As human beings, we demand equal treatment in that we all have the right to live. We have the basic right to be equally protected from violence. But if we really are equal in this regard, there has to be something we all share equally that grounds those equal rights.
When we consider all the people in the United States, all the people at the southern border, everyone in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the rest of the world, we seem to naturally understand that every human being deserves to be equally protected from violence regardless of the many differences among us.
Whether or not this equality we have actually plays out in the real world is a different story. Far too often, equal protection from violence is not the norm. Having the right to be treated with basic dignity and respect is sadly a dream rather than a reality for many people. Yet, in the midst of all the inequality, there seems to be a universal ideal deep in the human heart that understands that human beings should, in fact, be treated equally. The inequality around us gives us opportunities to use our time in this world to try and make life a little bit better for those around us.
Abortion inevitably enters into this conversation about equal rights. The science of when a human organism comes into existence is clear. See, for example, these embryology textbook excerpts, this in-depth explanation of the scientific consensus, and textbooks like this one. What we do with this information is another question. Does this group of human beings deserve the same basic protection from violence like we do?
All sorts of justifications are used to exclude unborn human beings from the equal rights community. Self-awareness, ability to feel pain, being born, rational thinking, brain function, autonomy, etc. are all criteria many people like to add in an attempt to keep preborn human beings out of the equal rights community and protect the “right” to abortion.
There are a few problems with this. If someone is using these characteristics in a degreed sense, then it’s important to simply point out that humans outside the womb don’t share these properties equally. By degreed, I mean characteristics that some people can have more or less of. For example, not everyone is equally self-aware or can feel pain the same way. So that cannot explain why we are equal. Oftentimes, though, the degreed property is not what the pro-choice person means.
Many people would say what matters is the fact that we have these characteristics at all. They’ll admit human nature is important, but they’ll add other criteria claiming they are also essential in order to be equal to us. They’ll say you have to be human and have some other characteristic that makes you equal.
Here’s my question: why can’t being human be enough? Why add characteristics if humanness explains equality well on its own? It’s an incredibly dangerous practice to add characteristics that human beings need to measure up to in order to be counted as equal. Just look back in history to see what has happened when being human wasn’t enough.
If the argument for legal abortion begins with the requirement that unborn human beings are not equal to us and specific criteria are chosen to ensure that desired result is achieved, then we have run into the problem of ad hoc reasoning. Given the nature of what’s at stake if the pro-life position is correct, a much better defense of abortion is required than just conveniently using selective criteria that excludes unborn human beings from being equal to us.
Another direction some people could take with this is to set aside human nature and simply focus on characteristics like self-awareness, the ability to feel pain, autonomy, or brain function etc. in order to exclude unborn human beings from the equal rights community. Making the claim that characteristics like these are required in order to be equal to us should be rejected because it results in inequality and leads to counterintuitive implications.
While self-awareness is important, it cannot serve as an essential foundation for equal rights because some animals are self-aware. And based on how many define self-awareness, newborn infants would not pass this test.
Feeling pain is also significant but that can’t serve as an essential foundation either, because animals also feel pain. If pain is significant in regards to who gets equal rights, then we would have to treat animals and humans equally. But animals and humans are not equal. I am not saying we should treat animals poorly. I am just making the claim that animals don’t have the same right to life that human beings do. The counter-intuitive implication would be that with this view we would have to say that an equal crime was committed when someone killed an animal and someone killed a human. However, there is a clear moral difference between killing an animal and killing a two year old child.
We can factor in all the other characteristics and we face the same problem: it either makes animals equal to us or it excludes newborn infants from the equal rights community.
In conversations, pro-choice advocates will likely then say it’s being human and having some characteristic they think is essential to equality. But then we’re back to the question previously addressed. Why should we believe two characteristics are required rather than one? Is there an independent reason to believe this, other than it gets the unborn out of the equal rights community?
So if equality truly matters, we must be willing to extend equal rights to unborn human beings. We must be willing to extend those rights to others even if it’s inconvenient to us. If we do not, then we are just picking and choosing which human beings get rights. There is nothing equal about that. There is nothing to celebrate when human beings find ways to put other human beings in a category that strips them of their most basic rights.
Abortion should be illegal not because I want to control women. I have no interest in that. Abortion should be illegal because all human beings have the right to be equally protected from violence. If your life matters now, and it certainly does, then it mattered from the beginning.
It’s important to understand and sympathize with the fact that restricting abortion rights is telling a woman she can’t do something with her body. As I’ve written elsewhere,
“Given how important bodily rights are and how important it is to validate and affirm them, it is crucial that in the process of exercising our rights, we don’t go so far to the extreme of advocating for the right of one person that we take away the bodily rights of another human. Since bodily rights are so important, how much more important is it to make sure that in defending one woman’s bodily rights, we don’t unwittingly destroy the bodily rights of another? If one person can violate the bodily rights of another, then we end up violating and undermining the very thing we set out to do originally – protect the right of bodily autonomy for every human being.”
The reality of abortion is so hidden and ironically couched in “equality” language. The abortion industry disguises the gruesome reality of the procedures by using deceptive euphemisms to cover up the death of children. “Choice,” “women’s rights,” “women’s health,” “privacy,” and “reproductive rights’” are all a cover for a dead baby.
We need to be willing to have more conversations about abortion and the value of human life. We need to step out of our comfort zones and be willing to speak out for the lives of unborn children who are being killed every day. We need to be willing to do uncomfortable things because so much is at stake. When you get to the end of your life, do you want to say that you safely stood on the sidelines to avoid conflict even though injustice and inequality was rampant around you? Or would you rather enter your rest knowing that in the face of challenges and injustice, you stood up for what was right?
Abortion leaves us with a dead baby and with wounded women and men. The task before us is helping people love those they cannot see. And that is incredibly difficult. But it’s something we need to do regardless of the challenge.
Our conversations have the ability to change minds. When minds are changed on this issue we stop seeing others as burdens. When we don’t see others as burdens, that opens up the human heart to have more love for more people. Having more love for our fellow human beings can lead to different decisions. Different decisions can lead to different laws. And different laws can protect and recognize the right to life these human beings had all along. We have just ignored them for far too long.
Photo Gayatri Malhotra/Unsplash