Whether a being is human or not is only one part of the debate about equal rights. (Image via EU External Action)

Traditionally, a huge part of pro-life advocacy involves highlighting the humanity of the unborn. Sharing scientific evidence from DNA studies, amazing facts about prenatal development, as well as ultrasound images, has become part and parcel of the standard pro-life person’s tool box. However, this almost raises a new question: given how clear it is that the unborn is, in fact, a human, why are so many people pro-choice? Why do they simultaneously celebrate a pregnancy, mourn a miscarriage and “support” an abortion? They speak lovingly of their “baby”, but when discussing abortion refer only to “foetuses”. Pro-life people honestly scratch their heads at this – they can’t get their heads around the cognitive dissonance. How can someone acknowledge that the unborn is human, but still think abortion is ok?

There are two broad reasons: the first is, the modern pro-choice position really doesn’t depend on the idea that the unborn are not human. Constantly highlighting the humanity of the unborn will get you nowhere if the person you’re talking to already thinks they’re human, but uses a different rationale to justify abortion. The second reason is that the idea that all humanity deserves equal rights is actually a fairly modern, radical notion, and is not the open-and-shut case we pro-lifers might like to think it is. Most of human history went by without legal recognition of equal human rights, or even the concept of rights at all. That’s not to say we’re wrong, but we can’t just assert that we’re right – we have to show people why we are right.

We’ve blogged before about how important it is to figure out what kind of pro-choice person you’re talking to before making your arguments. So if one day you happen to meet a pro-choice person who literally believes that the unborn is not human, by all means, make the scientific argument. However, most pro-choice people agree that the unborn is human, but does not believe they have equal rights to born humans. They often find it particularly abhorrent to equate a foetus with a grown woman, with all her life, hopes and dreams in front of her. If this is the person you’re talking to, this is a great opportunity to try out The Equal Rights Argument. The Equal Rights Argument doesn’t highlight that the unborn is human – it assumes we agree on that. It points out why being human is the criterion we should use when assigning the right to life. You don’t have to waste time covering ground where you agree, but can skip to where you disagree – and hopefully give your conversationalist some food for thought.

Many pro-choice people also believe that the unborn is a human being, but believe that a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body overrides the baby’s right to life. If this is the person you’re talking to, it’s a good time to try out the conjoined twins argument. This points out that there are circumstances where the right to life to trumps the right to bodily autonomy. Why does your pro-choice conversationalist think the opposite applies in pregnancy? They might respond that the reason pregnancy is different is because the baby and the woman are not equal – in which case you can try the Equal Rights Argument.

So, that takes care of the first reason that humanity arguments don’t work. But let’s take a step back. Why should we even assume that it is, or should be, obvious to our pro-choice friends that all humans have equal rights?

Until very recently in human history, treating other human beings, especially human beings from outside your literal or metaphorical tribe, as having less or even no rights was a widely accepted position. Slavery was legal in many Western countries until comparatively recently, and deeply racist laws existed within living memory in certain US States. Even today, there are countries and cultures that give significantly fewer rights to women, LBGTQ people, and racial and ethnic minorities. The treatment of the Uyghurs in China is but one of many examples of persecution of a minority by a modern State to this very day.

All this suggests that the idea that everyone has equal rights is actually not the natural point of view for a human to arrive at. In fact, everything about our history suggests otherwise. While it can be frustrating to see our pro-choice friends talking about the importance of equality while denying equal rights to the unborn, I think we should remember that it’s actually surprising and pretty amazing that so many people are talking about equality at all. Much like activists over the years had to help people “expand” their notion of equal rights for property-owning white men to slowly include more and more humans, we pro-lifers should take the same approach. Instead of focusing on the hypocrisy of talking about equality while denying equality to our youngest and most vulnerable, try focusing on the positives. Acknowledge how great it is that we even agree that all born humans have equal rights, and how remarkable the pace of this progressive change has been in the last hundred years in particular. You might want to then gently suggest that we slightly expand the set of humans to which these equal rights apply. And again, we recommend using The Equal Rights Argument to do so.

For all these reasons, we think that highlighting the humanity of the unborn is, for the modern pro-life movement, a first, small step along the way to changing minds on abortion. It is not the beginning and end of being pro-life. Highlighting the unborn’s humanity may help make someone less comfortable with the idea of abortion, but won’t defuse the most compelling pro-choice arguments. It might even make someone think they for sure would never get an abortion, which is great, but won’t do much to convince them that no one should have an abortion. 

So by all means, have the science and the facts at your fingertips – but don’t rely on them. Be prepared to go much further, because most pro-choice people need to cover a lot of ground between acknowledging the unborn are human and supporting the unborn’s right to life. Pro-life people need the knowledge and tools necessary to walk that journey with them.

Muireann