The Pro-Life monthly Messenger feature

How to answer pro-choice arguments: Part 3 — Hard cases

By: Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer.

This is the conclusion of a three-part series about a simple strategy that can help make difficult conversations about abortion a little easier. The strategy is centered on asking one simple question: “If you were convinced that the unborn child is a human life, would you still support abortion?”

In Part 1, we explored how to converse about the science of fetal development. In Part 2, we outlined how to speak about the legal and philosophical concept of personhood. In this article, we address how to engage people who support their pro-choice position by citing certain “hard cases” like extreme poverty, rape or the endangerment of the mother’s life.

Many abortion proponents contend that a baby places too great a burden on mothers living in extreme poverty. A woman should not be “forced” to have a baby under these circumstances. The mother “needs” the abortion to survive.

One approach to this topic is what pro-life apologist Trent Horn calls TOAT: “trot out a toddler.” This technique demonstrates the illogic of the pro-choice argument by applying that illogic to a toddler, rather than to an unborn child.

In this case you could say, “I agree with you that many women find themselves pregnant in very difficult circumstances. In fact, many women are parenting in poverty. I think society has a duty to help these parents and children. But do you think that if the parents of a toddler do not have the financial resources to take care of their child they should be able to terminate that child’s life?”

The answer, of course, is no. You can then ask, “What is the difference between an unborn baby and a toddler?” The person will most likely point to an arbitrary distinction in size, development, location or degree of independence, and you can highlight the problems with those distinctions, as explained in Part 2.

Another method would be to cite the long-held principle from criminal law that necessity is not a defense to murder. Queen vs. Dudley and Stephens (1884), a classic case taught in law schools to illustrate this principle, concerns sailors lost at sea who cannibalized their cabin boy to stay alive. When rescued, they defended their misdeed as “necessary.” However, they were tried and convicted of murder. The key holding from the court was that one person’s subjective “need” can not negate another person’s objective, inherent and unchanging right to life.

Roe v Wade inexplicably departed from this principle by ignoring the personhood of the unborn (see Part 2). Politely invite your listener to consider whether the mother’s subjective needs are truly a valid reason to override the objective personhood rights of an innocent unborn child and validate ending her child’s life.

Another difficult objection concerns rape and incest. An essential starting point for discussion of this issue is sincere empathy for the wronged women involved and recognition of the horrific nature of the crimes committed against them.

After acknowledging this reality, you could explain that, in the immediate aftermath of rape, it is morally permissible in Catholic teaching to try to avoid pregnancy through the use of high dose progestin. A woman can (and should) go to a hospital after she is assaulted. As part of her exam, doctors can determine whether or not the woman has recently ovulated. If she has not ovulated (and therefore pregnancy is not yet possible), this hormone can be given to suppress ovulation in order to avoid pregnancy.

Nevertheless, there are some instances when rape or incest produces pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 1.5 percent of abortions each year is sought due to rape or incest. Notice that this is a very small percentage and it is highly questionable to legitimize all elective abortions in the name of the small number of abortions sought for these difficult reasons.

In addressing these instances, it may be helpful to first point out that nothing can undo the violence committed against these women. An abortion cannot erase the crime.

Second, you could ask: “If your father committed a violent crime, would it be permissible to punish you for his crime with the death penalty?” This would, of course, be completely unjust, which is the point: The question highlights the injustice of aborting the innocent child conceived in rape or incest.

The circumstances of a child’s conception do not alter the fact that he or she is a human being. As Trent Horn puts it, “Rape is a horrifying evil, but should our answer to the evil of rape be to commit further evil against an innocent person?”

Finally, let’s address cases in which abortion is sought to safeguard the life of the mother. First, you can note that cases in which a mother’s life is truly at risk are extremely rare.

Second, you can point out that, even when the mother’s life is at risk, there are still two patients present, both of whom are entitled to the highest standard of medical care. The Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” applies to both. The physician should render every effort to preserve the life of each patient, and should never intentionally end the child’s life to protect the mother’s life.

Third, you can acknowledge that in certain instances it is morally permissible to allow the termination of the unborn child’s life, but only if that result is an unintended effect of administering life-saving treatment to the mother — also known as the principle of Double Effect.

In sum, there are many ways to discuss “hard cases” with an abortion proponent — ways that express empathy without sacrificing reason, logic or moral principle. While it is useful to have an answer to these tough questions ready at hand, it is important not to allow them to distract us from the fundamental question in the abortion debate, namely, “Who are the unborn?” Always direct the conversation back to that question, because the correct answer — living human beings with the inviolable rights of personhood — is the linchpin to the entire topic and the key to a persuasive defense of the right to life

Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer is an instructor of Theology at Thomas More University. She and her family are members of St. Pius X Parish, Edgewood.

The principle of Double Effect

The doctrine of “double effect” is rooted in the fundamental moral principle that one can never intentionally choose evil in order to try to achieve good. However, a person can choose a good action that has a bad effect if three factors are met:

(1) the person does not directly will (i.e. “intend”) the bad effect;

(2) the bad effect is not the direct means to the good achieved;

(3) the good achieved is proportionate to the bad effect.

For example, if a pregnant woman is dying of uterine cancer, a doctor could remove her cancerous uterus even if the unintended side effect is the death of the child. The chosen act (removing the diseased organ) is good; the bad effect (the death of the child) does not directly lead to the good effect (mother’s life saved); and the good achieved (a life saved) is proportionate to the bad effect (a life lost).

How to answer pro-choice arguments: Part 2 — philosophy and law

By Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer.

This article is the second of a three-part series. The first article focused on scientific answers. The last article will address “hard cases.”

Last month, our Part 1 article discussed a simple strategy that can help make difficult conversations about abortion a little easier. The strategy is to begin by asking the simple question: “If you were convinced that the unborn child is a human life, would you still support abortion?”

Part 1 explored how to converse with someone who answers “No.” Now we will examine what happens if your conversation partner answers “Yes”— meaning that, even if she accepted the unborn child as a human life, she would still support abortion. In that event, you are entering into a very different conversation — one that is not about fetal development, but about the philosophical and legal question of personhood.

A starting point here is to ask “are all human beings also persons?” This is important because many abortion advocates will answer “no.” In contrast to pro-lifers, who posit that all human beings are also “persons” with basic rights — including the right to life — many abortion advocates contend that, in order to be a “person,” membership in the human species is not enough; whether a human is a person depends (they posit) on the human’s size, age, location or degree of independence.

Consider asking: “Can you share with me why you think that the unborn are not human persons who have basic rights like the right to life?” As mentioned in the previous article, these are Golden Rule moments: really listen, and show that you are seeking to understand by repeating back her explanation of the definition of personhood.

Once you have listened to the explanation, express that you would like to share your understanding that all human beings are also persons because personhood is not dependent on size, stage of development, location or degree of dependence on another person. Rather, it is something you are — just by being human.

Note that this type of philosophical assertion cannot be proven or disproven with physical evidence like a scientific claim. Rather, we can prove or disprove the truth of philosophical statements another way — we can discern whether they are based on sound principles and logic. Many pro-choice arguments for the unborn child’s lack of personhood are based on unsound logic, such as a confusion of degree and kind. You can invite your listener to reflect on these inconsistencies by asking questions tailored to her particular objection to the personhood of the unborn (size, age, location or degree of independence).

Let’s start with size. You could say, “I agree that a baby at the embryo phase is very small. However, what does how big you are have to do with what you are?” You could go on to give an example such as: “Lebron James is 6’8” and Bruno Mars is only 5’5. Does that make Lebron more of a person than Bruno?” Of course it doesn’t. To say personhood is a function of size is to confuse degree (how big a human is) with kind (what he is).

Let’s move on to age/stage of development. You could say, “I agree that a baby at the embryo stage is younger and less developed than a newborn baby. But does your age or stage of development determine what you are?” You can give an example like: “A mother is more developed than her young daughter. Does that make her more of a person?” Obviously, the answer is no. They are both persons — they are just at different stages of development — again, a confusion of degree and kind.

Next, let’s discuss location. You could say, “I agree that emerging from the womb is a big change in location. It marks a very special occasion and that’s why we celebrate birthdays. But what does where you are have to do with what you are?” Then illustrate: “Could my personhood status change if I changed locations, such as if I traveled to another country?” No. Personhood is not a function of location.

Finally, let’s touch on degree of independence. You could say, “I agree that an unborn child is dependent on the mother. But what does how dependent you are have to do with what you are?” Again, make it concrete: “Say I went to the moon. I would be completely dependent on a space suit. I could not survive in that environment without help. Would that make me a non-person?” Of course not. You could also note that many sick, elderly and handicapped people are very dependent on others. And children themselves remain dependent on their parents for years after birth. Yet these are all persons with rights. In reality, all of us are dependent on others in some way — to grow our food, produce our vehicles and fuel, to educate us. As John Donne said, “No man is an island.”

These questions and examples can help clearly illustrate that size, phase of development, location and dependence are arbitrary distinctions rather than a sound basis on which to establish personhood. It is more logically consistent to say that all human beings are persons with rights.

You might point out that, surprisingly, Roe v. Wade casually brushed aside the critically important question of whether the unborn are persons by simply asserting, without any reasoning, that they are not persons. Yet even the Roe majority conceded the centrality of the personhood issue, admitting that if the majority was wrong, and the unborn were in fact persons, they would have a constitutional right to life. “If this suggestion of personhood is established,” the Roe majority admitted, “[Roe’s] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.”

The value in engaging in this type of conversation is that it invites others to think critically about the question that Roe so problematically sidestepped — are the unborn persons? The unborn must be persons, because they are human beings, and human beings’ personhood is not dependent on their size, age, location or dependence. And because they are persons, abortion is, by definition, the intentional ending of the life of an innocent person — a practice that reasonable people can agree is simply not justified.

Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer is an instructor of theology at Thomas More University. She and her family are members of St. Pius X Church, Edgewood.

 

“The fight for the right to life is not the cause of a special few, but the cause of every man, woman and child who cares not only about his or her own family, but the whole family of man.” — Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, and the first woman to graduate in surgery from Harvard Medical School; was elected president of the National Right to Life Committee in 1973

 

“If we take any living member of the species homo sapiens and put them outside the realm of legal protection, we undercut the case against discrimination for everyone else. The basis for equal treatment under the law is that being a member of the species is sufficient to be a member of the human community, without consideration for race, gender, disability, age, stage of development, state of dependency, place of residence or amount of property ownership. Abortion dynamites the foundation of feminism, and poisons the well against civil rights for African Americans, the elderly, the disabled and others.” — Feminists for Life

 

God of life and love, you created us in your image and sent your Son to bring us life. Instill in us a respect for all life, from conception to natural death. Empower us to work for justice for the poor. Nourish us that we may bring food to the hungry. Inspire us to cherish the fragile life of the unborn. Strengthen us to bring comfort to the chronically ill. Teach us to treat the aging with dignity and respect. Bring us one day into the glory of everlasting life. We ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.

How to answer pro-choice arguments: Part 1 — ‘Science’

By Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer.

This article is the first of a three-part series. Future articles will address logic, the law, and “hard cases.”

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15-16)

Are you comfortable talking about being pro-life? Many of us aren’t. We may be convinced that abortion is wrong, but when it comes to sharing our convictions with others, we tend to clam up. We want to say something, but we don’t know where to begin.

There is a simple strategy that you can use to make these difficult conversations easier. If someone expresses that she is pro-choice or undecided, you can ask the following question: “If you were convinced that the unborn child is a human life, would you still support abortion?”

This question does two things. First, it invites the person to examine her ​own​ position. She must decide: is abortion still ok if the unborn child is a human life? ​Second​, it cuts your own work in the conversation in half:

— If the person answers “No” — meaning that if she accepted the unborn child as a human life, she would ​not ​support abortion — then you have a conversation about ​science​ on your hands.

— If she answers, “Yes” — meaning that, even if she accepted the unborn child as a human life, she would still support abortion — then you are entering into a conversation about the legal and philosophical question of ​personhood:​ Which human beings are ​persons​ who have basic rights?

This article will focus on the scientific conversation, while a forthcoming article will focus on personhood.

If your listener agrees she would not support abortion if she were convinced the unborn child is a human life, tell her you are going to share why you are convinced that the unborn child ​is a human life from the first moment of fertilization.

First, the unborn child is ​human because he has human DNA. There is universal scientific consensus regarding this fact: a complete ​human genome made up of a unique set of 46 chromosomes (23 from each parent) is present at fertilization. The child is not a chicken, or a rabbit. He is not one kind of thing that turns into another kind of thing. He is always human.

Second, the unborn child is ​alive because he exhibits the characteristics of life that scientists generally use to determine whether an entity is living. You don’t have to remember all of these, but I’m going to list them here for reference:

  1. made of one of more cells;
  2. has DNA;
  3. metabolizes;
  4. maintains homeostasis;
  5. is responsive to environment;
  6. grows and develops; and
  7. reproduces (meaning an entity that can reproduce even if reproduction isn’t possible until adulthood).

An unborn child meets all criteria.

At this point, you can pause and ask, “When do you think life begins?”

This is a Golden Rule moment: treat this person the way you would want to be treated. Really listen, and show that you are listening to her and seeking to understand her thoughts by repeating back her definition of when life begins.

She may present an objection to your argument, such as, “Ok, it’s alive, but at the beginning it’s just a clump of cells! My skin cell is alive and human, but it’s not a ​human being​.” Here, it is helpful to explain that the unborn child is an ​organism​, a self-directing entity that coordinates its own growth and including the right to development and will mature into an adult member of its species if given a proper environment and adequate nutrition. A skin cell cannot mature into an adult human.

It would also be helpful to share basic facts of fetal development. Begin by explaining that words like “zygote,” “morula,” “embryo” and “fetus” are terms used to describe ​phases of development of a human child before birth (just like we use “newborn,” “toddler,” and “adolescent” after birth). This is an important clarification because some people use these words as though they were describing different ​non-human kinds of beings.​ A baby is human and exhibits the characteristics of life at each phase of development.

During the first few days of development (zygote and morula phase), the baby is already communicating with the mother by sending her body chemical signals. These signals tell the mom’s body to keep making progesterone, so that she will not menstruate and lose the endometrial lining that the baby needs to successfully implant. The baby also sends signals to suppress the mother’s local immune system so that her body will allow the baby to implant (the baby has different DNA than the mom and our bodies tend to attack or reject foreign DNA).

During the embryo stage (2-8 weeks), the baby’s heart starts to beat at just 21 days after conception. Many women do not even know they are pregnant at this point. At six weeks, brain waves can be detected. By 8.5 weeks, every organ is in place and unique fingerprints have formed. At this age, babies react to touch and there is some evidence that babies can feel pain.

During the fetal stage (9 weeks until birth), the baby continues to grow and develop, and by 20 weeks, there is compelling evidence that babies can feel pain. For this reason, twelve states have banned abortion after 20 weeks citing fetal pain.

You might ask if the person has ever seen an ultrasound, and if not, offer to pull one up on YouTube.

Another objection that your listener might present is the claim that the baby is just part of the woman’s body. The points that we have already covered above can help you respond to this; you can point out again that the baby has ​unique DNA. If he were part of the mother’s body, they would both share the same DNA. The baby also has his own heart with his own blood (often a different blood type than the mother). He has his own brain that directs his own movements and bodily functions. He is a unique,​ distinct​ human being.

Finally, when having these conversations, always remember that the goal is not to “win” the argument, but to speak the truth in love for the genuine good of the other. Ask questions, listen, and lovingly respond through the guidance of the Spirit. The person will not only remember ​what you said, but ​how y​ou said it. Your message about dignity, given in a way that respects her dignity, will resonate in her heart.

Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer is an Instructor of Theology at Thomas More University. She and her family are members of St. Pius X Church in Edgewood. This “We Choose Life” article first appeared in the July 19, 2019, edition of the Messenger.

General Tips:

  1. Ask questions. Begin by making lots of statements about your own position can be off-putting. Asking good questions can invite a person to more carefully reflect on her own position. A question could be as simple as, “Could you share with me why you think that?”
  2. Plant the seed; don’t give a lecture. The article provided today is not meant to be a script and you don’t need to cover every point to have an impactful conversation. You can ask a question, listen, then share what you think might be helpful based on the person’s response. If the conversation is going well you can ask, listen and share again. If the person is not receptive, you might try to engage in dialogue again another day.
  3. Empathize and find common ground wherever you can.
  4. Be calm, humble, kind, respectful and joy-filled. So much about the message is conveyed by the demeanor of the messenger!

“To accept the fact that, after fertilization has taken place, a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion … It is plain experimental evidence.” – Dr. Jerome Lejeune, discoverer of Trisomy 21 as the genetic basis of Down Syndrome

“​It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception.” – Dr. Micheline Matthews-Roth, Harvard Medical School