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.
Those of you who have spent any amount of time on social media lately know that political discourse has been particularly ugly in recent weeks. Ever since the controversy began over separating children from parents caught crossing the border illegally, there have been comments about what it means to be “pro-life.” My favorite tweet from the time of that controversy came from my colleague Rachel Crawford:
Anyone thought of policing the terminology of #prolife today? I think it would really help start a productive dialogue
There are many worthwhile discussions to be had about immigration policy, but policing the term “pro-life” is not a prudent way to start one. [Tweet that!] There are good, compassionate, reasonable pro-life people of every political stripe. This is possible because being pro-life in regards to abortion is entirely consistent with all kinds of other positions all over the political spectrum.
If pro-life advocates want to help pro-choice people change their minds about abortion, then they must understand arguments about bodily autonomy and how to respond to them in a persuasive way. In his recent video, How To Destroy The “Best” Reproductive Rights Argument, Matt Walsh draws attention to these types of arguments, explains that they are critical to the modern pro-choice position, and then lists his five problems with how bodily autonomy arguments attempt to justify abortion.
At Equal Rights Institute our staff has collectively had thousands and thousands of conversations with lay pro-choice people on college campuses in the United States, and these experiences have helped us understand what typical pro-choice people actually mean by when they make easily misunderstood statements. While Walsh is right to respond to bodily rights arguments directly and he makes some good responses, he also gives responses that are based on the same understandable mistakes that most pro-life people make.
Pro-choice arguments from bodily autonomy are extremely confusing for many pro-life advocates because there is a profound cultural gap between pro-life and pro-choice people. We don’t just disagree about premises in our arguments; our whole mindset on the issue is radically different. Pro-life people are naturally inclined to focus the conversation on the baby while pro-choice people focus their attention to the woman. Sometimes this causes pro-life people to misunderstand pro-choice arguments and assume that everything comes down to the personhood of the unborn. Walsh correctly explains that this is a problem because that is not the only piece of the debate. He wants pro-life advocates to understand that there is another way to defend the pro-choice position in the abortion debate, and he wants us to understand how to refute it. He explains that personhood, while critical to understanding the immorality of abortion, is not what is driving many abortion conversations when we talk with pro-choice people. When pro-choice people bring up bodily autonomy, they are not attempting to refute the pro-life personhood argument.
Walsh goes on to describe an argument that personhood begins when the mother decides. In other words, the argument claims that because a woman has bodily autonomy she should be allowed to decide if and when her unborn child should be considered a valuable person. He goes on to explain the metaphysical absurdity of an argument like this because it claims that the mother has some “supernatural ability to grant and resend humanity to or from her child.” This argument is so bizarre and fringe that it does not play a role in ordinary bodily rights conversations. The vast majority of pro-choice people do not actual use arguments like this one. While our staff has seen this type of reasoning on very rare occasions, it is confusing and unhelpful to pro-life people to tell them that it is a major part of the bodily rights debate. I fear it will cause them to expect to find it and wrongfully interpret other, more reasonable pro-choice statements as being indicative of the weird, fringe argument.
Pro-lifers, this is a strawman. Click here to understand why.
In his first of five points, Walsh responds to the pro-choice slogan “My Body, My Choice” by saying, “It’s not your body, your body is not the body at issue here. The issue is the child’s body, not yours.” This incredibly common pro-life response to bodily rights arguments is based on a critical misunderstanding of what most pro-choice people mean when they use that slogan. They are not saying that the child’s body is the same as the woman’s body, nor are they saying that the human fetus is somehow biologically part of the woman’s body. They are saying that the human fetus’ body affects and is inside what is indisputably the woman’s body. By “my body,” they are referring to cells with the mother’s DNA, not cells with the human fetus’ DNA. This misunderstanding often causes well meaning pro-life people to unintentionally strawman pro-choice people. Read this article for a more thorough explanation of this common problem.
John Ferrer debates David Smalley on the problem of evil for The Bible & Beer Consortium. Photo by Hillary Morgan Ferrer. Used with permission.
Debate is fun for me, but I’m odd like that. I’m an academic and ethics teacher, so I’ve debated abortion formally and informally, in academic settings and elsewhere. The subject arises most every time I’m in a panel discussion, too. In that time, I’ve come to learn that debating is radically different from casual conversation. It’s miles apart from almost every kind of interaction we can have on campus, around the lunch table, walking to class, or hanging out over coffee.
Even with all that debate experience, I’m still a novice when it comes to casual conversations about abortion. I’m a little weird like that. Thanks to Josh, Tim, and the rest of the ERI team, I’m learning how to not be weird. One advantage of my experience, however, is that I can help explain the pitfalls of debating abortion, especially when the other person just wants a dialogue. I know those pitfalls by experience; I’ve tripped across almost all of them. I’m painfully aware that academic debate is entirely different from the street-level, day-to-day conversations regular people have about an issue.
Debate can be incredibly valuable in formal settings, in classes, or on certain websites that facilitate that sort of structured exchange. Most of the time, however, people aren’t looking for a debate, and so we can overpower and ruin a conversation if we try to force it into that mold. I’d like to offer some counsel on how to distinguish debate from dialogue so you can keep your conversations healthy and persuasive.