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.