Theodore Geisel, known by his pen name Dr. Seuss, wrote hundreds of children’s stories that continue to shape young children’s development to this day. Dr. Seuss was a lifelong Democrat and favored many of FDR’s New Deal policies. However, an NPR article notes his widow mentioned that she did not like it when his characters were used to push particular political points of view. The book Horton Hears a Who features the line, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Pro-life advocates have used this line much to the objection of Geisel’s late widow. She protested the use of his characters out of their original context. Seuss wrote the book as a sharp correction to his earlier views of the necessity of placing Japanese-Americans in internment camps during the second world war. Though protecting the lives of the unborn was not his motivation for writing these timeless words, one cannot help but apply this reasoning when considering society’s treatment of the unborn today.
Modern society has come to a clear consensus regarding the atrocities committed against groups of people under the false notion that they are not fully human. Again, we can point to numerous examples of genocide, slavery, and disenfranchisement, all rationalized by the idea that we must be more than simply members of the human family to warrant equal protection under the law. The first statement in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explains, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world …” We should never equate one atrocity with another, as each should be analyzed individually. However, I posit that dehumanization continues today regarding the treatment of the unborn. Similarly, as society once demanded humans be of a particular color, religion, sex, or nationality to deserve equal protection, many require the unborn to have specific qualifications beyond simple humanity.
Not just human but also viable
Many pro-choice apologists advocate that abortion should be permissible up to the point of “fetal viability.” Fetal viability is the gestational age at which, if the fetus were born prematurely, it would have a reasonable chance of survival. Lack of viability is, ultimately, an irrelevant argument. This logic deems it acceptable to have an abortion if the unborn depends solely on the mother but not if the baby can rely on multiple people. Viability is a product of technology and expertise, not morality. If the view were consistent, those who favor abortion should be willing to condemn abortions after 8 to 12 weeks if the viability line changes. However, few are consistent regarding this matter. There are places where proper technology and expertise are absent, and viability may be 30+ weeks. Does this mean the viability argument would apply to 30 weeks in these cases? If the rationale for abortion depends solely on technological advancement, then the argument is one of convenience and does not hold up to moral scrutiny. The unborn are not more or less human based on where they can survive or how old they are. They are human based on what they are. Arguing we need to base abortion law on viability implies that killing a human at its maximum level of helplessness is reasonable. A state of intense vulnerability should warrant more compassion and not less.
Not just human but also sentient
Some argue that the unborn human holds no moral value and can thus be aborted until it develops sentience. Sentience is the capacity to experience feelings and sensations, including the ability to feel pain. Sentience is the ability to perceive and does not include the ability to reason. Sentience is a common requirement that some consider a prerequisite to consider the unborn human to have the same right to life as born humans. Many pro-abortion advocates invoke sentience when discussing abortion as it is inherently linked to known fetal developmental stages and thus is potentially a fixed point. However, there is no consensus regarding the stage at which it develops, which could be anywhere from 18 to 25 weeks. Therefore, attaching the unborn’s moral value to the development of sentience is entirely arbitrary.
Furthermore, some born humans cannot consciously perceive stimuli and experience pain. We do not kill these people simply for lacking these attributes. Regardless of developmental stage, all humans in the womb can have potential sentience. Our value as humans lies not in what we can do but in what we are…members of the human family.
Not just human but also a person
We see this argument used most famously with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The U.S. Supreme Court majority found that “the word’ person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.” This ruling signals an inherently dangerous line of thinking, as we have already discussed the myriad of human atrocities committed under the guise that oppressed groups were “not fully human.” Many in the pro-abortion camp will turn to utilitarian ethical philosophy to rationalize the killing of unborn humans by saying the unborn human lacks the reasoning capacity to be considered a “person.” The pro-life apologist Trent Horn attacks these arguments with vigor, explaining that if we link personhood to rational capabilities, we must include the unborn or exclude infants, as there is negligible difference between the rational abilities of a third-trimester fetus and a newborn baby. In an attempt for consistency, some philosophers hold this view despite the dire implications. Peter Singer once said, “The solution, however, is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the opposite: to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth.” This line of thinking, though consistent, has the potential to lead humanity to very dark places. In his podcast, Trent Horn rebuts these views by postulating, “A person is an individual member of a rational kind … So, being a person refers not to what you are able to do right now, but to the being you are.” I contend that this view is the most consistent as well as the most compassionate.
One hundred years from now, humanity will look back on our treatment of the unborn as brutal and unnecessary. But should we sit by and wait until then? No, we should recognize the inherent value of the unborn and welcome them as full-fledged members of the human family.
Michael McCutchen is a family physician.