On January 27, pro-life activists gathered in Washington, D.C. for the 44th annual March for Life, a demonstration that has developed into a combination protest against the legality and ubiquity of abortion and all it represents, as well as a joyful celebration of life. The march coincides with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the United States. Though you wouldn’t know it by the silence of most media outlets, year after year this march draws hundreds of thousands of peaceful, joyful protestors to Washington, beginning with a rally that includes a variety of speakers, and ending with a march that leads to the Supreme Court and Capitol buildings.
This year in especially the March for Life was surrounded by particular elements of volatility. For one, it came just on the heels of the recent Women’s March on Washington, which among other things fought strongly for the right to “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion…for all people.” And so within a matter of days, Washington, D.C. saw two marches, each boasting several hundred thousand people, advocating for directly oppositional views.
The second complication in this year’s March for Life is that it comes at the beginning of the Donald Trump presidency, which itself is a source of controversy for pro-lifers. While the March for Life is singularly focused on abortion, most pro-lifers are not. Many, like myself, while being strong advocates for the right to life of the unborn, as well as all people, nonetheless fought passionately against a Donald Trump presidency, despite his promises to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices (a label I reject for other reasons, but that’s a different blog post). Because we are pro-life, we oppose any assault on the dignity of human life, which includes torture, murder of innocents, dehumanizing treatment of migrants, degradation of women, racism, and so forth. We subscribe to Joseph Cardinal Bernadine’s famous description of the “seamless garment” of pro-life advocacy, that an attack on any aspect of the dignity of human life is an attack on life itself.
Abortion has always been, and is certain to continue being, perhaps the most volatile political issue of our generation. It is nearly impossible to speak of it without some level of verbal violence, particularly in our world of social media, where arguments too often rapidly descend into caustic exchanges of boorish ad hominem attacks, where reason is cast aside and aspersions cast forward, where base calumniation is the easiest way to smugly demonstrate that you are morally superior to your opponent, and that the rightness of your position is self-evident based on that alone.
Of all contentious political issues, abortion leads to the most extreme vilification of opponents. To those who believe in the right to abortion, pro-lifers are extremists who hate women and want to take control of their bodies, who want to return to the times of medieval theocracy, and who want to return to a world of back-alley abortions with coat hangers where women are left to bleed out and die. To those who believe in the right to life, pro-abortionists are really just sluts who want to have consequence-free sex and are willing to murder innocent babies whom they sacrifice on the altar of the demon-god Eros. Of course, the caricatures that one side paints of the other are wildly untrue. And yet in too many discussions of this contentious issue that’s not so distant from the hyperbole it’s meant to be.
What I do believe these representations by one side of the other demonstrate is that this is an issue where rarely do people begin with a stance of open listening. We have confused openness and listening with softness of belief. I can’t listen to you because my mind is already made up. But listening isn’t necessarily about being convinced. It’s about opening your heart to the other person and attempting to understand why they believe what they believe and what forms their conscience on the issue. By taking this stance of openness we often discover that there are even areas of agreement, much to our surprise. But most importantly, this stance of open listening restores a much needed humanity to our otherwise dehumanizing discussions.
In philosophy we learn that an argument is valid if its premises lead to a logical conclusion. A valid argument is true if its premises are true. Therefore it is possible for an argument to be valid but untrue, but it is not possible for an argument to be true but invalid. What each side of the abortion debate would do well to appreciate is that by and large, both arguments are logically valid, meaning that based on the premises they propose, their conclusion logically follows. The contention in the abortion argument is on the fundamental premises of when life begins, and when does that human life warrant the recognition of human rights, namely the right to life.
There is one premise of the abortion argument, and one that pro-lifers such as myself hold as foundational, that can easily be demonstrated as true, even if it is not always recognized as such, which is that life does indeed begin at conception. However, pro-lifers too often place too much emphasis on this fact, because all that is scientifically true here is that from the moment of conception, all eight of the biological characteristics of human life are present (cellular organization, reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, heredity, response to stimuli, growth and development, and adaptation through evolution). This is a biological fact, and so it is true, from the moment of conception a human life is present and alive. On the one side, those who support abortion cannot argue their position well if they do not accept this basic scientific fact. On the other side, those who support the right to life cannot argue their position well if they rest too heavily on this premise and do not articulate well why the proceeding premises they propose are true.
And it is just these proceeding premises where the fundamental question lies. It is precisely because of the challenging nature of their argument that each side must be understanding and take that position of open listening to the other side, because sound arguments can be made for each. One quick point, among the caricatures painted of the pro-life side is that we attempt to impose our religion on others, and so our position is merely a religious one. While it is true that faith informs our belief in everything (and we would argue that faith itself is a valid epistemological stance), our arguments do not rest on theology, a point I will demonstrate below.
The crux of the argument then becomes not about when life begins, but rather whether there is a difference between life and personhood. From the moment of conception a human life exists, but does a human person? It should be obvious that this question is complex.
Those who support the right to abortion typically rely on one of two premises to support their argument of the difference between a human life and a human person deserving of the protections of their right to life. The first is viability. If the unborn life cannot live outside of the womb, then in a sense it still remains an extension of the mother, part of her body rather than an independent being, and thus her right to abortion is an extension of her right to bodily autonomy. As the fetus before viability is merely an extension of her body, an abortion is little different from any other decision of what to do with her body – to get breast implants or reduction, to get a tattoo, etc. It is, as the saying goes, her body, her choice.
I believe this argument is flawed because medical advances continue to allow a fetus’ viability to come sooner and sooner in the pregnancy. If personhood is tied to viability, and if viability is dependent upon the advancement of medicine, then personhood becomes an entirely capricious definition.
The second common premise argued by those who support the right to abortion concerns the age of reason. According to this argument, a human life does not become a human person until they have reached the age of reason, which itself is variously defined, but in its most generous sense means the point in time when the life has a functioning brain that can at least communicate basic signals, such as pain, hunger, emotion, etc.
Again, however, I find this argument to be capricious for two reasons. First, age of reason can be defined in too many different ways. The argument above is, as I said, the most generous interpretation. Yet the argument is too easily brought to extremes, like those of the Princeton ethics philosopher Peter Singer, who argues that a child does not reach the age of reason until around two years old. From that argument he has concluded that there are circumstances where not only is it permissible, but even ethically required, to kill a small child to prevent some harm to them, either presently or later in life. Of course, this is an extremist view held by virtually no supporter of abortion, but in its extreme I believe it helps to illustrate the capricious nature of the premise.
The second reason I find this argument lacking is the fact that it is possible for a grown adult who clearly possess the faculty of reason to indeed lose that faculty, and then have it return. A traumatic brain injury can cause a person to enter into a vegetative state, in which they lose all rational functions of the brain, and in which their brain function does nothing other than send the necessary signals to keep their body alive, and even with that often times requires the assistance of medical technology. Another way to put it is that their faculty of reason at this point is no different from the faculty of reason of a young fetus. Importantly, there is a difference between a vegetative state and a persistent vegetative state. The former anticipates a recovery, at least of sorts. The latter does not. I mention this so people do not confuse this example with that of the controversial case of Terri Schiavo. A person in a vegetative state is anticipated to return to some level of the faculty of reason.
This is important because if one ties personhood to the ability to reason, then we have now concluded that it is possible for a human life to transition from non-personhood to personhood, back to non-personhood, and then back to personhood again. While this may make sense to Peter Singer, I believe most people would recognize it as patently absurd.
To be clear, my own position on abortion is indeed informed in part by my Catholic faith. I do not want to downplay that or to make it seem from the argument I am about to make that I have an entirely faith-free reason for believing in the protection of human life from conception to natural death. However, I will propose that my argument below does stand on its own, and does not require a faith-based proof. And again, it comes down to the element of caprice. And it begins with Aristotle.
Aristotle argued that there are two kinds of change, qualified and unqualified. A qualified change is when a thing undergoes some sort of change that does not fundamentally alter the substance of the thing. In other words, even if something changes, it still remains what it always was. If I cut my hair, I have changed, but I am still me. When I was two years old, I was just three feet tall and walked on wobbly legs. I now stand at 6’3 and walk on stable, if clumsy legs. And yet despite these changes, I was always me. The changes that occur in qualified change are called accidents. The accidents are the non-essential elements to the substance of a thing. Hair is an accident to my being because it does not make me who I am (well, unless I’m Fabio, in which case hair is everything).
An unqualified change occurs when something changes in such a way as to become an entirely new thing. Something comes from that change that once was not. If I take a log of wood and burn it, and reduce it entirely to ash, it has undergone an unqualified change. The wood no longer exists, but only ash. Conception itself is unqualified change. A sperm and an egg once existed, and suddenly they no longer do, but rather a blastocyst is formed, separate and distinct from both the egg and the sperm that no longer are.
In the development of the human person, from the moment of the formation of a blastocyst, every change going forward is a qualified change. The substance of the human person is always there, but the accidents of the person change. The changes are nothing but the various stages of human development. There is a continuity of qualified change, from blastocyst to embryo, from embryo to fetus, from fetus to infant, from infant to toddler, etc. These changes all form a long arc of a single life. There is, in my view, no single moment where a second unqualified change occurs, similar to the unqualified change of sperm and ovum to blastocyst. The only changes that occur are in the accidents.
These arguments may have seemed tedious, but I laid them out as such to demonstrate my earlier point – that each side does well to recognize that the other’s position is indeed a valid one. The logic of each is sound. The truth depends upon the truth of the premises, and we must recognize that these are difficult questions to answer. Even if our positions are not going to change, by taking the stance of open listening and by recognizing the difficulty of the premises themselves, we can restore that necessary sense of humanity to an argument that is too often dehumanizing. In this political climate, where emotional, verbal, and even physical violence are increasing, this humanization can bring a much-needed infusion of peace and non-violence, and even if it does not change people’s positions, it can restore human dignity and help bring peace to our world. And that is an unqualified change I think we can all get behind.