In this revised dialogue, Emily stays focused like a laser beam on the status of the unborn. She graciously yet incisively exposes the hidden assumptions in Pam’s rhetoric, forcing each objection back to the question, what is the unborn? She doesn’t let Pam distract her with appeals to privacy, economic hardship, or rape, all of which assume that the unborn are not human beings. She sticks to just one issue.

Until you clarify what’s really at stake—namely, that we can’t answer the question, can we kill the unborn? until we answer the question, what is the unborn?—there’s no point advancing your case. Gregg Cunningham is correct. For too long the pro-life movement has been shouting conclusions rather than establishing facts.5 Staying focused on the status of the unborn brings moral clarity to the abortion debate. It allows you to engage friends and critics in conversation so that you do not talk past each other.

Admittedly, trotting out a toddler won’t persuade everyone there’s only one issue to resolve. Some abortion-choice advocates bite the bullet and concede the humanity of the unborn but justify elective abortion with an appeal to bodily autonomy. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist argument is a prime example of those who argue this way. I’ll take up that particular objection later in chapter 15, but you won’t hear it often outside academic circles. Most people on the street simply assume that the unborn are not human beings.


Once you’ve framed the discussion around the status of the unborn, you can present a basic case for the pro-life position. We’ll explore that case in more detail in the next two chapters, but for now here’s a summary of what that case looks like.

Pro-life advocates contend that elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being. This simplifies the abortion controversy by focusing public attention on just one question: Is the unborn a member of the human family? If so, killing him or her to benefit others is a serious moral wrong. It treats the distinct human being, with his or her own inherent moral worth, as nothing more than a disposable instrument. Conversely, if the unborn are not human, elective abortion requires no more justification than having a tooth pulled.

Pro-life advocates defend their case using science and philosophy. Scientifically, they argue that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. True, they have yet to grow and mature, but they are whole human beings nonetheless. Leading embryology textbooks affirm this.6 For example, Keith L. Moore and T. V. N. Persaud write, “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being.”7

Philosophically, there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today. As Stephen Schwarz points out using the acronym SLED, differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant in the way that abortion advocates need them to be:8

Size: Yes, embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, but why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more human than small ones? Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean they deserve more rights. Size doesn’t equal value.

Level of development: True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than you and I. But again, why is this relevant? Four-year-old girls are less developed than fourteen-year-old ones. Should older children have more rights than their younger siblings? Some people say that self-awareness makes one human. But if that is true, newborns do not qualify as valuable human beings. Remember, six-week-old infants lack the immediate capacity for performing human mental functions, as do the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, and those with Alzheimer’s disease.