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.

Is Abortion 14 Times Safer Than Childbirth?

Pregnancy and childbirth are not easy. Besides the effects on the mother’s body, her career plans, her relationships, and her identity, there are also health factors to consider. In a small minority of cases, pregnancy-related complications directly threaten the mother’s life. Many abortion-choice advocates are well aware of that danger. Some even claim that abortion is safer than childbirth, up to 14 times safer.[1] Where do they get this idea? Are they right? Is abortion 14 times safer than childbirth?

It’s a pretty radical claim to say that abortion is 14 times safer than childbirth. It’s so radical, there’s only one source that claims they can prove it. It’s a journal article from abortion-choice researchers Elizabeth Raymond and David Grimes (hereafter, “RG study”).

This article has become one of the most popular citations regarding “safe abortion.” It’s easy to read (five pages), easy to access (free online), it’s written by one of the biggest names in the pro-choice lobby (David Grimes), and it cites recognized resources (CDC and Guttmacher). Whenever people say, “Abortion is 14 times safer than childbirth” they are referencing the RG study (like Reuters, USNews, FoxNews, DailyKos, Time, Reddit, Public Radio, Huffington Post, Relias Media, and Slate).

There is a reason, however, why no other study claims to demonstrate that this “14 times safer” claim. They can’t reproduce the results, so no other study has been able to corroborate that enormous claim. The RG study might be the most famous, and most widely cited paper on the subject, but despite its popularity, it’s pretty much useless.

Now I know people on the internet can exaggerate things, but I’m picking my words carefully here. The RG study has bad methodology and weak evidence, it’s poorly researched and argued, it doesn’t support its conclusion, and it isn’t even titled correctly.

This paper is pretty much useless because it’s irreparably flawed. But even in the wider world of abortion statistics and medical research, beyond just the RG study, there are major limitations in data collection making it virtually impossible to say honestly, that abortion is demonstrably safer than childbirth.

In this article, I’ll begin by looking at the shortcomings of the RG study in more detail. Then, I’ll examine the broader trends that undermine our ability to draw sweeping conclusions about the relative safety of abortion. Finally, I’ll talk about how this should affect pro-life policies and conversations.

“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”).

Overpopulation Can’t Justify Abortion

It might surprise you to know that tech giants Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX) and Jack Ma (Alibaba) think the world is heading towards a population collapse. It would certainly surprise Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who gave a speech on her Instagram account earlier this year about how climate change should lead people not to have children. She explicitly states that global warming will make life worse in the future, so it may not be ethical to bring children into such a world. Even more to the point, Bernie Sanders considers abortion a necessary tool for controlling population and avoiding “climate catastrophe.” Implicitly, both of these politicians are drawing on the idea that the world can’t handle more than a certain number of people without devastating consequences (such as widespread poverty, disease, and – yes – climate change). This notion is generally called “overpopulation.”

Overpopulation has been talked about on and off since 1798, when Thomas Malthus (a clergyman!) proposed that the world would essentially be ruined by further population increase. The global population was less than one billion when he wrote that, and the current global population is nearly eight billion, so he was pretty clearly wrong, but his basic idea persisted. It was reawakened in the 1960s by the book The Population Bomb, which projected that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the next decade (that…didn’t happen). The UN now projects that the world population will hit nearly 11 billion in 2100 before tapering off, and many people worry (once again) that most people on the Earth will end up hungry and poor. This kind of thinking is informed by the pessimistic population view, which holds that we won’t have enough resources to keep up with the growing wants of a growing population. The optimistic view, on the other hand, remembers that humans can do things like invent new technologies and/or better allocate resources.

This is all very interesting, you might say, but what does it have to do with abortion? Well, overpopulation holds that having more people is a problem. That means having babies is a problem, and it’s a problem to be solved by the aggressive provision of birth control, sterilization, and abortion. Much of the time, especially when it’s talked about publicly, this leads to support for open access to abortion and birth control for those who want them. It’s usually implied that people who are “properly educated” will choose such interventions over having more than two kids. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has repeatedly said this about Africa, the continent on track to have the greatest population growth in the 21st century.

Abortion and Moral Culpability

One of our best tools in conversations about abortion is Trot out a Toddler (TOAT). It’s really helpful because it communicates how we need to think about unborn humans if we admit that they’re persons. Once you accept the conclusion that the fetal human is a valuable person like us, then it’s just as wrong to harm that child as it would be to harm a toddler. Even if there are difficult circumstances surrounding many abortions, if those circumstances wouldn’t justify killing a toddler, then they wouldn’t justify abortion, either. Often this helps the two people discussing abortion identify that they their disagreement on this issue isn’t due to a disagreement about how awful the circumstances of the world are, whether or not people who are suffering need our help, or anything of the sort. Rather, they disagree about the moral status of the unborn human.

There are some nice advantages of TOAT: it’s clear, simple, and reasonably effective. However, it also has a couple prominent drawbacks. Sometimes, TOAT causes pro-choice people to believe that we’re claiming that women who get abortions have both the same moral callousness and the same moral culpability as women who kill their toddlers. We’re not making either claim, but since we’re saying thing X is like thing Y in at least one way, unless we clearly say otherwise, it’s understandable for them to assume that we think they’re alike in other ways. People are fallible and often make assumptions (pro-life people no less than pro-choice people), so as the pro-life advocate is it good practice to clarify what you’re saying if you get the feeling that someone is misunderstanding you.

Just because it’s worth saying twice: we at ERI do not believe that women who get abortions are just like women who kill their toddlers. Even though the child who dies in each situation is of the same value, it takes a twisted heart to kill your toddler in cold blood, and that just isn’t true of most women who get abortions right now. Maybe it seems like I’m splitting hairs; if you’re pro-life, you probably consider it obvious that an unborn baby is just as much a person as an older child, and if it were obvious to everyone, then it would make sense for laws to be the same for both. But for a woman who’s been told that she is just getting a clump of cells removed because she can’t afford a baby, it’s not at all obvious to her that they’re the same. Women have been sold a lie about abortion in our culture. The messaging is politically and financially motivated, but it is a convincing message. And if trusted health professionals are offering her a way out of a difficult situation and telling her that no real people get hurt, she has no malice towards her child because she doesn’t think one is there. She probably wouldn’t get an abortion if she knew that it harms and kills a person. This is clearly and totally different from a parent who kills their toddler, whom they’ve raised and whose status as a person is not in doubt.