Why Viability Is the Least Plausible Definition of Personhood

Pictured: 20-week fetus near the age of viability. Image used with permission from Life Issues Institute.

20-week fetus. Image used with permission from Life Issues Institute.

When we make the Equal Rights Argument, pro-choice people tend to respond with an alternative definition of personhood, usually an attribute that they believe humans must have in order to be considered valuable persons, such as sentience, brain activity, self-awareness, or the ability to feel pain. Typically we respond to these alternative explanations with Timothy Brahm’s Zoo Shooting thought experiment, pointing out that these definitions make at least one of two mistakes: they either allow too many organisms into the equal rights community, like squirrels, or they allow too few humans into the equal rights community, like newborns.

But there’s one pro-choice explanation of personhood that is so arbitrary and ad-hoc that I tend to use a different approach, and that is “viability,” meaning the ability to survive outside of a uterus.

Whenever you hear a pro-choice person make this argument, you should start by clarifying that they actually mean what you think they mean. Pro-choice rhetoric can often be vague, so asking lots of clarification questions is important. As we’ve explained before, most pro-choice people are very concerned about stopping the government from restricting what people can and can’t do with their bodies. Sometimes when pro-choice people talk about how dependent the unborn is on the woman’s body, they’re not actually making a statement about whether or not the unborn has moral status; they’re arguing that a woman should be able to do whatever she wants with anything inside of her body, or at least refuse another person the right to use her body for life support. So start by asking a clarification question, like:

I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Are you arguing that the unborn isn’t a person because it’s dependent on her body, or are you trying to say that it doesn’t matter if the unborn is a person because women shouldn’t be forced to have their bodies used as life support?

If the pro-choice person responds that they were making the bodily rights argument, then I’ll be glad I asked and will then clarify whether they’re making a Sovereign Zone argument or a Right to Refuse argument and go from there. Go to EqualRightsInstitute.com/BodilyRights for links to all of our resources on responding to bodily rights arguments.

It’s less common, but occasionally when a pro-choice person brings up viability, they’re actually intending to make a biological argument that the unborn isn’t an organism. This confusion comes from a misunderstanding of the word “independent” in some definitions of organism.

However, if the pro-choice person clarifies that they were indeed arguing that the unborn isn’t a person because it isn’t viable, I’ll often explain the problem of squirrels and other animals that are viable, and then I’ll explain why viability in particular is the least plausible standard for personhood, despite how often it comes up.

I’ll illustrate my approach with a story of a dialogue I had with a man I’ll call “Luke,” with whom I spoke at Davidson Community College last year. Luke made the viability argument, although he added an unusually ad-hoc twist that I hadn’t heard before, so in this article I’ll explain Luke’s argument, how I responded, and what else I would have said if he didn’t have to abruptly leave for class.

LIVE SPEECH AUDIO: Keynotes and Panel Q&A with Josh Brahm & David Bereit

Picture: Josh Brahm and David Bereit

In November of 2017 the Holy Family Respect Life Committee, in conjunction with Charles County Right to Life, invited Josh Brahm and David Bereit to speak at their annual pro-life conference in Southern Maryland.

After the keynote sessions, Josh and David did a panel discussion and Q&A, joined by Michele Hendrickson, Capital Area Regional Director for Students for Life of America and Heather Sells, CEO of the Catherine Foundation, a local Pregnancy Resource Center. The panel discussion was hosted by Ali Rak from the Southern Maryland Pro-Life Symposium.

Prefer listening on your phone? You can easily download the whole conference by subscribing to the ERI Podcast in the iTunes Podcast app on your phone.

Josh Brahm Keynote

Download Audio MP3 | 00:50:23

Josh shares seven practical dialogue tips (including two that he’s never taught before!) as well as explaining how to use the Equal Rights Argument to change minds about abortion.

David Bereit Keynote

Download Audio MP3 | 00:47:48

David shares the story of how he got involved in the pro-life movement in spite of being an unlikely activist and encourages the audience to become more active in the pro-life movement, including practical advice on how to find your pro-life lane and get plugged in.

Panel Discussion and Q&A Session

Download Audio MP3 | 01:33:34

Apologies for occasional audio issues in the panel discussion. They used tabletop panel discussion mics and when Heather would turn her head away from the mic sometimes her mic sort of cuts out. We’ve made some edits where possible, and you can always get the gist of what she’s saying.

  • 1:29: From your standpoint, what does the pro-life movement need to do to become more effective?
  • 16:00: What should pro-life advocates avoid and what hurts our cause the most?
  • 31:00: What is access to abortion like in Southern Maryland? Where does a woman who is abortion-minded go to terminate a pregnancy? How many of them tend to go to the local Pregnancy Resource Centers? Paint a picture of what it’s like to be in crisis in Southern Maryland.
  • 35:49: What does counseling an abortion-minded woman look like in your Pregnancy Resource Center as opposed to sidewalk counseling where you often only have a moment to start that conversation?
  • 43:39: How are college and high school students shaping the pro-life movement? How do we get more youth involved, and why should there be a Students for Life club at every school in the country?
  • 51:26: Josh, as a “connoisseur of good arguments and gracious conversation,” how can pro-lifers use Facebook and social media as a force for good?
  • 56:06: How do we build the pro-life community locally, one that is engaged and motivated toward action, rather than just being pro-life?
  • 1:04:53: Can we learn anything from the effectiveness of the gay marriage movement that we can apply to our movement?
  • 1:09:55: It seems like there is so much emphasis these days on individual rights, where for some people, even if they personally feel like abortion is wrong, they don’t feel like it’s their place to speak out against abortion because they don’t want to offend someone. How do you get beyond that?
  • 1:13:10: You said that you don’t approach this issue from a religious standpoint, and I’m struggling with the idea of stopping at the concept of equal rights because I think equal rights come from a religious standpoint. I’m assuming you talk to lots of college students who don’t believe in equal rights. How do you deal with that without getting into the religious aspect that we’re created in God’s image and not a product of evolution?
  • 1:19:32: Josh, you mentioned utilitarianism. Can you explain what that is and how it might come up in abortion conversations?
  • 1:21:33: I was really struck by a statistic that was shared about one in four women in church having had an abortion. How can we effectively express that graphic imagery and very strongly worded signs almost create a PTSD kind of moment for a lot of women who have made a very difficult decision in their lives, and would like to be involved in the pro-life movement, but can’t abide by being in that presence? How do we overcome that obstacle?

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