Why saying the unborn baby is human is not enough

By Patrick Fitzgerald

Now that the dust has settled after the referendum, the main question on the minds of prolife people is: where to from here? How do we respond to the result and build a new prolife generation? An important task is understanding the most compelling pro-choice arguments and framing a cogent and coherent response.

One such argument is that “you can be pro-choice and against abortion”. Many pro-life people scoffed at this seeming contradiction, but in hindsight it seems many people actually found this argument compelling, and moved from a position of believing abortion to be morally wrong and should thus be illegal, to believing abortion may be morally wrong and yet should be legal. We must try to understand how people travelled this infamous journey, and thus how we can lead them on a further journey towards the pro-life position.

For most pro-life people, the unborn has a right to life by virtue of the fact that they are a member of the human race. For this reason, pro-life arguments tend to centre around the humanity of the unborn: their heartbeat, their facial features, their fingers and toes. Ultrasound technology has pretty much put to bed the idea that the unborn are anything other than human beings, which puts to bed the question of abortion, for most pro-life people.

The problem is, pro-life people are living in the past by focusing all their energies on highlighting the humanity of the unborn. The unborn’s humanity is important, certainly, and can be seen as “Step One” in the thought process. However, many pro-choice people understand that the unborn is a human being. Indeed; more and more of them freely admit that the unborn is a baby, but the baby’s right to life is overridden in their minds by the woman’s right to bodily autonomy. This can be seen as “Step Two” in the thought process, and moved many from a No vote to a Yes vote in recent years.

Pro-life people tend to react to this with despair, wondering how on earth we can move people back to Step One (the unborn baby is a human being with the right to life) and keep them there. However, there is another approach. Pro-lifers must move towards recognising that the question of abortion is ultimately a balance of rights question for many of those who voted Yes. How do we balance the right to life, established in Step One, with the right to bodily autonomy? Pro-choice people correctly point out that we do not impose on the bodily autonomy of parents by making them donate kidneys to their children who would otherwise die. We might strongly desire that all parents donate kidneys to their children if necessary. We might urge parents to consider how they might deeply regret not donating their kidney to their child. However, most would stop short of legally requiring parental kidney donation.  Thus, it seems inconsistent to insist that only in the particular case of pregnancy, the right to life trumps the right to bodily autonomy. This pro-choice argument represents Step Two, which overrides the right to life of the unborn.

Note how these arguments do not contradict Step One. Step Two arguments do not deny the humanity of the unborn, and so cannot be refuted by highlighting the humanity of the unborn. They can, however, be refuted by other means. In the Step Two thought experiments, the organ donation saves a life where otherwise someone would die. Abortion, on the other hand, ends a life where otherwise someone would live. The woman is already pregnant. The baby is already dependent on her body. The woman’s bodily autonomy is already compromised, and so the correct analogy to abortion is the case of someone who has already donated a kidney, but now wants it back. These arguments can be thought of as Step Three.

One of the things that makes this debate so difficult is that pregnancy is a rare combination of being both common and unique. Pregnancy is a condition that affects everyone in the whole world at least once (we were all in the womb once, and most women become pregnant at least once), and so is universal. Simultaneously, pregnancy is unique – there is no other human condition quite like it. However, a condition that comes pretty close is that of conjoined twins. Consider a set of conjoined twins who, if left conjoined, have a good life expectancy and quality of life. However, if they are separated twin A will survive and twin B will die. Twin A’s bodily autonomy is clearly being imposed upon by Twin B, but no one would argue that Twin A should be able to choose to undergo separation surgery without Twin B’s consent. This is a case where the right to life of Twin B overrides the right to bodily autonomy of Twin A, and is arguably much closer to the condition of pregnancy than the analogy of organ donation. In response to this Step Three argument, pro-choice people often argue that the twins are equals, while a woman and a foetus are not. This however begs the initial question – does a foetus have a right to life or not? – which brings us back to Step One.

We obviously must continue to highlight Step One arguments going forward, but we must go further still. Not everyone who is pro-choice thinks the unborn are not human and have no intrinsic value. They just think women’s bodily autonomy is more important. We must move beyond Step One arguments if we are to convince these people of the consistency and intellectual soundness of the pro-life position.