The Most Undervalued Argument in the Prolife Movement

The JFA philosophy team has been utilizing an argument that should be used by the entire prolife movement because the results have been amazing.

One of the best parts of my job is the work I do partnering with Justice For All. I’ve spent four years being trained by Steve Wagner to do many of the things he does for JFA in Wichita, from facilitating seminars and outreaches to coaching mentors.

Steve shared an argument with my brother Tim last year that he heard from J.P. Moreland and is featured on page 67 of Scott Klusendorf’s book, “The Case for Life” that I haven’t seen very many pro-life advocates utilize. So the three of us have been emphasizing it in campus dialogue, and over the last year we’ve been discussing how we might train our volunteers to use it.

The results have been amazing. Equal Rights Institute and Justice For All are now teaching this argument in all of our seminars.

It’s called the Equal Rights Argument.

Using the Equal Rights  Argument on campus.

Using the Equal Rights Argument on campus.

We’re asking pro-choice people if they agree that all human adults have an equal right to life.

When they say yes, we ask them, “Doesn’t that mean there must be something the same about us?”

In other words, if we all have an equal right to life, then we must all have something in common that demands that we treat each other equally, and we must have that property equally. It can’t be something (like size or intelligence) that comes in degrees, or it wouldn’t explain our equal right to life.

When the pro-choice person agrees with that conclusion, we simply ask them what is the same about us.

I think the natural temptation for a pro-life advocate who is ready with an answer to this question is to share that answer at this point. But we’d rather let the pro-choice person consider the question for themselves, and only offer our answer when they ask for it.

In my experience people aren’t annoyed by the Equal Rights Argument questions. They tend to see the value of the questions, but need to take some time to think about it. We wait patiently, and if they give an answer, we engage it. But if they have no idea, we then ask if they would like to hear our answer. Nearly everybody says yes.

Our answer is that we all have humanness in common. That’s something that doesn’t come in degrees. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of thing.

And if being human is what gives us intrinsic value, then that explains a lot of data. It explains why all the adult humans have an equal right to life, even though we have so many differences. It also explains why things like racism and sexism are wrong. Those things focus on a surface difference that doesn’t morally matter, and ignores the thing we have in common, which IS what morally matters!

Some philosophers have alternative explanations for our equal right to life. It’s my view that all of these alternative explanations have major consequences, in that they either entail an equal right to life for a bunch of animals, or they deny a right to life to human infants. I’ll explain this more fully in a follow-up post.

I’ve been using this argument on campuses this year and the results have been incredible. I’ve never seen an argument persuade so many people that abortion is wrong.

I’m going to start regularly posting stories of actual dialogues where I used this argument, so you can see how this works in a real-time conversation.

This material has been heavily influenced by Steve Wagner and Tim Brahm from Justice For All. One of our primary focuses this year has been working on testing this argument and learning how to teach it to others.

The post “The Most Undervalued Argument in the Prolife Movement” originally appeared at JoshBrahm.comClick here to subscribe via email and get exclusive access to a FREE MP3 of Josh Brahm’s speech, “Nine Faulty Pro-Life Arguments and Tactics.”

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  • TychaBrahe

    The “right to life” is a fiction.

    “Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’?” —Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers.

    • Dolce

      I think you misunderstand what a right to life means … you can’t take extenuating circumstances and then conclude that no one has a right to life. I would argue that the reason these examples are so tragic and difficult is precisely BECAUSE people have a right to their lives.

    • http://JoshBrahm.com/ Josh Brahm

      I agree with Dolce. Your premises don’t lead to your conclusion.

    • Clinton

      The right to life is not a fiction. Even if there are difficulties, this doesn’t, by virtue of those difficulties, make the thing false.
      The question about drowning in the Pacific is just silly, and shows that Heinlein doesn’t understand the concept of rights. The concept of rights is a question of how we are to treat each other. The ocean is not a subject of rights, and we are not wronged if we drown in the ocean, unless someone else put us in there to drown us.
      The other questions of rights are not problematic, either, they just show that a careful discussion needs to be had of rights. If a man has children, he has an obligation to protect them, even with his life. That’s part of what it means to be a father. If two men are starving, I don’t think think either one has a right to eat the other, with the possible exception if one chooses to give up his own life to save the other out of necessity.

    • MeredithEugeneHunt

      Umm. Starship Troopers is a fiction.

  • Guest

    I like the idea behind this argument, and look forward to reading your subsequent posts. However, I’m not convinced that it’s necessary to undermine animal rights in order to adequately defend the rights of the unborn. Animal rights might be a “major consequence” of adopting certain alternate explanations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are false. After all, the claim that a one cell embryo has a right to life is also a “major consequence” (and one that’s probably at least as controversial), but we would still say that it’s a justified true belief. I much prefer Stephanie Gray’s approach:

    “If you are concerned that granting her rights because she’s human deprives other species rights because they’re not, be assured that that doesn’t logically follow. For example, saying all women are valuable doesn’t mean all men are not valuable. Saying we should protect humans doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect non-humans. The treatment of non-human animals is a debate for another day.”

    There’s also the problem that denying animal rights when dialoguing with a Peter Singer type person probably won’t be an area of common ground, nor is it a necessary argument to make. The case we’re trying to make to them is that abortion should be illegal and unthinkable, not that they should buy a fur coat.

    • http://JoshBrahm.com/ Josh Brahm

      I think you may not be fully understanding my point about animal rights. Here’s the relevant sentence from my piece: “It’s my view that all of these alternative explanations have major consequences, in that they either entail an *equal* right to life for a bunch of animals, or they deny a right to life to human infants.”

      I think animals have (at least) the right not to be mistreated or tortured. I simply am denying that they have an EQUAL right to life with human adults. In other words, I don’t think it would be equally tragic if seven cows were killed for food while seven humans were also being killed for food.

      If I’m talking to a Peter Singer-type person, this might actually be an important discussion to have. In fact, it may be necessary to defend the pro-life position. As I’ll explain in a future post, if the person actually thinks animals are equally intrinsically valuable to humans, than they can just argue that minimal self-awareness is what gives you value, as they’ve already bitten the bullet on giving animals an equal right to life.

      • Guest

        My apologies, I should have been clearer. When I said “right to life” and “animal rights” above, I meant “right to life equal to that of an adult human being”. That being said, I think my previous point still holds.

        The argument about killing seven cows for food vs. seven humans for food seems tendentious. I think it runs into the same problems as the burning IVF lab thought experiment, and the argument that embryos cannot have an equal right to life because women don’t grieve early miscarriages (at least not enough for embryos to be equal to born children). It’s in the same territory as the example Francis Beckwith highlights from Huckleberry Finn:

        “We blowed out a cylinder head.”
        “Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”

        “No’m. Killed a nigger.”
        “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

        If they brought up minimal self-awareness, I would probably focus on infanticide and the case of an individual in a deep, reversible coma rather than animal rights.

        • http://JoshBrahm.com/ Josh Brahm

          I should have been clearer. I didn’t mean minimally self-aware. I meant minimally aware of the outside world. Like, “experiencing anything at all.” That’s what even newborns (and late-term fetal humans) can do.

          So believing that being minimally aware of the outside world is a necessary condition for personhood wouldn’t entail infanticide, but it WOULD entail animals being given an equal right to life, which I think is strongly counter-intuitive.

          • Guest

            That could apply to newborns (if we define “self-awareness” the right way), but reversibly comatose individuals still completely lack self-awareness and are not capable of experiencing anything at all.

            • http://JoshBrahm.com/ Josh Brahm

              I agree. That’s why I think when most pro-choice people talk about self-awareness being a necessary condition for value, I don’t think they mean that you must have the PRESENT CAPACITY for awareness. Because when we bring up temporary comas, they always respond, “Yeah, but that’s different. They were already aware before.”

              I think they usually mean a PAST CAPACITY. In other words, once a person has crossed the threshold of being self-aware at all, they are now persons, even if they end up in a temporary coma later.

              • Guest

                The past capacity for self-awareness is an obvious difference between the standard embryo and a comatose patient. However, I’m not convinced that this works the way a critic of the pro-life standpoint needs it to. Consider the following two hypothetical scenarios:

                1. You’ve used this one before. Suppose an infant is born in a temporary coma, and has never before possessed any level of self-awareness. Does she not have a serious right to life? It seems implausible to say she doesn’t, but this conclusion does necessarily follow from the pro-choice person’s premise.

                To tease this out further, let’s imagine that she has a twin sister who is normally self-aware for the last trimester, but is born in a temporary coma due to complications in delivery. To be consistent, the pro-choicer must conclude that the twin who is self-aware until birth has serious moral status, but the twin that’s never been self-aware does not. If the twins’ parents decide that they don’t want to take care of two babies and can’t handle the thought of someone else bringing up their child, they are justified in taking the life one of the infants (but not the other one) – a form of after-birth selective reduction. Is this a reasonable position to hold? If not, then minimal self-awareness cannot be a necessary condition.

                2. This one is a bit bizarre, but I think it’s still worth taking a look at. Suppose we have a reversibly comatose person, someone in the same position as the subject of Beckwith’s Uncle Jed analogy (ie, someone who has also permanently lost all of his experiences and memories). He is placed in one of Derek Parfit’s replication booths and an exact clone is created (down to the last atom). If minimal self-awareness is necessary for equal rights, then Uncle Jed has the right to life but his clone (hereafter Uncle Jed2) does not. This doesn’t seem right. Imagine walking into the room right after the cloning has taken place. You see two comatose individuals, and you don’t know which one is which. The scientist tells you that Uncle Jed will be allowed to recover, as he was once minimally self-aware and has a serious right to life. However, Uncle Jed2 is in the same position as the standard embryo. He is a brand new human organism that did not exist until a few seconds ago, and has no past or present capacity for self-awareness, so he will soon be destroyed for medical research. This is another disturbing conclusion, but the only way around it is to deny that past minimal self-awareness is a necessary condition for basic human rights. Although Uncle Jed2 lacks some of the rights that Uncle Jed possesses (for example, a just claim on Uncle Jed’s bank account), the right to life is not one of them.

                • http://JoshBrahm.com/ Josh Brahm

                  Yes, I think these are both strong responses to people who believe that a past capacity for being self-aware are necessary conditions for personhood. I think the comatose newborn is more helpful than adults in temporary comas because it responds to both past and present capacity arguments. (Which is why you heard me use it in the mock debate with Jonalyn Fincher.)

                  FYI, I deleted the copy of this comment above that ended up in the wrong place in the discussion.

            • Guest

              The past capacity for self-awareness is an obvious difference between the standard embryo and a comatose patient. However, I’m not convinced that this works the way a critic of the pro-life standpoint needs it to. Consider the following two hypothetical scenarios:

              1. You’ve used this one before. Suppose an infant is born in a temporary coma, and has never before possessed any level of self-awareness. Does she not have a serious right to life? It seems implausible to say she doesn’t, but this conclusion does necessarily follow from the pro-choice person’s premise.

              To tease this out further, let’s imagine that she has a twin sister who is normally self-aware for the last trimester, but is born in a temporary coma due to complications in delivery. To be consistent, the pro-choicer must conclude that the twin who is self-aware until birth has serious moral status, but the twin that’s never been self-aware does not. If the twins’ parents decide that they don’t want to take care of two babies and can’t handle the thought of someone else bringing up their child, they are justified in taking the life one of the infants (but not the other one) – a form of after-birth selective reduction. Is this a reasonable position to hold? If not, then minimal self-awareness cannot be a necessary condition.

              2. This one is a bit bizarre, but I think it’s still worth taking a look at. Suppose we have a reversibly comatose person, someone in the same position as the subject of Beckwith’s Uncle Jed analogy (ie, someone who has also permanently lost all of his experiences and memories). He is placed in one of Derek Parfit’s replication booths and an exact clone is created (down to the last atom). If minimal self-awareness is necessary for equal rights, then Uncle Jed has the right to life but his clone (hereafter does not. This doesn’t seem right. Imagine walking into the room right after the cloning has taken place. You see two comatose individuals, and you don’t know which one is which. The scientist tells you that Uncle Jed will be allowed to recover, as he was once minimally self-aware and has a serious right to life. However, Uncle Jed2 is in the same position as the standard embryo. He is a brand new human organism that did not exist until a few seconds ago, and has no past or present capacity for self-awareness, so he will soon be destroyed for medical research. This is another disturbing conclusion, but the only way around it is to deny that past minimal self-awareness is a necessary condition for basic human rights. Although Uncle Jed2 lacks some of the rights that Uncle Jed possesses (for example, a just claim on Uncle Jed’s bank account), the right to life is not one of them.

      • Chandler Klebs

        I believe that the death of seven cows is equal to the death of seven humans. That was why I had to choose to go vegetarian or go pro-choice. It is a decision that I think all honest people have to make. I choose life for cows and humans.

        • http://JoshBrahm.com/ Josh Brahm

          I think that’s very interesting. Would you care to share more about that process? Why do you believe that the killing of a cow is morally the same as the killing of a human?

          • Chandler Klebs

            When I look at other animals, they seem to experience happiness and sadness in the same way I do. They try to avoid pain and death the same way I would. I just can’t say that my life is any different than theirs. They also were a zygote and are alive.

  • William Nee

    Josh: this is a great post summarizing a great argument. Thanks!

    I would just agree as well with Guest down below with regards to animal rights. Keep in mind that Peter Singer is actually a very controversial figure in the animal rights community, and some would even argue that he doesn’t even believe in animal rights. Gary Francione has produced numerous critiques of Singer, but here one:

    http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/singers-fish-position-is-fishy/#.UkzuDNKnp1E

    However, for whatever reason, it seems that in the pro-life community Peter Singer’s (shocking) views are regarded as synonymous with what animal rights advocates hold in general. (Although, with that said, Francione’s views on abortion are not yet well developed at this point, in my opinion. It would be great if he were to respond to Beckwith and others).

    Abolitionist animal rights arguments come down to the idea of whether beings can feel pain (sentience). If we know, with good scientific evidence, that a being can feel pain and suffering fairly similarly to how a human feels pain — biologically speaking — then it doesn’t make sense to institutionalize practices that continue that pain.

    Many pro-life arguments come down to the inherent worth of all human beings, or the humanness we have in common (as Josh mentions above). Many people may posit that we are created in the image of God, and thus we have equal rights. Even atheists can probably see the logic in that, if we are to grant human rights to all, we can’t take them away for a trivial reason. So, I fully agree that this is a powerful argument. The human rights discourse and equality is also a great bridge to those who think the pro-life movement is all about a supporting a political vision that they abhor (with the unfair stereotype of gun-tottin’, death penalty lovin’, anti-poor, anti-union, anti-woman, racist, pro-war under any circumstance…etc)

    However, like Guest below, I don’t think that the end points of the animal rights movement and the pro-life movement are mutually exclusive. But I also look forward to more post exploring this issue in more depth!

    • http://JoshBrahm.com/ Josh Brahm

      Thanks for your comment. I briefly responded to Guest below, which may also be helpful to you. :)

  • EdinburghEye
    • Guest

      EdinburghEye, I’d like to respond to your post. I think we have some common ground. For example, I agree that pro-lifers are wrong to equate hormonal birth control with abortion. Personally, it is one of my biggest frustrations with the pro-life movement – it’s both irresponsible and harmful to the cause. However, I quite strongly disagree with your understanding of the motives of pro-lifers in general (and certainly Josh Brahm in particular). If you got to know him or even just listened to a few episodes of his podcast with a truly open mind, I’m confident you would reach a different conclusion. Indeed, Life Report has its share of pro-choice fans that appreciate the approach Josh takes with the subject matter. I would be willing to discuss each of your points individually if you wish, though I’m not going to do it in one post as the result would be lengthy and probably unreadable.

      But, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that everything I wrote in the last paragraph is wrong. Suppose that the pro-lifers’ commitment to protecting the unborn really is just an excuse for punishing the “dirty sluts” (including rape victims and married women) for having non-procreative sex. They really do want to eradicate birth control and will go as far as shutting down the government solely to stop women from getting it. They have no real concern for the lives of children (before or after they’re born), nor do they care about maternal mortality. The only real difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is 8000 miles. They will stop at nothing to ensure that women are barefoot, in the kitchen, and breastfeeding twins.

      Would any of this change the truth-value of the claims that Josh and other pro-lifers have put forth about the impermissibility of abortion? It should not. For it is still possible for a very bad person to have good arguments for supporting a reasonable position. To use an example, Nazi Germany was the first country to implement an anti-tobacco campaign (which turned out to be the most successful one of the 20th Century). Even though the Nazis were responsible for some of the worst atrocities in human history, their studies on the effects of smoking were sound and they were decades ahead of their time in this regard. Likewise, even if pro-lifers are the worst people in the world, they still hold the right position on abortion if their arguments are sound.

      Josh Brahm would probably frame his argument somewhere along these lines:

      P1. The unborn are distinct, whole human organisms from fertilization on.
      P2. All human organisms have an equal right to life.
      P3. The right to life should entail a legal obligation from the pregnant woman to sustain the unborn via gestation and childbirth.
      C. Abortion is a human rights abuse, and should not be legal.

      There are some nuances and details, but that is the basic argument. If it’s formally valid (which seems obvious) and all three of the premises are true, then a reasonable person must accept the conclusion. So if I could defend each of the premises, would you be willing to reconsider your position?

      Just for clarification, this article attempts to support only P2 (as most pro-choicers defend abortion on the grounds that the unborn lack the right to life). It does not establish the third premise, which seems to be your main objection (you ask “how can an argument that we are all human persuade anyone that it’s right to force women through pregnancy and childbirth against their will?”). While it’s common for pro-lifers to take P3 for granted, not all of them do. Josh actually believes that the bodily-rights argument (which essentially concedes the first two premises for the sake of the argument before attempting to negate the third by comparing pregnancy to a form of forcible organ donation) is the strongest pro-choice argument out there, and that most pro-lifers do not understand it or take it seriously enough. He has spent much time writing about it and developing his own critique – a far cry from “taking it for granted”. I would be open to discuss this with you as well, if you are interested.

      P.S. Just so that you know, Right to Life of Central California is an independent, local pro-life organization. It is not affiliated with the National Right to Life Committee.

      • EdinburghEye

        Sorry, I’m not sure who you are, but I appreciate the correction about “Right to Life Central California” and will update my blogpost accordingly.

        If you’re interested in discussing my post, my blog is open for comments – all first-time commenters are auto-modded, but that’s just protect from spambots and the odd outrageous troll. I welcome strong disagreement.

        Would any of this change the truth-value of the claims that Josh and other pro-lifers have put forth about the impermissibility of abortion?

        The only way in which abortion is “impermissible” is if you believe women don’t have human rights. Which puts Josh squarely with the other pro-lifers who want to force women.

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  • GEIxBattleRifle

    ”I’ve been using this argument on campuses this year and the results have been incredible. I’ve never seen an argument persuade so many people that abortion is wrong.”
    It’s because of the fact most come into this debate with not much philosophy under there belt using the word person still as a synonym for being a member of the human species. If they were to find out the differences between those two words, then it would be very interesting. I am shocked and surprised there is no discussion yet on extraterrestrial life and or on artificial intelligence even after the full 40 years of roe v wade’s legalization. After that point, our society has accepted decades upon decades worth of science fiction displaying to them persons that were not humans and no one had a problem with that. It’s sad and depressing to me that they would write them off indirectly.

    • http://JoshBrahm.com/ Josh Brahm

      It wouldn’t surprise me if more often in the future we will need to make a distinction between grounding human value in species membership based on an Imago Dei argument versus making the argument that humans are valuable because they are members of a rational kind.

      See this newer video from me explaining that argument, after I talk about the Equal Rights Argument. I think you will find it helpful: http://joshbrahm.com/video-responding-secular-views-human-person/

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