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In abortion,pro-choicen arguments,pro-life,rights

The (Second) Most Important Question in the Abortion Debate

by Jojo Ruba

One of the key ideas I teach when I train students in pro-life apologetics is the significance of the question, “What is the pre-born?”

It’s the most important question in the abortion debate because it focuses on the real issue at stake: is abortion the killing of an innocent human being or not? If abortion does not kill a human being, then the fetus is part of a woman’s body and her right to control that body should be respected. We may still morally object to the act but it would be hard to argue that there should be a universal law against it.

On the other hand, if abortion does kill a human being, then that human being deserves legal protection just as born human beings do.  Even in the hardest of cases, such as rape or incest, the law should protect the life of that preborn child. Why?  Because born children, even those conceived in rape, are also protected, despite the evil acts of their fathers.  Our right to do as we wish with our body ends when we try to use our body to harm someone else’s body.

After this is made clear, I train pro-lifers to provide evidence from biology that shows how everything that reproduces sexually begins life at fertilization. The sexual act itself occurs in order to allow genes from two different adults, one male and one female, to mix and to create a new organism through fertilization. Therefore, according to science, what is killed is a pre-born member of the human family.[1]

Sophisticated abortion advocates admit that the biological arguments are solid, but they redefine terms to justify their position. For example, they try to redefine “life” to mean the beginning of existence, “billions of years ago”[2](instead of addressing the point that a new individual organism begins at fertilization), or redefine personhood to exclude pre-born humans (ignoring the fact that any criteria they use to determine personhood, like brain activity, cannot exist without the organism that begins life at fertilization, and in fact have their origin with that organism).[3]

Some are even willing to acknowledge that the pre-born are persons, but seek to justify abortion as self-defence against trespassing fetuses (of course, self-defence only allows for proportionatedefense; you would not be justified in shooting someone who accidentally steps on your foot, for example. In the same way, if you concede the personhood of the fetus, you have to agree that trespassers don’t face capital punishment in most Western countries).[4]

Most abortion advocates, however, attempt to simply gloss over the discussion. They presuppose that the personhood of the preborn human being doesn’t matter because what truly matters is a woman’s fundamental right to control her body. They argue that fundamental autonomy requires that the right to choose be protected. To deny such a right would be akin to control by the government over women, preventing them from being equal to men under the law. Some have even gone as far as to say that banning abortion would be like legalized slavery, where women’s bodies would be enslaved by the state and by men.[5]As one pro-choice t-shirt reads: “The Pro-Choice Movement: The Radical Idea that Women Own their Bodies.”[6]

Getting them to answer, “What is the Pre-born?”

How, then, can we help these abortion advocates to not gloss over the question of the pre-born’s humanity? How can we help them see that debating the pre-born’s identity comes before the question of personal autonomy?

In difficult debates like abortion, finding common ground is almost a required first step.[7] We need to find out where we actually agree with our opponents and build our case from there. In so doing, we help parse through what we’re actually debating by identifying the topics we do agree on and focusing on the topics we actually disagree on.

When someone raises the argument for “choice” then, my first response is this: “Of course I agree that women should be treated with dignity and that we need to respect their right to choose!” It’s a statement that is disarming for most abortion advocates, but effective, because it’s true.

Pro-lifers shouldn’t be afraid of saying we support “choice” or “bodily autonomy.” The very reason we advocate for the pre-born child is because we believe their right to life includes having their bodies protected! We also believe that people should be able to make free choices: we support their right to vote for whom they wish or to wear whatever colour they want.  Even when it comes to sexual practices, we believe in the right to choose. We may not agree with a particular choice, and we may even argue against it, but very few pro-lifers believe that only sex between a husband and his wife should be legal, or that non-abortifacient birth control should be made illegal. These acts may be immoral, but there is little political will for a legal ban on such practices.


This is a key concept for us to explain to abortion advocates because much of their training and teaching obscures the issue of “choice.” They’ve defined choice so broadly that pro-lifers are accused of opposing abortion solely as a way to control women, and even the choices of other Canadians. An abortion advocacy group, Canadians for Choice, actually produced short videos comparing the choice of abortion to the choice of what to buy off a menu or what colour of pepper to buy at a grocery store. Why? Because they argue that pro-lifers’ demand to limit “choice” on abortion is just as ridiculous as telling people what colour of vegetables they should buy.[8]

It’s no wonder that abortion advocates can compare pro-lifers to hate groups like the KKK. In fact, on university campuses across Canada, this is the excuse student unions are using to defund and remove pro-life student clubs.[9]

So how can we help abortion advocates transition from that frame of mind to facing the question of what the pre-born is?
While speaking at the University of British Columbia a few years ago, a group of abortion advocates interrupted my presentation. They sat at the back, waived their signs, and heckled. During Q and A, one angry student raised her hand, and in a loud voice said, “What right do you have to tell women what they can or cannot choose? Who are you to limit women’s choice?”

As calmly as I could, I responded, “Tell me, is the right to choose absolute? Can we legally choose to do whatever we want?”

I remember watching her face as the question registered with her. She responded, “Well, no…”

I quickly followed up by asking, “When, then, are our choices limited? Isn’t it when what we choose harms someone else’s body?” I then explained that this is exactly why pro-lifers are fighting to protect preborn children. The only time we want to limit choice is in areas which that choice is already limited now—when it harms another person. We just want that limit applied to all choices that harm all human beings. “You and I may not agree on whether abortion harms another body, apart from the woman,” I said. “But do you see why the issue isn’t about choice but what is chosen?” And from her calm demeanor at this point, I knew she agreed.

What’s also so powerful about asking if “choice” is absolute is that abortion advocates intuitively know the answer. In fact, they are more than happy to be anti-choice when it comes to tax-funding abortion or censoring pro-life campus groups. They’ve defined “choice” so broadly that no one, including abortion advocates, could agree with their extreme view. They don’t even believe their rhetoric on choice. By asking that question, we neutralize the “choice” argument by agreeing that we have a right to choose, but we also get abortion advocates to concede that “choice” can and should be legitimately limited when it harms someone.

Abortion advocates have tried to avoid this conclusion in two ways:

1.They argue that choice can be limited, but reproductive choicecannot be. Choices about one’s sexual practices and reproduction should not be government controlled.  But again, this isn’t true. Reproductive choice is alreadylimited by laws. The government regulates birth control methods, deciding whether a method can be sold over the counter as safe; the government also limits where we can have sex (not in public), who we have sex with (no minors or through rape), and even that we can have sex. An example of the latter grabbed headlines a few years ago when an HIV+ woman in Edmonton was publicly revealed to be having unprotected sex without informing her male partners. The police released her picture, tracked her down, and stopped her from having sex with anyone else.[10]

Some abortion advocates may argue that when government limits abortion, they specifically control women’s reproduction. It becomes an act that solely disadvantages women for nine months.

But the law limits what men can do with their bodies too.  In fact, the vast majority of anti-sodomy laws specifically targeted male homosexuals. The act of “sodomy” or “buggery” was often strictly defined as something only men could do to other men.[11]

Also, no one doubts that a law limiting abortion would affect women more than men, at least physically. But abortion advocates conveniently ignore the fact that if pre-born children are considered persons under the law, then their fathers would also be required to work to pay child support for those children. In other words, banning abortion would also impose severe limits on the choices of the men involved in those pregnancies.


2. Some abortion advocates respond by saying that the right to choose is absolute—it should never be limited. Of course, by arguing so, they have to concede that since every law limits our choice, all laws should be removed if the right to choose can never be limited. They would also be undermining their own position, because they can’t tell pro-lifers that we are wrong for choosing to oppose abortion.

In fact, only when we limit choice can we actually guarantee equality rights for women. If we are free to choose whatever we want, then men can choose to oppress women and treat them like property. A recent movie produced by abortion advocates complained that upper class white women were taking advantage of foreign women and limiting their choices.[12]Only by limiting those rich women’s choices, then, can we guarantee that all women are treated fairly. In other words, limiting women’s right to choose guarantees equality rights for women.

By agreeing with abortion advocates on “choice,” but then forcing them to define the parameters of that choice, we not only remove their most powerful slogans, but we also segue nicely into the discussion of the humanity of the pre-born. Since both sides agree with “choice,” and both sides agree that “choice is not absolute,” both sides need to explain where the limit to “choice” lies. That limit almost always has to be when someone else’s body is harmed. And that’s when the identity of the preborn child has to be discussed.

Here’s an example of how the second most important question can lead to the most important question in the abortion debate:
Abortion Advocate (AA): Women have a fundamental right to control their own bodies. We have to keep abortion legal because we have the right to choose.

Pro-life Advocate (PA): I agree with you that women have a right to choose. But tell me, do you believe the right to choose is absolute? Can women choose to do whatever they want?

AA: I’m talking about reproductive choices. Women cannot be equal if they can’t control their bodies.

PA: But can we do whatever we want with our bodies? Or are there legitimate limits to what we can do with our bodies?

AA: What do you mean?

PA: Can women choose to use their bodies to harm others? Can they drive drunk or steal? Even reproductive choices are limited. Can they intentionally pass on STI’s like HIV to others, or can they have sex in public?

AA: Well, of course not. I guess you could say that I believe in the right to choose unless that choice harms others.

PA: I believe that too. If that’s the case, then the debate isn’t about choice since we both agree with choice and we also both agree that harmful choices can be limited. So isn’t what we’re really disagreeing over whether or not abortion harms anyone? And in order to know that, we need to ask: what are the pre-born?

The gulf between the two sides of the abortion debate is so wide that it is tempting to just paint each other as evil people who share nothing in common with our own side. But that isn’t true. Using questions like, “is the right to choose absolute,” not only identifies the areas we agree on, but also naturally leads to the most important question in the debate: “What is the preborn?”



[1] Visit unmaskingchoice.ca for more pro-life apologetics.

[2] Many abortion advocates make this argument. One prominent example is Amanda Marcotte of RH Reality Check, who created a video series which includes this argument. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLTTdjz8ft0

[3] Proponents of this argument include Prof. Peter Singer and his followers. His book Practical Ethics explains his views. A short summary of his views are here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCNz95E-3Wg

[4] Judith Jarvis Thomson’s A Defense of Abortion and Eileen McDonaugh’s Breaking the Abortion Deadlock are the definitive books for this view.

[5] http://www.bluewavenews.com/2011/01/abortion-abolitionists-are-really.html

[6] http://liberatethemedia.com/pro-choice-shirts.htm

[7] This technique, finding common ground, is nicely explained and developed in my friend Steve Wagner’s book, Common Ground without Compromise.

[8] http://www.youtube.com/user/chaparritapineapple?feature=watch

[9] Student clubs need to be endorsed by their student unions to be able to access common space on university campuses. Recognition also includes funding.  This only makes sense because student unions get their funding from mandatory fees students pay when they attend university. Very rarely are clubs ever denied recognition, only for extreme cases such as if the club advocates anything illegal or causes physical harm to students. That is why the ban on pro-life groups on campus signifies even what pro-choice thinkers consider extreme.

Pagliaro, Jennifer, Ban on university anti-abortion clubs stirs controversy, Globe and Mail, February 5, 2011. Shelley Melanson, then the Canadian Federation of Students’ national women’s representative, told the Eyeopener, “You wouldn’t take public money to put in an organization that moves to take away people’s rights; you wouldn’t fund the KKK.”http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2008/02/25/we-might-just-might-all-be-nazis/

[10] Dykstra, Matt, HIV positive minor having unprotected sex: Cop, http://www.edmontonsun.com/2011/08/05/hiv-positive-minor-having-unprotected-sex-cops

[11] http://theweek.com/article/index/242412/why-do-so-many-states-still-have-anti-sodomy-laws and http://www.yourtango.com/experts/melissa-fritchle/what-are-sodomy-laws-and-why-should-you-care. Many still existing laws, like this one in Jamaica, specifically mention anal sex between men and do not mention women: http://miamiherald.typepad.com/gaysouthflorida/2013/06/jamaica-church-leaders-rally-for-anti-sodomy-law.html

[12] Cho, Karen, Status Quo: The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada, http://www.nfb.ca/film/status_quo_the_unfinished_business_of_feminism