By Donald DeMarco
The Interim

John Irving is a well-known novelist and short story writer. He established his reputation in 1978 with The World According to Garp, which was made into a film in 1982. In his latest book, My Movie Business: A Memoir (Knopf, 1999), he presents his view on abortion and his attitude toward right-to-life advocates in the following passage, appearing on pages 40 and 41:

“Meanwhile, a self-described right-to-lifer approached me in a bookstore where I was signing copies of my ninth novel, A Widow for One Year. She didn’t want my autograph. She’d come to the bookstore with her own agenda – namely, to tell me that I misunderstood the right-to-life movement. ‘We just want people to be responsible for their children,’ she told me, giving my hand a little pat.

“I patted her hand right back. I said to her what Dr. Larch says in The Cider House Rules: ‘If you expect people to be responsible for their children, you have to give them the right to choose whether or not to have children.’

“I could see in her eyes that her resolute belief was undiminished. She swept out of the bookstore, not pausing to look at another human face – or at a book.

“The young man who stood next in line told me that she’d cut in front of him; doubtless her zeal to impart her message was incompatible with the very idea of waiting in line. In my opinion, it’s not that the decision to have a child or have an abortion is ever not complicated; rather, it is as morally complex (and often conflicted) a decision as any. It’s never simple. But people who want to legislate that decision – in effect, to make that decision for someone else – are simply wrong.”

This passage is quite remarkable in that it contains well over a dozen logical fallacies within a relatively brief span of words. Its “illogic density,” we might say, is exceptionally high. It is a passage that is most worthy of inclusion in a logic text to illustrate sophistical reasoning, though an author would have to be found who is bold enough to challenge today’s reigning ideology of political correctness.

In the first sentence, Irving describes himself not only as a novelist, but as a rather prolific one, having authored nine of them. Moreover, he informs us that he is signing copies of his latest work, A Widow for One Year. This opening sentence is designed to condition the reader to accept what he is about to say concerning abortion. Here, exquisitely intertwined, are the correlative fallacies of an appeal to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) and an appeal to the people or the gallery (argumentum ad populum).

Ken Kesey is also a well-known novelist, yet he is pro-life. Being an “authority” does not bring with it any assurance that every pronouncement one makes will be infallibly reliable. The distinguished British mathematician and physicist, Lord Kelvin, once boldly asserted: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” And Erasmus Wilson, a professor at Oxford University confidently proclaimed: “When the Paris Exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more be heard of.”

Appealing to the emotions of the masses (as any number of tyrants have done throughout history rather effectively) is no substitute for shedding light on the argumentation at hand.

Irving, though perfectly willing to describe himself, does not extend that same liberty to his approaching “right-to-lifer” (an appellation, incidentally, that is pejorative, whereas “right-to-life advocate” would be honorific). By referring to her identity as “self-described,” he brings into question whether she is a true defender of life or perhaps merely a hypocrite. The fallacy of the double standard is operative here. In addition to doubting her integrity, he remonstrates against the woman for coming to the bookstore “with her own agenda.” Thus, he is guilty of poisoning the well, an example of the ad hominem fallacy (against the person, rather than the issue).

Irving’s first paragraph brings to mind Plato’s image in the Gorgias of a cook using his authority before a jury of children to prosecute a physician for subjecting them to an assortment of painful interventions and foul-tasting medicines. Here, Plato exposes the triple fallacy of an authority inflating himself while denigrating his opposition before a body of ignoramuses.

In the second paragraph, Irving delivers what he believes to be a cogent and convincing statement. But the inclusion of the words “right to choose” exemplifies the fallacy of begging the question. He simply assumes that abortion is a right. Moreover, he contends that the object of this alleged right is to have or not to have children. This is the fallacy of misapplication. What he is really referring to is not whether or not to have children (surely no one should be forced either to have or not to have children), but to abort a child or not to abort a child. Irving does not want to bring too much reality into the picture.

Furthermore, Irving’s use of the word “responsible” demonstrates the fallacy of equivocation. It is hardly acting in a “responsible” manner, in the traditional meaning of the word, to kill one’s unborn offspring. He also exemplifies the fallacy of contradiction in arguing that giving people the option to kill their unborn children is going to dispose them to refrain from harming their children after they are born (violence begets violence, not benevolence).

Irving, confident that his air-tight logic has vanquished and humiliated his adversary, then proceeds to stereotype her as a person of “resolute belief” that remains “undiminished” in the face of presumed reasonableness, and a person of misguided “zeal” that is incompatible with fundamental social graces. In this way, Irving resorts to the fallacy of stereotypic thinking. In accusing her, on the testimony of another, of cutting “in front of him,” he illustrates the fallacy of accident. Even if the woman had been discourteous, how does this relate to the validity of her pro-life position? A state planning and development commission was once obliged to declare that “there is no connection between New Hampshire’s reputation as an outstanding ski state and the fact that we make 75 per cent of all wooden crutches.”

In the final paragraph, Irving introduces the fallacy of hasty generalization by averring that all abortions are “morally complex” and “never simple.” Many women who have undergone abortions have testified that in their cases they never gave their decision to abort a second thought. For them, it was never a complex or difficult decision to make. They felt that since abortion is a “right,” it is thereby free from any moral complexity. Yet if abortion is “morally complex,” as Irving contends, should not that fact cry out for the need for counselling and information and assistance that the pregnant woman would not be likely to provide on her own? Irving seems to be arguing against his own premise.

His reference about the decision “to have a child or have an abortion” represents the fallacy of the false antithesis. The decision, in reality, centres on whether to allow the child to be born or to abort it. He is using the word “abortion” as a euphemism to conceal the unpleasant fact that abortion kills a child. In this way, he adds the fallacy of ignoring the issue.

In accusing right-to-lifers of wanting to “legislate” decisions for others, he is employing the fallacy of cliche thinking that obscures what right-to-life people are really trying to do. “Legislate morality” has become a tired cliche. Pro-life people want to engage in a democratic process that they hope will inspire duly-elected legislators to enact laws that will protect the unborn from premature and unnecessary death. Law is passed by a legislative body, not imposed by one person on another.

Irving’s closing dogmatic statement about pro-life people being “simply wrong” illustrates the fallacy of moving from the relative to the absolute. Irving’s thinking, as evidenced in the passage cited, is so completely subjective and so entirely devoid of substance that his sheer relativism can hardly serve as a basis for the absolutistic judgment he makes.

Sophistical reasoning conveys the impression of wisdom, but falls short of what it pretends to be. Irving appeals to his own authority, vilifies his opposition, befogs the issue with buzz words and cliches and, in so doing, thinks he has delivered a cogent case for liberal abortion. What is missing in his treatment of abortion is a sense of reality. This brings to mind, as a fitting conclusion, an observation Irving Kristol, publisher of Basic Books, once made: “A neo-conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. A neo-liberal is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality but has refused to press charges.”

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., and teaches logic.