The pro-life movement is presently posing a new threat to the pro-choice movement, and the pro-choice side is pushing back hard. The abortion wars have heated up. It seems to me that this could lead to a big evolutionary step for the whole human race.
Both sides will respond to the situation mainly with legal power-plays in which they will trot out their deliberately simplified arguments. One side will wring their hands only about the plight of the unborn babies, and the other side only about the plight of some pregnant women. But to some extent, the pro-choice side and the public that both sides are appealing to will be forced also to engage on a more thoughtful philosophical level.
The main source of the big divide over the abortion issue is differing perceptions of the unborn. It is possible to perceive the unborn as a full-fledged member of our human family and nevertheless be pro-choice, but that is rare. So the main issue to be decided on a thoughtful philosophical level is how to perceive the unborn, particularly its “moral status/value” (the extent to which killing it would raise moral issues and not only issues of whether it’s convenient or not to kill it).
So how should we perceive the unborn? Let’s consider a few things: First, everyone feels that it is wrong to kill an innocent three-year-old, mainly because it is harmful to the three-year-old. But those who say that it is okay to kill innocent embryos will often argue that it is not harmful to the embryos to kill them (though it would be to 3-year-olds), because of big differences between the two groups.
There are indeed big differences, but the only differences relevant in this context would be differences that do indeed logically render it not harmful to embryos to kill them, while harmful to 3-year-olds. For instance, embryos don’t have hair, and almost all born people have some – a difference. But no one would say that that difference is a justification for killing embryos. And to specify the differences that would make it harmless to kill embryos while harmful to kill born people, first we would have to know what makes it harmful to kill born people. After examining all the possible explanations for that harmfulness, we find that what makes it harmful to kill born people is that it deprives them of the lives they would likely otherwise have lived.
But then, killing embryos deprives them too of the lives they would likely otherwise have lived. Remember that deprivation of life is the only reason we find, after sufficient analysis, that makes it seriously harmful to kill born people. So in spite of the big differences between embryos and born people, none of those differences provide justification for killing embryos any more than for killing born people.
There being no more justification for killing them than for killing born people means that they have the same moral status as born people, and therefore qualify in that all-important way as full-fledged members of our human family, which is how pro-lifers perceive them.
“No more justification for killing them than for killing born people”: unless we consider location as a justification – the fact that they are located inside a woman who has her own legitimate needs. I have addressed here the strongest of the pro-choice arguments that are based on location.
I believe that the foregoing philosophical argument could convince pro-choicers and the public, if they gave the argument a fair chance, that it does do embryos equal harm to kill them, and therefore convince them to basically perceive the unborn as full-fledged members of our human family. And I am hopeful that the new threat that the pro-life movement is posing to the pro-choice movement will force those pro-choicers who do not want to cede ground on thoughtful philosophical levels to engage on those levels (initially hoping to win), and more importantly force many in the public to whom the debaters will reach out, to give the argument a fair chance. I think an important part of the inertia to be overcome is that the perception of the unborn as being initially like an ordinary cell (since to the eye it doesn’t appear any different) is superficially a more natural, instinctive, and easy perception, however inaccurate it may be, than the accurate perception of the unborn as having from the beginning a moral status equal to ours. But when anyone is forced to give the foregoing argument a fair chance, the result will be that:
1. the effort of “wrapping their heads around” the logic will loosen up their minds, and
2. once they have been forced to shift from a natural, instinctive, and easy, though inaccurate, perception to a hard-won but more accurate perception, and to come to a better understanding about the sources of the moral status of any human life, that perception and understanding of the sources of moral status will naturally extend to other forms of life as well. (This is not to say that the moral status of a spider is the same as the moral status of a human, but it is to say that their perception of the moral status of spiders, too, will change.) They will feel a greater connectedness with all life. They will have taken an evolutionary step which, once enough people do it, will be an evolutionary step for the whole race; and
3. very likely they will learn a little embryology along the way, and the scientific fascination of what a zygote and then an embryo consist of will be coupled with their deepened understanding about the moral status of that new human; and
4. very likely they will see some graphic images along the way that will help bring all the abstractions home for them (though graphic images without the abstractions will readily get mentally blocked).
This is why I see the heated-up abortion debate, forcing people in a way that will lead to a major shift in perceptions, as the potential key to a big evolutionary step for the whole race.
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