I was standing near the Free Speech Board at a Justice For All outreach event at the University of Arizona. A student stopped by our display, and I asked her what she thought about abortion. As she began to explain her view, she told me she thought preborn children were parasites. 

I could have immediately corrected what appeared to be an improper understanding of biology by explaining that preborn children do not fit the scientific definition of a parasite.

Given that someone may be unaware of the facts of biology, this approach makes some sense. What if the person isn’t talking about biology though? To avoid responding to a straw man of her position, I started asking some clarifying questions that went something along these lines to see if the problem was ignorance of biology or something else:

“When you call the preborn child a parasite, do you mean it should be classified as a parasite in the biological sense, like various protozoa, tapeworms, and flukes? Or, do you mean that the preborn has certain similarities to parasites because she receives (or takes) nutrients from the woman’s body, is completely dependent on her, and can sometimes cause health problems for her?” 

As I asked these kinds of questions to the student, I found out that when she called preborn children “parasites,” she wasn’t making a biological claim. She meant it more as a way of stating something about the preborn’s rights and value. I’ve also found that other people intend yet another meaning when they use the word parasite (and other inflammatory rhetoric similar to parasite). 
To clarify, let me break “parasite” statements about preborn children into three categories:

  • Biology: The person could be claiming the preborn is not a living, human organism. Or she could be trying to claim the preborn fits the biological definition of a parasite. If the person means the preborn should be categorized as a biological parasite, I’d recommend reading my article that explains how preborn humans are not parasites in the biological sense.
  • Rights and Value (Personhood): The person may agree the preborn is a living, human organism biologically, but she’ll claim because it’s dependent on the woman it’s not the kind of human organism that has equal rights to you and me. She may say something like, “It’s a human organism, but it’s not a human with rights yet.” In this case, the Equal Rights Argument will be helpful. 
  • Bodily Rights: She could mean that even though the preborn is a valuable human being, a woman’s bodily rights trump the rights of the human fetus that is physically connected to her and inside of her. If that’s the case, then finding common ground, acknowledging the importance of bodily rights, and balancing those real rights with the real bodily rights of preborn children will be important. 

It’s also possible people could combine these three meanings of “parasite” together in their conversations. They might also go back and forth between them. I’ve had that happen in conversations. This just highlights that people’s views are oftentimes complicated.

Another dynamic can make conversations about the “parasite” claim complicated. Sometimes people can say confusing and contradictory things without intending to. There are a lot of people who aren’t accustomed to delving deep into worldview discussions about abortion and human value, so when they have an opportunity presented to them, they are communicating about ideas that they haven’t thought deeply about. Because of that they may sometimes use terms about which they haven’t given much thought. 

The student I spoke to in Arizona is an example. Her definition of parasite was so broad that it included herself, and she acknowledged that. She then applied her definition differently to herself than she did to preborn children: She thought abortion should be legal, so she believed the right to life of preborn human “parasites” should not be protected, but she definitely believed that her right to life as an already-born human “parasite” should be protected. So given how complex and confusing this can get, I’d recommend giving people the benefit of the doubt and focusing on what you judge to be most helpful for the person at the time. 

Don’t Get Distracted by the Offensive Language

It’s true that no human being ever deserves to be called a parasite. This language alerts us to the fact that the person views the preborn as a lesser class of humans. “Parasite” is not a neutral term. It has incredibly negative connotations that negatively influence the human psyche towards the “thing” that is being referred to. Throughout the course of conversation, if we can help someone understand the true value and dignity in preborn human beings, she won’t use such a dehumanizing word to refer to another human being who is essentially just like herself.

Instead of honing in on the inaccurate or offensive nature of the term, I think it’s more productive to sidestep it, look past the offense, and instead focus squarely on the deeper worldview problem that is enabling this person to use this language to refer to other human beings. In the process, we need to not just dismantle bad ideas, but also provide an alternative that makes sense.

As you have conversations, it’s helpful to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes as best you can. Imagine you are pro-choice, and you have come to terms with the fact that your position on abortion has meant that you have been supporting the killing of innocent human beings. Imagine you have used inaccurate and offensive language to refer to other human beings to make their unjust killing more palatable. How would you want someone to help you see that you have been so gravely wrong in your beliefs? I know I would appreciate someone being kind, giving me the benefit of the doubt, helping me see my errors as gently as possible, and not jumping down my throat for some term I used perhaps without much thought. 

Good communication and good conversations with others requires an attitude of humility and kindness towards other people. Being in conversation with people who use a term like “parasite” to refer to another human being presents an opportunity to extend grace and kindness. Let’s take this as an opportunity to show people what a different kind of conversation can look like. Maybe they are using that term in an attempt to incite a reaction from you. Maybe they use it because it genuinely reflects their beliefs. Maybe they are using it because they heard someone else say it. Whatever the reason, if we are tactful in our response, I think we will have a better chance of helping the other person change.

Addressing the “Rights and Value” Version 

Of the three categories listed above, it seemed the Arizona student was using the term “parasite” in the “rights and value” category. I’ve found this is where I end up spending most of my time in these conversations. And generally, I’ve found that’s the best place to focus first anyway. So let’s look at this claim that depending on another human being in a similar way to a parasite makes someone a parasite, and therefore they don’t have the same rights and value we have. 

 Humans depend on others in various capacities and in various ways in all stages of their life, so how is an objective line going to be drawn here on a characteristic that differs so much throughout human life? Given the implications, this is a precarious claim to make. 

Infants rely entirely on someone else to care for them. It’s true that an infant’s dependency is a bit different than when a human being is directly relying on a woman’s body in pregnancy. I suspect this was part of what was going on beneath the surface of the Arizona student’s statements. From what I gathered, the fact that the preborn child had a particular bodily connection to the woman is what lessened the child’s value. While I admit there is a particular burden in being connected bodily, how does it follow that because a child is physically connected, you have the right to kill her?

Furthermore, as my colleague Jon Wagner points out, in nearly every other scenario outside the womb, when a human being is weaker and more vulnerable, we help her more and not less. We don’t look at a human being’s reliance on someone else as justification for killing her. Why is this flipped on its head when it comes to parents caring for their children in utero? 

Dependency on another human being doesn’t strip away one’s rights and value. Depending on someone else in various ways is a natural part of the human experience. It’s worth questioning why such a natural, unavoidable part of the human experience – depending on someone else – merits being labeled something so negative.

An Alternative Answer

Let’s think for a moment about only the human beings who are outside the womb.  They are equal in their basic human rights including the right to be protected from violence, so those rights must be grounded in something every human being shares equally. Could “being independent” (or “not being dependent”) serve as that ground? On one definition of “being independent,” you and I would be equal because we don’t rely entirely on someone else for our survival but infants would not be equal since they do rely entirely on someone else for their survival. If we adjust the definition of “being independent” to be the sort of independence infants have so that they qualify, then animals would also qualify under that broader definition, and they would be equal to humans. Our answer to what serves as the foundation for human beings’ equality should not include animals and it certainly should not exclude infants. 

Now, to say animals shouldn’t be treated equally in terms of the basic right to life doesn’t mean I condone animal abuse. We are not saying care for animals doesn’t matter. It definitely does. But it’s not the same kind of crime to kill and eat a cow as it would be to kill and eat a two-year-old child. It’s also very different to intentionally use one’s car to run over a squirrel than it would be to intentionally run over a toddler. (To be clear, I’m not saying it’s good to run over squirrels.) There is something different, unique, and special about human beings that elevates their status above animals. 
We can see an additional reason why independence is not a good foundation for human equality when we consider things like racism and sexism.

Those things are not wrong because people of various races or men or women are “independent.” Otherwise, racism or sexism wouldn’t be wrong if the victims were dependent and “acting like parasites.” Being independent also doesn’t provide a satisfactory reason for why humans have a fundamental right to be protected from violence and bodily harm. Violence, racism, sexism, and various other forms of discrimination are not wrong because humans function or look a certain way. All of these things are wrong because they abuse human beings who ought to be treated with respect in virtue of the kind of being they are. 

We need a better answer – one that does not lead to so much confusion and inequality when we start looking at the implications. So what is a good standard for grounding equal rights among human beings? 

This question calls to mind something I heard JFA’s Executive Director Steve Wagner say recently: “I agree there are a lot of things about the unborn that are different from us. But look at the ways in which we are the same.” 

Instead of focusing and obsessing over how different preborn children are from us, we should focus on the ways in which we are all the same. Treating certain members of our species as not equal to us is not helping us attain a more just world. It’s helping us create a more savage one where smaller, weaker human beings are killed because they’re “different.”

Our right to be protected from violence does not hinge on some exercisable capability. It doesn’t come from the ability to be independent from others. It comes from the nature of the being itself. This is the explanation for equal rights that can make sense of why injustices like racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are wrong. Those evils focus on some difference among humans and refuse to see or acknowledge the thing we all have the same. The foundation for our equality that binds us all together is our human nature. 

To conclude, as we have conversations with others and perhaps hear them use offensive words like “parasite” in reference to another human being, I think it’ll be helpful to remember that we have all said things we wish we could take back. I’m sure we’ve all said something, and after more serious and careful reflection, we regretted the statement made. We can reach people more effectively and have better conversations if we are patient, long-suffering, and willing to bear with others as they talk through issues and process ideas. In a world that is oftentimes very harsh and too quick to condemn others, we can give people a different experience in our conversations that can help them be more open and more receptive to our message. Show people grace. Try to understand them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. And do not neglect to make a defense for the equal rights of preborn children in the process. 

Cover photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels

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Rebekah is a Training Specialist with Justice For All. You can follow her work at jfaweb.org/rebekah-dyer


The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.