Home > Philosophy > Abortion: the cards are still stacked

Abortion: the cards are still stacked

I watched the Obama-McCain interviews that took place at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church on Saturday. All in all, both candidates faired well. McCain tended to appeal to the heart of the American public while Obama addressed the head. Both approaches, I suppose, have pros and cons. But their overall performance is not what this post is concerned with. I am here to address the way conservatives–knowingly or likely unknowingly–have hijacked the abortion debate with obscure language. And such language has, as the title says, stacked the cards in the conservatives favor. Now, I don’t wish to place all of the blame on conservatives. The public at large–conservatives and liberals–has bought into the way we talk about abortion. But if the liberal is to have any chance of justifying his pro-choice position, he must change his approach. Here is the problem that was reemphasized during the Obama-McCain interviews:

The question is asked (as it was by Warren): when does life begin?

It seems like an innocent question, but the way it is set up and the way we, as Americans, tend to think of this issue, it leaves little chance for the liberal to give an acceptable response. The pro-lifer can simply state that life begins at conception. Therefore, the conclusion seems unavoidable that abortion is essentially the killing of an innocent human person and is thus no less wrong than the killing of an innocent adult human person. At this point the liberal is usually stuck defending the indefensible position that life doesn’t begin at conception or that an embryo or fetus is not human (or some may go on to talk about the rights of the mother, which does have some merit but also has problems of its own). But if an embryo or fetus is not human, the pro-lifer responds, then what is it? A valid question indeed if liberals are naive enough in the first place to accept the baiting by conservatives that the when-does-life-begin question actually has any relevancy whatsoever to the abortion debate. The fact of the matter is, it does not. Why? Because it is a biological fact that life begins at conception (not to mention that it is also a biological fact that such a life in a human mother is human). So asking a politician, “When does life begin?” is like asking them how many times the earth rotates around the sun each year. If asked that question, we might imagine a politician saying, “The answer is once a year, but so what” and that is the same answer he should give to the when-does-life-begin question: at conception, but so what?

Life begins at conception. The pro-choicer can and should admit this because once he does, the real question of importance can rise to the top: when does a human (or anything for that matter) become a person? Now this is an entirely different question from the one posed by Warren. At first, the question may be confusing because in everyday language we tend to use “human” and “person” interchangeably. But the distinction between them is significant. “Human” merely refers to the biological classification of a living thing. In our case, we are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens. “Person,” however, refers to the moral status of a living thing. Thus we can all agree that an embryo or fetus inside a human mother is indeed human. But is it a person? In other words, does it have full moral status i.e. the sort of moral status that makes deliberately killing it morally impermissible?

So let us now rephrase Warren’s question. The question should not be, “When does life begin?” but rather “When does personhood begin?” That question is not so easily answered and is indeed a philosophical (as opposed to a scientific) question. Perhaps Obama’s “answering that question is above my pay grade” response to Warren’s question is not so bad after all. We cannot simply say, as McCain did, that life begins at conception. It is not that easy. Otherwise we would have settled this issue long ago. So once the proper question is asked, the cards become equally stacked. Both the pro-life and pro-choice advocate can now make legitimate cases supporting their position without being confused and deceived by obscure and lazily asked questions like, “When does life begin?”


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  1. 08/18/2008 at 8:29 pm

    Fantastic post. Clear and concise–just the way I like it. I think the answer to "When does personhood being?" is quite clear. Maybe I should write a blog post about it…

  2. 08/19/2008 at 9:10 am

    Interesting post,I hadn't thought of it in that way before. Though on the perception side of things, i've always thought that the titles 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' could do with changing. Not only do they not seem to oppose one another – it's not so hard to find people that believe both freedom AND life are good things – but i find that the titles are almost 'brands' now; they shape people's preconceptions. To me preconceptions are really important here because this is an issue that *really* needs to be dealt with the most open mind possible. From the start, humans are hugely disadvantaged when it comes to answering this question dispassionately (as i believe the rules of law should be derived) because we are humans.

  3. Ben
    08/19/2008 at 11:52 am

    It really doesn't matter how you ask the question- When does life begin/When does personhood begin?The answer to both is the same.When I say it does.

  4. Ben
    08/19/2008 at 11:55 am

    Also, I watched the debates. I remember McCain being asked the question "when does life begin" but I thought Warren phrased the question differently to Obama, asking when a "human embryo receives human rights". Maybe both were asked, I could be wrong.

  5. 08/19/2008 at 2:06 pm

    Yeah, good points. I suppose the pro-life/choice titles suggest where one places more importance when it comes to abortion. But you're right, people from both camps usually believe that both freedom and life are very important.

  6. 08/19/2008 at 2:12 pm

    Yeah, you could be right. Warren said he was going to ask the exact same questions to both candidates, and he did seem to do this for the most part. But maybe he switched it up a bit. Honestly, I don't really remember. Or maybe the "human embryo receives human rights" question was in relation to the stem cell issue.And I am interested in knowing your answer to the question because as you suggested, your answer is THE answer, almighty Orpheus.

  7. 08/19/2008 at 2:15 pm

    Perhaps you should. I, for one, am not that confident that there is an easy or clear answer. But I would love to hear/read what you have to say.

  8. 08/19/2008 at 5:23 pm

    i'm pretty sure the answer was 'When I say it does.'right, Ben?

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