Four ideas that show what the pro-life view is really all about
As the Supreme Court prepares to rule in the Dobbs v. Jackson case, a lot of people are talking about abortion. Not all of this talk is true or reasonable.
Many advocates, commentators, journalists, and others present the pro-life position as an extreme and unsupportable view. They sometimes suggest that it’s tied to a specific religious outlook or to a narrow political ideology. But this is a major misunderstanding.
The pro-life view is rooted in widespread convictions that even many supporters of abortion hold. Here are four key concepts or principles—science, human rights, justice, and love—that summarize what it means to be pro-life and explain why it makes sense.
The first idea is that a human embryo or fetus is a living human organism—a member of the species Homo sapiens. How do we know this? We know it through the science of human embryology.
The embryo or fetus grows through cellular reproduction (she is alive); she bears a human genetic signature (she is human); she has a body and DNA separate from her parents (she is a distinct individual); and she is a whole member of our species (an organism) developing herself through the different stages of human life, not a mere part of one (like an organ or a clump of cells). The embryo or fetus, then, is the same kind of being as each of us. She is a human being.
“Human development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, a zygote,” according to the textbook The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology. “This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” Explains another textbook, Langman’s Medical Embryology: “The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”
We were all once embryos and fetuses, just as we were once infants, toddlers, and teenagers. Without these long-established scientific findings, the pro-life movement wouldn’t exist.
Science by itself, though, can’t tell us how someone ought to be treated. That’s where the second idea comes in—that human rights belong to all human beings.
Unborn humans differ in various ways from most born humans, but those differences don’t determine whether or not someone has rights. Unborn humans look different from older humans, for example, but appearance has nothing to do with value. Unborn humans are less physically and mentally developed, but toddlers are less developed than teenagers, and we don’t think they count any less. Unborn humans are highly dependent on someone else, but so are newborns, conjoined twins, and many people who are elderly or sick.
Some say that rights belong only to individuals with certain developed mental capacities. Since unborn humans currently lack those abilities, they aren’t “persons” like the rest of us. One problem with this view is that it doesn’t just exclude unborn humans. It may also (depending on the criteria) exclude infants, people in temporary comas, people with cognitive disabilities, and people with advanced dementia—anyone who doesn’t meet the standard.
Another problem is that people have mental functions to a greater or lesser degree. No two people are exactly the same. That means some have greater rights and some have lesser rights. Some of us, then, matter more than others. This view undermines equality for everyone.
But suppose, instead, that we have rights simply because we are human beings. Suppose we have rights not because of what we look like, or what we can do, or what other people think or feel about us, but rather because of what we are. That means everyone is included. And it means we all matter equally because we share equally in our humanity. This is the pro-life view.
If unborn children are human beings, and if all human beings have human rights, then unborn humans have human rights. We ought to treat them accordingly.
Some people say this conclusion is well and good, but it doesn’t answer the legal question. Abortion may be morally wrong, they argue, but that doesn’t mean it should be illegal.
Here, then, is the third key idea: The law ought to safeguard basic human rights and, in particular, protect people from being unjustly killed. This is a foundational purpose of government. Whatever else the government should or should not do, justice requires that it at least do that.
The application to abortion is straightforward. If unborn humans have rights, then the law ought to protect those rights. If abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human being, then abortion is precisely the kind of act that the law ought to guard against as a matter of justice. A just legal system does not exclude innocent human beings from the law’s protection against lethal violence.
Some people object, however, that pro-life laws aren’t actually effective in reducing abortions. Many also claim that such laws produce harmful consequences, especially the deaths of women from dangerous, illegal abortions.
But these objections face two problems. The first is a factual problem. A wealth of research shows that pro-life laws can and do reduce the incidence of abortion by affecting its availability and costs. Moreover, clear evidence from both U.S. history and other countries shows that a society can protect unborn humans while maintaining a very high standard of maternal health.
The second problem is that such objections don’t get around the justice requirement. If abortion is unjust, then the risks of participating in the injustice are not a good reason to make it legal and accessible. And if unborn children deserve protection under the law, then any difficulties in upholding that law are not an excuse to abandon those children to death. They are a reason to improve the law, not end it.
Justice means giving people what they are due. Unborn children are due equal protection under the law.
A critic of the pro-life view, understandably, might respond: But what about women? What about their bodily autonomy or the terrible circumstances they often face? This is where the fourth idea—a love that is at the crux of how pro-life people see the world—becomes especially relevant.
Take the argument that abortion is justified because women have right to control their own bodies. One problem with the argument is that, although bodily autonomy is important, it isn’t a right to attack the body of someone else. Abortion isn’t merely declining to let someone (the unborn child) use a woman’s body to survive. Abortion is intentional killing, often involving a brutal process of dismemberment. If unborn humans have human rights, then abortion violates those rights.
But there’s a deeper problem with the argument. It treats mother and child not as mother and child, but as isolated competitors fighting for scarce resources. “The so-called right to abortion,” Mother Teresa observed, “has pitted mothers against their children” and “sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.”
The pro-life perspective looks at pregnancy—and human relationships in general—very differently. It recognizes that human beings depend on each other in order to flourish. Sometimes we rely on others, and sometimes others rely on us. We form “networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving,” as the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it. And no network is more central to human flourishing than the relationship between parents and their children. The pro-life position, in short, says that we need to love each other.
Consider another argument. Some say that abortion is justified by the tough circumstances that confront many pregnant women. Any such circumstances, though, can’t justify a violation of human rights. No one thinks that a single and poverty-stricken father may abandon his toddler to alleviate financial or social stress, no matter how great. If unborn humans matter like toddlers do, then killing them for the same reasons isn’t okay either.
As with bodily autonomy, though, the deeper problem with the argument is that it sees pregnancy as a zero-sum game, a problem whose solution is abortion. But pregnancy just isn’t an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and one. Unborn children deserve respect and protection because they are human beings. And their mothers deserve support and empowerment in the midst of difficult and unfair circumstances. Women can and do thrive without the destruction of those who depend on them.
The pro-life movement believes this as much as it believes anything. That’s why it operates thousands of pregnancy care centers and other organizations that offer practical support and alternatives to abortion for pregnant women, new mothers, and their families. It’s why pro-lifers (many of whom are post-abortive themselves) lead post-abortion ministries for women and men dealing with the aftermath of abortion.
And it’s why “love them both” is one of the oldest slogans of the pro-life movement—one that runs through the heart of pro-life efforts over the last five decades.
What it means to be pro-life
Science, human rights, justice, and love are values and principles shared by all sorts of people. It’s no surprise, then, that the pro-life position reaches across a wide spectrum of Americans. Men and women are about equally likely to hold it. Some pro-life groups champion feminism. Some are religious and some are secular. Some are progressive and some are conservative.
Indeed, pro-life people differ on many matters. But they agree about the science of life in the womb, and about the principle that human rights belong to all humans, and about the importance of equal protection under the law—and, perhaps above all, about love.
“We come rich and poor, proud and plain, religious and agnostic, politically committed and independent,” wrote the late Dr. Mildred Jefferson, an early leader of National Right to Life and the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School. “The right-to-life cause is not the concern of only a special few but it should be the cause of all those who care about fairness and justice, love and compassion and liberty with law.”
This is what it means to be pro-life. It’s not a narrow view tied to specific political or religious commitments. It’s wide open to everyone.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue of NRL News.