While the abortion debate may seem complex, it actually centres on one question: who are the pre-born? Are they human beings with human rights, like the born? Or are they mere “clumps of cells”, with no more moral value than a tumour?
As pro-life individuals, we acknowledge that a new human being comes into existence at fertilization. It’s a simple fact of biology; yet, if you engage in pro-life outreach, you will quickly discover how many people view the child in the womb as subhuman. What are the most common objections to the humanity of the pre-born child? And how can we, as pro-lifers, respond intelligently to these objections?
1) “It’s not a human. It’s just a fetus.”
A young woman said this to me with great disdain while I was attending my first Abortion Awareness Project. “I agree with you that this is a fetus,” I answered, as I gestured to a photo of a pre-born child on our display. “A fetus-what?”
She looked at me with a confused expression and said, “What do you mean?” “Well, what kind of fetus?” I replied. “‘Fetus’ isn’t a species-specific term. For instance, pregnant dogs carry dog fetuses. Pregnant cats carry cat fetuses. What species of fetus would a pregnant human being be carrying?” Reluctantly, she answered, “OK, a human fetus.”
I often share with people that in Latin, ‘fetus’ simply means ‘offspring’ or ‘young one’. (As my colleague Jonathon has wryly commented, “You’ve successfully called it a baby in a different language.”) Rather than being a species-designating term, ‘fetus’ is an age-range term, like ‘newborn’ or ‘teenager’. Pointing at the pre-born child and saying, “That’s not a human, it’s just a fetus!” would be just as absurd as pointing at a 2-year-old and saying, “That’s not a human, it’s just a toddler!” Our age does not determine our humanity.
2) “A fetus is nothing but a parasite.”
My friend Cindy recounted to me how, while she was in the middle of a lab activity at school, one of her classmates decided to challenge her on the abortion issue because he knew that she did anti-abortion activism. He declared that a fetus was merely a parasite in the woman’s body, and her classmates went silent, waiting for her response. She is an experienced pro-life advocate who knows the efficacy of asking questions, and so she responded to him with a question: “What is the scientific definition of a parasite?”
The young man was unable to answer because he didn’t know. She then explained to him that a parasitic relationship, by definition, exists between two organisms of different species, such as a flea on a dog. A pre-born child is obviously of the same species as her mother, and she cannot be classified scientifically as a ‘parasite’ any more than a breastfeeding newborn could be deemed a ‘parasite’.
3) “It’s a part of the woman’s body.”
I heard a student say this to my colleague Vanessa while we were doing “Choice” Chain recently. She sought to clarify what he meant: “Wait, do you mean that the child is actually a part of her body, like an arm? Or do you mean that she’s another, unique human being, but attached to the mother’s body?” The young man replied that the fetus really was a part of the woman’s body, and not a distinct organism, until the point of viability.
There are many questions one could ask to show how bizarre it is to deny that the pre-born child is a unique, separate organism. For instance, I’ve sometimes asked people, “If I were pregnant, would I have four arms and four legs?” Vanessa initially asked similar questions to the young man, but he stubbornly refused to admit that the child was a distinct organism from the mother. She then found a creative way to show him the truth.
“Are you right-handed or left-handed?” she asked him. “Right-handed,” he replied. “Cool, same!” she answered him. “However, my mom is actually left-handed,” she continued. “I began sucking my thumb, my right thumb, while I was still in the womb. If I was really a part of my mom, then her brain would have instructed me to suck my left thumb. But it didn’t, because we’re separate, distinct human beings.” As I listened to their conversation, I could hear the student still arguing that the pre-born child was not a distinct organism, but I could also hear the confidence faltering in his voice. Vanessa drove the point home by sharing with him that she and her mother even had different blood types! How could that be possible if they were the same organism for a time? Finally, the young man seemed to realize how ridiculous his position now sounded, and he agreed with her that the pre-born child was a genetically distinct individual.
Unfortunately, when it comes to embryology and fetal development, people often misuse scientific terminology, or misunderstand basic biology. A poor understanding of science leads to a misinformed ethical system that permits the slaughter of the youngest humans. As pro-life advocates, it is vital that we educate our culture with scientifically accurate information about the youngest of our kind.
1. Even in the rare cases where parasitism exists within a single species, the term is never used to describe the direct offspring of an organism. https://www.britannica.com/science/parasitism
2. As the Equal Rights Institute has helpfully pointed out, many people may actually be making a bodily autonomy argument (rather than a bad scientific argument) when they say, “It’s a part of the woman’s body.”