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A Leftist Argument From Equality Against Abortion

by Gil Sanders
A Leftist Argument From Equality Against Abortion

Equality is all the rage today, especially for the Left. First it was about black slaves, who were treated as sub-humans at best and continue to be oppressed by the system. Second it was about women, who were treated as servants to men’s needs and were not deserving of the same rights. Third it was about homosexuals and lesbians, who were unjustly oppressed and deserved the right to marry as any other straight couple could. Now it’s about transgenders, it’s about the inequality between the rich and the poor, and much more. Egalitarianism is so central to the Left’s notion of justice today, that the Left would be nothing without it. Because of this, I would like to utilize the Left’s own notion of justice to argue against abortion. It can be formulated as follows:

  1. All human beings as such have equal value and equal rights, regardless of the differences in the exercise of their capacities, intelligence, sexual orientation, gender, skin color, religion, or culture.
  2. If a fetus is a human being, then it has a right to life just as any other human being does.
  3. But if a fetus has a right to life, then abortion is immoral.
  4. A fetus is a human being.
  5. Therefore abortion is immoral.

Premise (1) is at first glance fairly undeniable for the consistent Leftist. Their entire social justice project falls apart if they deny it. Premise (2) is without a doubt going to be the most controversial premise, but before I delve into that, let me just speak briefly on premise (4). Some might be inclined to deny this, but the scientific consensus is overwhelming. The zygote is without a doubt the birth of a new human being. It isn’t a parasite. It isn’t a skin cell. It isn’t a newly added vestigial organ either. It is a unique, individual life form that fights for its own survival and development. The egg and the sperm do not exist anymore; it is now a wholly new organism. You can look at the facts here. Common sense supports this too. Whenever we see an ultrasound of a fetus and compare it 20 years after, everyone knows that it is true to say “You were once that fetus.” We are identical to that fetus despite our developmental differences. So if it is reasonable to say that fetus was you, it is reasonable to say it is a human being because no human being is identical to a non-human being.

Only Persons Matter

Let’s get back to premise (2). Some would wish to attack it indirectly by denying that the fetus is a human, but we just saw how that is anti-science and anti-common sense. The only other option is to deny its personhood. The Leftist could concede that the fetus is a human being, but then argue that it isn’t being human as such that offers equal rights but the ability to exercise certain rational capacities like self-awareness or ability to feel pain that give humans a right to life. In other words, they’d accept the egalitarianism of premise (1) but amend it to say that being a human is not enough because you also have to be able to exercise certain capacities that are relevant for personhood. To state their position succinctly: All persons have equal value and equal rights. This may seem to allow the Leftist to consistently embrace egalitarianism and abortion, but there’s a serious problem with this view. If a human being was in a temporary coma and could not exercise any of the relevant capacities for personhood, does he then lose his right to life? This seems completely absurd, and it would additionally justify infanticide as the philosopher Peter Singer defends because the infant cannot exercise the relevant capacities.

This puts a damning question mark on their position that we can push against using egalitarianism. Who in the world gets to decide what capacities count as relevant for personhood, at what time do they acquire these capacities, and why should we be able to exercise these capacities here and now in order to have rights? You see, a racist in the 1800s could easily provide his own account. He could say, “The black man has a servile will and is too simple minded to think properly for himself. He was born to be a slave. The white man is far more intelligent, which gives him the right to be free. ” The racist is partly justified because blacks in the past did not compare to the white man’s intelligence as far as education is concerned. If a life’s value depends on whether it can exercise its rational capacities here and now, then how is it not also the case that a life’s value increases or decreases based on how well that being exercises those capacities? For example, a computer is valuable insofar as it does its function and to the degree that it does that function well. If a computer takes 10 minutes to perform a simple task, we would regard it as inferior in value to a computer that can do it in 2 seconds. Why shouldn’t the same be true of humans if having capacities doesn’t make us valuable, only exercising our capacities does? At one point in history, whites were contingently more intelligent than blacks, so it should be true that blacks were inferior for a time.

Most Leftist egalitarians will of course find this conclusion absolutely abhorrent, so they’d have to do something else to dispute my argument. The only qualification left is to say that the mere exercise of these rational capacities is relevant for personhood, not the degree by which these capacities are exercised. As long as some volition, some thought, or some level of self-awareness is exercised, that is sufficient to qualify as a person. Their view can succinctly stated as follows: All beings capable of minimally exercising the capacities relevant for personhood have equal rights. But why should we prefer this account over one that sees inequality of ability as entailing inequality of value? If we value computers unequally, why can’t we value humans unequally too? The pushback will be that it’s because what’s relevant to being a person are the kind of capacities a human is exercising, not the degree. A computer is by definition something that computes. If it can compute, it is a computer no matter how badly or how well it does this. Similarly, a person is a person no matter how well it exercises the qualities of personhood.

The Final Blow

This response only works if it is the kind as such that grounds value. You see, whenever Leftists claim that it is the ability to exercise certain kinds of capacities that creates value, they necessarily introduce variability in value because value follows after the nature of that which creates it. What creates value is exercising our rational capacities, but since activity usually entails being able to exercise capacities in a better or lesser way, it should follow that our value can be had in a greater or lesser way as well. Notice that we are not saying a person is more or less of a person based on that how well that person performs. Rather, we are saying that a person’s value is greater or lesser based on performance. The egalitarians position at best has a base value where if the capacities are minimally exercised, then you at least have minimal value. But that doesn’t preclude us from having greater or lesser value.

The only way to avoid this problem of inequality is to say that being of the human kind as such grounds value. That’s it. No problematic qualifications like the “ability to exercise a capacity” is attached to it. A fetus is either a human or it is not. Being human does not come in degrees; it is an all or nothing affair. So if value derives from being human as such, then all humans are equal regardless of how well they exercise their capacities. After all, what’s first in importance? The ability to exercise your capacities, or being the kind of thing that has these capacities? Well obviously the latter. You can’t exercise your capacities if you don’t have any. Any value that comes from exercising capacities must derive from having those capacities. It is important to see then that fetuses aren’t potential persons, they are persons with potential. All humans are persons (or deserving of value and rights) just in virtue of being human.

Therefore abortion is immoral.
Not only is it immoral, it is good ol’ fashioned murder.

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