How to Start Winning Every Political Debate

Toward a Comprehensive Policy View on Abortion

My worst fear when I enter a political debate or discussion is not that I will lose.

It’s that my opponent will say something completely unexpected. Something that fundamentally challenges my argument in a way I have no answer for. Something that pulls the rug out from under my feet, throws me completely off balance, and leaves me dumbfounded, stupefied, and utterly choked up.

Of course I have the option to see these moments as golden opportunities to go back to the drawing board regarding my opinion on the issue at hand. At the same time, it’s probably best to avoid them altogether.

It is my goal with this and my next few articles to make sure you never find yourself in such a tenuous position in any policy-related discussion or debate.

Use a comprehensive mental framework to avoid being crushed in debates. (Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels)

We will do this by building a mental framework that will help you cover all your bases before the debate even starts.

In the process I hope at least some of you will change the way you think about abortion, which we will use as our example for reasons I explained in my previous article. The framework we are building, however, is general enough to work for any policy issue.

In the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that my motivation is not completely altruistic. While I do want to assist you, I have a horse of my own in the race.

The last of five key questions I asked in my previous article is: “How good is the for/against paradigm for democratic representation?” In order to answer that question, I need a comprehensive overview of exactly what is supposed to be compressed into the pro-choice/pro-life labels. In other words, I need a full overview of what can and should be part of a policy view on abortion.

Thus, our interests align as the keys to your winning every political debate and my obtaining the ability to argue just how well democratic representation can function are one and the same.

The logical place to start is with the main question the policy is trying to answer. For abortion, it’s simple, right?

1. Should abortion be legal?

Let’s use the following scenario to see if the question is indeed that simple.

The mother, Jane Roe, is a 17-year-old orphan from an ethnic minority who only had one sexual ‘intercourse’ in her life when she was raped by her foster father. She now lives in an institution with no support to rely on from anyone on the outside. Unable to cope with the trauma and her changed life circumstances, she’s continued to drink alcohol regularly and smoke a pack of cigarettes per day. Missing a period is not completely unusual to her so she’s just realized she’s pregnant with an 11-week-old fetus. The fetus has a rare mutation which provides a 100% chance that he or she will be unable to speak, think beyond the level of a 2-year-old, and care for itself as a grown-up. The pregnancy severely threatens the mother’s life and there’s a fair chance she’ll die during delivery.

As I argued where I first used this scenario, it’s highly likely that the overwhelming majority of us would agree that abortion should at least be an option in this case. This simple admission has two important consequences.

First, we have just agreed that the answer to our original question may depend on the circumstances. Thus, we have to amend our question to incorporate this possibility, yielding its second formulation:

2. In what circumstances should abortion be legal?

The second consequence of realizing the importance of circumstances is that the moment we accept that abortion may be legal in any case, we open the door to a host of other questions. Can anyone perform an abortion or only a licensed physician? Should the state be allowed to force the mother to listen to her fetus’s heartbeat, then wait 24 hours before she may start the procedure?

My point is that we must account for these (and many other) specific solutions in order to keep our growing mental framework comprehensive. With their addition, the question now becomes:

3. What solutions regarding abortion do you find acceptable in what circumstances?

This formulation is certainly a better representation of the complex reality of abortion policy than the first, simple question. But does it cover everything?

Let’s test it using stylized forms of the two most common attitudes toward abortion.

  • I’m pro-choice because I believe in women’s freedom to choose what they want to do with their bodies as it involves their health and future.
  • I’m pro-life because I believe that life begins at conception and the fetus’s right to life must be protected above all else.

It is already crystal clear from these two opinions that we’re still missing something.

Note that the first, pro-choice, side usually focuses on the mother (and her reproductive freedom); while proponents of a pro-life view are predominantly occupied with the child (and their right to life).

As usual, the combination of the two provides a better, more comprehensive answer. The mother and the child are both impacted by abortion or a pregnancy carried to term. In fact, they may not even be the only ones (other family members could play a huge role in a child’s upbringing, for example).

What this shows is that a very important part of why you may support or oppose a solution in different circumstances is that its impact on people may be different. This statement is quite a mouthful, so let’s try to illuminate it with the example of mandatory counseling.

According to The Guttmacher Institute, as of the time of writing, 13 states

mandate that women be given counseling before an abortion that includes information on (…) the ability of a fetus to feel pain.

What’s important for us to realize here is the impact of this measure on the mother may be very different depending on her circumstances. While for some it may no doubt serve as the wake-up call it’s probably intended to be; for someone like Jane Roe from the above scenario it’ll most likely end up being nothing more than unnecessary mental torture. Let’s build this point into our question to yield its most accurate and longest incarnation as

4. Who is impacted and how by each solution in what circumstances? Consequently, which solution do you find acceptable in what circumstances?

And there we have it, the right way to ask the abortion question. It is not snappy, short, or easily memeable; but it is a sufficiently accurate representation of how policy behaves in reality.

Furthermore, this question gives us the ability to combine its three crucial components, Impact on People, Solutions, and Circumstances, to construct the Simplified Saturated Policy View shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Simplified Saturated Policy View

The ‘policy view’ part of the name is rather self-explanatory. I added the word ‘saturated’ because our goal is to be comprehensive and account for everything that may come up in a debate. And finally, the ‘simplified’ qualifier is present because, as we’ll see in two articles, we’re still missing a few things that may be considered part of a policy view.

Minor shortcomings notwithstanding, it is my sincere hope that this visual and the argumentation that birthed it give you a head start toward winning every policy debate you enter.

In my next article we will further increase your chances by filling in the three lists with respect to abortion following a detailed review of each of the three key components.

Before we conclude, however, there is one last thing to clarify. At first glance, it seems that I have not, in fact, helped you win. At best we’ve increased your chances not to lose by strengthening your defense without a word on offense.

Contrary to this apparent state of affairs, turning defense into offense will be rather simple once we’ve completed the three lists in Figure 1. Relying on your comprehensive knowledge you will be able to pose very specific questions to do to your opponent precisely what I described at the beginning of this article. If you prepare right, you will have all the tools needed to catch them off guard.

In the meantime, stay tuned or come up with your own lists and post them in the comments below. What solutions, impact on people, and circumstances do you think must be represented in a comprehensive policy view on abortion?

A political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) fighting for a better world the only way I know how: on the battlefield of idea(l)s.

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