A Daunting Disadvantage for the Pro-Life Side
by Acyutananda (see author’s blog)
Of all the consistent pro-life policies or political positions, I have always chosen to focus my own efforts most on the anti-abortion position. This is partly because numerically legal abortion normally accounts for vastly more human-rights violations than say, capital punishment or unjust war. It is also because only anti-abortion philosophy necessarily brings out consciousness as the basis of human value.
Establishing the importance of consciousness is necessary for effective philosophical anti-abortion apologetics. Many people may agree on the general importance of consciousness. However, they have to be convinced that some of their convictions, particularly their conviction that killing innocent born human beings is normally wrong, depend on a usually unarticulated belief that what is wrong about killing is the fact that doing so deprives those born human beings of their future conscious life. And this is often hard for people to see, resulting in a daunting disadvantage for the pro-life side.
That a zygote or early embryo is indeed a full-fledged member of our human family, in the only way that is morally relevant when abortion is considered, can be convincingly shown by an argument focused on consciousness that is usually attributed to Don Marquis, although the essence of the argument has been present for a long time in Indian philosophy. It may also have been stated perfectly, 60 years before Marquis was born, by pro-life feminist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to declare her candidacy for the US presidency:
We are aware that many women attempt to excuse themselves for procuring abortions, upon the ground that it is not murder. But the fact of resort to this argument only shows the more palpably that they fully realize the enormity of the crime. Is it not equally destroying the would-be future oak, to crush the sprout before it pushes its head above the sod, as it is to cut down the sapling, or to saw down the tree? Is it not equally to destroy life, to crush it in its very germ, and to take it when the germ has evolved to any given point in the line of its development?
I also once tried framing the argument in a way that I think was effective for some people.
(I should mention that another argument, focused on human membership in general and not necessarily on consciousness, that seems to have convinced many people of the humanity of the unborn, is the equal-rights argument used by the Equal Rights Institute.)
But to an important extent, these arguments require very careful presentation and depend for their impact on very careful thinking by those who hear them. And they take a while to sink in. I feel that for a normal mind that is a blank slate on this issue, there is nothing obvious about the humanity of the unborn.
Even a pro-life person commenting under a recent Secular Pro-Life blog post wrote, “life at conception sounds strange.” It surprised me at first to hear that from a pro-lifer, since the reality that a human life begins at conception is a fundamental tenet for our side. But then the reality of a human life at conception (or rather, the reality that this life has status as a full-fledged member of the human family) sounded strange to me also until I had thought about it quite a bit.
Here is a comment by Javier Cuadros on the power that “original appearances” have over the minds of people and even of most scientists:
Science is a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper. . . . As the observations multiply . . . it is typical that the original appearances . . . are shown to be incorrect. The reality is different. . . . This is why I have always been puzzled about the reluctance of scientists to apply the same program of investigation to the nature of the human embryo. Are human embryos men and women and thus entitled to the inalienable right to life and respect for their dignity and physical integrity, or are they not? Here, many scientists . . . are for applying the simple criterion of appearances. No, [embryos] are not men and women, they say, because they do not look like a person. Agreed, they do not look like a developed human being. But the Earth looks like it is stationary. . . . shape does not make a human being. It has been shown that the most fundamental element of the presence and identity of a human being is the existence of [complete human genetic information]
Once we realize that a single-celled organism is a full-fledged member of our human family, a belief that there should be legal protections normally follows. But if that realization really does take quite a bit of thinking for many people, that puts the pro-life side at a tremendous disadvantage. That the pro-life side has nearly been able to overcome that disadvantage is a real tribute to the resolve of pro-lifers and to the human love for the truth. But the disadvantage remains, so that we have won over neither the culture nor the law.
Pro-lifers recognize this disadvantage. For many pro-lifers, their go-to attack on Roe v. Wade is to point out that it does not prohibit late-term abortions. They know that only a developed fetus is likely to win much sympathy from those who have not spared time for deep thinking.
Let’s think in more developmental terms about how this situation arises. What would children’s perceptions of the unborn be, once they learned simply that people start out in their mommies’ tummies, if those children were otherwise uninfluenced by their parents, teachers, etc.? What would the most naive perception be, and how susceptible to change is it (I think very susceptible) once they start hearing pro-choice slogans and pro-life slogans, once they learn a smattering of embryology, see an ultrasound of their younger sibling, etc.? This is all very deep and complicated, and calls for a lot of research. But some things seem clear enough:
Religious pro-lifers may grow up with a kind of rote belief in the humanity of the unborn, but probably sometimes as well a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with the unborn that is instilled by their parents. And some people born into a religious pro-life family eventually think deeply and do their homework and come to a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that is not just rote.
I believe that anyone who thinks deeply and does their homework will eventually come to a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with the unborn, if the development of that sense does not come in conflict with some hardened ideological commitment. But it is normally a small minority of people who think deeply and do their homework. If a person neither thinks deeply and does their homework, nor receives pro-life training from their parents, I think the default will be for most people always to feel that the unborn are insignificant. After all, the unborn are out of sight, and even if we could see a small clump of cells, the genetic information driving the growth of those cells would be beyond our normal senses. Cuadros explained this well above.
Few people will seriously undertake “a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper,” either scientifically or philosophically, so I think most people, dependent as we all are on our five senses and normally lacking deep thought, will tend to feel that the unborn are insignificant, making the contest of images a daunting struggle for the pro-life side. Or at least, most people’s thinking will be inchoate and therefore malleable and suggestible. If people’s minds are malleable, are their minds more likely to be influenced by the “precious human life” side of the debate, or by the “brainless clump of cells” side?
Well, many people have strong selfish reasons to adopt the “brainless clump of cells” perception and become pro-choice, whereas hardly anyone has strong selfish reasons to adopt the “precious human life” perception and become pro-life. There is nothing tangible to gain from coming to the defense of those who have nothing and cannot come to our defense in turn. So an accumulated power of human selfishness helps the pro-choice side that does not help the pro-life side.
The ranks of pro-lifers also wane because of the strong trend in the West for people to lose their religious beliefs. If they lose those beliefs, they will lose as well any perception of the unborn that they had acquired purely as rote belief.
As people age they become more pro-life, presumably because they have had more time to think about it. But by the time they become pro-life through aging, they may have few years left as voters and as role models.
These are the daunting demographics that explain why a correct view struggles so much to become a winning view. For the cause of the unborn to have any chance, we must educate day and night. Perfectly convincing arguments are available, but they are not arguments that can be downed just like a soft drink. To have any chance, we must educate, educate, educate.