One pro-life argument that is made on occasion is that abortion is ageist. There are two versions of this argument, a simple version and a more complex one. The simple version rests on the observation that abortion, by definition, targets the youngest human beings. Most pro-choice people think that it’s wrong to kill all human beings once they are born, and so in excluding the unborn (and only the unborn) from the set of humans that it’s not permissable to kill, we are discriminating against the youngest set of human beings. Older human beings are deciding that it’s OK to kill younger human beings, and so this is an ageist position to take.

The more complex version is a response to the idea, held by many pro-choice people, that human rights stem from the fact that human beings have consciousness and/or sophisticated cognitive capacities. Ciara has blogged before about why consciousness doesn’t work as a great determinant of human rights, and Ben has addressed the question of how sophisticated cognitive capacities interacts with human rights. Pro-lifers have been known to tweak the cognitive capacities point to argue that abortion is ageist. The argument goes like this:

  1. Human beings must have sophisticated cognitive capacities to have human rights
  2. Unborn babies have the capacity to develop sophisticated cognitive capacities, but are not yet old enough to exercise them
  3. Justifying abortion on the grounds that unborn babies do not yet have sophisticated cognitive capacities is therefore ageist

Stephanie Gray Connors essentially makes this argument during a debate with the philosopher Peter Singer (starts at 54:48). Singer’s answer, however, is a bit strange: he claims that his position is not ageist because he doesn’t advocate for abortion access because the unborn are young, he advocates for abortion access because the unborn don’t have full rights because they are lack certain capacities. In particular, Singer points out that he would view a human being who is fifty years old but who lacks those same capacities in the exact same way he views an unborn baby, and so his view is not ageist. 

The reason this response is a bit strange is because it flies in the face of how we generally treat discrimination on protected grounds (age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). In particular, if it can be shown that a particular action, policy or decision disproportionately impacts members of a particular group, then it follows that you are discriminating against (or in favour) of that group, even if the action, policy or decision does not explicitly target that group. For example, there used to be a requirement that candidates for An Garda Síochána had to be a certain height in order to join the force. That requirement was abolished about twenty years ago, and one of the points made when it was abolished was that the requirement disproportionately impacted people of other races, whose average height is lower than the average height of white Irish people. The restriction therefore amounted to discrimination on the grounds of race. Of course, there was never an explicit barrier placed on people from other races applying to be members of the Gardaí, but an entry requirement that impacted disproportionately on them amounted to discrimination regardless.

As another example, consider an employer who decided to host “optional training” provided by members of senior management once a week at 7.00 p.m. The training is open to everyone, but no one is obliged to attend. However, attending is clearly in your favour – you get to further your skills, and you get more face time with senior management, and you get to signal that you’re “serious” about your job, all of which may boost your chances of being assigned to more favourable or visible projects or even securing promotion. However, the training taking place at 7.00 p.m. would rule it out for employees with caring responsibilities, particularly parents. This employer is creating an environment where they are discriminating on the basis of family status, even though they did not explicitly ban parents or people caring for elderly relatives from participating. As an analogy to Peter Singer’s fifty-year-old cognitively impaired counter-example, the fact that an employee who plays football regularly and can’t make the extra training for that reason is also excluded from the benefits of the training doesn’t change the fact that the timing of the training discriminates against those with caring responsibilities relative to those without caring responsibilities.

These examples are of indirect discrimination, where instead of directly singling out a specific class of people to discriminate against, you create an environment that leads to one group being discriminated against over another. Usually, indirect discrimination requires a reason – for example, if you want to employ someone who can move heavy equipment, you would be indirectly discriminating against women (as men are, in general, stronger than women), but that discrimination is justified by the nature of the job. Justifying indirect discrimination, however, does not change the fact that it is discrimination. And so, if Singer wants to argue that his position is ageist, but that the ageism is justified, he could plausibly do so. However, arguing that his position is not ageist does not stand up – it is.

Personally, I don’t find arguments that abortion is ageist to be particularly compelling, because they’re a bit vague and can be challenged, but I do think, on the face of it, that the arguments are essentially correct. Abortion disproportionately impacts the youngest members of the human species, and so abortion is ageist, even if no one explicitly supports abortion purely because the unborn are younger than us.