The Equal Rights Argument

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 10/10/2013

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to join Right to Life of Central California at a recent Fresno City College training and outreach. The volunteers were trained in part by our former speaker, Steve Wagner of Justice for All, and they were experts at creating congenial conversations about abortion with the students passing by their exhibit (see a snapshot below from the free speech board they put up for people to post their opinions).

Josh Brahm, the Education Director for RLCC, describes the approach his organization has been teaching volunteers to focus on:

We’re asking pro-choice people if they agree that all human adults have an equal right to life.

When they say yes, we ask them, “Doesn’t that mean there must be something the same about us?”

In other words, if we all have an equal right to life, then we must all have something in common that demands that we treat each other equally, and we must have that property equally. It can’t be something (like size or intelligence) that comes in degrees, or it wouldn’t explain our equal right to life.

When the pro-choice person agrees with that conclusion, we simply ask them what is the same about us....

We wait patiently, and if they give an answer, we engage it. But if they have no idea, we then ask if they would like to hear our answer. Nearly everybody says yes.

Our answer is that we all have humanness in common. That’s something that doesn’t come in degrees. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of thing.

And if being human is what gives us intrinsic value, then that explains a lot of data. It explains why all the adult humans have an equal right to life, even though we have so many differences. It also explains why things like racism and sexism are wrong. Those things focus on a surface difference that doesn’t morally matter, and ignores the thing we have in common, which IS what morally matters!

Josh says they’ve been having a lot of success changing people’s minds with this argument, which is surprising yet intriguing to me—surprising because I wouldn’t expect the more philosophical and less concrete idea of “humanness” to be compelling to the average person; intriguing because it really did seem to resonate with the “person on the street,” from what I saw.

This argument depends on our having an intuition of intrinsic human value and equal rights, but I’m not convinced this is an intuition. I suspect it’s actually cultural capital from the biblical worldview, and as that fades and people reject the idea of intrinsic human value, this argument may become less and less effective. (For this reason, I think you would have less luck with a philosophy student steeped in another worldview than you would with the average person who has absorbed, though perhaps not consciously evaluated and accepted, a more traditional, Christian view of the human person.) But for now, if people are finding it compelling, let’s use it while we can.

JFA-FLCC Free Speech board