On the Question of Life
The pro-life effort may soon have to shift its focus from legal to moral arguments, and no question is more fraught than considering where life truly begins.
Scott Howard studies political science and journalism at the University of Florida.
With the seemingly impending overturning of Roe, the abortion debate has risen to the front and center of the national conversation. On the Right, Roe’s demise has become cause for both exuberant celebration (i.e., myself) and, for some, nervous handwringing as to what comes next.
While I am of the opinion that those conservatives who refuse to cheer on Roe’s end are wrong in their approach, I agree with the overarching message that we as a movement must be ready to articulate what comes next. That message begins and ends with one fundamental question, one which pro-lifers must be willing to ask over and over until our opponents provide an answer: where does life begin?
For pro-lifers, the answer is clear: at conception. But the Left, by and large, refuses to answer this question, so it is hard to compare what the options are. It is my position, which I will attempt to lay out here, that there are three logically viable answers to that question.
The first position, which I have already listed, is that life begins with conception. This position holds up the best of the three from a purely biological standpoint. Once conceived, that fetus is going to be, barring something tragic, a living, breathing child in nine months. It is not a “potential” life. It is life actualized.
If you believe this, as the vast majority of pro-lifers do, then all abortions are, in the abstract, murder. That is not to say there should not be exceptions made from a policy standpoint (most pro-lifers, including myself, happily agree that there should be rape, incest, and mother’s life exceptions). But from a purely principled standpoint, abortion is the end of a life, no matter the circumstance.
The belief that life begins at birth is the next logically consistent position. Here the argument that a fetus is merely a potential life, or as many put it, just a “clump of cells,” finds its logical endpoint. It is also, to any rational observer, a morally indefensible position.
If one believes this, then they must logically approve of abortions until birth, which begs the question: why does moving 20 inches in one direction change that clump of cells into a human life with rights of its own? What magical properties does the birthing canal have that confers life?
Most rational human beings would agree that getting an abortion a week before your due date carries significant moral weight unless it’s one of the exceptions listed above. That is why, when asked, pro-choicers refuse to answer when life begins. They understand, at their core, that saying life begins at birth is not morally defensible.
The third position, something of a compromise here, is that life begins at the first heartbeat. While I find this position dubious (given its arbitrary distinctions on a case-by-case basis), from a policy standpoint, it is entirely defensible. Logically, the belief that life begins when the heart starts beating makes sense on the surface. My only question for those who believe this, or something similar (i.e., anyone who thinks abortion should stop after X amount of weeks) is this: why that specific week? Heartbeat is a tricky thing to determine. It changes based on the individual. Why is that week special?
I am sure I’ve glossed over some nuance in these positions, but the crux of each argument is as I’ve described above. I don’t know what comes next, but it’s important to fully understand every position on the table and go from there. For pro-lifers such as myself, especially, it is vitally important that we understand what we are arguing for and against, because how we handle the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe will go a long way in determining our success.