The Argument that Made Me Pro-Life
by Oxford Students for Life
During my first month of my first year at university I was assigned to read Judith Jarvis Thompson’s A Defense of Abortion for an introductory Philosophy course. I found Thompson’s famous violinist analogy intriguing – it was accessible, creative, and challenging. In contrast, the piece I was assigned that argued against abortion’s permissibility was unimpressive and forgettable (in fact, I can no longer recall its name). Thompson’s piece engaged my imagination, in part because it reinforced the view of abortion that I had at the time – surely a woman should have control over her own body. As a physician-in-training, though, I knew carrying out abortions was something I would never feel comfortable doing myself.
My fundamental moral inclination was against abortion but I had never heard a compelling argument made on non-religious grounds, and thus my orientation as something of an ungrounded inclination. I did not think that the pro-life position was something one could reasonably contend for in the terms of Rawlsian public reason, in part because I had never heard it done. I remember vividly where and with whom I was sitting when I realized my error
I was now in my second year of university and was sitting in the basement of our student center with a PhD student friend. As it often was, our lunch was accompanied by the discussion of weighty topics, and I was explaining to him that while I would never do an abortion or encourage a friend to have one, I knew of no compelling argument that could be leveraged against the pro-choice position broadly or Thompson’s argument in particular. My friend first engaged Thompson- pointing to the completely absent assumption of risk in the analogy, and thus to an important dissimilarity between the case of the violinist and most cases of unwanted pregnancy.
Whether or not there was a hole in Thompson’s case, I pressed, the pro-life side didn’t have much of an argument. “Sure they do,” he remarked. He asked me if I thought that I had a right to life (a right not to be killed). My nod indicated my assent. “What about when you were 5?” Again, my nod was sufficient. “And a newborn?” He pressed back further, asking me what had really changed about me as I passed through the birth canal. He continued to press back to the second trimester and then to the first, and eventually all the way to my conception – which he claimed was the only non-arbitrary point – the point at which I began to exist. He began with my assent to the idea that human beings have a right to life and made what was ultimately a biological argument – and one echoed by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen in their recent book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life – that human life begins at the point of conception.
Now, as a philosopher I have spent a good deal of time engaging with the arguments that would maintain that I began to exist when I developed consciousness or certain capacities of reason, but I have found them to be ultimately unconvincing. It is important that what compelled me is the bedrock of the pro-life case – that a new human being begins its life at conception. This is fundamentally a biological argument and is in-line with what we see in all of the major biology textbooks. Attempts to ground human worth in anything other than simply being human continue to be made – and pro-life philosophers (Christopher Kaczor among others) have responded in kind.
Mike Hawking was a member of the OSFL committee in 2014-2015 while completing a degree in medical ethics.