Does Every Human Life Have Intrinsic Value?

​“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This axiom, usually attributed to Voltaire, warns against sacrificing a very good thing in pursuit of something better – or perfect – that may never be attained. It often proves good advice. When applied to the pro-life movement, however, it too often creates a willingness to accept any new measure that has the potential effect of reducing the number of abortions each year, no matter what the exceptions or ultimate message and impact of the action.

Thus, well-meaning pro-life advocates far too frequently champion half-measures that attempt to limit or regulate abortion without affirming the dignity and rights of the people involved, and indeed sometimes implicitly denying it in law. Rather than advancing the cause of protection for all people, the message instead becomes almost the same as pro-abortion advocates: make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” (Many today would add “pain-free” to the list, in practice if not including it in the talking points.)

To be clear, most pro-life advocates do not explicitly call for safe, legal, rare, and pain-free abortions as an end goal. But, unfortunately, the laws and strategies they back often have just this effect. Laws to stop abortion must do so on the basis that abortion kills a human person, which is a blatant denial of that tiny person’s inherent worth as a human being and of his or her right to live. Without this moral and ethical imperative, the argument for banning abortion degenerates into political haggling over exactly which preborn people we should protect and which we should not, or how we should at least make sure we don’t hurt them when we end their lives – which ultimately communicates the message that human lives only matter if we say they do in law.

Take one of the most common examples, and certainly one of the most emotionally charged: rape and incest exceptions. The United States House of Representatives just passed a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks fetal age (the age there is substantial medical evidence that a preborn child is capable of experiencing pain, if not earlier). However, this bill allows doctors to abort a child if he or she was conceived in rape or an incestuous relationship with a minor. Proponents of the bill claim that such “exceptions” only constitute a tiny fraction of abortions performed after 20 weeks, and the bill needed the “exceptions” language in order to pass. But note carefully what this bill actually says: all unborn human babies older than 20 weeks can feel pain and should be protected from horrendously painful abortion procedures – except for children conceived through rape or incest. In other words, the circumstances of a child’s conception determine whether or not he or she is a fully human person entitled to all the rights and protections of our laws.

Pause a moment to ponder the absurdity of this logic. In no other instance would our self-governing society accept an argument that who one’s father is or how and why one was born determines what rights apply to that person. Imagine a law stating that all Americans have the right to own property, except those born to a convicted felon. Or a law declaring all Americans of legal age eligible to obtain a driver’s license, except those born out of wedlock. Such “exceptions” would clearly violate the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the entire Constitution, as well as the letter of the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. In the case of abortion, however, such unprincipled denials of rights are allowed in the name of “getting pro-life laws passed” – so as long as abortion becomes more rare, it matters not whether we deny the very right to life (much less the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness) to certain people.

So-called “fetal abnormality exceptions” are another hotly-contested area where pro-life advocates tend to accept blatant discrimination in the name of “getting pro-life laws passed.” These exceptions say a mother can choose to abort her child if the child has a serious enough genetic condition that his or her “quality of life” would be “low.” This logic has resulted in around 90 percent of parents whose preborn child received a positive diagnosis for Down Syndrome choosing to abort. Such exceptions routinely make it into otherwise pro-life legislation, such as Georgia’s 2012 fetal pain bill, sending the message that abortion is okay if restricted to certain circumstances and certain classes of people – those with major genetic defects.

Some pro-life advocates have taken an even more chilling approach to protecting the preborn. In March, the Montana state legislature approved a bill requiring doctors to administer anesthesia to preborn children over 20 weeks old before aborting them. The intention, according to some of the bill’s advocates, was to outlaw preventable pain to preborn children, similar to laws preventing unnecessary pain to animals when they are slaughtered. Certainly, protecting preborn children from pain is commendable. But this law would literally make it legal to kill preborn children as long as doctors prevent them from feeling the pain of the killing. In what other possible circumstance would this society allow the killing of human persons “as long as it doesn’t hurt”? Should murder ever be legally justifiable as long as the victim feels no pain? Several recent high-profile cases involving the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers have raised a firestorm of activism, demands for justice, and calls for legal measures to prevent further deaths because (as the Twitter hashtag says) “black lives matter.” Certainly the concern is justified, because black lives do matter – but what if Congress passed a law making it legal for police officers to kill young black men (or anyone else) as long as they first administer anesthesia so the victims feel no pain? Such a denial of rights for a certain class of people – young black men, or suspects in police incidents in general – would rightfully receive universal condemnation, and yet the pro-life movement tolerates such denials in order to at least make abortion “pain-free.”

At the heart of these issues lies a logical disconnect – a denial of personhood for certain “classes” of human beings. The so-called “exceptions” indicate that, depending on a human being’s circumstances of conception, medical conditions/disorders, quality of life, etc., the fundamental right to life does not apply and it is acceptable to kill that person. This country’s founding legal documents, and indeed America’s entire legal and political tradition, upholds the idea that all people are “created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness;” such “exceptions” ideas essentially mean those classes are not, in fact, people who implicitly possess those foundational rights. The “abortion anesthesia” issue, “fetal abnormality exceptions,” and other such ideas indicate that as long as we make painlessness, comfort, or quality of life the deciding factor, it is acceptable to kill certain persons. Such logic has no place in moral, ethical lawmaking.

Ironically, pro-life activists and legislators often support these types of rights denials as a pragmatic necessity “to get pro-life laws passed” – and yet these tactics actually work against the pro-life movement in at least three ways. First, the pro-life, pro-personhood movement is based not upon political ideas but upon the principle that all people possess inherent value and deserve all legal rights and protections enjoyed by all the rest. Those who support abortion on demand – “safe, legal, rare, and pain-free” or not – argue for fundamentally different principles, and they are playing a long game, eroding the pro-life values that make protecting the preborn imperative. We cannot expect to prevail in protecting all innocent human life by laying aside the principles that make us strong and simply fighting political battles to counter the moves of abortion supporters.

Second, these unprincipled tactics send the message to the voting public in America – particularly those who do support protecting all innocent human life – that saving preborn children is critical, but the reasons we must do so are not so important. Whether or not pro-life activists state this explicitly, that is the message when we agree to “except” classes of people from legal protection, or strip away that protection as long as we keep things pain-free, or deny protection to those whose “quality of life” is “low enough.”

Finally, real and lasting change can only come in a democratic republic such as ours when people – a lot of people – get behind a certain principle or vision. The Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in 1863; not until after the Civil Rights movement a century later, however, did African-Americans begin to receive anything resembling equal treatment and protection under the law, and only then because so many realized the injustice of Jim Crow laws and other such denials of rights and worked to abolish them. It will take a similarly seismic shift in how Americans at large view the full personhood of the preborn to reverse current policies allowing the widespread killing of preborn children. But why would people care about protecting the preborn when those who ought to care the most about them – those in the pro-life movement – continue to support measures that say it is acceptable to kill an preborn child as long as...? 

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, as well as the more recent sweeping successes of the gay-rights movement, have proven that when the American people understand and acknowledge that our laws fail to protect certain “classes of people” many of them will loudly demand those injustices (real or perceived) be remedied. Similarly, the racial component of the recent agitation for police reforms demonstrates that ordinary Americans will go to great lengths – even rioting – to protest what they perceive to be unjust killings. Why have no such widespread protests arisen to protest the completely legal killings of over a million innocent preborn children each year? Could it be that pro-life advocates with the best of intentions have spent years reinforcing the idea that such killings can be perfectly acceptable – as long as they are safe, legal, rare, and pain-free?

By Jonathan Arena
Guest Journalist
Pillars of Personhood Peer Leader