The values of pro-choice people actually support the pro-life position
How can we change the minds of people who defend the killing of unborn children? It's not easy.
Research on persuasion suggests that shared values make a big difference. Persuasion is very difficult when people think accepting a new view means rejecting their core values or beliefs. If, however, they see that a view is actually consistent with—or supported by—those existing values, then persuasion is very possible.
But do those who favor abortion share pro-life values?
In her highly influential (yet justly criticized) book Abortion & the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker argued that the abortion debate reflects disagreement between fundamentally different views of the world. Laurence Tribe wrote a book titled Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. If clashing worldviews really are at stake, then the debate could be almost intractable.
The truth, though, is that people on both sides of the abortion issue have more in common than they might think. Pro-lifers don't need to challenge the core values of "pro-choice" people. We just need to show that those values don’t require a pro-choice conclusion. In fact, we can show that those values support a pro-life conclusion.
Our shared values don't support the pro-choice position
Consider two main values that seem to drive defenders of abortion. The first is autonomy or freedom. People have a "right to choose," abortion supporters say.
But "pro-choice" advocates don’t support a right to choose just anything. They don't support a right to choose to abuse one's spouse, for example. Both pro-choice and pro-life people favor a right to choose some things and oppose a right to choose other things. In which category does abortion belong? That's the question on which we disagree.
Most abortion supporters see the right to abortion as a matter of bodily autonomy. Even here, though, the two sides share common ground. Pro-lifers typically think people should be able to make all sorts of decisions regarding what happens inside their own bodies. We just don't think that autonomy justifies violating the rights of other human beings.
This is a point that abortion defenders recognize in other areas. For example, most pro-choice people care about the treatment of immigrants and refugees who have illegally entered the United States. They may or may not oppose the deportation of any such immigrants (immigration policy is outside the scope of this article)—but they certainly oppose the intentional killing of them. A nation's sovereignty over its own territory, most people believe, doesn't justify killing people (at least not those who aren't aggressors).
In the same way, bodily sovereignty doesn’t justify dismembering and killing human beings in utero. This might be easier to see outside the context of abortion: No one thinks pregnant women should drink a substantial quantity of alcohol or ingest other substances that cause serious harm to their unborn children. Why? Because autonomy must respect the rights of others.
So both pro-choice and pro-life people agree that freedom is important but also can be misused. They agree with Nelson Mandela: "To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
Where do the two sides disagree? We disagree about whether abortion is a misuse of freedom that does not fall under the purview of our autonomy. We disagree, that is, about whether unborn children have rights that abortion violates.
The second value is compassion. Pro-choice people often express concern for pregnant women who face difficult and unfair circumstances. They express concern for women who became pregnant following the evil of rape or incest. They express concern for children who could grow up in poverty and suffering.
Pro-life people share the same concerns. Both sides think having compassion for those in tough situations is important. But they differ on how best to deal with those situations.
Because pro-lifers think unborn children have rights, they think the violence of abortion is an unjust response to the difficulties of life—a response that can also hurt women, men, families, and society as a whole. That's why the pro-life movement (which encompasses thousands of pregnancy care centers, maternity homes, adoption agencies, and post-abortion help programs) works to support both pregnant women and their children through whatever challenges they may face.
Think about a different issue. Both pro-life and pro-choice people agree that killing a five-year-old child is always an unjust response to the economic and social hardship of a single father—even if such killing is advocated in the name of compassion. That's because five-year-olds have human rights that deserve our respect and protection.
Where do we disagree? Not on the value of compassion. Rather, we disagree on the question of whether unborn children, like five-year-olds, really matter. And on that question, other shared values can point us to a resolution.
Our shared values do support the pro-life position
Most pro-choice people genuinely value science and its ability to generate knowledge about the world. They appeal to evidence from science to support their views on a wide range of issues.
What does science tell us about the nature of human embryos and fetuses—the individuals who are destroyed in abortion?
It tells us they have a DNA and body distinct from their mother. It tells us they are growing through cellular reproduction and metabolizing nutrients into energy. It tells us they are genetically human and the offspring of human parents. And it tells us they are organisms developing themselves through the stages of life as members of our species.
"We of today know that man is born of sexual union; that he starts life as an embryo within the body of the female; and that the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm," wrote Dr. Alan Guttmacher, who later became president of Planned Parenthood. "This all seems so simple and evident that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn’t part of the common knowledge." Guttmacher wrote that in 1933. The facts of embryology and developmental biology are even more clear now.
So unborn children are living human organisms—human beings. That's what science establishes. But how should we treat them? Do they have rights like other human beings do?
This is where another shared value can help. Most pro-choice people deeply value equality. They think people have equal basic rights and deserve equal treatment. But what, exactly, makes everyone equal?
Here's why that question is so relevant to the issue of abortion. Although pro-choice people typically think all of us (the readers and author of this article) have equal rights, they don't consider unborn children part of that moral community. Unborn children, on this view, don't have rights because they lack certain characteristics. Maybe it's because they look different from us. Or because they can't think or feel the way we do. Or because they depend entirely on their mothers for shelter and sustenance.
This view denies the equality of unborn humans, of course, but it also undermines the equality of everyone else. That's because all of those characteristics—appearance, mental functions, dependency on others, and so forth—come in varying degrees. None of us have them equally. So if our rights depend on such traits, then some of us have a greater right to live and some of us have a lesser right to live. The pro-choice position just can't account for equality for anyone.
So what can?
If we are equal, then we must share something that is the basis for our equality. It must be something we all have equally (that's why it couldn’t be traits like ability and independence). What could it be? It could only be our common humanity. We are all the same kind of being, even though we differ in every other way.
And unborn humans share in that humanity. They are fellow members of the species Homo sapiens. If equal rights belong to all of us simply because we are human beings, then they belong to unborn children too.
Pro-choice people are already committed to a vision of human equality. They only need to expand that vision in order to encompass everyone. Just as they oppose discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, they should oppose discrimination the basis of age, size, ability, and condition of dependency.
Making the case for life through common values
Too often, supporters of abortion think pro-lifers hold radically different values. That's not true. By tapping into shared values, we can make the case for life persuasive.
Pro-lifers don't want to restrict freedom or control women’s bodies. We have compassion for low-income women and victims of sexual assault. We rely on the findings of science. We advocate the fundamental equality of all human beings.
"If the argument we are having is like a car taking us to the beach of truth," writes Stephen Wagner in his book Common Ground without Compromise, "then common ground is the fuel. Your argument will have to access common ground from the outset if it is to move forward."
Pro-lifers share one other crucial area of common ground with defenders of abortion. Like us, pro-choice advocates want to be on the side of good. They don't want to be on the side of injustice and discrimination and exclusion. They want to be the ones standing up for the rights of the marginalized. They want to be voices for the voiceless.
We can offer them the opportunity to be just that. After all, it's what being pro-life is all about.
This article appears in the April 2020 issue of NRL News.