The annual March for Life—a massive yearly gathering of pro-life activists and individuals in Washington DC—took place this past Friday, although you may not have been aware of it. As a rule the media generally do not cover it that much, and even when they do, they typically don’t cover it very well.
In any case, you may be wondering just what the pro-life movement is about. If you’ve gotten your information from the mainstream media, then your perception of pro-lifers may be woefully incomplete. If you’ve gotten your information from the liberal commentariat, then your perception of pro-life beliefs is likely distorted and wildly misleading.
The truth of the pro-life movement is much richer and more interesting than either of these sources would have you believe. If you have questions about pro-life ideas, it is best to get them from the movement itself rather than from people outside the movement or opposed to it. So this primer may be of use to you.
To keep things brief, we will assume one of the basic tenets of the pro-life position regarding abortion: the unborn are human beings from conception onward, and deserve the full protection of the law just like any other human being does. For the most part, people who identify as “pro-life” believe this to be true.
What are the objections to this position, and how does the pro-life movement frequently respond?
A Fetus Isn’t Necessarily Human
Pro-Choice Objection: “Actually, the unborn are not human beings!”
Pro-Life Response: This is incorrect. From the moment of conception—when a sperm meets, and fertilizes, an egg—the unborn are fully living, genetically distinct, and biologically self-directing autonomous individuals of the species Homo sapiens—i.e., human beings. Modern medicine, specifically embryology, is very clear about this. Unborn humans at various stages may be smaller, weaker, less-developed, stranger-looking, more helpless, and less personable than other human beings, but this does not make them any less human.
Tiny Babies Are Like Acorns
Objection: “This is wrong. The unborn—especially at their earliest stages—are potential humans, but they’re not yet humans. An acorn can one day grow into an oak tree, but that doesn’t mean you would call an acorn an oak tree, does it?”
Response: This objection evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of human biological development. There is no such thing as a “potential” human; there are human haploid gametes, male and female, and when they meet, they create a fully actual human being, no “potential” necessary.
After being created, a human being surely has a lot more growing to do, but the creation—the dividing line between nonexistence and actualized existence—has already happened. Full and complete humanity does not depend upon growth but rather origination—that is to say, fertilization.
The acorn-to-oak tree argument is a clever explanation of a flawed hypothesis. For the purposes of this analogy, the relevant feature of both acorns and oak trees is not their various stages of development but the fact that they both belong to the tree family Fagaceae.
No serious person would claim that an acorn, simply by dint of being smaller and less-developed than an oak tree, is somehow less a part of Fagaceae than a fully-grown oak is. They are both part of the same family no matter what stage of their development. Of course, we don’t give basic rights to members of Fagaceae, but if we did, we would be logically obliged to extend those rights to all members of Fagaceae, acorn and oak alike.
We do, however, recognize the rights of members of the species Homo sapiens, and thus we should extend those rights to all members of this species—born and unborn, big and small, strong and weak, vocal and silent.
Human Beings Aren’t Necessarily Human Persons
Objection: “Well, okay, maybe the unborn are human beings—but they’re not human persons, and therefore they don’t deserve the full benefit of the law.”
Response: This is a metaphysical argument that acknowledges the obvious biological justification of the pro-life movement but subverts it in favor of pro-choice philosophy. In the eyes of many pro-choicers, the unborn are not “persons” because they have not yet reached an arbitrary benchmark of personal performance: they do not have self-awareness, they cannot speak, they cannot do anything on their own, they have not yet developed certain organs or begun certain biological processes.
Ultimately this is a distinction without a difference. For one, the pro-choice “personhood” criteria generally apply equally to newborns, who are helpless, not self-aware, incapable of speech, underdeveloped, and for all practical purposes functionally indistinguishable from most of the unborn. Yet, for obvious and self-evident reasons, you will be hard-pressed to find pro-choicers who believe you should be able to stab a newborn in the head with an ice pick. The inconsistency betrays the fallacy.
More to the point, a civilized human society does not assign “personhood” on the basis of functionality and capability. A human being in a deep but temporary coma fits most of the criteria for non-personhood. Is it okay to kill him? What about those who are in a deep sleep? What about the severely retarded and disabled? A criteria-based philosophy of human personhood must inevitably be okay with executing all of these people on the basis of their non-personality.
Pro-lifers tend to believe otherwise: most of us assign personhood not on the basis of functionality or capability but rather innate capacity and intrinsic essence: we believe the unborn (possessing the full capacity of humanity) and the disabled (who are intrinsically ordered to that capacity, even if their specific individuality differs from it) are all persons, all worthy of life, and all worthy of protection under the law.
It’s Her Body, She Can Do What She Want
Objection: “Maybe all of that is true. Even so, a woman still has the right to do whatever she wants with her body. That includes abortion.”
Response: A woman does indeed have a right to do whatever she wants with her body—but not with someone else’s body, and the unborn child inside of her is clearly not “her body.” Embryology is very clear on this point: from the moment of conception onward there exists in a woman’s uterus a genetically distinct, fully individual human being. A pregnant woman shouldn’t be allowed to kill this human being or harm him in any way.
We acknowledge this reality in countless ways throughout our society. Consider that my home state of Virginia bans smoking in emergency rooms. Quite obviously this is meant to protect patients from the dangers of second-hand smoke. Do you think it would be acceptable if I marched into an emergency room, lit up a cigarette and said, “I have the right to do what I want with my own body?” Of course not. The hospital would throw me out, and rightfully so, because the thing I was doing to “my own body” was also negatively affecting other people.
We prohibit all sorts of behaviors that nominally only affect our bodies but can have adverse effects on other people’s bodies, as well. Abortion is one of those behaviors, all the more so because (a) it is intended to harm another person, and (b) the full intent of that harm is death.
I support the rights of women to do whatever they wish with their own bodies. I just don’t believe they have the right to do whatever they want with anyone else’s.
Abortion Will Still Happen If We Outlaw It
Objection: “Well, guess what? Outlawing abortion isn’t going to stop abortion. Women will still get abortions even if it’s illegal.”
Response: Maybe so. But even if that’s the case, it is still not a persuasive argument for keeping abortion legal. Consider: the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865, outlawed slavery in the United States. Nonetheless, slavery still exists in America. Over a century-and-a-half later, the Thirteenth Amendment still hasn’t fully eradicated this terrible practice. Does that mean we should repeal it and allow slavery to once again be legal in this country? After all, “people will still do it,” even if it’s illegal!
Nonsense. Just because some people will break a law doesn’t mean the law shouldn’t be in place. The obvious response to the continued presence of slavery in this country is to continue to fight it, not legalize it.
Thus with abortion. We must stop giving it the full sanction of the law. And it is worth pointing out that the pro-life movement does not simply want to stop at making abortion illegal. We want to create a culture wherein abortion, legal or otherwise, is seen as unnecessary. We want to fully support desperate and frightened mothers who would be compelled to seek out this awful procedure. If and when abortion is finally outlawed, the pro-life movement will be mobilized and ready to provide for the women who would have sought otherwise-legal abortions.
Should We Jail Moms For Aborting Babies?
Objection: “So if you outlaw abortion, are you going to send women to jail if they get an abortion? Nobody would ever tolerate such laws.”
Response: While a small minority among the pro-life movement does indeed believe that abortive women should go to jail, the wider pro-life movement believes something different: that abortive women are also victims of abortion, and thus do not deserve to suffer the punishment of anti-abortion laws. Most pro-lifers believe that it’s the abortion provider—the profiteer from a woman’s desperation and fear—that should go to jail.
The Mother-As-Host Argument
Objection: “Maybe all of these points are accurate. But just the same, we shouldn’t be forcing people by law to provide their own bodies for the benefit of someone else. You wouldn’t force someone to donate a kidney to a sick person, would you? Neither should you force a woman to donate the use of her uterus to an unborn human.”
Response: Yes, we shouldn’t force people to donate organs or otherwise provide their bodies for another human being in such a way. But this misses the point of what pregnancy is, and more specifically how pregnancy comes about. In all but a small (and admittedly terrible) number of cases involving rape, pregnancy always results from two individuals having consensual sex (or from medical procedures meant to treat infertility).
Of course, in many of these cases the man or the woman (or both) were using birth control and thus actively trying to avoid getting pregnant. But pregnancy is always a potential outcome of any heterosexual sexual activity. Even contracepting couples are aware of this (why else would they be contracepting?).
As a result, a woman’s having any kind of consensual sex, contracepted or otherwise, is tacit consent to potentially being pregnant. The risk for pregnancy was always there, and the activity related to that risk was voluntarily undertaken.
If pro-choicers wish to make pregnancy and abortion analogous to organ donation, they will have to argue for an organ donator’s right to take the organ back after he’s donated it. No reasonable legal system would ever allow for such a thing, nor should our law allow for a pregnant woman to take her child’s life away after she voluntarily created it.
What About Government Services
Objection: “Well, okay, fine. All of that may be true. But in the end, pro-life conservatives are only concerned about babies up until birth. Then they don’t care anymore. If pro-lifers were truly ‘pro-life,’ they’d be in favor of higher taxes to support larger welfare programs, better-funded public schools, and other government services for poor people. Pro-lifers are really only ‘pro-birth.’”
Response: This has become a strangely common argument in recent years: the notion that, if a pro-lifer doesn’t support an expansive government and welfare state, then his anti-abortion ideas are somehow disingenuous. This is, on its face, a rather silly argument. The management of public education, the extent of welfare, the size of government—all of these are policy questions, and people of good will can disagree honestly and sincerely over individual policy prescriptions without sacrificing any ideological integrity over their pro-life beliefs.
For instance, plenty of data suggest that throwing money at our public education system does not lead to better student outcomes, and that what’s needed isn’t more funding but genuine academic reform. If a pro-life person believes, based on this evidence, that we should be working to reform our nation’s education system as the likeliest avenue towards improving it, this doesn’t make him any less pro-life.
To be sure, there are plenty of pro-lifers who believe in expanding the size and scope of government. The pro-life movement is as diverse as any other large political or social faction. Painting it with a broad policy brush makes no sense at all.
Yet many pro-lifers and conservatives recognize the reality that, oftentimes, handing off a task to the government is the surest way to make a problem worse. Because of their love for women and children in desperate situations, lots of pro-lifers believe it is their duty to ensure services for needy mothers and their children are performed as well and with as much love and personalization as possible. This can be seen in the widespread pro-life commitment to pregnancy centers and other similar community service organizations.
In the end, pro-lifers can both (a) believe it’s wrong to murder unborn humans and (b) disagree with prevailing progressive orthodoxy about government. These two things aren’t fundamentally incompatible.
This is, in a nutshell, the pro-life position on abortion. You may never have encountered these ideas before, because our media are generally loath to report on the pro-life movement with much objectivity, and the vast majority of our commentators do not understand the pro-life movement and do not want to.
Our message is a simple one: innocent human beings should not be murdered. Pro-life belief effectively boils down to that one simple maxim. It is not hard to understand.
If, however, you are still confused about what the pro-life movement stands for, I encourage you to attend next year’s March for Life and see for yourself first-hand what a genuine, loving, vibrant culture of life really looks like.