No one is pro-death. No one is anti-choice. Yet both sides of the abortion debate consider the other side absurd. Why?
The pro-choicer considers pregnancy the construction of a human person. Compare pregnancy, for a moment, to the construction of a car in a factory. The relevant question in the comparison is this: At what point in the construction process does the object under construction become a car? Some may say that it is when the object receives an engine. In the analogy to pregnancy, this parallels quickening. Others might say that the object becomes a car when it has an engine, axles and wheels, and the capacity to move. In the analogy to pregnancy, this parallels viability. And some may hold out and claim that the object isn’t really a car until it rolls out of the factory, paralleling birth.
But all who consider the question are certain that at the very beginning stages of construction, when only a few scraps of metal and a few bolts are in place, the object under construction is not a car. Similarly, if pregnancy is the construction of a human person, then at the early stages of pregnancy the embryo is clearly not a human person. The consequence for abortion policy: People disagree when a fetus becomes a person, but all agree that an embryo is not, so abortion is justified early in pregnancy and debatable only later on. From this point of view, pro-lifers seem irrational, for they try to legislate upon the absurd idea that an embryo is a person. And because the pro-life position is often expressed in religious terms, pro-lifers seem to consider an irrational religious dogma the basis for public policy.
The pro-lifer does not consider pregnancy the construction of a human person. Rather, he considers it the development of a human person. Compare pregnancy, for a moment, to the development of a Polaroid photograph. The camera clicks, setting off a chain reaction of chemicals on photographic paper. In the analogy to pregnancy, this parallels conception. If someone were to wipe the chemicals away, saying that the image was only a potential photograph, he would seem crazy; he cut short the development of a uniquely existing photograph with an essential nature. In the analogy to pregnancy, this parallels abortion.
At what point in the process does the developing image become a photograph? The image of the photograph is not immediately apparent, but is revealed and develops over time. All agree, then, that the undeveloped photograph is very dissimilar from the developed photograph. Nevertheless, the undeveloped photograph is still a photograph. Similarly, if pregnancy is the development of a human person, an embryo, though at an early stage of development, is still a human person. The consequence for abortion policy: After conception, abortion is unjustified because it cuts short the natural development of a human person. From this point of view, pro-choicers seem irrational in asserting that an embryo is not a human person and dangerous in allowing its destruction. And because the pro-choice position seems so destructive, pro-lifers make abortion a litmus test and invoke divine aid to combat such evil.
The central difference between the pro-choice and pro-life position, as first stated by Valparaiso law professor Richard Stith, is the subtle dichotomy between pregnancy as construction and pregnancy as development. Pro-choicers continue to assert the inviolability of choice, and pro-lifers continue to assert the inviolability of life, but that discussion is largely meaningless, for nobody rejects choice or life in itself. The question that should dominate debate is whether pregnancy is a process of construction or a process of development. If pro-choicers can convince pro-lifers that pregnancy is the construction of a human person, pro-lifers should accommodate themselves to existing abortion policy. On the other hand, if pro-lifers can convince pro-choicers that pregnancy is the development of a human person, pro-choicers should abandon abortion rights.
Pro-choicers are often uninterested in debate because they feel that they cannot appeal to reason, that the pro-life argument is essentially religious and irrational. Pro-lifers are often uninterested in debate because they feel that the justification for abortion clouds rationality itself. But the exposition above reveals that neither side of the abortion debate is irrational. Instead, pro-choicers and pro-lifers begin with different presuppositions from which their respective conclusions follow.
While both sides are rational, only one side can be right. If pregnancy is the construction of a human person, our society is infringing upon the reproductive freedom of women by stigmatizing early-term abortion and threatening more restrictive legislation. If pregnancy is the development of a human person, our society is legally allowing the killing of innocent human persons. In either case, society is messing up. It is now the duty of intellectuals on both sides to open their minds and address the issue afresh.
Peter Johnston is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.