The most unusual pro-choice argument I’ve ever heard

I recently engaged someone in a dialogue on abortion that turned into the most bizarre abortion debate I’ve ever been a part of. For the sake of her privacy, I’m going to call her Holly. I’ve slightly edited her quotes for spelling, grammar and clarity.

I’m going to share some excerpts from our exchange with you for two reasons.

  1. First, some of the ways I responded may be useful for you in most abortion dialogues. (For example, shifting the burden of proof.)
  2. Secondly, reading the counters I offered to this particularly unusual argument will be helpful to you in case you are ever confronted with it.

Here’s what this article is NOT for: making fun of her. Yes, her argument for abortion rights was one I had never heard before, and will be laughable to many pro-lifers, but remember that Holly is a person who’s actually spending time thinking through these issues. This is more than I can say about a lot of apathetic college students who don’t care about ANY issue that doesn’t directly affect them.

Finally, a warning: this exchange may be a little uncomfortable to read, because of the argument Holly was making. I have not censored my counter-arguments for this article. What you will read is exactly how I responded to Holly.

I don’t think we should avoid talking about uncomfortable subjects with abortion advocates. No, we should confront those subjects head on, even if that means making reductio ad absurdum arguments that are awkward by their very nature. If the directness of the subject matter toward the beginning of the exchange offends you, I’d recommend not finishing this article, because the most uncomfortable bits are towards the end.

After 10 years of full-time pro-life advocacy, I thought I had heard every possible reason to allow human fetuses to be aborted. Usually people say that abortion should be legal before the preborn child’s brain is very active, or when she’s not viable outside the mother’s body, or before she gets too big or looks too much like older humans.

Not Holly. When I asked Holly at what point of pregnancy she thinks abortions should be illegal, she responded:

I know this may sound utterly silly, but after the sex is able to be detected. After the fetus has a gender, then to me it is a person, not just a fetus. I don’t know about everyone else, but once I knew what gender my kids were they felt real to me. It was set in stone so to speak. And no, it didn’t matter if they were a boy or a girl, I was just happy to stop calling the fetus peanut!

I honestly had to stop and think for a few minutes. I had never heard someone say this before. It wouldn’t be the last time in this conversation I would pause and reflect as I tried to form the best responses to the most unusual pro-choice argument I had ever heard.
I replied:

Isn’t the gender determined by the fetuses DNA? It merely develops external genitalia later in the pregnancy. In other words, my two sons were both male before you could see their penises on an ultrasound.

If you think reading this conversation is awkward, imagine how I felt writing this stuff!

Holly answered:

Yes, but it could be seen via ultrasound.

I have said this before, but DNA doesn’t mean crap to me. My daughter has my ex husband’s DNA, but that doesn’t mean anything other than his sperm created her.

Once you can actually see the child’s gender, then to me they are no longer ‘the peanut.’ They are a real person at that point.

I then asked her an important clarification question:

Holly, are you describing the point that you grew more personally attached to your children, or are you describing the point that you actually think all people become fully human, or “persons?” This question is important.

You see, Holly may have just been describing the point of her past pregnancies when her babies became more real to her. That’s different from saying “I objectively believe that all fetuses become valuable when they have visible genitalia.” Before making further arguments, I wanted to understand better where Holly was coming from, so I could avoid making a strawman argument.

She responded:

I can’t really speak for all women, but after anyone I know finds out they are having a boy or girl their tone towards the pregnancy seems to change.

As you can see, Holly didn’t answer my question. I don’t think she was purposefully being evasive. She may have not fully understood the question but I really needed to know where she was coming from, so I asked again, but explained the question more fully:

I think a mother’s degree of attachment to her child in utero is irrelevant to that child’s humanity. Similarly, a racists low-level of respect or attachment to an African-American says nothing about the African-American’s humanity.

Another example: my wife’s first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, at 10 weeks. It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever gone through, but I think our pain was still less than that of my friend’s Jeremy and Katie, who gave birth to a premature baby who had severe developmental issues and died a few days after birth. They became even more attached to their child as they held her and loved her, but both of our children were fully human, regardless of our feelings or attachment toward them.

So, when you talk about the ability to see a fetuses external genitalia on an ultrasound being important, are you describing the point that you grew more personally attached to your children, or are you describing the point you actually think all people become fully human, or “persons?” Do you think we’re non-persons before we have easily identifiable genitalia?

Holly responded:

As I stated before, at that point they are no longer the little peanut looking fetus; they have developed several “normal,” so to speak, body parts. Example: they don’t have a tail.

I have a question though: why is it that racism and Hitler seem to come up in abortion a lot?

Notice a few things that just happened. While it’s not a direct answer, it appears that Holly is trying to say that fetuses objectively become “persons” at the point we can visibly tell their gender via ultrasound.

I could have responded that every body part a healthy preborn child develops is “normal,” and that most of them are developed before the genitalia is visible.

I chose to do two other things instead. First, I wanted to keep us on topic, instead of getting side-tracked on racism, even though it’s a topic that interests me and something that I’ve spoken about publicly. I also wanted to make her defend the claim that visible genitalia is necessary for personhood. Pro-life advocates, it’s not enough to just make someone tell you why they don’t think the preborn are human beings; we need to make them defend those claims.

I wrote:

I think racism and Hitler are way off topic. I’d rather stay on topic. Is that okay with you?

The problem here is you’re simply asserting a reason to treat some humans, (that have visible genitalia,) much differently than humans who have a gender, but no visible genitalia. Assertion ≠ fact.

I believe visible genitalia have NOTHING to do with your value. I need to hear a better reason for discriminating against those unborn entities that don’t yet have outwardly visible genitalia than “they look less peanut-like.” I don’t want to live in a society where people are judged by how much they look like us. The Elephant Man was almost killed for similar reasoning.

I would understand if the unborn had no gender before forming external genitals, but that’s not biologically accurate. The unborn entity has a gender from fertilization, whether you personally care about DNA or not.

She responded:

I need a better reason for my OWN opinion? My reason is the same as it has always been and that is simply that people’s tone changes once they know the sex of the child. They start calling the fetus by the name that it will have once it is born!

Holly’s first sentence was concerning, because the implication is that she is a relativist who doesn’t see why she should have to defend her personal conviction. I’ve engaged people who believe that before, but I made a tactical decision this time to attempt to show Holly how nonsensical her personhood criteria is:

Generally, a baby’s gender is hard to tell by ultrasound before 18 weeks, but you can tell the baby’s gender even more accurately with amniocentesis, usually done at 15 weeks. This is done by taking some of the shed skin cells in the amniotic fluid, and analyzing their DNA to determine whether it’s a boy or girl.

So let’s set up some scenarios:

A: A pregnant mother unknowingly has a girl fetus. The mother chooses not to have amniocentesis, but does have an 18-week ultrasound, where the doctor informs her that she indeed has a girl.

B: A pregnant mother unknowingly has a boy fetus. The mother chooses to have amniocentesis at 15 weeks, and the DNA analyst informs her that she has a boy. An ultrasound 3 weeks later confirms this, even though the ultrasound is less accurate.

C: A pregnant mother unknowingly has a girl fetus. The mother chooses to have amniocentesis, but doesn’t want to know the gender. She is old-fashioned, and wants to be surprised at the birth. The DNA analyst, of course, knows that the fetus is a girl, but the mother is not told that. Thus, the mother and father pick out a boy’s name and a girl’s name, but until the moment of birth, refer to their offspring as “their little peanut.”

Holly, at what age did these three fetuses become “persons?”

Holly responded:

Isn’t the cutoff date for abortions 20 weeks? If so, then it is right at the time people find out the gender! Some people may always feel that the fetus is a person, others do not. Now in my opinion the cutoff date shouldn’t be 20, but rather 18 weeks because at that point the gender is visible.

I know on all 3 of mine there was no “maybe it is / maybe it isn’t” on the gender. Both of my baby boys were proud of their male parts. My daughter mooned us so we could see there was no willie there. If abortions are not allowed after the gender is known then there will be less sex-selection abortions.

Also why in the heck would you do a DNA test on a fetus because you’re curious about the gender? That is dangerous and just plain stupid.

Do you see what just happened? Read Holly’s response again. Where exactly did she answer my direct question?

The correct answer is, she didn’t. She simply restated her original position. So I pressed her again:

Amniocenteses isn’t done merely to learn the gender of the baby. It’s primarily done to screen for chromosomal abnormalities and fetal infections. Because all of this is done by analyzing the DNA, we are able to tell the gender of the fetus with near-pinpoint accuracy. This is because the 23rd chromosome pairing will either be XY or XX. (An XY pair denotes a boy; an XX pair is for a girl.)

In the scenarios above, I have three direct questions for you:

1: At what age did the fetus in scenario A become a “person?”

2: At what age did the fetus in scenario B become a “person?”

3: At what age did the fetus in scenario C become a “person?”

Holly responded:

All 3 scenarios became a person when the parts became visible. As I said before if they don’t allow abortions after the sex is known and/or visible then it cuts done on sexist abortions.

At this point I tried one last time to use questions to form reductio ad absurdum arguments that would demonstrate Holly’s criteria to be inadequate, and if you thought the dialogue was uncomfortable before, then buckle up. I wrote:

In rare cases, boys can be identified by ultrasound as early as 12 weeks. It’s pretty rare though. At 18 weeks, the genitalia is much easier to distinguish. This tells me there’s probably a period between 10 and 18 weeks where male fetuses experience “penis growth,” for lack of a better term. I don’t think they go from having absolutely nothing down there to a complete penis overnight.

So this brings up a few more questions:

Question 1: If at 15 weeks a male fetus has a “half-grown” penis, is he a “person,” or must he wait until his penis stops growing?

Question 2: In one of the rare cases where a male fetus has a visible penis at 12 weeks, is he a “person?” Or does he need to wait 6 more weeks when most of the other fetuses have visible genitals?

By the way, if these questions sound ridiculous to you, don’t worry. They sound pretty ridiculous to me too. But that’s because I think it’s wrong to discriminate against fetuses that don’t have visible genitals yet.

Question 3: Are you open to the possibility that the criteria you’ve established for personhood is a poor choice? (In other words, that visible genitals is not the best criteria for establishing personhood.)

That last question is one that pro-life advocates should be ready to ask pro-abortion-choice people. If you’re talking to somebody who doesn’t think there is ANY chance they could be wrong, then it’s probably a waste of time to keep debating the issue.

One area of common ground I can usually find with abortion advocates when talking about personhood is that if we’re going to draw a cutoff line somewhere during pregnancy, (where after the baby has crossed this line we can’t abort her anymore,) the abortion advocate will usually agree that the line shouldn’t be arbitrary. We shouldn’t draw the line simply because “we have to draw the line somewhere.” We should draw a line that actually makes sense.

My view is that the only line that makes sense is fertilization, because that’s when a living, distinct and whole human being begins to exist.

Holly responded:

Question 1: If he has his boy parts then to me he is a person.

Question 2: Same answer.

Question 3: The reason I define personhood as this is to prevent sex-selection abortions. If people didn’t have abortions because they didn’t want a boy or they didn’t want a girl then I wouldn’t really be defining it like this.

I wanted a boy with Abby, but I got a little girl. Did I love her any less because of this? Of course not. She is my one and only little lady. I wanted to have a girl with Will, but I got a handsome little man. That doesn’t change the fact that some people are jerks when it comes to what they wanted.

At this point I was having a hard time understanding what Holly’s actual position is, because sometimes she implied that her personhood criteria were objective to all fetuses, but at the end she basically admits her goal is to ban sex-selection abortions.

It was time for some more clarification:

Thanks, Holly, for patiently answering my questions. I feel like we’re really getting somewhere.

I think we’re both using the term “personhood” to mean something different. (Which is a problem for clear communication.) I want to confirm this though, because I’m not positive.

When I say “person,” I mean a valuable human being, like you and me; a human being that has basic rights. (And should be treated as such.)

I am also using it in with a universalist meaning. While there are many opinions about when personhood begins, I think only one of them is true and correct. (Even if my own opinion is one of the incorrect ones.) In other words, Dr. Peter Singer’s personhood criteria may be correct, but his and mine can’t both be correct, because they’re contradictory.

Based on your last comment, it appears to me that you’re not trying to define when a human being ACTUALLY becomes a “person.” You’re trying to draw the line when you think we shouldn’t allow abortions anymore. Your main concern is banning sex-selection abortions, which I think is laudable. But if sex-selection abortions never occurred, I don’t think you would still be defending the idea that a fetus becomes a valuable human being as soon as he or she has visible genitals.

I want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly. I have no intentions of strawmanning you. Could you comment on this, and confirm whether I’m correct, or clarify where I’m misunderstanding your views?

Holly responded:

If [sex-selection abortions] never occurred then I’d say personhood begins with a heartbeat. Although if you think about it, people whom have been born and their heart stops it can restart, so just because it stopped beating doesn’t mean they are less of a person!

With that being said I’m not gonna lie. I actually think I’d say they become a person as soon as the sperm and egg combine into the first stages of pregnancy.

You would think that at this point I’d “won her over,” but while she agreed that embryos are persons from conception, she wasn’t able to see the inconsistency of allowing these “persons” to be aborted. She sadly ended the conversation before I could persuade her of that.

I’m hopeful that I tilled some of the soil, so that the next pro-life advocate she talks to will be able to show her that once the humanity of the unborn has been established, that should settle their right to live.


Josh Brahm is the Director of Education at Right to Life of Central California’s Fresno/Madera office, and host of  “Life Report: Pro-Life Talk | Real World Answers.” Get more of Josh’s unique perspectives on pro-life topics at www.ProLifePodcast.net.

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