomics," maintained that the decline in crime in the '90s was in large part the result of the significant increase in abortions in the '70s.

Bennett found this hypothesis morally repellent. Wanting to show that even if the hypothesis were true, it would still not justify abortion in his eyes, Bennett exaggerated the argument and introduced the element of race with the stated intent of showing the argument's deficiencies.

Not surprisingly, he was attacked as a racist. I'm not a fan of his political conservatism or of his moral unctuousness, but I don't see his argument as evidence of racism. He used a common sort of logical stratagem, which can easily be taken the wrong way by people not accustomed to it. Had he not been ad-libbing, he could easily have made a similar point without causing offense by bringing up the extraneous element of race.

In any case, at the risk of suffering similar attacks from a different swath of the political spectrum, consider the following argument, which also depends on a contrary-to-fact exaggeration to make its point. It's an argument that pro-choice proponents might use to undermine the belief of some abortion opponents in the absolute inviolability of the fetus's right to life.

Let's ask ourselves what position opponents of abortion -- say on the Supreme Court or elsewhere -- might take if two biological facts about the world were to change. The first assumption we'll make is that for some unknown reason -- a strange new virus, a hole in the ozone layer, some food additive or poison -- women throughout the world suddenly become pregnant with 10 to 20 fetuses at a time. The second assumption is that advances in neonatal technology make it possible for doctors to easily save some or all of these fetuses a few months after conception, but if they don't intervene at this time all the fetuses will die.

Abortion opponents who believe that all fetuses have an absolute right to life would surely opt for some intervention. Otherwise, all the fetuses would die.

Their choice would thus be either to adhere to their absolutist position and be overwhelmed by a population explosion of overwhelming magnitude or else act to save only one or a few of the fetuses. The latter choice would be tantamount to abortion since all the fetuses are viable. It would, nevertheless, take someone very, very doctrinaire to opt to have the birth rate increase, at least initially, by a factor of 10 to 20.

This is obviously not a knockdown, airtight argument (although delivered to the right audience, it might result in knock downs). As already noted, however, it's not the usual boilerplate and may induce induce fresh thinking in some people.

The argument's point is that if certain contingent biological facts were to change, then presumably even ardent abortion opponents would change their position, suggesting that their position is itself contingent and not absolute. After this is acknowledged, the haggling over the details might proceed.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNews.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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