Avoiding an Embarrassingly Common Pro-Life Mistake

Don’t you hate it when your honest clarification question is mistaken for the start of a fallacious argument?


Almost every time in the last year I’ve talked with pro-choice students at a pro-life outreach, I’ve had an exchange that goes something like this:

Pro-Choice Student: The fetus isn’t even a person.

Tim: We agreed earlier that a newborn is a person. Do you think a fetus is a person right before birth?

Pro-Choice Student: *sigh* I know where you’re going with this, you’re going to try to trap me by asking if it’s a person right before that, or right before that.

Tim: No! I’m so glad you said that because that gives me the opportunity to clarify. The argument you’re describing is a logical fallacy, it’s one of the worst pro-life arguments I’ve ever heard, and if any pro-lifer out here makes that argument, I’ll prove them wrong on your behalf. I’m not trying to trap you, I’m just trying to figure out what your position is. What is it that makes us persons?

Unfortunately, because of how common this pro-life mistake is, the pro-choice student is expecting our conversation to go something like this:

Pro-Choice: The fetus isn’t a person.

Pro-Life: When do you think it becomes a person?

C: It isn’t a person until it can think.

L: So would you say it’s a person at birth?

C: Sure, it can think at birth.

L: Well, how about the day before it’s born?

C: I don’t know, maybe.

L: How about the day before that?

C: I think I see where this is going…

L: And how about the day before that? You just have to push back a little at a time to prove that there isn’t a difference between a newborn and a fetus. If the newborn is human, and there isn’t any big change in any day of its development, then it must have been human at the beginning.

C: Well I think there’s a big difference between the day it can think and the day before that.

L: Okay, then let’s talk about the day it can think. How about one second before that? The difference in the fetus from second to second is miniscule. So how can you say it is not human one second and human the next?

C: I don’t know how to explain it but I’m not persuaded.

While making what sounds to some pro-life ears like a very persuasive and reasonable argument, the pro-life person in this example has fallen into a logical fallacy called the Continuum Fallacy, more commonly known as the fallacy of the heap or the fallacy of the beard. This fallacy takes place when you attempt to demonstrate that two states cannot be distinct because there is a continuum of states between them.

That might be confusing. Stay with me, I’ll explain with a very easy-to-understand example.


In my opinion, the easiest way to understand why a type of reasoning is fallacious is to see that reasoning applied to something more obvious, and then see the consequences. Let’s apply the same continuum reasoning to President Lincoln’s beard:


Beard Believer: Lincoln obviously has a beard.

Beard Skeptic: Oh really?! When do you think a beard becomes a beard?

Beard Believer: I’m not sure. Certainly it’s a beard when it’s an inch long.

Beard Skeptic: Well, what if he expertly trimmed his beard down by one millimeter? Would he still be furry enough to qualify as “bearded?”

Beard Believer: Yeah, sure, I guess.

Beard Skeptic: What about one more millimeter?

Beard Believer: Yeah…

Beard Skeptic: And what about one more millimeter?

Beard Believer: I think I know where you’re going with this…

Beard Skeptic: And one more millimeter after that? What if he’s down to stubble? What if we remove the stubble and now he’s clean-shaven? Unless you can clearly delineate the exact moment Lincoln no longer has a beard, and give an argument for why that moment is not simply arbitrarily chosen, we must conclude that there is NO difference between Lincoln’s beard in this picture and a clean-shaven woman! Therefore if Lincoln has a beard, EVERYONE, MAN OR WOMAN, HAS A BEARD!!!

Graphic from KnowYourMeme.com. Used under fair use.

Graphic from KnowYourMeme.com. Used under fair use.

If you aren’t familiar with the continuum fallacy, it’s awfully hard to argue with the skeptic’s conclusion. But of course we know that Lincoln has a beard and we know that if someone is clean-shaven, they don’t have a beard. We know that even if we aren’t sure exactly how much facial hair one must have in order to qualify as having a beard, we generally know one when we see it. Just because there are some cases when it isn’t obvious whether a given person is bearded, that doesn’t mean we cannot ever recognize the difference between a bearded person and a non-bearded person.

Graphic by Ustas at Memrise.com. Used under fair use.

Graphic by Ustas at Memrise.com. Used under fair use.

Similarly, it doesn’t follow that because a pro-choice person cannot determine where the dividing line is between a valuable human infant and (in her mind) a non-valuable human zygote, that does not mean that there isn’t a difference. I don’t think there is a morally relevant difference between the two; I just don’t believe that can be demonstrated by asking “what about one second before that?” over and over. I agree with the conclusion of this pro-life argument, but this isn’t a logical way to get to the conclusion.

You might be wondering, “does anyone even make that illogical argument?” The answer is yes. I’ve heard it from many pro-life people, I’ve seen it in pro-life blog posts, and I’ve even seen it in at least one Christian pro-life movie. It’s especially common for pro-life people to turn to this argument when they feel stuck, like the argument is a safety net. I don’t want to name names or call anyone out, because the pro-life movement doesn’t need more division. But we do need to stop making this bad argument.

You might be thinking, “but come on, it is totally fair to call the pro-choice person to task if they can’t explain the difference between a human you can kill and a human you can’t!” And I agree!

This fallacious pro-life argument is driven by a question that is perfectly fair to ask IF it is used in the context of shifting the burden of proof. Let’s return to Lincoln’s beard for a moment. Suppose someone were to say that she thought that it was morally justified to kill anyone with a beard. Suppose then that they refused to give any kind of explanation for when someone has a beard and when they don’t. That would be a big problem! If you’re going to advocate for the right to kill a group of humans, it seems reasonable to expect you to be pretty clear about which humans are in that group.

The fact that there is a continuum between two states does not necessitate that there is no difference between the two states. But if you are going to claim that someone on one side of the continuum has the right to life and the person on the other side of the continuum does not, it is reasonable to demand some explanation.

The pro-lifer should ask what the difference is, and point out how odd it is that a woman can legally kill her third-trimester unborn just days before it is born, and how it doesn’t seem like there is a relevant difference between the third trimester unborn and the newborn. But he must not erroneously claim that there cannot possibly be a difference simply because there is a continuum of states between the two. And if you recognize that a pro-choice person thinks you’re making this mistake, clarify what you really mean, and that you wouldn’t use such poor reasoning.


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The post “Avoiding an Embarrassingly Common Pro-Life Mistake” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blogClick here to subscribe via email and get exclusive access to a FREE MP3 of Josh Brahm’s speech, “Nine Faulty Pro-Life Arguments and Tactics.”

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Director of Training

Timothy Brahm is the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

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  • Josh, how do I refute the classic pro-choice argument that:

    “Well no one is allowed to use someone’s organs by force. Even if that person was a sick child whose father happened to have the perfect kidney match. The sick child or the hospital staff cannot force his or her parents to give away their kidney” ?

    • I can’t go into too much detail on the most philosophically interesting pro-choice argument in comments here. Briefly, I don’t think taking someone’s kidneys by force is analogous to pregnancy. The best explanation of my thoughts that is currently in written form is at https://www.blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/DFG, but our thoughts have developed a good deal in the last two years. We are planning on publishing a very thorough and careful explanation of our current approach to those types of arguments next year.

    • Vicky Littlejohn

      Except in rape, the woman permitted the child into her womb in the first place. She shouldn’t have got pregnant. Abortion is not contraception. 99% of abortions are not due to rape.

  • Vicky Littlejohn

    Pro-aborters deliberately conflate the terms “human” with “person” while accusing us of being misleading.

    “Personhood” is not a scientific concept. Around the world, plants, objects, non-human animals, imaginary beings, and geographical features variously have “personhood” bestowed upon them by humans. Meanwhile, personhood is not granted to (or reduced in) certain groups of humans, based upon things like sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, health, age, and religion. The legal concept of universal human rights was created because humans do not apply the emotion-based, subjective concept of personhood with any consistency.

    An unborn human is a human from the moment of conception. Pro-aborters attempt to get around this by saying “it’s not a real person” – which is not the same as a human. No scientist would say that a human zygote is not a human zygote.

    Therefore, abortion is taking away human rights from humans based upon ageism – since the unborn are humans at the youngest stages – and sometimes additionally sexism and ableism, depending on the reasons for the procedure.

    Once the irrelevant “personhood” distraction is dealt with, we then get on to another pro-abort argument: that it is contrary to human rights to force someone to gestate. They often say “no one has the right to force another human to let it live inside it”, and also (unscientifically) refer to the unborn as parasites, often seconds after denying that the unborn are even alive. The pro-abort crowd are correct in a sense, but they fail to address the fact that 99% of the time the woman has chosen to do something that will get her pregnant. If she doesn’t want to be pregnant she shouldn’t get pregnant.

    So then we get into a dilemma: whose human rights come first, in the case of rape, if a woman genuinely does want an abortion (as opposed to essentially being forced into it by a partner unwilling to raise a rapist’s baby, or by fearing that their rape will not be believed if they don’t abort). I personally think that if there is a human rights dilemma, we should then choose the option that will minimise suffering. Since a zygote or early embryo does not yet have the ability to suffer, I am not opposed to morning-after pills and very early abortions for rape victims. However, I respect the beliefs of fully pro-life people.

    So do not let pro-aborts derail you with their own irrelevant feelings on personhood.

    Happy campaigning, and congratulations to American pro-lifers who have recently made a lot of headway in the protection of the unborn.

    • Vicky Littlejohn

      Just to clarify, I meant that the pro-aborters are correct in a sense that it violates a woman’s bodily autonomy to force her to gestate against her will, not that they are correct in a sense that the unborn are not alive.

      However, if she wilfully partook in baby-making then she wilfully put it in her womb and it has a right to be there.

  • Vicky Littlejohn

    Also, I think you all should just say that there is no difference in the baby’s/foetus’ experience of abortion if they are at a similar stage of development, whether it is in or out of the womb. There is no scientific basis for believing that a baby is magically given the power of thought at birth.

    Also, you ought to ask these pro-aborters to define what they mean by “think” or anything similar nebulous terms, such as “consciousness”. They are actually making assumptions on the inner lives and experiences of babies based on their own ability to empathise with babies. Them judging whether or not a baby is capable of thought is not based on science.

    Anyway, by judging the value of life based on whether you reckon a human can “think” or not, by this logic severely learning disabled people would not have personhood. Another example of the personhood fallacy. (Although maybe that’s not the best analogy to convince pro-aborters, since many of them think killing disabled people is good).

  • Nulono

    I think a good way to illustrate the problem with this argument is to turn it around. Life begins at conception? When during conception? When the sperm and egg first touch? When the sperm penetrates the egg? When the sperm’s cellular membrane releases its genes? When the genes combine? Say you pick the first option. What counts as “touching”? Do the molecules have to bond?

    • The real question is when does the STATE has a vested interest in the LIFE … At Birth, a year or two later, or days/weeks/months before birth. Until the state ID when their interest is established … it is only a moral question which each person needs to address of themselves. One Question that is often avoided by all, are what are the interests/rights of the father? After all if the father has no Rights, the father has no Responsibility? Right?

  • Bruce L

    These types of arguments are being done in Congress all of the time. Then what you are saying is Congress should not be going there. I think it should be assumed that the fetus WILL GROW into a child, then an adult like we all have. It has hand, legs, a head, what do people think they will turn into a frog? We know where this is going don’t we? Also, you can use the argument that a baby’s thinking is worthless after birth. Then is it okay to kill that baby? Maybe that is coming next. Stay tuned.

  • Dee

    Not sure I understand what you’re saying. Saying a newborn is more human than a zygote is the same as saying an adult is more human than a newborn. I don’t see the logical fallacy.

  • The real guestion is: “When does the soul enter the womb?” …. And on the other side of LIFE, “When does the soul leave the body?” …. It is really all about the Soul … Becasue what part of the body is a person? The hand or leg? Are you less a person if you lost your arm or never had one?

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