Pro-Birth, Pro-Life, Whole-Life, and Pro-Torture

Probably many of our readers have encountered the following bit of rhetoric leftists have started using in order to counter the basic facts that they are pro-abortion, that abortion is heinous, and that millions of humans are killed each year out of thoughtless or selfish desires culminating in this barbaric practice. Here is an example from the Huffington Post and another by Benjamin Corey, a popular chap in liberal, Christian circles who fancies himself an enlightened, former-fundie. The ploy is to describe pro-lifers as “pro-birth” while portraying themselves as as pro-life or “whole-life.”  Conservatives are merely pro-birth and don’t care about life outside of the womb. If they did, they would not support (a) the death penalty, torture, war, the continued existence of nuclear weapons, drone strikes, and the Second Amendment; instead, they would support (b) generous welfare programs, universal healthcare, a living wage (see–it is about life!), higher minimum wages, and in general what the whole-life Democrat movement supports.

Here at Rightly Considered, we will help cut through the rhetoric to lay bare the sophistry at work and shall make short work of it. Let us start in reverse order with (b). First, in this discussion, there is often an equivocation on words “life” and “pro-life.” “Pro-life,” in context of abortion, refers to being for the life of a human (a fetus) and against her being killed. Being pro-life in the context of talking about welfare, minimum wages, and so forth refers to the totality of one’s life and whether one has a well-lived life. But having a life well-lived in this sense is not the same as having life in the biological sense which is a precondition for the former. A dead fetus does not have a well-lived life because it has no biological life at all (or at least a very brief one cut short by an abortionist “doctor”). Second, even if “pro-life” is meant to refer to life in the biological sense–perhaps in the context of talking about universal healthcare and all those people “dying in the streets”–the real pro-lifer is still taking a pro-biological-life stance. They simply disagree that universal healthcare will promote biological life as opposed to a less government-regulated healthcare system. Universal healthcare is thought to be worse both in terms of the promotion of biological life and a life well-lived for all concerned. Thus making the case that conservatives are not pro-life in this area will require more than sophistry. It will require a fairly complex empirical argument that the pro-lifers’ policies–however well-intended–fail in their pro-life outcomes.

Turning now to (a) we can see that the same response is available to the pro-lifers. In the case of war, drone strikes, and the continued existence of nuclear proliferation, conservatives believe that if you want peace you must prepare for war. Just War Theory lays out general conditions for when wars are to be waged in defense, the end goal being the preservation of more life and welfare than there would be otherwise (at least for those deserving to live). Drone strikes enable a military to make surgical attacks rather than carpet bombing and also do not put one’s own soldiers in harms way. The continued existence of nuclear weapons when other hostile nations also possess them is meant to be a deterrent of war and so far seems to have done its job. The Second Amendment is intended to prevent tyranny and has recently been interpreted to include a right to guns for self-defense. Conservatives do not advocate torturing indiscriminately, but only people who deserve to be tortured who might have valuable information to stop unjustified mass (and other unjustified) murders. To sum up, conservatives’ support for the items in (a) are intended to promote biological life as well as a life well-lived.

This is not true in the case of those who are pro-abortion. The pro-abortionist favors killing and death for the sake of the (perceived) well-being of older and bigger women at the expense of younger and smaller ones. In contrast, pro-lifers fight for the recognition of the intrinsic worth of babies both outside and inside the  womb.  Pro-lifers support adoption as well as the rights of children to be raised by their biological parents; they support pregnancy centers and fetal care. They are pro-life and whole-life.


A former police officer, AR-15 (or “AR”) knows the difference between an assault rifle and home defense rifle. AR now fights with other weapons and demolishes arguments. He agrees that the pen is mightier than the sword, but he isn’t so stupid to bring a pen to a gunfight.

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  1. Well argued overall. I agree with what I perceive to be the “enhanced interrogation” angle you’ve contoured, but I think there would be value in fleshing out your “pro-torture” stance as I think it’s open to serious ethical challenges in its present blanket form. It’s provocative and packs a rhetorical punch, but it might do better with some nuance.

    For example I assume you (as I) would advocate for the “torture” of a known, violent Islamist who knew where the dirty bomb was located in downtown Manhattan, but refused to tell as the clock was ticking. All bets are off, no holds barred, everything is on the table *for him*.

    Presumably I assume you (as I) would *not* advocate for the “torture” of a known, violent Islamist’s three-year old daughter given the same circumstances in order to extract information from him.

    • CRD, would it be permissible to rape a person to gain needed information? Do you think that there are limits that can’t be crossed, or do you mean ‘all bets are off’ absolutely? It seems that anything sexual, as sometimes happens during torture, would be wrong since they are sexual perversions. But that is only one kind of torture, these other kinds, or at least some of them can be permissible. Do you think there are kinds of torture that are off limits, and, relatedly, degrees of severity that are off limits?

      I see torture as at least permissible in principle, and probably justifiable from time to time in the real world: it just seems implausible that no case has arisen in say the last ten years where some kind of torture wasn’t justified. It seems that torture can be seen as a kinds of self-defense, or a kind of punishment. If punishment, though it inflicts physical evil, like death, is good, because it is the administration of justice, then it seems one can’t claim that torture as such is impermissible because one chooses evil to achieve a good. And if one can’t intended to kill or to maim in self-defense, but only intend to stop the attack or to protect oneself while foreseeably causing such harm, might not the same be said of torture? So, while I tend to agree with the author of this recent First Things article when it concerns sexual torture, it seems his general case seem shaky.

    • Sean,

      I read that piece by Schwenkler the other day and I do not think there is even a decent argument there for the complete impermissibility of torture.

  2. “only people who deserve to be tortured who might have valuable information to stop unjustified mass (and other unjustified) murders”

    The violent Islamist’s three-year-old daughter doesn’t deserve to be tortured. Built into my statement is that the person being tortured already deserves it. So if someone kidnaps a girl, has her locked in a shack and will not tell the FBI where she is, he deserves to get the hell beat out of him until he gives up the address of the shack. And in some cases it would be wise to do so. If he doesn’t deserve it then it could only be justified on consequentialist grounds (but I have not assumed consequentialism).

    • Right on, AR-15. This point about torture extends to life as well. And this point is where we tease out the last and most crucial equivocation in the debate. You aren’t pro-life; you are pro-people-who-deserve-life. That is why the death penalty is okay. Capital offenders deserve to die. That is why just wars are okay. People who threaten us or innocents deserve to die. That is why universal health care isn’t okay. If you can’t pay for your oncology treatments out of pocket or cure your own cancer, then you deserve to die. That is why abortion is always wrong. If you can’t have a baby without dying, you deserve to die. That is why guns are okay. If you can’t be around a gun without accidentally killing yourself or being killed by someone else, you deserve to die.

      I’ll have you know, I’m actually pro-life and, thus, believe that you deserve to live no matter what you may have done in the past. But since you don’t seem to think that, can you give me a full list of all the sufficient conditions for not deserving to live? I have several people who have made it clear that they don’t believe I deserve to live. I want to know if I should add your name to that list!

    • @Sean K, I don’t know, are we talking about proctoclysis? Gang rape? “Torture” is a very flexible term with lots of permutations.

      Although I think I’m in pretty close agreement with AR-15, I could see a utilitarian argument advanced such that the Islamist’s three-year old daughter *does* deserve to be tortured under certain circumstances. I don’t think so, and I think it’s clear AR-15 doesn’t intend for his pro-torture stance to be interpreted to allow for that outcome, so I’ll leave that alone.

      But to your point, my only concern about the “no holds barred” approach to extracting the location of the dirty bomb from the violent Islamist in my earlier scenario would be the potential for the demoralization or corrupting of the torturer(s). The Islamist in my example is deserving of only summary execution, he’s forfeited his life and anything like human dignity, so whatever it takes to extract the information from him is fair game.

      Here’s an outline of a similar scenario:

      In this case study there is also a substantial moral justification for torture, albeit one that many moral absolutists do not find compelling. Consider the following points: (1) The police reasonably believe that torturing the terrorist will probably save thousands of innocent lives; (2) the police know that there is no other way to save those lives; (3) the threat to life is more or less imminent; (4) the thousands about to be murdered are innocent—the terrorist has no good, let alone decisive, justificatory moral reason for murdering them; (5) the terrorist is known to be (jointly with the other terrorists) morally responsible for planning, transporting, and arming the nuclear device and, if it explodes, he will be (jointly with the other terrorists) morally responsible for the murder of thousands.
      In addition to the above set of moral considerations, consider the following points. The terrorist is culpable on two counts. Firstly, the terrorist is forcing the police to choose between two evils, namely, torturing the terrorist or allowing thousands of lives to be lost. Were the terrorist to do what he ought to do, namely, disclose the location of the ticking bomb, the police could refrain from torturing him. This would be true of the terrorist, even if he were not actively participating in the bombing project. Secondly, the terrorist is in the process of completing his (jointly undertaken) action of murdering thousands of innocent people. He has already undertaken his individual actions of, say, transporting and arming the nuclear device; he has performed these individual actions (in the context of other individual actions performed by the other members of the terrorist cell) in order to realise the end (shared by the other members of the cell) of murdering thousands of Londoners. In refusing to disclose the location of the device the terrorist is preventing the police from preventing him from completing his (joint) action of murdering thousands of innocent people.[14] To this extent the terrorist is in a different situation from a bystander who happens to know where the bomb is planted but will not reveal its whereabouts, and in a different situation from someone who might have inadvertently put life at risk (Miller (2005); Hill (2007)).
      In particular, it is difficult to see how torturing (but not killing) the guilty terrorist and saving the lives of thousands could be morally worse than refraining from torturing him and allowing him to murder thousands—torturing the terrorist is a temporary infringement of his autonomy, whereas his detonating of the nuclear device is a permanent violation of the autonomy of thousands.

  3. The Catholic Church is opposed to abortion and torture:

    Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

    I agree that there is nothing inconsistent with being pro-life and for torture in specific circumstances, but the Church is opposed to both, so the liberal attack doesn’t apply here. What we conservatives can say is that we are opposed to is murder. We are anti-murder.

    • Urban II,

      The passage you quote above is consistent with torturing someone who deserves it and who might have information which, if known, would prevent a catastrophe. A confession of guilt is not the same giving up useful information. I agree that no one should ever be tortured whose guilt is not already known. A necessary condition for torture is that it must be known that the person deserves to be tortured.

    • AR-15,

      As you point out the quoted passage does not mention extracting information, nor do I find anything where the Church has ruled torture intrinsically evil. However, the quoted passage does mention “punish the guilty”, so the guilty do not necessarily deserve torture, but extracting information is not punishment in the context of the quoted passage. I concede that torture to extract information in particular circumstances may be permissible.

    • Urban,

      Right. I would surmise that it means that torture should not be a punishment even if someone deserves it..[and it leaves open that this is so] unless doing so might prevent some greater catastrophe where torture is the only reasonable means. Or perhaps it leaves open that torture can be used to extract information from someone who deserves to be tortured, but torturing does not count as a punishment since it is not meant to censure the person’s actions but is intended to be used to extract information.

  4. Scott,

    “You aren’t pro-life; you are pro-people-who-deserve-life. That is why the death penalty is okay. Capital offenders deserve to die.”

    Your argument (if there is an argument here) is too simplistic. If one deserves to die that is sufficient for it being permissible to be put to death. But I see no reason for thinking that deserving to die entails an obligation that one be put to death. There might be overriding reasons in some cases for not putting someone to death who deserves to be.

    I am certainly pro-people-who-deserve-life, and you should be as well. I am also pro-life of everyone insofar as I think all people have some worth. But I am not so stupid as think that it would be wrong to kill a terrorist if doing so would save lives.

    You want a complete set of sufficient conditions for deserving to die? I will give you a sufficient condition to help get you started. x deserves to die if x has intentionally killed at least one innocent person who does not deserve to die for selfish gain.

    • There was no argument in my previous post, just teasing out the implications of your view. Glad to see that you accept those implications. Note well that I nothing I said had anything to do with an obligation to kill those that deserve to die. So I’m not sure where that little non sequitur came from. What does clearly follow from your view is that, even if there is no obligation to kill those that deserve to die, killing them would be morally permissible. Agreed?

      But I’m a bit sad you weren’t up to the challenge of providing a full list of sufficient conditions for deserving to die. I hoped you would have a more fully developed position on the matter. Nevertheless, I am curious about the sufficient condition you do give. Are you suggesting that killing innocents for non-selfish reasons doesn’t make one deserving of death? If not, why the”for selfish gain?” If so, why would the terrorist who kills innocents for religion or country deserve to die since those are reason are not mere “selfish gain?” I had assumed you would just say all who intentionally kill innocents deserve to die.

    • Scott,
      As far as the non-sequiter claim goes, there was no non-sequiter–I was clarifying my view.

      “What does clearly follow from your view is that, even if there is no obligation to kill those that deserve to die, killing them would be morally permissible. Agreed?”

      Correct. Their being killed is permissible, though it may be impermissible for some to do the killing due to other obligations (e.g. to a 3rd party like a sovereign, God, etc.)

      I don’t have a full list of sufficient conditions for when someone should be fined or thrown in jail either. Sorry to disappoint. Besides, if you do not agree with even a single sufficient condition, it would be an incredible waste of time to give you a complete list (if such a list is possible to put together). If you do not agree that what I gave is sufficient for deserving to die I do not think that other examples will convince you.

      “Are you suggesting that killing innocents for non-selfish reasons doesn’t make one deserving of death?”
      I do not know what would suggest that given that I said I was giving a sufficient condition.

  5. “That is why universal health care isn’t okay. If you can’t pay for your oncology treatments out of pocket or cure your own cancer, then you deserve to die. That is why abortion is always wrong. If you can’t have a baby without dying, you deserve to die.”

    Did you not read the article above? I noted that conservatives tend to think that the empirical facts of the matter are such that healthcare is overall better in terms of life and well-being for all those concerned when it is not government run healthcare. I said nothing about deserving to die if you cannot pay your healthcare. You still have a right not to be killed if you cannot pay for your healthcare. But you have no right that everyone else in your nation be taxed to pay for your healthcare, have a safety officer follow you around your entire life to make sure you are not killed or do not kill yourself, etc.
    Your claim about abortion is absurd. Republicans routinely allow for life of the mother clauses in legislation. What they do not permit is “health” of the mother clauses which can mean anything a doctor (or “doctor”) wants.

    • Sorry to have touched a nerve, AR. I never claimed you said that people who can’t afford healthcare deserve to die, just noted that it was an implication of your view. Mind explaining how it isn’t rather than just saying so? But, remember, you said you weren’t going to assume consequntialism. So don’t start using it now to justify one’s selection of a healthcare system. And, even though it’s hard to see how it is relevant to you non-consequentialist position, I would love to hear your empirically founded case for how government run healthcare has worse outcomes for life and quality of life when compared to other systems. Is that something you are willing to share or would you rather keep suggesting I’m too obtuse to understand?

    • Scott,

      Your argument implies that if we don’t spend all of our resources preventing death, then those that die “deserve to die”. Do you donate your entire salary to cancer research? If not, why do you think cancer patients deserve to die? It’s like saying that if I don’t spend 24 hours of my day picking up litter that I believe cities deserve to be littered. My responsibility is not to pick up everyone else’s litter, but not to litter and pick up after myself.

  6. Sorry, Urban. You have me confused with AR over there. I clearly stipulated that I think everyone has a right to life. I don’t like this talk of deserving to die. It is AR that agreed he is pro-people-who-deserve-life. I was just trying to get clear on his view. Feel free to redirect this question at AR. But I took it that his invoking of conservatives who “think” government run healthcare has poorer life and well-being outcomes was a way to avoid the implication you note here (how this works without invoking consequntialism is. I admit, a bit of a mystery but I’m willing to let that slide for now). So I don’t think it is fair to put this implication on AR either. That is why I am still interested in hearing about AR’s empirical support for the claim that government’s healthcare is worse for life and well-being that other options.

    • Scott,

      My point is that none of the given examples implies that anyone “deserves to die”. Some people deserve to die as a matter of justice (e.g. serial killers), but not funding universal government food services does not imply anyone deserves to die of starvation. It appears to me you are trying to illustrate an absurdity in AR-15’s argument that doesn’t exist.

  7. “I never claimed you said that people who can’t afford healthcare deserve to die, just noted that it was an implication of your view. Mind explaining how it isn’t rather than just saying so?”

    Are you being serious? If I could not afford a body guard and I get killed where a body guard would have prevented my death, why should I think that I deserve to die? I have not done anything immoral to deserve death! If a tornado hits my house that I could have made out of granite, did I deserve to have my house destroyed? Not unless I did anything deserving of that misfortune.

    “But, remember, you said you weren’t going to assume consequntialism. So don’t start using it now to justify one’s selection of a healthcare system.””

    Whoever thought the denial of consequentialism entails that consequences never matter in one’s moral decision making? Not me! I think consequences matter more than most non-consequentialists typically admit. It is just that I think there are some intrinsically wrong actions regardless of the consequences. Torturing an innocent person for fun would be one of those regardless of the consequences.

    I do not think there is a satisfying empirical argument on either side of the issue, but, if you really want to know, I believe what I do extrapolating from what I take to be sound, general economic principles. (And of course no one should think that government run healthcare could not possibly be better than an alternative, completely private one. We’re dealing with likelihoods). But this post is not about the empirical case against Obamacare so that is all I shall say about the matter.

    Do you believe that anyone could deserve anything either good or ill? If not, why are we discussing this issue? We have no necessary common ground. If so, why not when it comes to life and death?

    • Yup, I’m completely serious. Again, its not me that is committed to those absurdities. You still haven’t provided any sort of explanation here and still haven’t given any reason to think that you aren’t committed to that view. You do use plenty of exclamation points to indicate how strongly you object and do give some examples that just beg the question. Since you can’t seem to muster a clear line of thought here, let me see if I can simplify for you and lay out how you can’t coherently avoid these implications that you don’t like. I hope you have the integrity to reject your original view once it is clear that these implications you agree to be absurd are implications of your view.

      Let’s recap. Critics claim that pro-life groups should, in order to be consistent, oppose the death penalty, torture, drone warfare, etc. and should support universal health care, a living wage, etc. You claim this criticism is mistaken because there is no inconsistency between being pro-life and any of these other positions. Your basic points were that A) a living wage is about quality of life not life itself and, thus, you can be pro-life but not pro-quality-of-life but still not be pro-quality of life and B) that some people deserve to die and/or be tortured and, thus, the death penalty, torture, and drone warfare are consistent with being pro-life which really means pro-people-who-deserve-life.

      This clearly leaves a major gap in the area of healthcare since it bridges the quality of life and biological life concerns. So your point about being pro-life without being pro-quality-of-life isn’t a sound basis for demonstrating that pro-lifers shouldn’t support universal, government-sponsored, healthcare. That leaves you with two options for being pro-life while consistently opposing universal government-sponsored healthcare (throwing in Obamacare is a complete red herring since it assumes a largely private healthcare system, albeit a heavily regulated one):

      1.) Either claim that that persons whose lives would be saved by universal government sponsored healthcare deserved to die

      2.) or claim that universal government-sponsored healthcare wouldn’t save lives, on balance, compared with any fully private system ever implemented (take your pick, I’d even let you cook up some hypothetical idealized private system since it won’t help).

      You made clear in your last post that you wouldn’t say any more to offer support for 2 but, alas, it is your only option for avoiding 1, which, you have agreed, would entail that your position is absurd. Sadly, your empirical argument for thinking that universal government-sponsored healthcare has poorer outcomes for life and well-being has turned out to be “extrapolating” from supposedly “sound economic principles.” Again, I had hoped you could do better than that. Since economics is the science of maximizing the economic interests, not life or well-being, of rational agents who interact with one another, no extrapolation from economics could possibly provide the support you would require for 2. Couple that with the fact that 2 is empirically false, the difference in infant mortality alone is enough to tip the scales, and you are stuck with 1.

      Now, you made it clear you won’t talk about the empirical case for or against 2 any more so I’ll consider the conversation over. I have learned something from our exchange and for that I thank you. I must admit that I still think “pro-life” is not an accurate moniker for the position you have staked out over the course of the discussion Granted my suggested “pro-people-who-deserve-life” isn’t snappy enough to get behind, even though you endorsed it earlier. So you might want to adopt Urban’s suggestion and just stick with “anti-murder.” That seems to best encapsulate your views without misleading.

  8. I admitted in the original post that one can make an empirical argument and have an empirical disagreement about whether certain policies have the effect of being pro-life or not. I do not know why you are fixated on that when the OP does not try to make an empirical argument for (e.g.) healthcare policy.
    The intend in none of the cases you raise is that people die so that someone–a woman–has more perceived well-being. Torturing for information is to save lives. The death penalty prevents more murders (one cannot commit another one when dead) and it intended to deter them. “It’s good for government work” applies to healthcare. This cannot be said in the case of abortion except in an extremely tiny number of cases.The intention is to kill an innocent for perceived well-being of someone else.

    You keep saying that I am committed to absurdities. But you have given no argument in support of that claim and I have denied it. Do you think if you just say it enough it will be true? It would be helpful if you would lay out a valid argument with the conclusion that I am committed to such and such absurdity given premises from the OP.

    Yes, there is more than economic principles–there is experience with government run healthcare and government run x’s more generally among other things. But you have not been arguing that government run healthcare is better than the alternative; you’ve only been asserting it yourself. Tu quoque

    You haven’t answered my questions about moral desert! (How did you like that exclamation point? 🙂 )

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