The history of human rights thinking demonstrates that political campaigns had to be waged to prevent certain classes of people from being excluded. For example, Enlightenment thinkers who talked about ‘the rights of man’ simultaneously supported slavery and viewed children as their parents’ property, effectively limiting those rights to white adult Europeans. Abolitionists and reformers fought long and hard to see human rights extended to all races and all ages.
A concern for the rights of the unborn child is consistent with a broad and generous application of human rights, often achieved despite vocal opposition from those who, against history, would limit, narrow and diminish the application of those same human rights.
How do we decide who is a human being, and who is not? Should such definitions be determined by common sense, by science, or by our own ideologies or dogma? What are our motivations in defining personhood? Should we be as broad and as generous as possible in defining a human being, seeking thereby to ensure that we don’t infringe on the human rights of others, or is it permissible to hold to a narrow and restrictive definition of humanity so that we can avoid stopping practices that we very much want to continue?
Asking when personhood begins is not necessarily the same as asking when life begins. Science tells us that life begins at fertilisation, when the sperm and the egg combine to form a unique genetic entity, but scientists disagree as to when the child should be viewed as a human being in its own right.
Surveys reveal that scientists are hopelessly divided on the issue of when personhood begins. For example, a poll of doctors and medical students in a large English hospital revealed that just over a third thought human life begins at conception, just under a third thought it happened at birth, and just over a third thought human life begins at some other point in the womb.
If science cannot help us determine when one becomes a human being, neither can dogma. Those people who are not religious object, very understandably, that religious dogma is no basis on which to frame legislation in a secular democracy. Laws passed on the basis of religious dogma have, throughout history, sometimes been the source of great cruelty. ‘Because my church (or my holy book) says so’ is not going to persuade those who don’t happen to share your faith.
We need to recognise, however, that non-religious ideology has just as much capacity to cause harm when it is forced on other people. The greatest atrocities of the twentieth century were not caused by religious zealots, but by people pursuing political ideologies that either treated religion as an irrelevant distraction, or actively suppressed it.
The insistence among pro-abortion advocates that a baby does not become a human being until the point of birth is every bit as much a dogmatic statement as the religious insistence that personhood commences at fertilisation. It is not based on any scientific consensus and goes against the experience and instinct of most parents.
When people want to take away someone else’s human rights, the first step is to stop treating them as human. This is why advocates of slavery, rejecting the abolitionists’ portrayal of the African as a man and a brother, tried to portray blacks as less than human.
States that practice torture know that it is important to make their victims seem sub-human. This removes the inhibitions that might otherwise stop the torturers from inflicting the required levels of suffering. This also explains why regimes promoting genocide, such as in 1930s Germany and more recently in Rwanda, produced propaganda that portrayed their foes as vermin and cockroaches.
There is an adage, often attributed to Mark Twain, that says “The problem with common sense is that it’s not that common.” Nevertheless, common human experience can often help us reach wise and humane conclusions.
For example, in order for slavery to be abolished, it wasn’t enough for the abolitionists to quote the Bible – even though most of them were deeply religious. They had to demonstrate that their campaign was in tune with ideas of justice and fairness shared by most normal people. The science of genetics had not developed to the point where it could prove that blacks of African descent were just as fully human as white Europeans. But Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, achieved what was, at that point in time, impossible for science. By describing the experiences and feelings of those suffering under slavery, she helped those who had previously been sitting on the side-lines to articulate what, deep down, they already knew to be true – that people were human beings irrespective of the colour of their skin.
It is worth noting that opinion polls consistently show that women are significantly more in favour of restricting abortion than are men. There’s a very good reason for this – because large numbers of women have carried a baby in their wombs and instinctively know that what they were carrying was a human being and a person.
This is why progressive societies now recognise that parents of stillborn children have a deep psychological need to commemorate their children’s deaths in ways that acknowledge they were human beings. It is now common practice for parents to pose for photographs with their stillborn child, and in Ireland the child is registered as a death, given a forename and surname, allocated a PPS number, and parents are granted full maternity and paternity leave and benefits. These wise and compassionate measures recognise a reality that most of us instinctively know – that a child that never lived to the point of birth should still be acknowledged as a person.
This is why we never ask an expectant mother how her ‘foetus’ is doing. We ask about her ‘baby’. No mother ever said to her husband or partner, “Oh, put your hand on my tummy and feel how our clump of cells is kicking!”
In the absence of any scientific consensus as to when someone becomes a human being or person, and recognising that religious and ideological dogma do not provide an agreed basis for legislation, it seems reasonable to take into account the common view that personhood occurs at some point before birth. This is why most nations that permit abortion still impose term limits.
I would suggest that, if law-makers are not sure when personhood begins, then they have a responsibility to adopt an approach which minimises possible harm. For example, when countries pass laws forbidding drink-driving, they don’t set the permissible blood-alcohol limit at the point where the average person becomes intoxicated. They choose a much lower limit, reasoning that the potential harm caused by preventing a sober driver from going on the road is much less than the potential harm caused by erring in the other direction, and permitting a drunk driver to kill someone. And, as most of us know, the safest policy is not to drink and drive at all.
In the same way, we should balance the potential harm of preventing abortions if personhood had not actually begun, against the potential harm of killing unborn children who are indeed human beings. Applying this reasoning, one does not need to be religious or dogmatic to see the wisdom of being extremely cautious and avoiding aborting unborn children.
Protecting the rights of the unborn, then, is a common sense and progressive position that is consistent with the historical trend of interpreting human rights in a broad and generous manner rather than artificially limiting rights on the basis of ideological dogma.
Nick Park is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance and author of “The Gospel and Human Rights.”