Here’s a summary of how to argue for the pro-life position that I created for a friend whose secular philosophy class was scheduled to discuss abortion. It’s a great little cheat sheet you can keep on hand for your own discussions on this subject.
The most important question to resolve when discussing whether or not you can kill the unborn is the question, “What is it?” If it’s not a human being, then there’s no problem killing it. If it’s a valuable human being, then one can’t justify killing it.*
There are three stages your argument will have to address:
- Is it a human being?
- Should this human being have the rights of other human beings?
- Respond to objections.
Part 1—Is it a human being?
Steve Wagner formulated this quick defense of the unborn as a human being:
If the unborn is growing, it must be alive.
If it has human parents, it must be human.
And living humans like you and I are valuable aren’t they?
There’s really no question that the unborn is a member of the human species. This is just a biological fact. It’s a human being at the earliest stage of development. It looks different from you and me, but so do newborns look different from you and me! We are merely at different stages of development, but we remain the same kind of being throughout all stages of our development.
So now that you’ve established it’s a human being, you’ll need to argue that unborn human beings ought to have the same right to life as every other group of human beings.
Part 2—Should it have the rights of other human beings?
To determine whether or not these unborn human beings ought to have rights, there are two questions to answer:
- What are the differences between the unborn human being and born human beings?
- Are any of those differences relevant to human rights?
To remember the four main differences between the unborn and the born, use the acronym S.L.E.D.:
L—Level of development
D—Degree of dependency
Now watch this five-minute video of Scott Klusendorf explaining how to use the S.L.E.D. Test. These four differences are all irrelevant when we’re determining the rights of born people, so why should they be relevant when determining the rights of the unborn?
The fact is that the concept of universal human rights is based on the idea that every human being is valuable and has rights simply because of the kind of being he or she is. We don’t require human beings to meet an arbitrary standard of characteristics (such as race, intelligence, size, or ability) in order to receive rights. The kind of thinking that rules out whole groups of human beings based on an arbitrary standard of characteristics is unjust discrimination, and it has caused all sorts of human rights abuses in the past.
Human beings have rights because they’re human beings. They have these rights because human beings are the kind of being worthy of rights—the kind of being that is self-aware, rational, and moral. And we’re this kind of being, even if we’re not currently able to express one or more of these aspects of our human nature. For example, a person in a coma isn’t able to express his rationality, but he’s still the kind of being that is rational. He doesn’t lose his rights simply because he’s currently unable to express his rationality. In the same way, an unborn child is the kind of being that is rational, even if he is currently unable to express his rationality. He’s a fellow member of the human family, and is therefore worthy of rights.
Part 3—Respond to objections.
As Alan Shlemon explains in his Pro-Life Two-Step, objections will usually fall into one of two categories:
1. The objection will assume the unborn isn’t a human being.
Example: “Abortion should be legal because a baby might cause a woman financial hardship.”
Response: Nobody would say you could kill a person just because he’s causing you a financial hardship. The person who makes this argument is not thinking of the unborn as a human being. Try using a toddler as an illustration the person can better relate to, put the toddler into his argument, and then say his argument back to him using the toddler: “Should a woman be allowed to kill her two-year-old if he’s causing her financial hardship? We don’t kill human beings for this reason. So let's go back to the question: Is the unborn a human being? If he is, then we can’t kill him to save someone money.“
The idea is for you to keep returning to the idea that the unborn child is a human being. Keep trying to get that point across.
2. The objection will disqualify the unborn from receiving rights based on a particular characteristic (size, development, etc.).
Example: “But the unborn is just a clump of cells.”
Response: Show them that the characteristic is irrelevant to the question: “How is size relevant to rights? Can you kill a newborn just because he’s smaller than an adult? Can you kill him because he looks different from an adult? It’s just not a relevant characteristic.“
Using these ideas in conversation and debates...
Here are some links that include debates so you can see these arguments in action:
- A pro-life case given to a secular university audience
- A fifty-minute debate on abortion—This should give you an idea of the objections you can expect and how you can answer them.
- The 5-Minute Pro-Lifer—Article at Life Training Institute on how to defend your pro-life views in five minutes or less
- The Unaborted Socrates—This book is a cross between Tactics and Pro-Life 101, in narrative form, and it’s a helpful model of this approach.
And if you want more, here’s a post with a chart and video to help you “Answer Every Defense for Abortion.”
*The only possible justification in the case of unborn human beings (who have not forfeited their lives by committing a capital crime) would be one where the justification is morally equal to the unborn’s claim to life—i.e., if the situation is the life of the mother vs. the life of the unborn. Any justification less than that of saving the life of the adult human being loses to the greater claim to life held by the unborn human being.