Listening through Disagreement: A Review of “Civil Dialogue on Abortion”

June 29, 2018
Title: Civil Dialogue on Abortion
Authors: Bertha Alvarez Manninen and Jack Mulder, Jr.
Publisher: Routledge
Publish Date: February 22, 2018
Pages: 230 pages (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-1138205871

Few issues raise the temperature in a room like abortion. Crossing into both religion and politics, discussions of abortion often strain conversations and are avoided in polite company. The conversations on abortion that do occur tend to be less than civil. Co-authors Bertha Alvarez Manninen and Jack Mulder, Jr. believe this lack of civility to be a detriment to our society.  In Civil Dialogue on Abortion, Mannenin, who is pro-choice, and Mulder, who is pro-life, seek to model the type of deep and respectful conversations that should be taking place between people of conviction. They seek to take one another’s positions seriously even as they disagree with each other.

Civil Dialogue on Abortion is divided into five chapters. One chapter is devoted to each author’s position on abortion, one for each to respond to the other’s arguments, and a concluding chapter mapping out common ground. Both maintain their convictions throughout the book, but still engage each other’s position with civility.

Both authors’ arguments are far more nuanced than can be briefly described. Mulder and Mannenin are professional philosophers and the book engages technical discussions in both philosophy and law. It would likely require a close reading to grasp the full force of the arguments. Both Mulder and Manninen cover many of the common topics in abortion discussions: rights of the unborn v. right of the mother as well as freedom, duty, and coercion. The authors are self-critical about their own movements, citing ways that pro-life and pro-choice advocates have made illogical, unpersuasive, and insensitive arguments. As Mulder says, “there are bad ways to hold a good position” (67). However, each author presents key challenges to the typical way that their opponent develops his or her arguments.

Bertha Alvarez Manninen argues that having a right to life depends on not only being alive but also being a person. In her view, a fetus does not become a person until it has a mental life or consciousness (around 20 weeks after conception). Only a person can possess the desire (and right) to continue to live. Until consciousness is gained, there is not someone to be harmed by an abortion, but simply something. This, in Mannenin’s view, is not to say that the fetus has no value prior before this point, but that it has no claim to a right to life. An abortion prior to the beginning of consciousness may be a loss of life, but it is not the loss of a person, which Mannenin sees as morally significant. She maintains that though early abortion may remain a tragic end of a life, it does not constitute the destruction of a person.

Contrary to most pro-life rhetoric, proving an unborn child is alive is not enough to prove it cannot be aborted. While there is significant emotional force to such phrases as, “abortion stops a beating heart,” and “death is determined when a heart stops beating, life is determined when a heart starts beating,” a full pro-life argument must have more. Manninen’s pro-choice arguments about personhood should push pro-life advocates to be more careful and explicit in how they argue for the dignity and rights of the unborn. As Manninen shows, one can agree that a fetus is alive without saying it is a person (and therefore deserving of rights). It is not enough to contend that the unborn is alive; we must argue for their personhood and demonstrate that they deserve the same rights as we do.

Jack Mulder’s pro-life argument also challenges the typical pro-choice arguments. While much of the pro-choice position centers on the rights and freedom of women, pro-choice advocates often make analogies that connect abortion to passive euthanasia. However, Mulder argues that abortion is not simply “letting the fetus die,” but it is a direct act against the life of the fetus. Whatever other desires are present in the decision to abort, the action itself seeks to end a life. Thus, abortion is less like “pulling the plug” upon a hospice patient and more like a physician actively aiding in the death. Pro-choice advocates must reckon with the intentional violence of abortion and refuse to make it morally equivalent to refusing to give someone a blood transfusion or organ donation.

Civil Dialogue on Abortion seeks to present the best way to hold a pro-life or pro-choice position on abortion. The book demonstrates that deep respect can be shown amidst significant disagreement on such an important topic. Through their dialogue, Mannenin and Mulder even find common ground where they may work together toward similar ends: a desire to reduce the number of abortions, encouraging the delay of sexual activity in teens, care for the vulnerable, and reducing poverty as a major factor in abortion rates.

While there is much to be commended in Civil Dialogue on Abortion, one key issue in the book raises questions: what is the place of religious arguments in the public square? Both authors intentionally avoid religious arguments when it comes to abortion. Mulder is a practicing pro-life Catholic, but he holds that arguments based solely on religious grounds should be avoided in public dialogue. Mulder’s reasons are largely strategic, but readers may wonder what is lost by restricting religious reasoning to the religious community and the private lives of individuals.

One loss could be in the realm of discipleship. When we reject Christian arguments and language from the public square, how are we helping Christians think out the implications of their faith in the wider world? We may still be able to maintain a firm position on abortion on philosophical grounds, but we may lose the ability to think Christianly about abortion. Can the philosophical language of personhood bear the same weight as the Christian language of humans made in the image of God? The Christian claim that all persons are made in God’s image is a significant resource for the pro-life argument. It grounds the dignity and worth of humans in creation, not in their capacities.

Accompanying that loss is a danger: the realm of secular reason is not neutral. Religious convictions are unavoidable in any area of life. Our attempts to find neutral ground on which to discuss difficult issues can, at times, leave us blind to our own idols and commitments. When we attempt to create a public space without religious convictions, we end up with only a new space that has its own beliefs about religion; namely, that they belong only in the heart of the individual.

Yet, Mulder and Manninen’s project reminds us of the importance of shared language. While civil dialogue should not require bracketing religious language or commitments, we must still be able to talk together. Christians and non-Christians as well as pro-choice and pro-life advocates have become polarized in our culture with their own words, online communities, and patent arguments. For our society to move forward, we need to find the language for civil dialogue without sacrificing religious conviction. While they do bracket religious reasoning, Mulder and Manninen provide a model of how to talk together when we do not share the same basic convictions about the world, ourselves, and God.

Civil Dialogue on Abortion teaches us to talk about abortion again. In a digital world filled with social media silos, it is refreshing to hear two people of deep conviction disagree with civility. Mulder and Manninen do not solve all the problems surrounding this complicated issue, but their dialogue is a helpful addition to the growing conversation.

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