Bioethics

Outmanned, but Not Outgunned

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Author Alan Shlemon Published on 04/23/2013

Alan’s monthly letter for August 2011

Dear Friend,

Walking into a philosophy club at a secular college and debating the entire group on abortion wasn’t necessarily easy. I had to offer a rigorous scientific and philosophical defense for the pro-life view, awaken their moral senses with graphic pictures of abortion, respond to debate challenges from any student, and handle a professor who was all too eager to interrupt the flow of the debate. Outnumbered by about 20 people, why did I take the challenge? Two reasons: One, to demonstrate the Christian worldview can compete in the marketplace of ideas no matter how the sides are stacked. And two, to try to save lives.

Since the audience was neither Christian nor respected the authority of the Bible, I offered secular arguments for my view. I began with a scientific defense that the unborn is a human being from the moment of conception. Then I argued philosophically that there is no morally relevant difference between unborn and born human beings. This is where I preemptively critiqued the position that most philosophers adopt.

They usually argue that human beings are not valuable. Instead, additional requirements are necessary to give them value. You have to be human plus meet the requirements on a list—be self-aware, have desires, feel pain, experience joy, etc.—to be valuable like born people. Therefore, abortion is permissible because the unborn, although human, doesn’t carry these qualities.

These lists aren’t new. They’ve been circulating since civilization began. They’re always made by those in power to disqualify the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless. Whether it’s slavery in America, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the Jewish holocaust during World War II, or abortion across the globe today, these lists result in savage inequality.

Part of the problem is that every requirement on the list is a degreed property. You can have greater or lesser degrees of consciousness, desires, ability to feel pain, etc. If humans have value only because of properties like consciousness, then it follows that since these properties come in varying degrees, basic human rights also come in varying degrees. As a result, advocates of this view can’t account for human equality.

It turns out people that hold this view face another problem. The qualities on their list are subjective and somewhat arbitrary. I pointed out to the philosophy club that everyone has a different set of qualities on their list. Who gets to decide which list is the right one? Apparently, the professor of the club didn’t notice the arbitrariness of developing his own list. In an attempt to respond to my view, he wrote a list of qualities on the whiteboard that he believed made a human being valuable, inadvertently illustrating my point.

Thankfully, I was encouraged that someone was listening to my arguments. One of the professor’s students chimed in and asked their teacher, “But aren’t you just creating your own subjective list?” Hallelujah! Even a pro-choice student got it.

The philosophy professor is just the latest in a long history of people making lists and using them to disqualify some human beings from being treated equally. African Americans were treated unequally when they were enslaved. Why? Because people had light skin color on their list.

Less than two months ago, Ratko Mladic was extradited to the Netherlands and indicted for slaughtering 8,000 Muslim men and boys during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). Why? He had a list, but being a Bosnian Muslim was not on it. So, he ethnically “cleansed” those human beings.

Today, people have new lists that include precisely the characteristics necessary to discount unborn human beings. Why? So they can kill them through abortion. Nothing has changed except for what qualities are on the lists.

I’m thankful for the 20 philosophy club students and professor who gave me an audience to present the truth about the most important social justice issue of our day. Fortunately, I was able to do more than just present. I was able to change minds. The pro-life student responsible for getting me invited to the event told me that at least two girls he spoke to the following week abandoned their pro-choice position because of my debate. Let’s pray their views influence others and save lives.

For life,

Alan Shlemon