When I teach pro-life apologetics, I usually explain that there are two primary disagreements between the pro-life side and the pro-choice side; and then a bunch of distracting arguments that are about other issues that don’t address abortion ethics.

Most pro-life people are familiar with the first primary disagreement. These are pro-choice arguments that deny the personhood of the unborn child. The ones that dominate the philosophical literature on abortion. People argue about what constitutes a person and then explain how the human embryo does or doesn’t qualify. Notice that this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Science tells us what is killed during an abortion””an embryo or fetus that is living, whole, and human. Philosophy tells us whether a human embryo’s life is valuable.

The second disagreement which I’m not addressing in this video is whether bodily rights can justify abortion even if the human fetus is a person. In this video, I’m going to make an argument that addresses the philosophical disagreement about whether the life of a human embryo is valuable and deserves the same protection from violence as you and I have. Let’s investigate the question: Do human embryos deserve the same protections as you or me?

Watch the Video: The Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Right to Life Debate (8:58)


The Foundation of Equal Rights

Before I make a claim about the moral status of a human embryo I want to first talk about rights in general. I think that all people have rights equally. This is going to be really important to my argument so if you don’t believe in equality or you don’t think equality is fundamentally important, then that’s one reason we will disagree. But I’ve found most people agree that equal rights are super important. I think whenever a group of people’s rights aren’t being protected then serious injustice is taking place. For this topic, I will be focusing on people’s right to life. Let’s call anyone who has a right to life a member of the equal right to life community.

Defining the Community: Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Let’s imagine that they’re all in a big room together. If you’re not someone or something with an equal right to life, then you can’t get into the room because you don’t belong in that community.

Another way to talk about this community is to say that everyone in the room is a person with serious moral status which basically amounts to the same thing. Who is in the room and who is left outside?

I’ll start with some obvious examples to give you a better idea of how I think about the community. I want you to consider if you agree with my sorting process and why. I think it’s obvious that you who are watching this video and I are both in the community.

  • Humans of every race, ethnicity, and sex are in the community.
  • People in wheelchairs are in the community.
  • Poor people, rich people, religious people, and atheists””all have the same right to life.
  • I think the most intelligent among us and those with developmental delays should have an equal right to life.
  • I think those celebrating their 100th birthday, teenagers, toddlers, and newborn babies are all in the community.

All these people have an equal right to life and should be protected from violence equally despite the many differences they have””whether in intellect, physical abilities, or an aspect of their identity.

Inclusion or Exclusion: Determining Moral Status

What about squirrels and dogs?

Okay, here’s a bit of a curveball: should squirrels be included in the community? It sounds like a weird question, but let’s actually consider it for a moment. Should squirrels be considered to have the same right to life as everyone I’ve sorted into the circle? What about my dogs?

In my family we joke that Lily, Fiona, and Bob are like our children; but are they in the circle with my wife, Hannah, and our sons? Well, I am strongly against mistreating animals, and I think they deserve protection under the law. If someone hurt one of my pets that would be seriously wrong.

But it seems like it would be obviously different than if someone hurt my kid. Remember we are not asking ourselves whether dogs have any rights but whether they deserve equal rights with everyone in the circle. Do they have serious moral status? Are they actually people? Same with squirrels. You might feel bad if you ran over a squirrel, but would you feel the same if you ran over a child? Probably not.

Why are some things inside the equal right-to-life community in some things excluded? What is the thing that everyone in that room shares that gets them into this exclusive community? In other words, what is the underlying foundation of their equal right to life?

It’s gotta be shared by all, equally.

Before we answer this question; first, we must recognize that this foundation must be something we all share equally. Because we believe that the right to life shared equally. It can’t be something that some people have more of and some people have less of. It can’t be a kind of characteristic that people have in varying degrees. Instead, it must be the kind of thing that you either have or you don’t.

Everyone inside has to have it, and no one outside can.

Second, it also must be something that everyone in the community has and no one outside the community has. What do you think it is?

Is it sentience? Well”¦

When I asked pro-choice people this during a conversation about abortion, I hear several common answers. For example, one very common response is sentience which is something like the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively.

Let’s test that answer with what we already know from our sorting. If sentience is what gives you access to the equal right-to-life community, then we would have to let both squirrels and dogs in. In fact, most animals would be included. So sentience gives us two broad a definition for what makes someone a person and doesn’t fit what we already know from our sorting test.

What about Self-Awareness?

Another common answer is self-awareness. I think this isn’t a bad answer given common depictions of personhood and sci-fi stories. You think about the robot becoming self-aware and no longer acting like an inanimate object. Now it’s a person with its own interests in the agency. This kind of definition is also used by philosophers like Peter Singer who says that beings must be self-aware and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals through time.

But this philosophy and those who agree with their definitions or use something similar openly admit in their writing what I consider to be a fatal flaw of their argument. Their definitions exclude newborn human infants.

Yeah, but then there are newborns”¦

Newborn babies are not self-aware yet, so if what makes us valuable persons with an equal right to life is self-awareness, that would mean infants must be left outside our community of moral consideration. This extreme view that Singer and others share, which logically leads to infanticide is a tough bullet to bite, and most people I talk with aren’t willing to do so.

They think that newborn babies should be protected from violence in the same way as you or I. If you agree with me that newborns in the community and squirrels are out, then what can be the foundation of our shared equal right to life?

The Foundation of Equal Rights: Human Nature

Here’s my answer: I think it must be something like our human nature.

It is the only answer I have found that works with what we already know from our intuitive sorting test. It operates consistently with all our clear cases like newborns and squirrels. So, let’s take that answer about the foundation of our equality and return to the topic of abortion.

We can use the answer about the equal right to life community to solve our questions about a less clear case””the human embryo. If what gives you access to the equal right to life community is something like humanness, then the unborn human must be in, because they meet the criteria.

If we want to be consistent about equality, then we must include the unborn.

The equal rights argument comes down to this: There isn’t a good answer for why all human beings should be in the equal right-to-life community that excludes unborn human beings. In order for pro-choice people to get the answer they want about human fetuses they must exclude other less controversial human beings, such as newborns, or include squirrels.

The pro-life stance; yep, that’s the one.

We don’t think that’s a workable solution. The only position that treats all human beings with respect is the pro-life position. Notice something about this argument it’s not a religious argument and it’s also not an emotional argument. I’m not pro-life for emotional reasons. I don’t get the warm fuzzies when I look at a picture of a human embryo. I’m pro-life because it is the most rational conclusion I can come to. Because starting with equality and reasoning from there, following the truth wherever it leads.

I’m not making the mistake some people make when they decide what conclusion they want to end up with and reason their way backward to figure out what premises will lead to their conclusion. I have not yet heard a good argument for discriminating against unborn humans. So, I believe that if someone wants to be pro-equality, they must be pro-life.

For a full list of ERI resources related to bodily rights and arguments go to
Equal Rights Institute.

Free Pro-Life 101 Course:
Feel confident you can Defend the Unborn



Script by Rachel Crawford.