Abortion: What are we arguing about?

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by Greg Jackson

In any serious discussion, it is important to define the terms of the debate. It is important that you are talking about the same thing. It is a remarkable fact about the abortion debate, especially as found in the media, that both sides rarely talk about the same thing. More often than not, they are speaking at cross purposes.

To make any headway, we must provide an answer to the following question(s):

What is the abortion debate about? What are we actually arguing about? Where is the point of disagreement?

Think about it yourself. Even among pro-lifers you are likely to get different answers to this question. Some will say it’s about when life begin, others will say it is about whether abortion is right or wrong. On the other side of the debate, some will say it is about choice and autonomy and others will say it is a women’s rights issue. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive of course, but neither are they the same thing.

So, while each of these points of contention is relevant in the abortion debate, none of them capture the essence of it.

What is the unborn?

(Or, to say the same thing, ‘What is it that exists inside a woman’s womb when we say that she is pregnant?’)

This is the centre of the abortion debate and this is where the disagreement lies. This is the question we must answer before all others.

We can see this if I ask the following question: Is it okay to kill an okapi?

Perhaps many of you are frantically googling ‘okapi’ to find out just what on earth I am talking about. Hopefully none of you have simply answered in the affirmative, or indeed in the negative, without this knowledge. This is precisely what you should be doing. How can you possibly answer this question if you do not know what an okapi is? Whether or not it is okay to kill an okapi depends precisely on what an okapi is, on what kind of creature it is. If an okapi is a tribe from the Amazon who are minding their own business, causing no harm or threat to others, we would all answer in the negative. If an okapi is a form of bacteria which causes your heart to explode the day you turn 30, we would all answer in the positive – if that is what an okapi is, then of course it is okay to kill it. If however an okapi is a form of antelope found in parts of Africa, we might answer yes or no depending on other factors such as whether it is a threat to my life, or whether I need to eat it to survive, for example.

Similarly, if I ask, is it okay to kill the unborn in an abortion, I must ask the question: what is the unborn? What is it that we are talking about killing?

Almost every debate or discussion about abortion simply assumes an answer to this question without recourse to evidence or argument. The pro-choice side almost always assumes that the unborn is not human without offering a shred of evidence or giving any argument.

But we are often guilty of the same error on the pro-life side: we tend to assume that the unborn is a full human being, just like you or me, and frequently do so without offering evidence or argument. To be sure, many of us, on both sides of the debate, do this precisely because we think our starting assumption is not only true, but obviously so. But even if it is obvious to you it is not obvious to your opponent. Indeed it is this assumption about what the unborn is which is at the very centre of the debate.

What is the unborn? Now, most people – pro-life and pro-choice – think they know the answer to this question. They remember learning it in GCSE biology… or at least they think they do. Or they’ve read enough pro-choice literature to know that there is a profound difference between a ‘foetus’ and a ‘baby’: what the former is, according to many pro-choicers, remains shrouded in mystery, but we know enough about it to be quite sure that it is okay to end its life as it’s probably not really alive anyway. Either way, most readers are probably quite content that they know the answer to this question.

So, here’s the challenge: provide a scientific answer to the question ‘What is the unborn?’ without using the words ‘foetus’, ‘baby’, ‘child’, ‘embryo’, ‘zygote’, ‘blastocyst’, ‘clump of cells’ or ‘a pregnancy’.

Most people struggle, so tune in next time for the answer!

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