Arguing From Equality: The Personhood of Human Embryos

When I teach pro-life apologetics, I usually explain that there are two primary disagreements between the pro-life side and the pro-choice side and then a bunch of distracting arguments that are about other issues that do not address abortion ethics. Most pro-life people are familiar with the first primary disagreement. These are pro-choice arguments that deny the personhood of the unborn child. In other words, they say that the human embryo doesn’t have the same equal rights as people. These arguments about personhood definitions largely dominate the philosophical literature on abortion. People argue about what constitutes a person and then explain how the human embryo does or does not qualify. Notice that this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Science tells us what is killed during abortion: an embryo or fetus that is living, whole, and human. Philosophy tells us whether or not that human embryo’s life is valuable.

Lady Justice Statue

To watch a video version of this article, click here.

The second disagreement in the abortion debate is centered around bodily rights; in other words, the slogan that we have all heard before: “My body, my choice.” This argument is different from the first disagreement about personhood because rather than denying that abortion kills a person, it addresses whether or not the killing can be justified by the woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy. In this article, I am going to make an argument which only addresses the first philosophical disagreement about whether or not the life of a human embryo is valuable and deserves the same protection from violence as you and I. For more information about understanding and responding to the second disagreement see this archive of all our videos and articles on the subject.

Do You Believe in Equal Rights?

Before I make a claim about the moral status of a human embryo, I want to first talk about rights more generally. I think that rights should be given to all people equally. This is going to be really important to my argument so if you don’t believe in equality or you don’t think equality is fundamentally important, then that’s one reason we will disagree, but I have found most people I talk with about this subject agree that equal rights are super important. I think when whenever a group of people’s rights are not being protected then serious injustice is taking place. For this topic, I will be focusing on people’s right to life.

Let’s call anyone who has a right to life a member of the “Equal Right to Life Community.” Let’s imagine that all those people are in a big room together. If you’re not someone or something with an equal right to life, then you can’t get into the room because you don’t belong in that community. Another way to talk about this community is to say that everyone in the room is a person who has serious moral status. Those terms are often used interchangeably when we talk about this kind of question.

Who Do You Think Deserves Equal Rights?

Who is in the room and who is left outside? I am going to look at some obvious examples to give you a better idea of how I think about the community and I want you to consider if you agree with my sorting process or not and why. I think it is obvious that you who are reading this right now and I are both in the community. Humans of every race, ethnicity, and gender are in the community. People in wheelchairs are in the community. Gay people, straight people, poor people, rich people, religious people, and atheists all have the same right to life. Olympic athletes are in the community and so are those who can’t run a mile in under 15 minutes. Both educated and illiterate people are in the community. I think the most intelligent among us and those with developmental delays should have an equal right to life. I think those celebrating their 100th birthday, teenagers, toddlers, and newborn babies are all in the community. I even think Canadians are in the community. All of these people have an equal right to life and should be protected from violence equally, despite the many differences they have, whether in intellect, physical abilities, or an aspect of their identity.

Advanced Extension Added to the Equipped for Life Course!

We have added eight new lesson videos to the Equipped for Life Course that will help you take the pro-life defense of fetal personhood to the next level. This 90-minute module is the result of a four-year research project that our philosophy team has been working on behind the scenes. In these videos, we teach an advanced version of the Equal Rights Argument that gives a philosophically thorough explanation as to why human embryos should be considered valuable persons with serious moral status.

Become an Equipped for Life member today: https://equippedcourse.com

An Overview of the Lessons:

  • Lesson 1: Sometimes You Need an Advanced Argument – We explain why seasoned pro-life advocates should have the second version of the Equal Rights Argument in their tool belt for abortion dialogues, even though the first version is more straight-forward and easier to understand.
  • Lesson 2: The Problem – We identify the problem of a simplified argument, even though it is more straight-forward and easy to understand and show why some people will need a more sophisticated explanation of personhood.
  • Lesson 3: Higher-Order Capacities – We introduce a hierarchical system of capacities that provides a philosophically precise understanding of potential.
  • Lesson 4: Moral Agency – We argue that moral agency is fundamental for serious moral status and that other possible explanations, such as rationality and others that pro-choice people use in the original Equal Rights Argument, don’t work.
  • Lesson 5: Responding to the Critics: Tooley’s Cat – We respond to the strongest objection to our claims about personhood made by pro-choice philosophers like Michael Tooley, David Boonin, and Jeff McMahan. We also address what philosophers call “marginal cases” and answer why we think it is philosophically consistent to say that children with anencephaly are valuable people, too.
  • Lesson 6: What about Imago Dei? – We consider the biblical argument that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God as an alternative to our approach.
  • Lesson 7: Review – We summarize these lessons for quick reference later.
  • Lesson 8: Example Dialogues – We provide three example dialogues for you to see how both versions of the Equal Rights Argument could be used in real-time.

What does Ohio House Bill 413 say about Ectopic Pregnancy?

You’ve probably seen people on social media sharing harsh articles like this one titled, “Anti-Abortion Extremism Goes Full Psycho“. You should know what this bill says. Many people are stating Ohio House Bill 413 would require doctors to attempt reimplantation of ectopic pregnancies, which is currently impossible, and is therefore designed to put OBs in jail for something completely out of their control.

Unfortunately, having carefully read this section of the bill, we don’t blame people for thinking that, because the language of the bill is incredibly vague.

The text of the bill, from page 184, reads: “Takes all POSSIBLE steps to preserve the life of the unborn child, while preserving the life of the woman. Such steps include, IF APPLICABLE, attempting to reimplant an ectopic pregnancy into the woman’s uterus.” [Emphasis added.]

We see multiple problems with this language.

First, what does “possible” mean? If some pro-life lawmakers (wrongly) think that there’s a 1% chance of survival if you move the embryo from the fallopian tube to the uterus, which is greater than the 0% chance an embryo would have as a result of even a salpingectomy (the least controversial medical procedure used to intervene in an ectopic pregnancy), then couldn’t it be argued that every ectopic pregnancy surgery should be a reimplantation effort? Maybe that’s not the intent of the lawmaker, but it’s far from clear.

Secondly, what does “if applicable” mean? When is it applicable to attempt an impossible reimplantation? Is it only “applicable” if the embryo is still alive when the surgery happens? Or is it only “applicable” if the doctor deems it possible? Maybe the intent of the lawmaker was just to leave open the possibility of reimplantation attempts if the technique is ever developed with future technology. But again, that’s far from clear.

So, what would happen if this bill passed, besides it being stopped by an immediate injunction since it violates Roe vs. Wade and Casey vs. Planned Parenthood? Most likely, some OB would get dragged into court by the state to enforce this bill, and the OB will attempt to prove emphatically that reimplantation isn’t possible.

But just because OBs probably wouldn’t go to jail doesn’t mean this is a good, well-written law. What are the drafters trying to do? The charitable interpretation is that the drafters are attempting to anticipate and promote research into the feasibility of doing reimplantation with current or (more likely) future medical technologies. The problem is, they’re doing it in a totally sloppy way. At minimum, it makes it look like pro-life people are ignorant of the current state of medical science and think that reimplanting ectopic pregnancies is possible right now. It’s also bad if pro-life legislators pass a law that would attempt to jail an OB for an impossible procedure and only fail because the OB shows in court that it’s impossible.

It is important for pro-life advocates to be clear about scientific facts because the movement is often rhetorically painted as being “anti-science.” Understandably, many pro-lifers have been concerned that this bill lends strength to that narrative. What do you think?

“Abortion is Healthcare”: A Misogynistic Non-Argument

Did you know that if you repeat the same phrase over and over on social media, it will suddenly manifest as an articulate syllogism? You may need to use capitalization or the universal “hands clapping” emoji which converts your unfounded 👏 assertions 👏 into 👏 sound 👏 arguments that are sure to convince even the most stubborn political opponent! Sometimes called the “Beetlejuice” transformation, this new persuasion tool has streamlined civil dialogues into surface-level slogans guaranteed to get you likes from your followers faster than you can say “unproductive monologue!”

So, let’s address one of the most common slogans repeated by the pro-choice lobby: “Abortion is healthcare.” There isn’t a shred of actual argumentation going on in this statement, but I am going to respond to it anyway because pro-life advocates should do better than simply shouting back, “Abortion is NOT healthcare!” We need to explain why this misogynistic rhetoric is unhelpful to the larger discussion about abortion legality, ethics, and access.

Proponents of legal abortion access will be incredibly unhappy that I am claiming the statement “abortion is healthcare” is sexist, but, rest assured, I do not say this flippantly. I am going to defend that claim in a moment through a feminist framework. (Finally, a chance to apply my minor in Women’s Studies Gender and Health!)

In this article, I explain why defending legal abortion access with this statement plays into a male hegemonic narrative that has harmed women’s health for decades and should be abandoned by anyone who believes that female reproductive health should be treated by health professionals with the same respect and dignity as male reproductive health. I am not saying that you have to oppose legal abortion or “you’re not a real feminist.” I am saying that the statement “abortion is healthcare” is discriminatory language against female bodies, and you can and should do better to defend your viewpoint on abortion.

Let’s try and make this slogan into the best argument it can be:

  • Abortion is a fundamental part of women’s healthcare.
  • People should have access to fundamental healthcare.
  • Therefore, people should have access to abortion.

Healthcare can be preventative to maintain wellness, like a flu shot, or it can be restorative, like occupational therapy after an injury. The exact definition of healthcare includes both of these categories:

“efforts made to maintain or restore physical, mental, or emotional well-being especially by trained and licensed professionals” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, emphasis added).

I will explain why it is factually incorrect to classify abortion as preventative, and then I will explain why it is sexist to classify abortion as restorative. If you want to say that abortion is healthcare, but is neither preventative nor restorative, then you must argue that the current definition of healthcare is too narrow. Normally, you would bear the burden of proof to argue why that is justified, but I am going to explore it anyway to save some time. If you say we need a broader definition, then you will inevitably run into larger problems, or you will be incredibly inconsistent. I address this in the third section below (under “Broadening the Definition of Healthcare to Include Abortion”).

Podcast: Learn from Mississippi’s Mistakes: How to Prevent Buffer-Zone Laws

Download Audio MP3 | 01:05:08

On October 1st, 2019 the city of Jackson, Mississippi passed a buffer-zone law prohibiting free speech near healthcare facilities, which includes the last remaining abortion facility in the state of Mississippi. By looking at the events leading up to this ordinance being passed, pro-life advocates can learn to make better strategic decisions to prevent buffer-zone laws from being passed in their city. Some pro-lifers argue that buffer-zones are unconstitutional, but whether or not this ordinance is eventually upheld (like Hill v Colorado was in 2000) or dismissed, it is undeniably a devastating blow to sidewalk counseling in Mississippi as well as throughout the country.

For more information:

Consent Decree Pro-life Mississippi v Horton 2016:
http://bit.ly/2IkFnLS

City Council Meeting Sept. 26th, see item 8:
http://bit.ly/34ZjN9H

Hill v. Colorado Supreme Court decision:
http://bit.ly/2V8Y0YB

News report from MSN:
http://bit.ly/30JuXf2

News report from the Guardian:
http://bit.ly/2M5ugYo

Clinic escort group Facebook page:
http://bit.ly/2Og16IF