On September 11, 2001—a day Time magazine called the bloodiest day on American soil since the Civil War—two jumbo jets slammed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, another crashed into the western section of the Pentagon, and a third was forced down in a field in Pennsylvania when the terrorist pilots were overwhelmed by courageous passengers.
To put the toll in perspective, in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, 168 people died. In New York City on 9/11, twice as many firefighters and policemen alone were crushed under 500,000 tons of cement and steel. On that other “day of infamy,” December 7, 1941, 2,335 servicemen lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. More victims than that—2,977—were buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania.
Of course, this is old news. Here’s something you may not have known. Time magazine was wrong. September 11, 2001 was not the bloodiest day on American soil since the Civil War. In truth, the number of human lives crushed out on 9/11 is less, on average, than the number of children who have died every single day, day after day, for over 47 years through abortion right here on American soil.
The fact is, roughly half of pregnancies in this country are unplanned, and roughly half of those end in abortion. Consequently, the most dangerous place for a baby to be in America is resting in her mother’s womb.
In this Solid Ground, I want to show you how to make that location a safer place by teaching you how to use precisely placed questions to challenge the moral legitimacy of the pro-choice view in conversations you have with others.[i] It’s a general approach I call “Street Tactics.”[ii]
My basic strategy when making the pro-life case is to focus on the single, decisive, defining issue in the debate, an approach I call “Only One Question.” Here is how I initiate my plan in conversation.
“Daddy, Can I Kill This?”
The very first set of questions I use in conversation on this issue sets the stage for my larger strategy. It should be your first move, too.
“Consider this analogy,” I offer. “Your child comes up behind you while you’re working at some task and asks, ‘Daddy/Mommy, can I kill this?’ What is the one question you must ask before you can answer their question?”
“I need to ask them, ‘What is it?’”[iii]
“Exactly. The reason is obvious. First we have to know what we’re killing before we know if it’s okay to kill it. If it’s a spider, smash it. If it’s their little brother, time for a talk. Does that make sense?”
“Sure, so far.”
“So let’s apply that reasoning to the abortion question using our vital question ‘What is it?’ If the unborn is not a human being, then no justification for abortion is necessary.[iv] Do as you wish. Remove the offending tissue. Have the abortion. Do you agree with that?”
“Of course I do. I’m pro-choice.”
“Good. Next step. However, if the unborn is a human being, then no justification for abortion is adequate.”[v]
“Well, I’m not sure about that one. What are you getting at?”
“Fair enough. Let me clarify with another question. Though the answer may seem obvious, and I don’t mean to patronize you, here it is. Do you think it’s okay to kill a defenseless human being for the reasons most people give to justify abortions: because they have a right to privacy or choice, because the human being is too expensive, because they just don’t want to take care of him, because he interferes with their career, etc.?”
“Of course not. But a fetus isn’t a human.”
“We’ll get to that in a minute. So in principle, then, you agree with those two general statements I asked you about?”
“Well, I guess—so far.”
This is progress, of course, but conversations like this do not always go smoothly. Often, there’s resistance, so I’ve included an extended conversation below as a tutorial for two reasons.
First, it provides a general model for how you might navigate objections on this point. Second, it reinforces our conviction that answering only one question is the key to resolving the abortion issue. The dialogue starts with a pro-abortion challenge:[vi]
“Abortion is a private choice between a woman and her doctor.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a question? Do we allow parents to abuse their children if done in privacy or with the consent of their doctor?”
“Of course not, but that’s not fair. Those children are human beings.”
“I agree. But that shows that the issue isn’t really privacy at all but rather whether or not the unborn is a human being, right?’”
“But many poor women can’t afford to raise another child.”
“Yes, I understand. But when kids get too expensive, can we kill them?”
“Of course not, but aborting a fetus is not the same as killing a kid.”
“So once again, the real question is, ‘What is the unborn? Is a fetus a human just like a youngster?’”
“Why do you insist on being so simplistic? Killing defenseless human beings is one thing. Aborting a fetus is another.”
“So we’re agreed: If abortion actually killed a defenseless human being, then the issue wouldn’t be complex at all. The question is, ‘What is the unborn?’”
“Do you really think a woman should be forced to bring an unwanted child into the world?”
“Many homeless people are unwanted. Can we kill them?”
“But it’s not the same.”
“That’s the issue, then, isn’t it? Are they the same? If the unborn are truly human like the homeless, then we can’t just kill them to get them out of the way. We’re back to my first question, ‘What is the unborn?’”
“But you still shouldn’t force your morality on women.”
“I get your point, but would you ‘force your morality’ on a mother who was physically abusing her two-year-old?”
“Sure, but that’s not the same.”
“Because you’re assuming the unborn is human like a two-year-old.”
“And you’re assuming she’s not. You see, this is not really about privacy, or economic hardship, or complexity, or not being wanted, or forcing morality. The real question is, ‘What is the unborn?’ Answer that question, and you’ve automatically answered the others.”
You might think of other concerns I haven’t mentioned. Each can be dispatched with a simple test question. Ask, “What would be the relevance of this objection if we were talking about a clear-case example of a human being?”
Note, I have not made the case yet that the unborn is a human being. That will come shortly. I’m merely pointing out there’s just one issue to resolve, not many. Answering the one question “What is the unborn?” answers almost all the others.
Hopefully, you’ve been somewhat successful at this point in helping the pro-abortion person understand your point about the single, decisive, defining issue in this controversy. It’s time for our next step. We started with the strategic foundation of our argument. Next I want you to see the moral foundation.
I want you to be crystal clear on the simple moral logic of the pro-life position.[vii] It is the ethical bedrock of the view. Here it is:
Premise 1: It’s wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
Premise 2: Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
Therefore: Abortion is wrong.
Notice a couple of things immediately. First, the form of the argument is right. The conclusion follows naturally and logically from the first two statements. That’s easy to see. This, then, is a valid argument. So far, so good. If the premises turn out to be true, then it is also a sound argument—that is, completely reliable based on the simple force of logic. But are the premises true? That’s where controversy comes in.
The first premise seems obviously correct. Few would dispute this commonsense moral notion as a general rule. If you want to be more precise to cover possible exceptions, you could add the phrase “…for the reasons most people give to justify abortion.” We clearly do not consider killing justified because our victim stood in the way of our career, was a financial burden, had a physical defect, interfered with our personal freedoms, etc.
Your initial pushback, then, is going to be about the accuracy of premise two. As we saw above, you’re going to encounter resistance to the claim that the unborn are bona fide human beings. Our questions, then, are designed to help your friend see that the unborn are 1) alive and growing, 2) distinct from their mothers (i.e., not the mother’s body, strictly speaking), and 3) individual human beings.
Here’s how that conversation might look, with the pro-abortion person initiating the challenge:
“The government shouldn’t tell me what I can do with my own body.”
“Can the government say what you can do with your body concerning your two-year-old?”
“That’s different. He’s outside my body. We’re talking about my uterus. They can’t dictate what I do with my uterus any more than they can force me to donate my kidney.”
“I agree with you,[viii] but that has nothing to do with the pro-life view. Pro-lifers are not asking you to give up your uterus. Pro-lifers are saying the government should be able to protect a growing human being inside your body just like it does a growing human being outside your body.”
“But we’re talking about my uterus, not a human being like an infant.”
“I thought we were talking about what was in your uterus.”
“Okay, but that’s not a human being.”
“It isn’t? Then what is it?”
“It’s just tissue, I guess. Nobody knows.”
“Well, let me ask you a few questions about this mysterious thing inside the uterus of a pregnant woman. Is this thing alive?”
“No one really knows when life begins.”
“That wasn’t quite the question. I asked if it was alive, not when life begins. So let me ask another way. Is this unidentified thing inside a pregnant woman’s uterus growing?”
“Yes, it’s growing.”
“How can it be growing if it’s not alive?”
“Hmm… Okay, you’ve made your point. It’s alive. It’s living tissue, part of my own body, and the government has no say over my tissue growing in my body.”
“I’m sympathetic with that point in principle, but I don’t think this tissue that’s in your body is actually part of your body, strictly speaking.”
“Of course it is.”
“Did you ever watch CSI?”
“When the forensic pathologist finds remains of a human body, how do they know which person the remains belong to?”
“They do a matching DNA test.”
“Right. If the DNA from the tissue matches the DNA sample from a known individual, then they know the tissue was part of their body.”
“So if you were pregnant, and someone took a DNA test of the piece of tissue growing in your uterus, would its DNA match your DNA?”
“Right. Then whatever is growing inside a pregnant woman’s body is not part of her body, is it? It’s tissue from a different body with different DNA.”
“I guess so.”
“So here’s the next question: What kind of foreign thing would be growing inside your uterus if you were pregnant.”
“I can’t say for sure.”
“Well, let’s go back to CSI again. If forensic pathologists found a piece of tissue at a crime scene, how would they know if that tissue came from a human being or from some other creature?”
“I guess they’d do another DNA test.”
“Right, but this test isn’t looking to identify a certain individual, but rather a certain kind of individual—maybe a human or maybe some other organism, right?”
“So if we took a piece of tissue from that living thing growing in your uterus that is not you but something else, what kind of DNA do you think it would have?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a scientist.”
“You don’t need to be a scientist to know the answer to my question. Let me ask it another way. What kinds of things naturally and predictably grow inside a pregnant woman’s uterus?”
“Good. So we agree on that. Now, if there’s an ‘offspring’ growing in a woman’s uterus, what kind of offspring do you think it is?”
“I guess it would be a human offspring. But that doesn’t mean it’s a human being. An acorn is not an oak.”
“What is it, then?”
“It’s a seed.”
“Right. What kind of seed?”
“An oak seed.”
“Right. An acorn is an oak in the seed stage, and a full-grown tree is an oak in a mature stage. But they’re both oaks, right?”
“But the unborn is just a zygote, or a fetus, or whatever.”
“Right, but what kind of zygote, or fetus, or whatever?”
“Exactly. So it looks like we know a lot about what’s growing inside a pregnant woman’s uterus, don’t we? It’s not merely her tissue, but her human offspring. Someone else—an unborn human being—is in there at varying stages of development. So now that we’ve solved that mystery, let me take this a step further. Do you think the government should be allowed to protect your offspring when the child is outside of your body but not when he’s inside your body?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Tell me, why should the government be allowed to protect your offspring on the outside of your body?”
“Because children are valuable.”
“Right, I agree. But that creates a problem for you now, doesn’t it?”
“Well if your children are valuable outside your body—say, right after they’re born—why aren’t those same children valuable just a couple of inches away, hidden inside your body? Why does the location of your child make any difference to the value of your child?”
You see how this works. Of course, those who have strong pro-abortion convictions are not likely to change their minds immediately, but your tactical questions have forced them to think about the facts that really matter instead of parrying with rhetoric that simply obscures the real issue.
At this point, you’re going to encounter another dodge. Since you’ve clearly established that abortion kills an actual human being (the second premise of our argument), the only recourse the pro-choice person has is to modify his commitment to the first premise of our moral logic: It’s wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
Here’s the common counter: It’s not really wrong to kill a human being. It’s only wrong to kill a human person, and the unborn are not real persons, only potential persons.
The “Personhood” Shell Game
At this point, you must, without exception, ask this question: “What’s the difference?” Ask what the precise differences are between a disposable human being and a valuable human person. Point out that it’s absolutely essential they answer your question and clarify the distinction they’ve imposed. Here’s why.
Those who offer this personhood qualifier have divided the human race into two distinct categories—human persons and human non-persons. Those in the first group have full protection of the law. Those in the second group, on the other hand, can be killed with impunity for virtually any reason, oftentimes at government expense. Considering the grave consequences of this divide, those who split humanity in this way must be absolutely clear on which human beings are on which side of that line.
Some may answer by offering a list of attributes they think are necessary to qualify a human being as valuable—certain characteristics or capabilities that distinguish him from an expendable human non-person. These lists vary in content, of course, with different people championing different criteria.
At this point, other questions are necessary: Where did you get the list? Who gets to decide which humans qualify and which do not? Does everyone get to make up his own list of qualities needed to transform a mere human into a valuable person? What about lists that exclude Blacks, or Jews, or Muslim Serbs, or gypsies, or the mentally defective, or gays—all examples of “human non-persons” of the past? What makes one person’s list “better” than any other?
You see my point. The “personhood” disqualifier has a dark past. It is nothing more than a crafty shell game, legal legerdemain meant to disqualify some bona fide members of the human family from being protected members of the human community. It’s a convenient scheme for some to stigmatize others when it’s in their interest to disenfranchise them.
This ruse has been tried before, and history is strewn with the wreckage—from the Dred Scott decision of 1857 declaring black slaves chattel property to the “Final Solution,” when the Third Reich decreed that millions of humans had no inherent right to live and were eliminated as lebensunwertes leben—“life unworthy of life.”
The characteristics disqualifying the personhood of the unborn usually fall in one of four categories: size or physical appearance (the unborn doesn’t look like a person), level of development (the unborn lacks the abilities real persons have), environment (the unborn isn’t located in the same place as real persons),[ix] or degree of dependency (the unborn is not “viable,” i.e., it’s too physically dependent on others to be a person).
This list of distinctions, commonly known as the “S.L.E.D.” test,[x] is riddled with difficulties since each qualifier ends up disqualifying clear-case examples of valuable human beings.
It turns out there is no meaningful moral difference between a human being and a human person. All attempts to make this distinction end in disaster. Your probing questions press that point.
One Final Question
Here is your parting salvo. Ask, “Were you ever an unborn child?” It doesn’t seem to make sense to say anyone was once a sperm or an egg because neither by itself is a human being. Does it make sense, though, to talk about the way we were before we were born?
“Did you turn in your mother’s womb, or kick when you were startled by a loud noise? Did you suck your thumb? Were those your experiences or someone else’s? If you were once the unborn child your mother carried, then you must accept an undeniable truth: Killing that child through abortion would have killed you. Not a potential you. Not a possible you. Not a future you. Abortion would have killed you.”
And so the logic stands. You have shown:
- The unborn is a living being, separate from her mother.
- The kind of being she happens to be is human.
- Humans are valuable in themselves and not for what they can do, for what they can be, or for what they can give to others.
- Abortion takes the life of a valuable, innocent, human being without proper justification. Therefore, abortion is terribly wrong.
And you did it all with questions.
[i] By the way, the points offered in this piece have been used effectively by pro-lifers in school debates, Facebook and blog posts, articles, etc. Get more resources by searching for “abortion” at str.org.
[ii] In the last two editions of Solid Ground I applied this approach to the problem of evil and to atheism. See “Street Tactics – Part 1” and “Street Tactics – Part 2.”
[iii] Some might say the next question is “Why?” If they do, remind them their back is turned, then ask, “Isn’t there a more important question to ask first?”
[iv] I suggest that you memorize this statement.
[v] Memorize this one, too.
[vi] This dialogue is adapted from Gregory Koukl, Precious Unborn Human Persons, available at str.org.
[vii] I use the phrase “moral logic” because this is a logically valid syllogism with moral terms in both a premise and the conclusion.
[viii] Notice how, as a tactical concern, I try to agree as often as I can with legitimate points.
[ix] This qualifier is implicit in abortion laws that distinguish between humans in the womb and those outside the womb.
[x] The S.L.E.D. Test was first introduced by Stephen Schwarz in the book The Moral Question of Abortion.