The Equal Rights Argument: A Great Way to Have Better Conversations About Abortion

The Equal Rights Institute (ERI) is a great website for people looking for resources on how to talk about abortion both smartly and sensitively. One of my favourite posts of theirs is on what they call ‘the most underrated argument in the pro-life movement’: the Equal Rights Argument. Ever since reading about it I’ve tried using it in discussions about abortion and I’ve found it incredibly useful.

I’ll tell you about the time I used it with a class of extremely sceptical Danish 17-year-olds, but first, the argument

We’re asking pro-choice people if they agree that all human adults have an equal right to life.

When they say yes, we ask them, “Do you think that means there is something the same about us?

In other words, if we all have an equal right to life, then we must all have something in common that demands that we treat each other equally, and we must have that property equally. It can’t be something (like size or intelligence) that comes in degrees, or it wouldn’t explain our equal right to life.

When the pro-choice person agrees with that conclusion, we simply ask them what is the same about us.

I think the natural temptation for a pro-life advocate who is ready with an answer to this question is to share that answer at this point. But we’d rather let the pro-choice person consider the question for themselves, and only offer our answer when they ask for it.

In my experience people aren’t annoyed by the Equal Rights Argument questions. [Emphasis mine]. They tend to see the value of the questions, but need to take some time to think about it. We wait patiently, and if they give an answer, we engage it. But if they have no idea, we then ask if they would like to hear our answer. Nearly everybody says yes.

Our answer is that we all have humanness in common. That’s something that doesn’t come in degrees. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of thing.

And if being human is what gives us intrinsic value, then that explains a lot of data. It explains why all the adult humans have an equal right to life, even though we have so many differences. It also explains why things like racism and sexism are wrong. Those things focus on a surface difference that doesn’t morally matter, and ignores the thing we have in common, which IS what morally matters!

The content of this argument is great: it’s a way of drilling down very quickly to the core of most ‘personhood arguments’ about the moral status of the unborn. But I also want to draw attention to the way in which the ERI people recommend using the Equal Rights Argument. The person you’re talking to is invited to suggest their own criterion of equality. Rather than just sit there in sceptical silence as you expound some pro-life spiel, you’re bringing them into dialogue.

A few years ago, as part of my job at the time, I ended up being invited to talk to a class of Danish 17-year-olds about abortion. They were on a school trip to Ireland for their civics class and were meeting a variety of people involved in contested social and political questions. I was the only anti-abortion person they ended up meeting, and I met them after they’d already spoke to a number of different pro-choice TDs and activists. I hadn’t prepared a talk and just invited them to ask me questions. To give you an idea of the mood of the room, the first question I got was essentially ‘Why does anyone still argue about this? In Denmark, it’s a completely settled question.’

I responded by laying out the Equal Rights Argument, and inviting the whole class to suggest different criteria of equality. People advanced different criteria: the ability to love, consciousness, sentience. We mulled over each one and the counterexamples to it (people in comas aren’t conscious, newborns aren’t sentient, and the ability to love can be read in a lot of different ways, none of which rules in everyone you’d want to rule in as a rights-bearer). The room got quieter and quieter as more people made suggestions to try to fix the deficiencies in the previous accounts of equality. One of the kids – let’s call him Max – had been messing throughout the first part of my answer, whispering to the guy next to him and sniggering. Eventually though, he was the one who said “isn’t it just ‘being human’ that’s the criterion?”

I said, “yeah, I think that’s more or less the only one that works. And if it’s being human that gives us our equal rights, then to end the life of a human being is to kill one of us. That’s why I care about abortion, and that’s why I think a lot of people do.”

To say that the atmosphere in the room had changed from the initial mixture of scepticism and boredom would be putting it mildly. Max looked like he’d seen a ghost. The conversation went on for a bit, and then the kids filed out in a very sombre mood.

I got an email from the teachers afterwards that the kids talked about the Equal Rights Argument discussion more than they did anything else on the trip. The class posted me some chocolates and a wooden soldier holding the Danish flag. I’m sure it didn’t convert any of them to being anti-abortion on the spot (social dynamics are powerful things) but it did get them to think about the question in a way that many of them seemed never to have thought about it before.

Approaching the topic of abortion using the Equal Rights Argument and the tips that the Equal Rights Institute give – asking questions rather than giving the answers yourself right away for example – worked well. Conversational strategies like this are not a kind of weird trick, a clever bit of emotional manipulation to Win Friends and Influence People To Be Anti-Abortion. Quite the opposite: they’re a way of starting a real discussion in which people can actually listen to each other and discover the reasons they believe what they do. If we’re right about the truth of the anti-abortion position, then the more honest and real the discussion is, the more likely that truth is to become apparent.

(The Equal Rights Institute is a great resource for conversational tips and pro-life arguments  like these. Check out their blog. At the Minimise Project, we would like to use our website as a resource that gives tips like this that are relevant to an Irish context – both by compiling an ‘online library’ of links to tips that other groups and authors give, and by writing some of our own. Here are some links to some of the posts that we have published so far that contain pro-life arguments and conversational tips.)

Ben

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