By Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer.
This article is the first of a three-part series. Future articles will address logic, the law, and “hard cases.”
Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15-16)
Are you comfortable talking about being pro-life? Many of us aren’t. We may be convinced that abortion is wrong, but when it comes to sharing our convictions with others, we tend to clam up. We want to say something, but we don’t know where to begin.
There is a simple strategy that you can use to make these difficult conversations easier. If someone expresses that she is pro-choice or undecided, you can ask the following question: “If you were convinced that the unborn child is a human life, would you still support abortion?”
This question does two things. First, it invites the person to examine her own position. She must decide: is abortion still ok if the unborn child is a human life? Second, it cuts your own work in the conversation in half:
— If the person answers “No” — meaning that if she accepted the unborn child as a human life, she would not support abortion — then you have a conversation about science on your hands.
— If she answers, “Yes” — meaning that, even if she accepted the unborn child as a human life, she would still support abortion — then you are entering into a conversation about the legal and philosophical question of personhood: Which human beings are persons who have basic rights?
This article will focus on the scientific conversation, while a forthcoming article will focus on personhood.
If your listener agrees she would not support abortion if she were convinced the unborn child is a human life, tell her you are going to share why you are convinced that the unborn child is a human life from the first moment of fertilization.
First, the unborn child is human because he has human DNA. There is universal scientific consensus regarding this fact: a complete human genome made up of a unique set of 46 chromosomes (23 from each parent) is present at fertilization. The child is not a chicken, or a rabbit. He is not one kind of thing that turns into another kind of thing. He is always human.
Second, the unborn child is alive because he exhibits the characteristics of life that scientists generally use to determine whether an entity is living. You don’t have to remember all of these, but I’m going to list them here for reference:
- made of one of more cells;
- has DNA;
- maintains homeostasis;
- is responsive to environment;
- grows and develops; and
- reproduces (meaning an entity that can reproduce even if reproduction isn’t possible until adulthood).
An unborn child meets all criteria.
At this point, you can pause and ask, “When do you think life begins?”
This is a Golden Rule moment: treat this person the way you would want to be treated. Really listen, and show that you are listening to her and seeking to understand her thoughts by repeating back her definition of when life begins.
She may present an objection to your argument, such as, “Ok, it’s alive, but at the beginning it’s just a clump of cells! My skin cell is alive and human, but it’s not a human being.” Here, it is helpful to explain that the unborn child is an organism, a self-directing entity that coordinates its own growth and ￼￼￼￼￼including the right to ￼development and will mature into an adult member of its species if given a proper environment and adequate nutrition. A skin cell cannot mature into an adult human.
It would also be helpful to share basic facts of fetal development. Begin by explaining that words like “zygote,” “morula,” “embryo” and “fetus” are terms used to describe phases of development of a human child before birth (just like we use “newborn,” “toddler,” and “adolescent” after birth). This is an important clarification because some people use these words as though they were describing different non-human kinds of beings. A baby is human and exhibits the characteristics of life at each phase of development.
During the first few days of development (zygote and morula phase), the baby is already communicating with the mother by sending her body chemical signals. These signals tell the mom’s body to keep making progesterone, so that she will not menstruate and lose the endometrial lining that the baby needs to successfully implant. The baby also sends signals to suppress the mother’s local immune system so that her body will allow the baby to implant (the baby has different DNA than the mom and our bodies tend to attack or reject foreign DNA).
During the embryo stage (2-8 weeks), the baby’s heart starts to beat at just 21 days after conception. Many women do not even know they are pregnant at this point. At six weeks, brain waves can be detected. By 8.5 weeks, every organ is in place and unique fingerprints have formed. At this age, babies react to touch and there is some evidence that babies can feel pain.
During the fetal stage (9 weeks until birth), the baby continues to grow and develop, and by 20 weeks, there is compelling evidence that babies can feel pain. For this reason, twelve states have banned abortion after 20 weeks citing fetal pain.
You might ask if the person has ever seen an ultrasound, and if not, offer to pull one up on YouTube.
Another objection that your listener might present is the claim that the baby is just part of the woman’s body. The points that we have already covered above can help you respond to this; you can point out again that the baby has unique DNA. If he were part of the mother’s body, they would both share the same DNA. The baby also has his own heart with his own blood (often a different blood type than the mother). He has his own brain that directs his own movements and bodily functions. He is a unique, distinct human being.
Finally, when having these conversations, always remember that the goal is not to “win” the argument, but to speak the truth in love for the genuine good of the other. Ask questions, listen, and lovingly respond through the guidance of the Spirit. The person will not only remember what you said, but how you said it. Your message about dignity, given in a way that respects her dignity, will resonate in her heart.
Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer is an Instructor of Theology at Thomas More University. She and her family are members of St. Pius X Church in Edgewood. This “We Choose Life” article first appeared in the July 19, 2019, edition of the Messenger.
- Ask questions. Begin by making lots of statements about your own position can be off-putting. Asking good questions can invite a person to more carefully reflect on her own position. A question could be as simple as, “Could you share with me why you think that?”
- Plant the seed; don’t give a lecture. The article provided today is not meant to be a script and you don’t need to cover every point to have an impactful conversation. You can ask a question, listen, then share what you think might be helpful based on the person’s response. If the conversation is going well you can ask, listen and share again. If the person is not receptive, you might try to engage in dialogue again another day.
- Empathize and find common ground wherever you can.
- Be calm, humble, kind, respectful and joy-filled. So much about the message is conveyed by the demeanor of the messenger!
“To accept the fact that, after fertilization has taken place, a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion … It is plain experimental evidence.” – Dr. Jerome Lejeune, discoverer of Trisomy 21 as the genetic basis of Down Syndrome
“It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception.” – Dr. Micheline Matthews-Roth, Harvard Medical School