In her recent article “Abort the Conversation,” Bianca Nam ’24 argues that some conversations are not worth engaging in. On this general point, I agree with Nam. But regarding her dismissal of this particular conversation about the morality of abortion — the one started on Yale’s campus by the student group Choose Life at Yale — she is sorely mistaken. This conversation is one we cannot afford to kill.
For sure, there are a variety of good reasons why a person would decline to engage in a given conversation. Perhaps he or she simply has no time at the moment to stop and talk. Perhaps one judges her potential interlocutor to not be approaching the exchange in good faith. Or perhaps one determines the conversation’s subject matter to be too trivial to merit serious consideration. All of these seem to be justifiable reasons for avoiding or disengaging from a given discussion.
Nam, by contrast, advocates for disengaging from the conversation about the morality of abortion because she sees its subject – human rights – as being too important to merit discussion. She is right to recognize the seriousness of this subject. But precisely because human rights are a matter of fundamental importance, Nam is wrong to dismiss dialoguing about them. The most important questions need to be engaged, not ignored.
The conversation started by CLAY certainly does concern women’s rights and rights of bodily autonomy. But it is centered around a question that is even more fundamental: “What is a human being?” This is the question that must first be asked and answered if we are to have any hope at all of responding to the later question of “What is a human right?”
And no complete answer to the question “What is a human being?” can be given which does not involve the corollary of “When does a human being begin to exist as a human being?” We cannot have a robust idea of humanity without a robust idea of when it is that a new human being comes into existence. By asking campus passersby to reflect on when human life begins, CLAY is asking the campus community to think seriously about one of the most fundamental and unavoidable questions that there is.
Far from threatening human rights, initiating this conversation is a necessary part of a principled and thorough discussion of such rights. It makes little sense to talk of human rights if we are unwilling to address the question of to whom such a concept applies. I and many other members of CLAY hold the position that human rights and human life begin at fertilization, the point in time when a new human organism with a unique genetic sequence is created.
We hold this position because we believe it to be the most coherent account of when a new human being comes into existence. We believe that competing accounts of the starting point of human existence do not stand up in the face of scrutiny. Attempts to place the distinguishing line for human existence and human rights at a given developmental marker, such as brain development, memory, desire, or the ability to sense pain, all run the risk of erasing the humanity of people with disabilities or those with certain serious illnesses.
For these and other reasons, I and many other students at Yale maintain that human existence and human rights begin when a new human organism begins. But we do not assert our position dogmatically. Rather, we have welcomed and will continue to welcome the campus community to join us in dialoguing about this issue of paramount importance.
Nam characterizes the conversation that CLAY has started on campus as being dangerous. In a certain sense, she is right. Seriously engaging questions of fundamental importance poses certain risks. It comes with the risk that one will have to change his or her most dearly-held beliefs and commitments upon finding them untenable in the face of scrutiny. It comes with the risk that the new beliefs and projects that one adopts will be unpopular and earn her the ire of family, friends, and colleagues. And, ultimately, it comes with the risk that one will find the rational settling of these questions so difficult that he will despair and be left with nihilism.
Nonetheless, the much greater danger lies in not engaging such subjects at all. The larger risk is to be found in uncritically accepting beliefs about the most important questions of human existence simply because they are popular or because asking the big questions can be unsettling. The proper name for this attitude is prejudice. A prejudice, after all, is not simply a belief one finds appalling. It is, more than this, a belief that is held without good reason, often held so because one refuses or neglects to examine his or her reasons for holding it.
I hope that our campus community will avoid this prejudiced path. The conversation about abortion and about when human rights begin is one we kill at the cost of our own humanity.
MICHAEL SAMARITANO is a junior in Pauli Murray who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org