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  • Paul Stark

Equality and abortion are mutually exclusive

Our culture deeply values equality. Our culture also practices industrial-scale abortion. Supporters of abortion typically see no contradiction between these two things.

Planned Parenthood, for example, says it wants to "[establish] a society where every individual is treated equally under the law." New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a leading champion of no-limits abortion, vigorously touts his commitment to "equality" and "equal rights."

Of course, Cuomo and Planned Parenthood don't accept equal rights for unborn children. But they think other individuals (such as you, the reader of this article, and me, the author) are morally equal. Most people who favor abortion think the same.

This raises a very serious problem, however, one that few abortion defenders recognize. Can abortion and equality actually coexist? Here's why they cannot.

How abortion undermines equality

Consider the idea that abortion is morally permissible—that it's okay to kill human embryos and fetuses in utero. The most intellectually tenable justification for this view (the justification sophisticated abortion advocates usually, but not always, put forward) is that unborn humans don't have human rights or don't deserve the same respect as other members of our species.

If unborn human beings don't have rights, though, then the criterion for having rights must be something other than being human—it must be something that unborn humans don't have. Maybe it's a particular size or appearance. Maybe it's self-awareness, sentience, or other mental functions, as pro-choice philosophers argue. Maybe it's a lack of dependence on someone else, as the U.S. Supreme Court has suggested.

Here's the problem: All of these traits vary in degree. They come on a sliding scale. No two people are exactly the same. Some people are bigger and some people are smaller. Some people are more intelligent and some people are less intelligent. Some people rely completely on caregivers and some people need little help from others.

If sliding-scale characteristics are the basis for our value, then people who have more of those characteristics are more valuable than people who have less. If those attributes confer a right to life, then some people have a stronger right to life and some people have a weaker right to life. There's no such thing as moral equality. It's a myth. Some of us, on this view, just matter more than others.

Our society, therefore, should "abandon the idea of the equal value of all humans," explains pro-choice ethicist and Princeton professor Peter Singer, "replacing that with a more graduated view in which moral status depends on some aspects of cognitive ability."

It turns out that, if unborn children don’t have rights, then none of us are equal.

How equality undermines abortion

Consider, on the other hand, the idea of equality—that people (such as you and me) are equal in a fundamental moral sense. We have equal value and equal basic rights, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status. Most of us truly believe this.

If we are morally equal, though, then we must share something in common that is the basis for our equality, as Josh Brahm of the Equal Rights Institute points out. There must be something about us that is the same. What could that be?

It can't be our looks, or our mental acuity, or our athletic ability, or our creativity, or our emotional intelligence. It can't be our moral character. It can't be how others feel about us. We differ from each other in all of those ways. In fact, we seem to differ from each other in every way except one.

The only thing we share, and share equally, is the kind of being we are. We are equally human. As the philosopher Boethius classically put it, human beings have a "rational nature." This human nature—this common humanity—is the only basis for our equality.

But unborn children are also human beings. They are the same kind of being as us, albeit at an earlier developmental stage. They share, then, in our equal value and equal rights. And that means that killing them through abortion is unjust.

They can't both be true

This is the dilemma abortion defenders face. The idea that abortion is permissible entails that people aren't equal. The idea that people are equal entails that abortion is a grave human rights violation.

So which is it? Abortion or equality? They can't both be true. They are mutually exclusive.

This article appears in the February 2019 issue of NRL News.

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