The Best Pro-Life Arguments for Secular Audiences
By Rob Schwarzwalder Senior Vice-President
CATHY CLEAVER RUSE is Senior Fellow for Legal Studies at Family Research Council. Previously, she served as Chief Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Constitution Subcommittee and was the pro-life spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She received a law degree from Georgetown University.
ROB SCHWARZWALDER is Senior Vice President of Family Research Council. He formerly served as a presidential appointee at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, where as senior speech writer he crafted language on all facets of federal health care policy. Previously, he was chief of staff to two Members of Congress.
The authors would like to thank Eliza Thurston for her research assistance.
Abortion is unlike any other issue debated today. Millions of American women have aborted a child, and the pain, loss, and emotional need to justify what was done, both on the part of the mother and on the part of her loved ones, is strong and deep. This means that, in any debate, you may face an invisible thumb on the scale so that even the best logic will fail to persuade.
The best you can do is arm yourself with the facts and deliver them in what you hope will be a winning way for your audience -- meaning you will need to make your case, in most instances, not in the language of faith or religion but in the language of the post-modern secularist.
What follows, therefore, are the best arguments from science, the law, and women's rights to advance the pro-life case against abortion.
Arguing from Science
The "classic" arguments from the other side are collapsing under the weight of science. "No one knows when life begins" and "It's a blob of tissue" are frankly on the wane, especially in the context of surgical abortion, which is how the vast majority of abortions are done today.
Still, establishing the evidence of the beginnings of human life will ground your argumentation in science, giving you a firm foundation for additional arguments and preempting the charge that you are basing your position on faith or religious belief.
Cite the Facts
Here is a thumbnail sketch of the scientific evidence of the existence of human life before birth. These are irrefutable facts, about which there is no dispute in the scientific community.
At the moment when a human sperm penetrates a human ovum, or egg, generally in the upper portion of the Fallopian Tube, a new entity comes into existence. "Zygote" is the name of the first cell formed at conception, the earliest developmental stage of the human embryo, followed by the "Morula" and "Blastocyst" stages.
Is it human? Is it alive? Is it just a cell or is it an actual organism, a "being?" These are logical questions. You should raise them, and then provide the answers.
The zygote is composed of human DNA and other human molecules, so its nature is undeniably human and not some other species.
The new human zygote has a genetic composition that is absolutely unique from itself, different from any other human that has ever existed, including that of its mother (thus disproving the claim that what is involved in abortion is merely "a woman and her body").
This DNA includes a complete "design," guiding not only early development but even hereditary attributes that will appear in childhood and adulthood, from hair and eye color to personality traits.
It is also quite clear that the earliest human embryo is biologically alive. It fulfills the four criteria needed to establish biological life: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.
Finally, is the human zygote merely a new kind of cell or is it a human organism; that is, a human being? Scientists define an organism as a complex structure of interdependent elements constituted to carry on the activities of life by separately-functioning but mutually dependant organs. The human zygote meets this definition with ease. Once formed, it initiates a complex sequence of events to ready it for continued development and growth:
The zygote acts immediately and decisively to initiate a program of development that will, if uninterrupted by accident, disease, or external intervention, proceed seamlessly through formation of the definitive body, birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity, and aging, ending with death. This coordinated behavior is the very hallmark of an organism.
By contrast, while a mere collection of human cells may carry on the activities of cellular life, it will not exhibit coordinated interactions directed towards a higher level of organization.
Thus, the scientific evidence is quite plain: at the moment of fusion of human sperm and egg, a new entity comes into existence which is distinctly human, alive, and an individual organism - a living, and fully human, being.
Some defenders of abortion will concede the scientific proofs but will argue that the entity in the womb is still not, or not yet, a "person."
"Not a person" is a decidedly unscientific argument: it has nothing to do with science and everything to do with someone's own moral or political philosophy, though that someone may not readily admit it. Here is a good time to recite the scientific proofs, and maybe make a philosophical point of your own: We're either persons or property; and even the staunchest abortion defender will be reluctant to call a human child a piece of property.
Others may suggest "humanness" depends on something spiritual, like infusion of a soul, but to argue there is no soul until birth or some other time is, by definition, to argue something incapable of proof. Another good time to recite the scientific proofs.
A brief word about the politicization of the definition of "pregnancy." While the science on when life begins is clear, some still claim that "pregnancy" doesn't begin until the embryo implants itself in the lining of the uterine wall, which occurs about a week later. Why? Politics and profit.
If the science on when life begins is clear, why do some organizations claim that "pregnancy" doesn't begin until a week later, at implantation? The answer: politics and profit.
Acceptance of an implantation-based definition of "pregnancy" would allow abortion providers to mischaracterize pills and technologies that work after conception but before implantation as "contraception," making them potentially less subject to regulation and certainly more accept-able and attractive to consumers. Indeed, two institutes who support legalized abortion have pushed for this type of pregnancy re-definition for decades: the Guttmacher Institute (the abortion research institute originally established by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
If your interlocutor raises this issue, point out that: (1) the word "contraception" literally means "against conception," therefore something cannot be said to be a "contraceptive" if it allows conception, and (2) the fertilization-based definition of pregnancy is still the predominant definition in medical dictionaries today.
Cite More Facts on Human Development
Human beings develop at an astonishingly rapid pace. Giving a quick recitation of the child's development will weaken the "not a person yet" mentality.
· The cardiovascular system is the first major system to function. At about 22 days after conception the child's heart begins to circulate his own blood, unique to that of his mother's, and his heartbeat can be detected on ultrasound.
· At just six weeks, the child's eyes and eye lids, nose, mouth, and tongue have formed.
· Electrical brain activity can be detected at six or seven weeks, and by the end of the eighth week, the child, now known scientifically as a "fetus," has developed all of his organs and bodily structures.
· By ten weeks after conception the child can make bodily movements.
Today, parents can see the development of their children with their own eyes. The obstetric ultra-sound done typically at 20 weeks gestation provides not only pictures but a real-time video of the active life of the child in the womb: clasping his hands, sucking his thumb, yawning, stretching, getting the hiccups, covering his ears to a loud sound nearby -- even smiling.
Medicine, too, confirms the existence of the child before birth as a distinct human person. Fetal surgery has become a medical specialty, and includes the separate provision of anesthesia to the baby. You can cite some of the surgeries now performed on children before their birth, such as shunting to bypass an obstructed urinary tract, removal of tumors at the base of the tailbone, and treatment of congenital heart disease. There are many others.
If the medicine and science don't persuade your audience, consider citing authorities from the "pro-choice" community itself. Mention "Pro-choice" feminist Naomi Wolf, who in a ground-breaking article in 1996, argued that the abortion-rights community should acknowledge the "fetus, in its full humanity" and that abortion causes "a real death." More recently, Kate Michelman, long-time president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, acknowledged that "technology has clearly helped to define how people think about a fetus as a full, breathing human being."
Summary: Those who justify abortion by claiming that "no one knows when life begins" are not arguing science but rather their own brand of politics, philosophy, or even religion. Their argument is not about when life begins but about when, or whether, that life deserves legal acknowledgment and protection. And that brings us to our next topic: the law.
Arguing from the Law
Roe v. Wade
Most people do not really know what the Supreme Court decided on January 22, 1973. They assume that the Court made abortion legal in the first trimester of pregnancy only, and that it is subject to substantial limits and regulations today. You will be able to change minds when you inform them that neither of these assumptions is true.
The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade did not create a limited right to abortion but a virtually unlimited right to abortion throughout pregnancy.
Here's how: The case involved an 1854 Texas law prohibiting abortion except "for the purpose of saving the life of the mother." The plaintiff, whose real name is Norma McCorvey, desired a purely elective abortion and filed suit claiming the Texas law deprived her of constitutional rights.
Seven members of the Supreme Court agreed. While admitting that abortion is not in the text of the Constitution, they nevertheless ruled that a right to abortion was part of an implied "right to privacy" that the Court had fashioned in previous rulings regarding contraception regulations. ("Privacy" is not in the text of the Constitution either.) They also ruled that the word "person" in the Constitution did not include a fetus.
For a debate on abortion policy, the most important part of the ruling to understand is the new "law" it established, and here is a description of it that you should commit to memory: The Court ruled that abortion must be permitted for any reason a woman chooses until the child becomes viable; after viability, an abortion must still be permitted if an abortion doctor deems the abortion necessary to protect a woman's "health," defined by the Court in another ruling issued the same day as "all factors--physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age--relevant to the well-being of the patient."
In this way the Court created a right to abort a child at any time, even past the point of viability, for "emotional" reasons. Stated another way, the Supreme Court gave abortion doctors the power to override any abortion restriction merely by claiming that there are "emotional" reasons for the abortion. Abortion advocates want to hide this, of course, but liberal journalists such as David Savage of the Los Angeles Times have reported the truth about Roe, saying the Supreme Court created an "absolute right to abortion" under which "any abortion can be justified."
Constructing a Pro-Life Legal Argument
Explain what Roe means
When you make the pro-life case, explain the basics of the actual ruling of Roe and then use the David Savage quote that Roe created an "absolute right to abortion" under which "any abortion can be justified" -- this allows a liberal LA Times reporter to make the explosive point that Roe created an unlimited abortion right.
Chances are your audience will not know that the Court created an unlimited right to abortion, and odds are good that they won't agree with it. They are not alone: "Most Americans favor legal restrictions on abortion that go way beyond current law," according to Lydia Saad, a senior editor for the Gallup polling company which has lo ng tracked abortion opinion.
The way Americans self-identify has changed dramatically over the years. In the mid-1990s, "pro-life" was a distinct minority view. But in May 2009, for the first time, a significantly greater percentage of Americans self-identified as "pro-life" than "pro-choice."
Be prepared to cite these and other public opinion polls from various organizations (the last bullet point is crucial, it means only a small minority of Americans agree with Roe):
· 61% of Americans say abortion should be illegal after the fetal heartbeat has begun,which occurs in the first month of pregnancy.
· 72% of Americans say abortion should be illegal after the first 3 months of pregnancy.
· 86% of Americans say abortion should be illegal after the first 6 months of pregnancy.
· Only 6% -17% of Americans (depending on how the question is asked and by whom) believe abortion should be legal at any time, in all circumstances.