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Columns, Opinions

Sahyouni ’21: Addressing common pro-choice arguments

Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Brown Students for Life made an important contribution to campus debate late last month when they hosted Stephanie Gray Conners, a seasoned pro-life advocate, to defend the view against an audience overwhelmingly opposed to her stance. At the event itself, Conners fielded several reasonable and common objections to the pro-life view to which I thought she responded strongly. Perhaps the most interesting part, however, came after the event, when a familiar gang of precarious pro-choice arguments started showing up in my conversations about the event with other students, as well as Brown’s infamous Dear Blueno Facebook page, a student-run page that solicits and posts anonymous submissions. Thus, the following is a rebuke of some of the most common pro-choice arguments that I see flourishing on campus. 

  1. A zygote/embryo/fetus is not human life.

From a scientific standpoint, the point when life begins is clear. A survey found that 96 percent of biologists agree that human life begins at conception. You’d be hard-pressed to find a prominent geneticist that disputes this fact. So, if we want to take the phrase “follow the science” to heart, we have to agree on this basic truth first and foremost. Granted, when some people say “life,” they might actually mean that a zygote/embryo/fetus is not a human person, which is a more specific, moralistic term that is not necessarily identical to the scientific definition of life. It’s very difficult, and outside the scope of this column, to make a meaningful distinction between human life and human personhood, and I personally would make no such distinction. Regardless, life begins at conception. 

  1. Late-term abortion is extremely rare.

In response to several recent legal pushes to outlaw late-term abortions — those occurring more than 20 weeks into the pregnancy — pro-choice advocates have trotted out the statistic that less than two percent of abortions take place on or after 21 weeks of pregnancy. This argument serves mostly to distract Americans from the fact that the majority of people believe that such abortions should be banned, but it’s still important to address it. 

Let’s look more closely: How rare are these procedures, really? The Washington Post reported that in 2014, roughly 12,000 abortions “took place at or over 21 weeks,” citing findings from the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice, nonprofit research center. That may be a small number relative to the total number of abortions performed annually, but on an absolute scale, that number is massive. The number of late-term abortions, in fact, exceeded the CDC’s count for firearm homicides that same year. Thus, it seems difficult to maintain the position that gun violence is pervasive and widespread, while downplaying the prevalence of late-term abortion, as so many abortion-rights advocates do.   

  1. If you think abortion is immoral, don’t get one. 

So the common argument goes: The government shouldn’t be acting as any person’s moral policeman. In other words, an abortion is an individual decision, and the state should not be imposing its preferred morality over its citizenry. I actually agree with the latter point but not the first. Abortion is not outside of the state’s jurisdiction. Granted that human life begins at conception, abortion is the active killing of another human being, and it’s hard to imagine anything that the government has more duty to prevent than that. 

In fact, America’s founders argued that the government’s primary reason for existence is to protect people’s basic rights from being infringed on by others. There is no one whose rights are more vulnerable than an unborn child and no individual right more fundamental than the right to life. So, it’s not hard to understand why pro-life folks hear this argument and think of analogous, but ridiculous, arguments such as: “If you don’t like murder, don’t murder.” 

  1. If abortion is made illegal, women will still seek out (less safe) abortions.

With this point, it’s important to separate the true from the false. First, evidence suggests that making abortion illegal would significantly reduce the number of abortions. A study in the Journal of Law and Economics, for instance, found that restrictive abortion policy had a significant negative effect on abortion rates. While unreported, extralegal abortions may still take place to a certain degree, the idea that a ban on abortion would be ineffective, at least in preventing unborn deaths, is just wrong. 

On the other hand, there is also evidence that abortion restrictions increase the number of mothers who die as a result of attempting an illegal abortion. We are talking about a number of deaths in the low double digits. Still, any death is a tragedy that cannot be ignored, and we should do what we can from a legislative standpoint to protect pregnant mothers. The response, however, should not be to make abortion legal. If one really believes that abortion ends a human life, which I demonstrated at the outset of this column, then they cannot respond to the relatively rare case of maternal death in abortion  by legalizing the killing of innocent, unborn human beings. 

  1. Even if life/personhood begins at conception, a zygote/embryo/fetus has no right to live in a woman’s body without her consent.

In a moral philosophy essay that I’ve seen brought up several times in the abortion debate, Judith Jarvis Thomson makes this argument using the analogy of a famous, unconscious violinist who has a fatal kidney disease. There is but one person — I’ll call her Mary — on earth who has the necessary blood type in order to save this violinist. Thus, the violinist’s buddies kidnap Mary and hook her body up to the violinist such that Mary’s blood can be used to treat his kidneys’ ailment. If he is unplugged now, the violinist will die, but in nine months, he can be unplugged safely. So, the argument goes, Mary, who is analogous to a pregnant mother, has no moral obligation to keep the violinist, who is supposed to represent Mary’s unborn child, plugged into her, even if he has a right to live and is innocent of any wrongdoing. 

Whether or not one agrees that it would be acceptable to unplug the violinist, there are some key problems with this analogy that make it inapplicable to the abortion question. The first issue is that it fails to work for all but the earliest term abortions. To demonstrate this, consider a slightly different question. Would it be morally permissible for Mary to, for example, stab the violinist in the chest and then disconnect his corpse? My, and hopefully your, intuition tells us that this is morally repugnant. We tend to think this way because the human conscience sees a difference between active, violent killing and withholding resources necessary for life. Abortion, in most cases, falls into the former category.

At this point, it’s necessary to describe the violent nature of abortion. The most common abortion procedure, suction aspiration, involves the unborn human — usually with fingers, toes and a beating heart — being sucked through a vacuum tube and dismembered. This procedure can be used in the first five to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Even more gruesome methods, such as dilation and extraction or induction abortion, are required in the second and third trimesters, respectively. Dilation and extraction involves the fetus getting physically ripped apart using a metal clamp and suction. Far from “pulling the plug,” and contrary to popular belief, the majority of abortions are surgical and violent. 

Connecting this to Thomson’s analogy, it is absurd to argue that Mary could justifiably disconnect herself from the violinist by sucking his limbs through a tube, or ripping him apart with a clasp. So abortion, at least in the cases where surgery is required, cannot correspond to the disconnecting of the violinist in the original example. 

That still leaves, though, medical abortions, which are used early in pregnancy and may fall more neatly into Thomson’s argument. Are we to concede that abortion is acceptable in these circumstances, just as it is morally permissible to pull the plug on the violinist? The answer is still, no. 

The key reason is that Mary doesn’t bear the same ethical responsibility to provide for the needs of a random violinist than she would to her own child. Society widely accepts that parents have a duty to provide the basic necessities for their children. That principle is represented in law, for example, where parents can be held criminally liable for not feeding their kids enough. So, because the unborn are human, and are their parents’ offspring by definition, then their parents ought to be morally obligated to provide some bare minimum care to their descendants in the womb. So why then does the pro-choice position see a moral obligation for a mother to meet the basic needs of her child after birth, but not before? 

It’s not because life begins at birth, as the science is clear on that question. Perhaps one who is pro-choice might want to pick some point, between conception and birth, where this obligation “kicks in.” But any line that the abortion-rights advocate chooses, I argue, is arbitrary and ventures into dangerous territory in nebulously assigning moral value to certain human beings but not others. 

Obviously the abortion debate is too complex to be solved in a column as short as this. Therefore, the intent of this column is to raise critical challenges to the popular pro-choice beliefs on Brown’s campus and to foster a more intelligent and good-natured debate about this incredibly contentious and emotional issue. 

Donnie Sahyouni ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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  1. “It’s very difficult, and outside the scope of this column, to make a meaningful distinction between human life and human personhood, and I personally would make no such distinction.”

    Is that not the crux of the debate about abortion? How does this article contribute anything to the discourse if you just avoid a central point (that life=personhood in the fetus) that pro-choice advocates make? Perhaps this article should be called “Addressing Common Strawmen”.

    If you haven’t convinced me why a fetus deserves the same rights as an out-of-the-womb human, but instead just use statistics about biologists’ beliefs about life and conception, you’ve gotten basically nowhere in convincing me. Moreover, what percentage of those biologists do you think are pro-life? Certainly not 96%, I’d venture to guess. How would you respond to that? I mean, you imply that they’re scientific authorities on abortion, but then you suggest that they’d be wrong if they (the scientific authorities!) disagreed with you.

    If asked about abortion, most biologists wouldn’t reduce it to just a matter of biology, which you’re guilty of doing. They’d introduce philosophical considerations as well. So if you’re gonna appeal to scientific opinion, maybe you should also understand that scientists acknowledge that there are limits to purely scientific reasoning.

  2. If you’re gonna post a horrible take at least get your facts right.”Late term” abortion is not even a medical term – it’s a political construction which is just one of the many factually incorrect things in this article, and I don’t really care to go through and point out all the other inaccuracies.

    “If one really believes that abortion ends a human life, which I demonstrated at the outset of this column, then they cannot respond to the relatively rare case of maternal death in abortion by legalizing the killing of innocent, unborn human beings.” Have you never taken a history class? Do you not know how many folks died when abortion was illegal in the US? Have you even looked at other countries that have outlawed abortion? Guttmacher claims that around 30,000 women would die (based on data from countries that have outlawed abortion)—if you think that 14,000 is a large number of “late-term” abortions, surely you know that 30,000 > 14,000. As you say yourself, any death is a tragedy. There is a direct correlation between illegal abortion and maternal mortality so not really sure what other methods we can take “from a legislative standpoint” besides legalizing abortion.

    I find it absurd that you don’t even address instances of rape/incest in your 5th argument. Are you still against abortion in these instances? If you believe that every time someones consents to sex they consent to also have a child, how does it work in this case when they didn’t consent to sex? If you support abortion in these instances, how are you going to prove someone was raped?

    Are you seriously hearing yourself? “The violinist’s buddies kidnap Mary and hook her body up to the violinist such that Mary’s blood can be used to treat his kidneys’ ailment.” You think it’s morally permissible to kidnap somebody just so that person can save someone else’s life? Hate to tell you but if I had an organ (i.e. a kidney) that could only be given to Person X otherwise Person X will die, I am not obligated (legally or morally) to do so.

    As you say, “Obviously, the abortion debate is too complex to be solved in a column as short as this. Therefore, the intent of this column is to raise critical challenges to the popular pro-choice beliefs on Brown’s campus and to foster a more intelligent and good-natured debate about this incredibly contentious and emotional issue.” It’s ironic that you seek to foster a more intelligent debate by posting the same reductive arguments every anti-abortion person makes (also lmao at the fact that one of the sources is LiveAction, an extremely pro-life org that has no scientific knowledge).

    Tl;dr just say you think a fetus has more rights than a pregnant person – rather than posting horrible takes about why you don’t think pregnant folks should have rights, maybe you should spend time thinking about what anti-abortion orgs can do to make it easier for folks to have children – e.g. childcare, universal healthcare, higher minimum wage etc. Maybe if they didn’t spend so much time crusading against abortion, we would actually have less abortions because it would be easier for folks to have and raise their kids.

  3. 12,000 abortions after 20 weeks (which I wouldn’t even consider a “late” abortion when the anatomy scan isn’t done until 16-18 weeks and the baby is not viable prior to 24 weeks) is rare. It represents roughly 2% of all legal abortions, but the denominator shouldn’t just be abortions, it should be conceptions. So add 4 million births to the denominator as well as the fact that 10-20% of *known* pregnancies end in a miscarriage and then a large chunk of conceptions don’t even survive to a pregnancy test (major chromosomal aberrations, failure to implant, etc) and you’re talking about an event that happens to less than 0.2% of “unborn babies” being aborted after 20 weeks which I established is a generous cutoff for “late abortion.” The right only came up with that cut off because it’s beyond the protection of Roe v Wade. It’s a completely arbitrary and meaningless cutoff point.

  4. The absurdly fallacious arguments offered in this article are irrelevant. The fate of a woman’s right to choose will be decided in the Supreme Court — whose members currently include 6 right-wing Republicans, including two men who have been credibly accused of sexual assault. These are the people who will decide whether women will be able to control their own bodies in the years to come.

    • Donnie — on behalf of women who think for themselves and don’t need to kill their own children to achieve freedom and equality — THANK YOU! Let the haters, hate. They certainly excel at it.

    • Really? Is there a case currently heading to the Supreme Court which has the potential to result in a Supreme Court ruling which would overturn Roe v Wade? Is so which case? Please share with us so we can track its progress.

  5. While I disagree with the ultimate conclusion you make, I’d like to thank you for making well-reasoned arguments in a logical way – I really do appreciate understanding the pro-life view, which shows that it’s not as simple as the “if you don’t like it, don’t do it” view that I’ve heard a lot.

  6. “From a scientific standpoint, the point when life begins is clear. A survey found that 96 percent of biologists agree that human life begins at conception.”

    The fact that you’re citing a ‘survey’ conducted by an author posting on Quillette, a platform notorious for airing profoundly racist authors’ ramblings/an altogether unscientific source, as definitive evidence that 96% biologists agree that life begins at conception– and therefore we should outlaw abortion– is absurd. You really had to reach into the intellectual dark web to try and spin your horrible takes into legitimate ones. Boy bye

    • Where does human life begin then? Can you tell us please?

      • The collective of human life, or an individual life?

        • Individual life. No idea what the ‘collective of human life’ is.

          • It’s a heated debate in biology/in the medical sciences, and there is no definite answer.

            If we consider human life to start at conception, which sounds reasonable at first, then that means that all embryo-derived cell-lines that are currently being used in research labs are exploiting/enslaving/torturing actual Human beings.

            Conversely, if we decide that life starts after birth, we run in the issue of potentially inflicting pain and suffering in a conscious being that senses the world exactly as we do, but that paradoxically we don’t consider alive until it has exited the birth canal.

            In my opinion, the most sensible heuristic is senscience. Is the fetus old enough to be capable of experiencing the world and feeling pain/fear/etc., even if inside the womb? If yes, abortions are immoral. If not, they are no different than any of the many medical treatments that prioritize conscious life (the patient) over non-senscient life (a pathogen).

            The collective of human life is exactly what it sounds. Another very interesting question in biology is “when human life started”, and your post was ambiguous.

  7. A few points:
    1) It’s kind of hard to believe a survey from a site usually called out on biases
    2)Why the heck are you measuring late-term abortions on an absolute scale. Take an APMA class. Snakes kill over 100,000 people per year, but that’s only noteworthy until you compare it to the total number of snakes people interact with per year. Real bad analysis man
    3) A lot of these points depend on the premise of life beginning at conception to be true. Convince us of that before you go and make assertions like this.
    4) if you truly believe that banning abortions would be effective in stopping them, look at the numbers of *reported* illegal abortions (therefore including non-reported would be significantly higher), and deaths from abortion procedures before and after Roe v Wade.
    Get better dude. You have no uterus, so you should realize you literally have no weighted opinion on the matter.

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