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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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 email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.