So many of us read opinion pieces about abortion for one of two reasons: to get fired up because we agree, or to get fired up because we disagree. I wish we could have this talk in person, because I don’t want it to be that way. Reading someone else’s writing on a screen can seem impersonal, one-sided. It feels like the writer of the piece gets to continue on with their opinion, that you don’t get a chance to have your say in between each line. I wish we could have this talk in person so we could spend the majority of our time discussing how much we agree on. Instead, it often seems we already have our minds made up, and this unfortunately leaves so little room for discussion, so little room for loving one another. So, I want to start by saying I think we agree on much more than we disagree on.
I think we could agree that it would be incredibly overwhelming to be surprised by parenthood, and I would imagine this is something you can never fully understand unless you have been there yourself. We as a culture should be doing everything we can to take care of women who find themselves pregnant with a child they don’t feel they are ready for – whether they don’t feel ready because of their personal stage in life, due to their lack of resources, because they don’t want to raise a child alone, or for any other number of reasons. We need more financial resources for those who find themselves struggling to adequately provide for their children – both children who are born and unborn. I believe that all human persons should be treated with equal dignity, and a right to life and freedom, regardless of their race, religion, age, or any other characteristic.
While all of these things are incredibly important to consider, the question at the heart of the matter is: Are the unborn “human persons”? This is critical to answer, because if the unborn are not human persons, there would be no reason to restrict abortions in any way. However, if the unborn are human persons, they deserve the same right to life and freedom that you and I have as human persons. I recognize this is a very forward claim to make (hence, why I wish we could be having this conversation in person) and I hope to provide more explanation to this claim moving forward.
At the moment of fertilization, a unique member of the human species comes into existence. They have a new genetic makeup that is different from either individual parent. So, it’s easy to say that it’s appropriate to use the word “human” when referring to the unborn, since they belong to the same human species as us. However, the question of “personhood” seems a little less clearly defined. What determines “personhood”? I realize this is getting a little philosophical – I promise there’s a reason for bringing this up.
Since we don’t have a clear definition of what adds the “personhood” element to “human persons”, a good place to start would be with you and I. If you and I can be defined as “human persons”, who share basic rights like a right to life, I want to suggest that there aren’t as many differences between us and unborn persons as one might initially think. I’d like to consider whether any of the characteristics that make the unborn different from us, make those individuals different enough to justify that we should be able to kill them. These characteristics that make us different from the unborn include: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. I’d like to explore whether any of these characteristics have an impact on whether or not we can call an individual a “person”, hopefully using some examples to make this more concrete.
The first key difference between us and the unborn that is frequently brought up in this conversation is “size.” Abortion laws allow pregnancy to be terminated up to a certain number of weeks, depending on the specific state’s laws. However, we don’t believe a larger 8-year-old has more basic human rights than a smaller 5-year old. Is there a size cutoff where we can say, “I’m sorry but you aren’t quite tall enough to have all of your human rights yet?” As far as I know, nothing like that exists, nor would it be very logical. So, being of a different size would not disqualify a human from being considered a “person.”
Level of Development
Likewise, another difference between us and an unborn human is our “level of development”. To illustrate this idea, think of a 20-year-old woman who has likely reached her reproductive years. You can contrast her with the average 7-year-old girl who has not yet sexually matured. This younger girl is clearly at an earlier stage of human development than the woman; however, being at an earlier stage of physical development does not disqualify the younger child from being considered a “human person” with rights. So too, we could extend this to even earlier stages of development to recognize that the unborn are also human persons. “Personhood,” and the rights that come along with it, don’t fall on a spectrum based on how fully developed an individual’s organs are. The young woman with less developed sex organs isn’t less of a person than an older, more mature woman. Therefore, being at an earlier stage of human development would not disqualify someone from being considered a “person.”
A third difference between us is our “environment”. We as “born” humans may find ourselves surrounded by the open air of a beautiful summer day, submerged in water, or even in the case of astronauts, in outer space. If a person goes into outer space, however, they do not attain a greater level of “personhood” because they are now in a new, less restrictive environment. Our personhood doesn’t change based on our surroundings. The only difference in environment between us and the unborn are that they are surrounded by amniotic fluid and their mother’s uterus. Likewise, as an “unborn” human transitions through the vaginal canal, they do not suddenly attain “personhood” because their environment has changed to that of a “born” human.
Level of Dependence
This brings me to the final difference between us and the unborn human: our “level of dependence.” You and I can obtain nutrients, grow, and escape threats all on our own accord. An unborn human, however, depends on their mother to nourish them until they can live independently. Many of us as medical students have had the unique privilege of being involved in the care of a patient who is dependent on a ventilator. Even when we are confident that our patient will progress to make a full recovery and once again become independent, they however, for the moment are 100% dependent on other human beings to live. They didn’t “lose” their personhood during the time they were dependent on others, then regain it again when they were taken off the ventilator. We can also consider those with severe mental disabilities or dementia that rely entirely on others to ensure their basic daily needs are met, as well as individuals with spinal cord injuries that can’t physically feed themselves. If you would like to get even more precise and consider humans who are “physically dependent on another human’s body in order to live”, think of conjoined twins. Conjoined twins are considered individual persons, each required to have their own passports to travel out of the country, take two separate driving tests to obtain their own drivers’ licenses, and have their own social security number. However, they quite literally depend on one specific other person’s body in order to live – just as an unborn human depends on one other specific person’s body to live: their mother. All these human persons have an absolute dependence on someone else, but that does not take away their personhood.
If you’ve stuck around with me this long, I can’t say thank you enough. The bottom line of what many of us believe as pro-life medical students is this: all human persons share and deserve basic rights, such as life and liberty, and the unborn also share our identity as “human persons;” therefore we should honor these rights through no longer killing the unborn through abortions. I recognize how much complexity there would be to carrying this out: How would we be able to take care of every single baby once they were born? Especially, how would we support those born to homes where they are unwanted, or their parents don’t feel they could financially support them? There are so many questions still to be answered and problems to be solved. I understand that your opinions likely haven’t been overturned just by reading this, and that is completely okay. My hope and goal from sharing this with you is that we can all open up more opportunities for dialogue with one another, where we can continue to discuss such a polarizing topic with love and reason. I mean it when I say that I’d love to talk with you, and anyone else reading about this. It’s a tough conversation to have, and I truly don’t want it to be a one-sided one. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and get my contact information from the Med Intima Editors if you’d like to share your thoughts with me. I would love to hear them.