But Abortion!

There exists a particularly obnoxious set of visuals and memes produced by both conservative and less sophisticated liberal social media pages (looking at you, Occupy Democrats). They have to do with hypocrisy, and often revolve around abortion.

An example from the Left reads: “Only in America can you be pro-death penalty, pro-war, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-guns, pro-torture, anti-health care, and anti-food stamps and still call yourself ‘pro-life.'”

One from the Right goes: “Oh I get it now… The death penalty is bad, abortion is good.”

The implication or accusation of hypocrisy appears in conversation as well. Often when I post or write something critical of some horrible thing it’s only a matter of time before a conservative friend or acquaintance drops by with the tired “Yet you support abortion rights, what a hypocrite.” There is a good chance if you’re reading this right now it is because you just said something along those lines, as my quest to one day be able to reply in article form to any political comment or question, to save vast amounts of time, continues.

The problem with such accusations of hypocrisy is that they are so easily reversed. Well, well, well, you’re pro-life yet not a pacifist — what we’ve got here is a hypocrite! Why, you’re a pacifist yet somehow pro-choice — at least be morally consistent! 

Typically, when someone comes along guns blazing in this fashion, they’re employing the whataboutism fallacy. It’s distracting from or even discrediting whatever was originally posited by accusing someone of hypocrisy. So perhaps I post about how I think we shouldn’t conduct drone bombings in the Middle East and Africa because they kill far more innocent civilians than actual targets. When the inevitable “but abortion!” comes, there is usually no agreement concerning the immorality of the original issue addressed. Sometimes there is, but usually the individual only provides it later (when pressed), after the implied or explicit accusation of hypocrisy. The individual isn’t much interested in discussing whether the original issue is or isn’t moral. He or she wants to discuss abortion and make sure you know you’re two-faced. In turn, I try to keep things on-topic (and celebrate agreements where we find them), a debate preference that seems to annoy some people to no end. I often say that each issue, each moral question, needs to be weighed on its own merits. People don’t often grasp right away that this belief is connected to whether or not someone is actually a hypocrite, and I don’t explain it because that would further derail the conversation away from whatever the original topic was. As a remedy, I’ll briefly explain my thoughts here.

Say you’re a conservative and you’ve posted about how killing babies in the womb is wrong. Here I come with “But you support our War on Terror, which kills countless pregnant women and other innocent human beings. Hypocritical much?” If you’re like me, you’d be somewhat annoyed at this distraction from the cause you were trying to advocate for, or perhaps you’re unlike me and don’t mind taking whatever detour someone wants to go on. Regardless, you likely think and believe something along the lines of: These things are not the same. They’re a bit different, they have slightly different contexts — even if they both result in similar tragedies. You’re probably counting the ways in which they’re distinct or shouldn’t be compared right now.

In thinking so, you are essentially acknowledging that each moral question should be weighed on its own merits. Unless you actually think you’re a hypocrite, you believe these are slightly different situations and therefore different stances concerning them may be morally justified.

And you would of course be correct. These situations — torture, war, the death penalty, abortion, homicide, unregulated gun ownership, free market healthcare, and on and on — are unique, and have very different questions you have to answer before you can make a decision on whether they’re ethical. You have to work through unique factors.

Many of the most deeply conservative and fervently religious people believe abortion is never morally permissible under any circumstance, while others (conservatives and liberals, religious persons and nonreligious persons, etc.) believe there are some or many instances where it is. The purpose of this article isn’t to argue one way or the other, which I have done elsewhere. No matter what you think about abortion, I hope to simply demonstrate that people across the political spectrum are a tad too quick to use the h-word. So what are some standard questions about abortion that make folks think differently?

  • Was the pregnancy the result of rape?
  • Does birth endanger the life of the mother?
  • Should the government force you to give birth against your will?
  • Is it less moral to commit abortion as the pregnancy goes on? Does the age of the fetus matter?
  • Does the fact that women seek unsafe black market abortions, resulting in health complications or death, in societies where abortion is illegal change the moral equation at all?

Those are important questions to think about and answer when deciding whether or when abortion is morally permissible, and each person will answer differently.

But the relevant question here is: Do we also need to ask those questions when we ponder the morality of war?

Not really. Those questions aren’t going to be very helpful when deciding whether massacring civilians while dropping bombs to kill terrorist suspects overseas is the right thing to do. The questions concerning war won’t sound like the questions concerning abortion, and vice versa. Each issue, each situation, has its own array of unique questions to consider. They’re truly dissimilar contexts. This is why accusations of hypocrisy like we saw above don’t make a lot of sense.

In fact, such accusations of hypocrisy are so easily reversed because they don’t really have much to do with hypocrisy at all. It’s a bit like saying it’s hypocritical to think killing someone in cold blood is wrong but killing someone in self-defense is not. It’s the same result, right? In either case someone is killed. You hypocrite! Well, no, these are different circumstances with different moral questions and answers. Real hypocrisy has more to do with situations that are essentially the same. If I curse like a sailor but lambaste others for cursing, that’s hypocrisy. If you think women should be forced to give birth regardless of circumstance but wouldn’t think the same for men if they could get pregnant, that’s hypocrisy. If you’re Mitch McConnell, that’s hypocrisy. And so on. It has to do with holding yourself to different standards than you hold others in the same situation, which is pretty disingenuous (the word actually derives from the Greek word ὑπόκρισις [hypókrisis], meaning play-acting or deceit). But in different situations you have unique things to figure out and may therefore end up with different moral answers. Even a close analog to abortion, infanticide (more universally opposed, yet not without exception, as with the infant in constant agony from an incurable illness), has a difference people have to mull over, namely that the baby has not yet been born. One can think both are wrong, that the difference is insignificant, but the fact remains it is a literal difference — the situations aren’t identical. They’re much closer than other comparisons, true, but there is a difference that is more significant to some than others. That’s my point. So you have to ask different questions and decide for yourself if different scenarios have the same moral conclusions; they may, but when they do not it isn’t necessarily hypocrisy, simply because the scenarios were not indistinguishable.

(This isn’t the only context in which “hypocrisy” isn’t really used correctly. I once thought of writing an article entitled No One Knows What Hypocrisy Means after I was called a hypocrite for frequently criticizing white attacks against innocent people of color but rarely — though not never — doing the same for the reverse. But one is an exponentially bigger societal problem than the other. I didn’t posit that one is the wrong thing to do and the other the right thing to do; it simply makes sense to focus most of our attention and energies on more prevalent problems.)

The conservative can say to the liberal, “You’re a hypocrite for being a pacifist yet pro-choice,” but why bother? The liberal can simply respond, “And you’re a hypocrite for being pro-life yet pro-war.” Stalemate. Are we all hypocrites then? I would posit, instead, that none of us are. I personally don’t believe a conservative who is pro-life yet pro-war is a hypocrite (if I did, we know what that would be an example of). This is because I know these issues are not the same, that the conservative has different reasoning for and answers to unique moral questions that could result in divergent conclusions between scenarios. I may not agree with that reasoning or those answers one iota, but I understand them and how they may not lead to the same place.