Alex had stopped, curious at our images and at my question— “What do you think about abortion?”—as he was heading to class.
“I’m pro-choice,” he answered.
“Pro-choice for what?” I asked.
“Uh, just pro-choice. I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Sorry,” I replied, “I don’t mean to be confusing. I’ve talked to a few people today who said they were pro-choice, but they all had different definitions of it. What does being pro-choice mean to you?”
We chatted for a couple minutes and he gave me some reasons why he supported abortion. I then asked him, “Do you believe in human rights?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Great, me too! And who should get human rights?” I continued.
He became thoughtful—which is a great thing. We want people to consider their views more carefully! “Hmm…I think that humans who are rational and self-aware should get human rights.”
Though he did not explicitly use the word “personhood”, I realized that Alex was basically making a distinction between “persons” and human beings. I have heard people cite countless different standards which they believe a human being must meet in order to attain personhood. But these philosophical claims need not intimidate us. We can ask simple questions to help people understand that this distinction flies in the face of human equality. And “ask questions” is exactly what I did.
“I’d agree that our rationality is one of the things that makes humans special,” I replied. “I’m not sure though that it’s the reason we get human rights. Think of it this way: imagine there’s a man who’s in a temporary coma—for, say, 9 months. The doctor tells you that for those 9 months the man will be totally unconscious, but he’ll regain consciousness afterwards. Would it be OK to kill him during those 9 months, since he’s not self-aware?”
He considered this and said, “No, that’s a good point. I guess it’s more about whether or not a person is going to be happy and functional.”
I offered another analogy and question to challenge this: “Well, imagine that tomorrow, the unthinkable happens: you get into a car crash with some family members. Some of them die, and you become a paraplegic. You wouldn’t be very happy, and you wouldn’t be as functional, right? But wouldn’t you still get human rights?”
He considered the scenario and again replied, “Yeah, I don’t like that definition either.” I gave him a couple moments to process his own thoughts. I then asked him, “Isn’t it most philosophically consistent to say that all humans should get human rights?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he answered. Then he asked me, “So why are you here showing pictures of aborted fetuses?”
I knew that it was then a good time to make the case for human equality. “I’m here because throughout history, humans have been denied human rights and personhood for so many reasons. People have been lethally discriminated against because of their race, or gender, or their sexual orientation. Today, in Canada, an entire class of human beings are denied rights and personhood because of their age–because they’re living in the first 9 months of life.”
He looked at our photos of tiny aborted children and said, “Yeah—all the arguments go back to their age.”He was silent again and then said to me, “Well, if your goal was to get me thinking, you’ve definitely succeeded.”
He took a pamphlet, shook my hand, and thanked me for the conversation before continuing to his class.